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Stalin Still Stands Tall in His Hometown

October 25, 1991

GORI, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ He was the son of a shoemaker and sang in a church choir. He wrote a poem titled, ″Morning,″ that was printed by the local paper. He went off to study for the priesthood on a scholarship.

But the boy who would become known as Josef Stalin was kicked out of seminary school for preaching Marxism. He ruled as Communist dictator with such ruthlessness that even the party disavowed much of his work after he died in 1953.

But not Gori. The Georgian town where Stalin was born still reveres their favorite son and prefers not to dwell on the murderous purges and iron rule of a hometown boy who made bad.

While Communist icons fall worldwide, Stalin stands tall in the central square in front of city hall, where perhaps the last huge statue of the man stares majestically across a main avenue that bears his name.

″I consider him a great man,″ said Timor Goderdzishvili, 22, a firefighter. ″It is hard to say if he made mistakes. Maybe life was such then that these things were necessary.″

The people who work at the city’s immense Stalin museum are a little put out that it was closed to the public three years ago for historical revisions prompted by the Gorbachev era.

″Stalin will be presented in an objective way,″ said museum director Nina Amiradgibi. ″We will present some of the things that people say about him, if they can be proven.″

She said she did not know when the museum would be reopened. All 56 employees continue to work on the first floor, even though the doors to the second floor housing the exhibits have been sealed shut.

Museum officials refused a visitor’s request to open the museum, which contained Stalin’s writings, photographs and other memorabilia, including the late dictator’s death mask.

Mrs. Amiradgibi, who has worked at the museum for 25 years, said she believed Stalin made mistakes - such as killing some of her relatives - but still was a great man.

″In America I understand there is a museum devoted to a gangster,″ she said. She could not remember the gangster’s name.

Behind the museum’s sprawling marble porch is the tiny house that Stalin’s parents shared with another family, and where Josef V. Dzhugashvili was born on Dec. 21, 1879. Its crude masonry and rotted porch are protected by an elaborate palazzo.

Museum workers have many stories of Stalin’s childhood in Gori, a city of 70,000 nestled in the Caucasus 50 miles west of the Georgian capital.

″He loved to sing and he had a very good voice,″ said Stalin researcher Mzia Naochashvili, who said young Joe’s favorite song was the Georgian classic, ″Fly Black Swallow.″

Stalin lived in Gori until 1894, when he went off to study for the priesthood in Tbilisi.

Even though he was a product of this ancient, beautiful land - whose people have a distinct language, culture, cuisine and Christian religion - the man who changed his name from Dzhugashvili to Stalin, or ″steel,″ did not spare it from his purges.

An estimated 5,000 Georgians were executed in the 1924 revolt against his rule, and Stalin purged many intellectuals here in 1937.

He is still deeply hated throughout Georgia, but not in Gori. Mayor Omar Chubinidze conceded that loyalty was slow to wane.

″Opinion cannot change immediately, but I think attitudes are changing,″ he said. ″I’m 52, and when I was a boy, I loved Stalin, but now I’ve changed my opinion.″

Chubinidze said he envisions the new Stalin museum as a commercial venture that will chronicle the ″rise and fall″ of Communism.

He said the time is not yet right to discuss whether to remove the huge Stalin monument outside his window.

Nazi Gurgenashvili, 58, said she believes there is nobody in town who wants to see the museum or statue go. ″They still love him,″ she said.

0-25-91 1440EDT

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