Freedom takes different forms – for Soso Gagoshvili, it comes in the shape of a 123-year-old orange rust-covered printing press. Tucked away in Tbilisi’s Avlabari district, among car repair garages and decaying apartment blocks lays a crumbling wooden house. In its cellar, down a 40-foot creaky iron spiral staircase, sits a German-made machine used by budding Communists at the turn of the XX century.
“The Communist Party’s leaflets preached equality among all people, those words unified millions,” pontificates the brash 66-year-old who until recently was the site’s guide. “They laid the foundation of the Soviet Union, the only real democracy.”
For Soso and like-minded die-hard communists, the machine embodies the smithery of the revolution’s literature. Historians agree. In his landmark biography, “The Young Stalin,” British professor and writer Simon Sebag Montefiore defined the press, “the Party’s most invaluable treasure.”
The leading force behind the clandestine activity was the emerging towering figure of Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili. Pen name, Stalin. By 1899, the 20-year-old son of a poor cobbler from Gori, Georgia, had abandoned his theological studies at the Tbilisi’s seminary, embraced the Marxist doctrine, and become a professional revolutionary.
Between the 1903 and 1906 thousands of incendiary flyers, pamphlets, and newspapers were printed in Russian, Georgian, Azeri and Armenian – from the bowels of an unassuming wooden house the proletarian doctrine was then disseminated throughout the South Caucasus and beyond.
Revolutions need creative minds and the Bolsheviks sharpened their wits to get around the authorities’ grip. The 1893-German made machine was imported from Baku, then dis-assembled, its parts were wane down a well. Towards the bottom, a side tunnel was dug and connected to an underground cellar. There, the press was reassembled and put hard at work. While members of the Communist Party were busy manufacturing the revolution, the house had to maintain a semblance of normality.
“Revolutionaries would work in shifts in the cellar, while two women lived on the first floor, and a few chickens were kept in the yard. In case of potential danger, a bell hidden in the wall would serve to alert those under ground ,” proudly explains Rusudan Chikvladze, a stern woman in her sixties who has been volunteering as a guide since 2002. Like Soso, she is part of Stalin’s ageing fan club – people who look back to USSR fondly, prompted by the poverty and the devastating civil wars that followed the dissolution of the empire.
Once printed, the flyers would be hidden onto the street sellers’ carts, then taken to the railways station, and from there to all corners of the region. It was an expensive activity. Montefiore wrote that bank robberies funded the newspapers, edited by Stalin himself who often contributed with articles under the by-line Besoshvili (son of Beso) and Koba, one of the man-of-steel’s many nicknames.
“It was not the only printing house in the region,” says Rusudan. “There was a large clandestine printing house in Baku as well, but this was the only underground facility.”
On April 15, 1906 the police, acting on a tip, found tracks of the primitive hackers’ den, raided and destroyed it. But Stalin outlived the Tsarist empire and in 1937, the now leader of the Soviet Union, and his right-man Lavrentiy Beria, then chief of the feared USSR’s secret police and a fellow Georgian, decided to re-open the house as a museum. A one floor brick building with an iron door emblazoned with the hammer and sickle was purposely built to exhibit the products of those years – over precariously cracked walls hand-drawn portraits of the revolutionaries, maps, framed proclamations, and flags.
Like in the museum in Stalin’s native city of Gori, there is no sign of the gulags, the brutal economic policies, the repression – yearning for freedom, that’s what it is all about.Today, the museum building also houses the office of the Georgian Communist Party.
“Until 2012 it remained a government-financed museum, then Misha [the former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili] scrapped it of its museum status and we were left with no support,” bemoans Rusudan. The complex was transferred under the aegis of the Georgian Parliamentary National Library with plans to renovate it.
Rusudan claims hundreds used to visit. No longer. These days, the tour of the few low-lit rooms of the museum attached to the derelict house is a lonely, eerie, affair. Although the flow of Chinese tourists appears steady, visitors and money have dwindled over the years.
Also Soso, who shares with Stalin the nickname, too is worried about the future of the printing pouse. But following a fall-out with his comrades, he is no longer the museum’s official chaperon. Yet, he is tolerated in the area of the museum and lives in a four-square metre alcove which is an example of ingenious storage engineering.
“Come in,” he whispers, gulping the last frozen khinkali he heated up for dinner on a camping stove. Inside, a small cubical TV set shows a Turkish soap opera, the walls are plastered by neat lines of shirts, suits, and jackets, while a plethora of books are lined up next to his bed.
“Life is hard, it was easier before; Stalin built a real democracy where everyone was equal,” he sermonizes, showing an ID which supposedly proved he worked for the FSB, Russia’s secret service built on the ashes of the KGB. “Capitalism is not democracy.”
“Capitalism is not democracy,” continues Soso.
“He killed millions,” I challenge him.
“Mistakes were made, but does anyone ever talk about how the life of millions was ruined when the USSR collapsed?” he backfires at me. “Now a few are rich and many are poor, we cannot afford to get sick, our children get a poor education. And look at this, is this a home?” he asks with a gesture to show his cramped dwelling.
А вы, откуда вы? And you, where do you come from? He asks raising an eyebrow theatrically. All of a sudden I am suspicious commodity.
“Italy,” I respond. A ray of light crosses his face.
“Italia! Good Communists there, [Palmiro] Togliatti* was a good comrade.”
As we part in the dark, we are friends again.
*Palmiro Togliatti, the longest-serving secretary of Italy's Communist Party. After his death in Yalta in 1964, the Soviet authorities named a city after him - Tolyatti, in the Samara oblast, south-western Russia.