Gori, Georgia – birthplace of Stalin, bombed in Russia/Georgia war of 2008 2

‘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!”’

Warrior Memorial to the Dead, Gori, Georgia

Warrior Memorial to the Dead, a memorial for those killed in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Warrior Memorial to the Dead, Gori, Georgia

Warrior Memorial to the Dead, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Gori Fortress, Gori, Georgia

Gori Fortress. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Stalin Museum, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Inside the Jospeh Stalin Museum, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

The house in which Joseph Stalin was born, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Joseph Stalin Museum, Gori, Georgia

Joseph Stalin’s personal, armour-plated train carriage, Gori. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Practical information and how to reach Gori:

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. More transport info here.

More on Georgia:

Uplistsikhe – pagan temples in cave city; destroyed by Mongols

Ushguli – watchtowers on every house; even Genghis Khan was deterred

Batumi – from Medea and the Golden Fleece to the Las Vegas of the Black Sea

Vardzia – earthquake-prone cave city. Watch out for falling rocks!

Tbilisi – sulphurous springs, Persian fortress, gold without parallel

Posts on the Caucasus:


Selim Caravanserai – built by the Orbelian Dynasty at Vardenyats Pass in 1332 CE.

The geological marvel of Symphony of the Stones 

Tanahati Monastery – as good as Noravank or Tatev without the crowds

Zorats Karer – 223 standing stones in a grassy field. Is it linked to Stonehenge?


Sea Stone Hotel, Vank – a lion head carved into the hillside. Pure genius!


Gobustan, Azerbaijan – stone age petroglyphs that inspired Thor Heyerdahl

Baku – at 28m below sea level, it’s the world’s deepest capital

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2 thoughts on “Gori, Georgia – birthplace of Stalin, bombed in Russia/Georgia war of 2008

  • Karen White

    What a very pretty town. Your hostess was lucky not to lose her shop in the end, but the death toll was very high, what an awful experience for the Georgians – such a senseless war. Georgia looks so picturesque.