Dila Gori and the cult of Stalin

The Georgian city of Gori, north of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, is a key stop off point on any post communist tourist trail. Surrounded by hills – the word Gori itself is from the word Gora meaning ‘heap’ or ‘hill’ –  this is a city with a dusty centre and solid if unspectacular administrative buildings. Today, lying some 600m above sea level, it is best accessible by road rather than the via any irregular rolling stock that creeps slowly along Georgian railway track.

For centuries Gori has been an important military stop off point for armies.  Occupied and bombed by Russian troops during the 5-day war of secession between the two nations, it maintains its strategic importance to both Russian and Georgia due to a location on the principal highway connecting east and west Georgia.  Close by sits the separatist region of South Ossetia; a region accessible today only via Russia to foreign tourists.  In South Ossetia it is the Russian and Ossetian language rather than Georgian tongue that are the preferred choice of words.

Current Georgian champions FC Dila Gori have been marching through Georgian football recently, winning the title at the end of the 2014-2015 season.  The inner city home ground, the Tengiz Burjanadze Stadium, lies in the shadow of the surrounding hills that surround Gori.

Neat and compact the stadium sits open to the hot and humid summers. It is however, polished, modern and clean enough to meet the demands of early round UEFA Champions league qualification football.  Perhaps its most redeeming features are the huge floodlights that dominate the ground.  All four stand like giant fly swatters gazing down upon the grassy pitch and dwarfing the 5,000 seats below.

While the name of FC Dila Gori has yet to fully etch itself upon the folklore of European football another one time Gori resident can claim more fame. The hills that surround the ground are famous for many iconic painted images of a young poet called Josef Stalin reading his written poetry to follow students. One of these poems goes by the name of this resident local club itself Dila or Morning.  Visible in the paintings are other Gori landmarks; including his birthplace and the imposing Gori fortress a dominant landmark build upon opposite another hill overlooking the city near the stadium.

“ The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale-blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass”.

Under the rule of Khrushchev and his process of de-Stalinization in the later 1950s and 1960s, the poem was printed in Soviet school books without attribution.  Only under Brezhnev was it given its original signature Soselo (Joey) with a footnote giving Stalin’s date of birth and telling all that the poem was written and first published when Soselo was fifteen.

Born in 1878 an ethnic Georgian Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in a small house in Gori, Stalin in his early years was the young man with the burning eyes.  Like many Georgians he was influenced by the national poet Rustaveli whose name now straddles a main through fare in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

Gori at that time was part of the Tiflis Governorate of the Russian Empire. A violent outpost far from Moscow it was said to have been full of gang warfare and lawlessness.   Stalin’s father became an alcoholic and his mother suffered at the hands of her husband’s failings.  These factors, along with sporadic periods of ill health meant the young Stalin’s upbringing had been a harsh one and arguably contributed towards his path of poet, bank robber to ultimately a ruthless revolutionary.

The cityscape of Gori has not changed much since Stalin’s death in 1953.   The main boulevard has been named Stalin Street, but a huge statue of the dictator is now gone thanks to a post-war anti Russian backlash.   But now in 2015 many of the the westernizing policies of President Saakashvili’s Georgian government have been discredited.  The former president has since attained a new political position in the Ukraine and he has attained Ukrainian citizenship.  As opposed to the crimes of Stalin, the modern ruler Saakashvili remains wanted by Georgia’s current government on alleged politically motivated criminal charges.

Gori is a city that remain a Soviet time capsule even where the symbolic statue of the leader has gone from outside the city hall.  The local history museum is a large marble floored palace in Stalinist Gothic style complete with clock tower and column gallery.  Meanwhile, Stalin’s place of birth is located in front of the museum.  Begun in 1951, the museum is now the official Stalin museum.

Outside of the museum on the street that bares his name and the ever re-appearing statue, one other Gori resident retains an affiliation to Stalin, all be it a reference to his poetry.   Founded in 1949 FC Dila Gori play in the current Georgia Umaglesi Liga with home games held at the Tengiz Burjanadze Stadium.   

Domestically the club lie in the shadow of the more illustrious Dinamo Tbilisi, but the team won the Georgian Cup in 2012 thanks to a 4-1 final win in Tbilisi over Zestafoni.  The Georgian Championship meanwhile was won in spring 2015 after a three-way fight between Dinamo Batumi and Dinamo Tbilisi resulted in FC Dila becoming champions for the first time.

Despite being relevant newcomers to European football performances in UEFA competition have been good.  Wins in Europe over the Danes from Aarhus, Aalborg BK, Hajduk Split and former Champions League side Anorthosis Famgusta almost saw a place twice being won in Europa League Group stages.  Only final hurdle play off defeats to Maritimo and Rapid Vienna have prevented more progress. 

This season the club found it even harder in the Champions League qualification rounds.  The 3-0 aggregate defeat to Partizan Belgrade being a wake up call for Georgian sides and future successful participation in Europe.

On 9th March 1953 Stalin’s embalmed body was laid next to Lenin in Red Square.  But by 1961 it had been removed and reburied in the more hidden Kremlin Wall Necropolis thanks to the de-Stalinization policies of Nikita Khrushchev.

Throughout the many former Soviet republics the name and cult of Stalin has been eradicated over the decades.  The city of Stalin in Bulgaria is now called Varna; while Stalinabad in Tajikistan is now Dushanbe. Azerbaijan’s Stalino meanwhile is now known as Cayli.  Indeed, the list goes on from Volgograd (once Stalingrad) through to Eisenhüttenstadt in the former East Germany. A city that started life as Stalinstadt.

The name if not the cult of Stalin has diminished.

In Gori, where the main thoroughfare is named after its most famous son, the statue of Stalin no longer stands proud – at least for the moment.  It was torn down from outside the city hall in 2010 but it is thought it will return to a position outside the museum when civic pride allows it.

It can be argued that Gori is perhaps one of the last few places on earth where Stalin’s symbolic cult retains a sense of authority either through name, symbols or in the name of the local football team.  Every year elderly Georgians (many of whom were alive when he was the supreme Soviet leader) still gather before the Joseph Stalin museum building built by the Communist party to walk down the street named after him and celebrate their most famous compatriot’s birthday.

Petitions to have his statue re-erected are regularly handed into local authorities.

Inside the museum some 60,000 intricate pieces of Stalinist memorabilia are on display. From the marble busts of Stalin to dining tables and even the train carriages that travelled to the Yalta conference.  All the time visitors walk around they are conscious of the painted images of the leader that look down from the walls.

In a town occupied and cruelly bombed as recently as 2008 by Russian troops, restoring one of the few remaining Stalin monuments to such lofty heights continues to be a justifiably decisive matter even in Gori.  To many such an act would be unimaginable, even ‘barbaric and anti-Georgian’ as said former President Misha Saakashvili said in 2010.

Yet, the cult of Stalin does live on in Gori thanks in no part to the fine upstanding museum and in the football team that is named after one of his poems.

All our photos from Georgia can be viewed here