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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Curator Hides Stalin Mementos

APGeorgian refugees playing in front of Gori's Stalin monument last week.
GORI, Georgia — When Russian bombs began falling on Gori, Robert Maglakelidze made a desperate decision: He loaded his car with a precious consignment and fled along the dangerous road to Tbilisi.

Stowed inside were the personal effects of Josef Stalin: his military greatcoat, peaked cap, pen, glasses, silver sword and pipe — in total some 50 unique items.

Maglakelidze, director of the Stalin museum in Gori, said bringing them for safekeeping in the Georgian capital was the only way to ensure their survival.

"I had to take the risk," he said. "Thank God, they didn't bomb the museum, but there was no guarantee. We said, 'Let's preserve these things for future generations.' These personal things can't be replaced."

Gori, Stalin's birthplace, was first bombed and then occupied by Russian troops in the short war that followed Georgia's attempt on Aug. 8 to recapture the breakaway province of South Ossetia, just north of the town.

The Russians have left Gori now, but scars from the fighting remain. Over the weekend, workmen were clearing rubble and glass from several large apartment blocks heavily damaged by bombing.

Yet the Stalin museum — an imposing, pale stone building with a colonnade and a tall rectangular tower, crowned with a red and white Georgian flag — escaped virtually unscathed. "We're clearing up, there is a lot of dirt. There was thick dust, the halls are filthy," said a museum official, Mziya Naochashvili.

The museum was closed over the weekend, but managers allowed reporters to look inside parts of it. One window was smashed by the entrance, and three more above the red-carpeted stairs leading to a white marble statue of Stalin. Paintings nearby show him in his various roles: the bearded young revolutionary fronting a 1905 workers' demonstration; the pensive leader reading papers by a desk; the dutiful son alongside his mother. Outside is the tiny brick and wood house in which the young Iosif Dzhugashvili was born in 1879, and the green railroad car — formerly belonging to the tsar — in which he traveled to the Yalta, Potsdam and Tehran conferences in World War II. Visitors can buy a replica Stalin pipe for 12 lari ($8.60) or a small silver bust for 25 lari.

"Until the collapse of the Soviet Union there were lots of visitors from the whole world, about half a million a year. Today it's 18,000 to 25,000 a year," said Naochashvili, whose own home was damaged in the bombing.

After 33 years working there, she said, "the museum is virtually my life."

How does she feel personally toward the man whose shrine she protects and whom many in the former Soviet Union still admire as a strong national leader and World War II savior? "I respect him for his intelligence, for his talent. … He was a statesman. He didn't do anything against Georgia," she said.

For regional Governor Lado Vardzelashvili, Stalin's shadow lies over even today's events, shaping the actions of his distant successors in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

"I think what is happening here is part of Stalin's legacy, because Putin and Medvedev think exactly the same way as Stalin," said the young governor, whose office overlooks the central square dominated by a giant statue of Stalin.

During the conflict, he said, he tried to do a deal with a Russian general over the monument. "I made him an offer: Take it with you and never come back." But the proposal was declined.

Director Maglakelidze said the museum aimed to reopen Sept. 8. He will return the precious items now being stored in a Tbilisi museum once the parliament makes a decision to lift the official state of war with Russia.

And he sounds a note of optimism on the museum's future and the prospect of attracting visitors from around the globe again.

"I think there will be big interest, for the sake of the town. The whole world knows about Gori now."