‘One day, everything is normal, so I decide to go on a short holiday to Batumi. You know Batumi? On the Black Sea? The next day I leave my home in Gori. I get on a marshrutka bus with just a small bag. I don’t even take shoes, just my flip-flops, because I am thinking I am only staying one or two nights, and it’s summer.’
‘The next day I call my neighbour to say hello. She say, “Eka, it’s war!”’
Eka runs the guesthouse in Gori, Georgia, in which I’m currently lodging. She is short, nudging five-feet tall on tippy-toes; with curly, coppery-orange, rinse-wash hair; and she favours a bright pink fleece. Eka downs coffees (taken the Turkish way) throughout the day, and maintains a tray of biscuits and sweets on the table, into which she is frequently dipping. She has a passionate opinion on almost every subject of conversation. Words escape her mouth in staccato bursts. She speaks four languages: Georgian, Russian, Turkish, and English (her English is the worst of the four apparently). Her main clientele are Russian tourists, but she tells us she finds them cold. ‘I give them my hearts,’ she laments, ‘but they give me nothing in return.’
Eka shakes her head wearily as she recounts her story of August 2008, still angered, frustrated, saddened by what occurred, how it impacted her personally, what little sense it all made.
The Russia-Georgia War of 2008
It was the start of August in 2008. Conditions in South Ossetia (a region in the Caucasus that is officially part of Georgia, but controlled by Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists) had been steadily deteriorating. A flare up of tensions on August 7th (Georgia claims the South Ossetians were shelling Georgian villages) impelled the Georgian army to move in and take control. Russia took this as a sign of aggression and mobilised their own army, ostensibly to defend the South Ossetians. They called it a peace enforcement operation.
‘War?’ Eka reveals the shock and outrage she felt at hearing the news by spitting out the word, and opening her eyes wide. ‘I have a little shop in Gori. I’m thinking, what about my shop? Will it be safe? I say to my neighbour, Mzia, on the phone “Should I come home? I’m worried about my little shop.” She say, “Eka, you can’t come home. The Russians are here. They are bombing the city.”’
‘So I stay another night in Batumi. By now the clothes I am wearing are smelly. I only pack enough things for one day. I thought I would only be away for one day, you understand?’
I nod. Eka pauses for breath, twists her head sharply to stare out the window.
On the 8th of August 2008 the Russian air force began bombing military targets across Georgia. The bombing raids quickly disintegrated into indiscriminate attacks; apartment blocks were bombed, schools were bombed, hospitals were bombed. Gori, only 20 kilometres removed from the border with South Ossetia, was particularly hard-hit.
In South Ossetia the separatist army had begun destroying farms and villages belonging to ethnic Georgians. Inhabitants were told to get out or die. It was ethnic cleansing; clear and deliberate. 190, 000 people were displaced over the course of the following few days.
‘I ring my neighbour again two days later. I say, “Mzia, what is happening with the war? Can I come home now?” She say, “Eka, no! Now the Russians are really here. There are soldiers in the street. They are looting.” And I am thinking, my shop, my shop, my shop; what about my little shop? Is it safe? Or is it looted? But there is nothing I can do.’
A ceasefire between the Georgians and the Russians / South Ossetians was negotiated by French president Nicholas Sarkozy on the 12th of August 2008. The Russians began a withdrawal from Georgia, although they didn’t pull out of Gori until the 22nd of August.
And that was it. The short-lived war was over. Approximately 400 Georgians (about half of which were civilians, and half combatants), along with 365 South Ossetians (also about half soldiers, half civilians), and 67 Russian servicemen had been killed.
It was the first European war of the 21st Century.
When Eka was finally able to return to Gori, she found that many of the shops on her street had been looted, but hers, thankfully, was untouched.
Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori
Gori isn’t just famous for its involvement in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War; it’s also the birthplace of a man responsible for the deaths of some ten to twenty million people: the iron-fisted leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.
The Joseph Stalin Museum was opened in 1957, three years after his death. The exhibition halls are filled with old newspaper clippings, school report cards, photographs; anything and everything that could be found that was vaguely related to Stalin. There are some clothes he once wore, paintings of Stalin, a tapestry of Stalin; all reverentially displayed. One shrine-like room contains a copy of his death mask.
Outside the museum, beneath an ornate pavilion, is the hut he was born in in 1878. In the garden there’s a personalised, armour-plated train carriage Stalin used to get around the Soviet Union – he hated flying.
Georgia, like many post-Soviet states, implemented a rigorous de-Stalinisation program as soon as it left the Soviet Union. Statues, memorials, government buildings – all things that were a reminder of the years under Soviet rule – were ripped down and demolished. The museum was an obvious target for demolition, and at one stage it was earmarked to be replaced with a Museum of Russian Aggression.
But the city of Gori felt differently; they fought to keep the museum, and argued that there was inherent value in retaining the museum in its original state, filled with its lies and propaganda, and its veneration of one of the greatest inflictors of human suffering that ever lived.
And so the museum will remain as is, for now.
Gori is easily accessible from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Frequent public buses run between the two. Journey time is approximately one hour and a half.