Deep in Tbilisi’s Avlabari district sits an old, derelict wooden house. Beneath it lies a secret chamber with water-stained walls, illuminated by a single bare bulb, holding a rusting printing press.
The room's derelict condition belies its storied past: it was the underground propaganda hub of the pre-Soviet communists in the Caucasus, where a young Josef Djugashvili – later known as Stalin – operated the press for a short time. Later it became a heavily visited museum.
But in a Georgia now firmly devoted to capitalism and an alliance with the United States and NATO, this relic of the Soviet past is something the government would rather people forget.
The museum – formally known as the J. Stalin Underground Printing House Museum – nevertheless carries on. “In 1991 when the USSR fell apart, capitalists and counter-revolutionary traitors seized this building and threw us all out,” says Jiuli Sikmashvili, the 78-year-old leader of the United Communist Party of Georgia, who doubles as the museum's curator. “For years, academics and men of science worked here and thrived - now we survive on donations from tourists.”
For many of its former citizens, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a painful tragedy, and the wars, poverty, and social dislocation that followed have reinforced their devotion to the past. Sikmashvili says he is fighting to preserve his own vision of history amid the Georgian government’s historical narrative.
“The state is funding untruths about the communist era,” he says. The government has established a section within the Georgian National Museum, called the Museum of Soviet Occupation, which offers a well-curated, multimedia – and entirely negative – story of the Soviet era.
The printing press museum gets no support from the state. “I have never been to the so-called Museum of the Occupation – I don’t believe in it,” Sikmashvili says. “We are fighting for our history, and from there, our country’s future.”
The press's history began at the turn of the last century, when – under Lenin's direct orders – Georgian railway worker Mikhail Bochoridze organized a network of pro-Bolshevik colleagues to smuggle the press, piece by piece, by train into Tbilisi.
By 1903, the press was up and running, and communists worked shifts churning out pamphlets day and night, in Armenian, Georgian and Russian.
“The machine was really loud: BOOM BOOM BOOM nonstop. To avoid attention, they used this electronic bell,” Sikmashvili explains, indicating an old switch on the wall. “When police officers approached, the landlady would press this buzzer. One ring meant work, two meant hide, and three meant it’s time for lunch!”
Once printed, the flyers were smuggled back on to the railway and distributed across the region. It was an expensive operation, and to fund it, Stalin staged a series of bank robberies in Tbilisi.
Stalin also worked a short stint at the press, in 1905: the operation was discovered in a year later, and the press destroyed.
But in 1937 it was rebuilt, and a museum built up around it – all done at the behest of Stalin’s secret police chief (and fellow Georgian), Lavrentiy Beria. The museum covered the life of the young revolutionary Stalin and his articles for the press – as well as the room he slept in. In the basement, there’s a theater which used to screen Soviet films and documentaries; adorning its walls are poems by Stalin in their original Georgian. In its heyday, the museum attracted about 800 visitors a day.
But it was abandoned in 1991, and many of its artifacts were smuggled into neighboring Turkey and sold. (The German-made press itself survived, however, apparently too heavy for scrap scavengers to carry off.) “Stalin was the brightest star in my life,” Sikmashvili says. “He was building paradise, and then, it was gone.”
Georgian communists regained control of the building in 1998, seeking to repair it. “The printing chamber was flooded for years, that’s why the press is so badly damaged,” Sikmashvili says. “We came here, the entire United Communist Party of Georgia, with buckets and removed the water by hand!”
The chamber continued to flood every winter and the process would be repeated. It wasn’t until 2012 that the situation was finally resolved, with help from a rising Communist superpower.
“An old Chinese general came to visit us that year,” says Sikmashvili. “He was so upset when he saw the flooding that he stormed off in a rage, complained to Tbilisi’s city authorities, and before we knew it they sent workers to permanently repair the chamber. It hasn’t flooded since!”
Sikmashvili also wrote a letter to his comrades in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), requesting funding to refurbish the museum. His request was denied, but a meeting was arranged with the Chinese Embassy in Tbilisi. An embassy representative offered advice on how to attract Chinese tourists. “You know there are 80 million communists in China,” Sikmashvili says, with a knowing grin. These days, the museum gets around six or seven Chinese tour groups a day, representing the large majority of its visitors.
On a recent visit to the museum, an art gallery owner in Tbilisi who gave his name as Jin, was showing his Chinese relatives around the museum. “Most of us studied a little Georgian history in high school,” he says. “Most Chinese over 40 have heard of this place because we all read the same textbooks.”
Amid the standard Soviet propaganda (and the conspicuous absence of any mention of gulags, collectivization, famine or repressions) in the museum's exhibits, tributes to Mao and banners in Mandarin now adorn the walls. But without Chinese-speaking guides or translators, it’s hard to attract more donations.
“Twenty years ago, and even 10 years ago, the Chinese tourists who would come here always spoke good Russian,” Sikmashvili, says. “Now they are not interested.”
But he remains hopeful about outreach to the Chinese. While Jin's family is visiting, he pulls out – with a showman's touch – a map purporting to show NATO bases worldwide that he’s printed from the internet, and appeals to his potential comrades. “NATO has surrounded China and they seek to destroy it just as they destroyed the USSR,” he tells them. They laugh, shuffle off to take pictures, and leave.
“They think they know everything about communism” he says. “That’s why they always leave. If only they would stay and listen – they’d actually learn something.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.