The snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus can be seen in the distance. The hills are steep and green, vineyards border the road, and shepherds doze in the warm sun. The air is clean, the weather pleasant, but this could be considered the Soviet heart of darkness. Here, in a two-room peasant house, Joseph Stalin was born.
Now the house is encapsulated in a protecting building, and nearby is a museum to the life and glory of Stalin. He is the native son, the impoverished Georgian seminarian who went off to Moscow to make good. Now, like Peter or Ivan or Catherine, they list him with the greatest and cruelest of the czars -- yet another leader of whom it was said that he will be the last of his kind.
Stalin's reputation hangs now in a kind of limbo. He was discredited in 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev who, in a speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, condemned the purges, the killings, the millions sent to the gulag for crimes mostly imagined. It is this Stalin who colors the imagination of Americans -- the Stalin who "stole" the atomic bomb and who rushed his troops into Eastern Europe where, under different men, they remain today.
The Khrushchevian Stalin was one of the great tyrants of the world, a despot, a butcher who would share the 20th-century prize for infamy with Hitler. Unlike even Hitler, though, most of his victims were his own countrymen. In the tradition of Ivan or Peter, a Russian despot is a curse to his own people.
But there is no mention of that tradition in the Stalin museum. Instead, here once again is Uncle Joe -- heir to Lenin, builder of the nation, always wise, always kind but, of course, terrible in battle. Here, in this grand museum built in the manner of a Venetian palace, is pictured a man of incredible modesty. The guide relates how someone once wrote a fawning biography of Stalin, but he would not -- she proclaims with evident satisfaction -- permit its publication. She does not mention that the man, who was incidental to a civil-war battle for a particular city, celebrated his modest achievement by naming the city for himself -- Stalingrad.
The guide, introduced as an expert on Stalin, is unflappable. I ask why no pictures of Leon Trotsky, purged by Stalin, hang with those of other early Bolsheviks. She says Trotsky did not figure in the events the others did. I ask about Stalin's purges in which as many as 10 million persons died. The guide is ready for me:
"The reasons why people were killed is that there were many enemies and inexperienced cadres. The government looked at every case. There were special attempts to protect the innocent." She smiles. Are there more questions?
Minutes later, I get my innings. Before a picture of Stalin and his family, the guide names the children, pausing with Svetlana to say that she is living in nearby Tbilisi. "No," I say. "She has returned to the United States." The guide registers shock and then quickly recovers. "I did not know this. Here is a picture . . ."
As an American, and therefore an exotic, I have attracted a following of schoolchildren. They, too, hear the guide's explanation for the purges, but it is likely they had never heard of them. The very history of the purges has itself been purged -- first by Stalin and then by his successors. Even history can be sent into exile.
In Tbilisi, though, Stalin remains a hero. Portraits of the local boy can be seen in an occasional restaurant, and when I ask a resident how Stalin is regarded here, she laughs nervously. "I knew you would ask," she says. "He is like a god to the Georgians. They respect him like a god."
But for the average Soviet citizen, Stalin seems to be neither a god nor an ogre -- but something in between. Maybe they are waiting for the government to tell them which one it is. But the task is hard. Stalin, after all, built modern-day Russia. He won the war. But more than that, his system remains in place. The men who succeeded him denounced his excesses but have kept the keys to those excesses for themselves. A true and sincere denunciation of Stalin would require a reform of government -- some sort of checks and balances, decentralization. Here, where the government bakes bread and sells shoes, its power is absolute. So, too, is its capacity for evil.
On the way to Gori, an old church, no longer in use, stands hard by the side of the road. Drivers who fear the mountain roads call it the "drivers' church," and as they pass, they slow and fling a few kopeks at it. My driver did, explaining that, of course, he did not believe in God, but he did believe in the tradition of that particular church.
Somewhere in the space between belief and nonbelief is where Stalin now resides. The church and the museum are alike in that respect. When we passed the church on the way back, the driver said, "See, it was worth it." That is what some still say about Stalin.