Eighty-six km (53 miles) west of Tbilisi, the town of Gori, population 68,924, is situated on both banks of the Mtkvari River where it meets the Liakhvi and Mejuda rivers. From Tbilisi take the M27 toward Sokhumi and bear left when the road forks approximately 35 km (21.7 miles) out of town.
To all Georgians, Gori is synonymous with just one man: this is the town where Iosif Jughashvili - later Joseph Stalin - was born and went to school. Place of pilgrimage or macabre monument to Stalin's enduring popularity in his homeland, Gori is an intriguing place. There's an abundance of older historical attractions within easy striking distance, making an overnight stay a good idea, though it can also be done in a day trip from Tbilisi.
The exact date of the founding of Gori is unknown. The Fortress of Gori, Goris- Tsikhe, which dominates the city and offers a superb view overlooking the Mtkvari River valley, is known to have been besieged by Pompey in 65 ВС during his campaign in the South Caucasus. (Goris-Tsikhe means "Fortress on a Hill." The name of the town comes from the Georgian word for hill, goraki.) The first mention of the fortress occurs in a seventh century Georgian chronicle. The existing walls and towers of the fortress date from the Middle Ages and from the Turkish and Persian occupations of the 16th and 17th centuries. Certain Islamic architectural features such as the keel arch can still be seen in the masonry.
In 1123, King David the Builder was responsible for establishing the city of Gori that developed beyond the fortress. He settled Armenian refugees here who had been fleeing north into Georgia from the Turkish and Byzantine conquerors of Armenia. Gori became an important trade center on the caravan route from Byzantium to India and China by way of Trabzon. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, possession of Gori changed hands among the Turks, Persians, and Georgians. In 1801, with the incorporation of Kartli into the Russian Empire, Gori was made a district center, which it remains.
In 1892, when Stalin was 13, Gorky described Gori: as 'quite small, no bigger than a fair-sized village ... The whole place has a picturesque wildness all its own. The sultry sky over the town, the noisy, turbulent waters of the Kura, mountains in the near distance with their 'City of Caves' and further away the Caucasus range, with its sprinkling of snow that never melts'. The population at this time was 9,000 at most, but is now 64,000, with a relatively high proportion of Roman Catholics. This rich agricultural region is known throughout Georgia for its apples, pears, and peaches.
The heart of Gori is the ancient fortress (admission free; 24 hr), an oval citadel atop the big hill west of the Stalin Museum. The walk to the top is easy; from the Hotel Intourist, cross the square and keep going until you reach the foot of the hill, from where a newly cobbled path leads up to the gate. There are fine views from up here and it’s particularly attractive late in the day when the sun is setting. A fortification existed here in ancient times and it is believed to have been besieged by Pompey in 65 BC. Most of the present building dates from the Middle Ages, with additions from the 17th century.
Gori came to the world's attention along with Joseph Stalin: Gori is his birthplace. Stalin's House Museum, is in the center of a garden in the middle of Stalin Prospect, where he was born on December 21, 1879, and resided until 1883. His father, Vissarion Jugashvili, was a local shoemaker. The wooden hut where they lived is now enshrined in a Greco-Italianate pavilion built in 1939. The self-aggrandizing palazzo built in 1957 is in the same style as the pavilion; behind it is the Stalin Museum, which houses numerous photos, documents, and personal memorabilia relating to Stalin's political and military career. Particularly chilling is the rotunda on the second floor in which Stalin's death mask is displayed surrounded by red velvet.
The museum has been closed, reopened, closed again in 1989, and since reopened. The museum is very interesting, with lots of photos of Stalin, often with other leaders airbrushed out.
To this day Stalin is regarded by many of the older citizens of Gori as a hero, a favorite son. In Gori the first toast of an evenings drinking is always made to Stalin. Moderates in Gori feel that the museum should stay open, and that although Stalin was "bad," he is still part of history. The tourist trade that accrued to the city when Gori was a site of pilgrimage for all Soviet and East Bloc tourists has certainly fallen by the wayside.
Those interested in seeing other traces of Stalin should take a look at the Pullman parked on the grounds of the museum. This was Stalin's private railway coach, used for much of his traveling, to the Potsdam conference in 1945, for example. Perhaps the strangest sight in Gori is the oversized statue of Stalin in the center of Stalin Square. It is the only monument to him of such a size which is still standing anywhere in the world today. (Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, had such a statue some years ago but has now been removed).
Gori is not a particularly attractive town and, these days, seems to be a place that has a somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards its historical connection with Stalin. Until June 2010, a 17m-tall statue of Stalin stood in the central square, the only survivor of thousands of similar edifices that once graced every city square throughout the Soviet Empire. Although the others were removed elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the years following Krushchevs denunciation, the Gori statue remained, defended by the town's citizen's on the premise that however dreadful the despot's crimes against the Soviet people may have been he was still, in Georgia at least, a hero of sorts in the 'local boy makes good' mould. Previous attempts to remove the statue were thwarted by proud locals and it was not until the night of 24 June 2010 that cranes were brought in to remove it to the museum dedicated to the Soviet leader just up the road. The operation took place at night without debate or warning - clearly the act of a young government keen to demonstrate its pro-West credentials.
Outside of Gori, Stalin is usually revered only by the Georgian equivalent of red-necks. Such people talk about him as a great military leader who saved the USSR from the Nazis, as a reformer of society who only punished criminals and "specu-lators," as the man who got lazy people to work and kept the prices down. The majority of Georgians, however, especially members of the intelligentsia and the new generation, are all too aware of what he represented. The Stalin question, after the subjects of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is one of the most sensitive subjects that can be broached in Georgia.
Gori also has a small Local History and Ethnographic Museum, at 7 Lomauri Street. In a building within the precincts of the Catholic Church of the Dormition, the museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and primarily contains archaeological artifacts excavated from Goris-Tsikhe and environs. The museum possesses more than 85,000 objects, but because of budgetary constraints only a few rooms are open and the end result is disappointing. Even if you choose to boycott the Stalin Museum, Gori is nevertheless 'the base for visiting the cave-city of Uplistsikhe and several fine historic churches, notably Ateni Sioni, the Samtsevrisi and Kintsvisi Monasteries, and the spa town of Borjomi.
Orientation & Information
The town is dominated by various paeans to its best-known son: the main street is broad Stalinis gamziri (Stalin Ave), running south towards the Mtkvari River. The large Stalinis moedani (Stalin Sq), with its tall Stalin statue, opens out at the junction with Chavchavadze, and the large Stalin Museum complex and park are a short trot further north. The bus station is at the west end of Chavchavadze, 500m from Stalinis moedani; the train station is across the Mtkvari from the south end of Stalinis gamziri.
Immediately to the east of the bus station and market a hill is dramatically crowned by the Goris-Tsikhe Castle that is colourfully lit up at night. This is best reached from the east side: crossing Stalin Park from the Intourist Hotel, take the road opposite to reach a church, turn left then right at a stone cross to follow a paved pathway that curves up to the castle gate. Just to the right of here, beneath the fortified walls, is an interesting piece of sculpture composed of giant warrior figures.
Another path leads up from the road by the market to the entrance on the south side of the castle. The best view of the castle from the town is from the west, where the walls form a series of defensive enclosures tumbling down the hillside. Although the fortifications (mostly from the 7th and 13th centuries) have been rather over-restored the castle offers good views of the Mtkvari Valley, the solid snowy wall of the Caucasus beyond South Ossetia to the north, and, on a high spur across the river to the southwest, the 6th-century Church of Gori-Jvari. This was rebuilt in the 12th century and the 1980s; taxis charge GEL20, although it's a delightful walk of around three hours there and back. To reach it, head south along Stalin Avenue, cross the river and railway track then follow the Ateni road that winds up the hillside and eventually becomes a dirt trail leading to the church. There's also a Museum of Martial Glory at Stalin 19 (by a ceramic relief memorial to the dead of 1941-44 and an eternal flame), which is an annexe of the Stalin Museum.
Getting There & Away
Marshrutkas to Gori (1½ hours) leave from Tbilisi’s Didube station about every 40 minutes, from 7.30am to 4.30pm. Buses (two hours) go as late as midnight. All westbound trains from Tbilisi’s main station or the Borjomi station next door stop at Gori, taking 1½ to two hours. Gori’s bus station is at the end of Chavchavadze, 500m west of Stalinis moedani. Marshrutkas (1½ hours) and buses (two hours) to Tbilisi leave Gori about every 40 minutes until 6pm; marshrutkas to Kutaisi (three hours) go at 7.30am and 9.30am.