GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - When Russian bombs began falling on Gori, Robert Maglakelidze took 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 Soviet dictator 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, says bringing them for safekeeping in the Georgian capital was the only way to ensure their survival.
“I had to take the risk,” he told Reuters. “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 ill-fated attempt on August 7-8 to recapture its rebel, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia, just north of the town.
The Russians have left Gori now, but scars from the fighting remain. At 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 on Saturday, 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 the dictator, Lenin’s successor and Georgia’s most notorious son.
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.
Two marble busts survey a landing with more paintings: an idealized portrait of a boy Stalin sitting outside with friends, and Stalin the party leader greeting Communist officials.
The double doors to the galleries were sealed. But outside are the tiny brick and wood house in which the young Iosif Dzhugashvili was born in 1879, and the green railway carriage — formerly belonging to the Tsar — in which he traveled to the Yalta, Potsdam and Tehran conferences in World War Two.
You can even buy a replica Stalin pipe for 12 lari ($8.60), a small silver bust for 25, or a bottle of Georgian wine with his portrait on the label for 20.
“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 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 towards the man whose shrine she protects, and whom many in the former Soviet Union still admire as a strong national leader and World War Two savior?
“I respect him for his intelligence, for his talent ... He was a statesman. He didn’t do anything against Georgia.”
But she also acknowledges “all these troubles” — a euphemistic reference to Stalin’s purges which caused the deaths of millions of people, some after show trials and many after suffering exile and forced labor in the camps of the Gulag.
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 the dictator.
During the conflict, he says, 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 says the museum aims to reopen on September 8. He will return the precious items now being stored in a Tbilisi museum once parliament has taken 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.”
(1 Georgian lari = $0.71)
Editing by Richard Balmforth