Joseph Stalin’s private bath house, Tskaltubo

Spring No. 6

Spring No. 6

Joseph Stalin’s private bath house, Tskaltubo

Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, used to return to his home state of Georgia (in the Caucasus) to enjoy the benefits of the spa waters of the town of Tskaltubo – which was also a popular health resort for hundreds of thousands of Soviet workers and peasants – but if he was making this very long journey then surely he was returning to a site where he could enjoy the benefits on offer in the height of luxury, no?

Stalin wasn’t keen on air travel (from what I’ve been able to learn he only ever flew on two occasions, to the Tehran Conference and back in November/December 1943) and usually travelled by train – probably in a carriage similar to the one that is currently sitting outside the Stalin Museum in Gori. To make that journey to the spa town of Tskaltubo in western Georgia, therefore, was quite an investment in time and effort. Even today the journey takes at least two days and nights so there must have been something special awaiting him in Spring No 6 – the finest of all the spa buildings in the resort.

Spring No 6 is one of the few that are functioning in the town now. (Springs No 1 and No 3 are also functioning as of 2019 but they are much more modest structures.) However, the renovation of Spring No 6 has destroyed much of the original decoration from the time of its construction – apart from the main entrance portico and the entrance hall. In fact although very smart and clean the facilities that present day visitors use are somewhat sterile and lack any of the decoration I’ve seen in some of the ruined structures that are in and around Tskaltubo’s Central Park.

One area that has not undergone total renovation (there has been a replacement of the exterior windows as part of the general clean up of the building and also some work has begin on the ventilation system) is the room that I was directed to when I asked ‘Which was Stalin’s private bathhouse?’

I was directed to a woman who was sitting at a desk at the far end of the long, ground floor corridor that goes off to the right of the main entrance hall, running parallel to the frontage of the building. She had been asked to direct me to this special location.

It was with a feeling of suppressed excitement as I walked down the corridor. What was I going to see? What little hidden gem seen by relatively few people from western Europe (and many more from the east) was about to reveal itself to me? Surely the leader of the USSR, the country that had defeated the fascist Hitlerite beast only a few years before would be revelling in glory and have a private bathhouse rivalling those of the Roman Emperors?

Stalin was a megalomaniac and monster (according to the fascists he defeated, the capitalists and imperialist whose rule and control of the life of billions of people he constantly challenged, and those trotskyites, revisionist and social democrats whose lying and duplicity he spent much of his life uncovering and crushing with the necessary force) so what I was about to enter would be a grand arena, decorated in a manner paying homage to the Generalissimo.

According to the fascists, imperialists, revisionists and other anti-Communists Stalin would have surrounded himself with memories of his past actions – such as the destruction of the traitors, splitters, wreckers, renegades and fifth-columnists in the Soviet Union, the the late 1930s, before the imminent war against Hitlerite Germany.

Surely in the tiles on the floors and the walls there would be the severed heads of those internal enemies; Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and other Party members who sought to undermine the iron unity of the Marxist-Leninist Party and colluded with the enemies of the Soviet people; Tukhachevsky who saw the Red Army as just another, more modern, army of Tsarism; the kulaks who sabotaged production in the countryisde and did everything they could to prevent the transformation of the agricutural economy through collectivisation; and the external enemies, especially the Hitlerite fascists.

And I was really interested in what sort of desk would be located in the bath house. Every picture (photo or painting) I’ve ever seen of Joe sitting and writing at a desk has had the caption ‘Stalin signs yet another death warrant.’ This was even when closer analysis of the actual document said ‘Dear Mr Milkman, no milk today’. I have never seen a semi-naked Joe doing this but if he spent so much time in such activities then he wouldn’t have wanted to have wasted time when he was up to his chest in warm spa water. So a desk which could have held stacks of pre-printed death warrants, a bunch of pens and gallons of ink would have to have been part of the architects remit.

My heart started to beat faster as I approached the woman sitting at her table at the end of the corridor. She didn’t speak but indicated a door way just behind her, on her left. I walked the handful of metres to the door and realised it was an ante-room.

But what an ante-room. If was about twice the size of my bathroom – and I live in a modest flat. How could this room cope with the large entourage that would have accompanied Comrade Stalin on his journeys. There was a window to the outside, in one corner was a single leather covered armchair but apart from that the room was devoid of any decoration – but with a parquet floor in a fairly reasonably condition.

Entrance to Stalin's private bath house

Entrance to Stalin’s private bath house

To the right another door led to a room with tiling on the walls and the floors. I took two steps to the door and had my first view of Comrade Stalin’s private bathhouse.

My first reaction was shock and surprise. I uttered a few words, I think audibly.

‘They’re taking the piss.’

In front of me was a tiny space – considering the size of the building. My first view was towards the corner of the room with two large windows at 90º to each other. I looked to my right thinking the main body of the room was there. All I saw was a tiled wall.

The room was about 6 metres square, with a high ceiling and with the walls covered in blue and cream ceramic tiles (some missing). There was some decoration on the walls but this was of a simple, geometric design. There was a walk way around the room which was covered in small square tiles that were set in simple geometric patterns, in places starting to come loose. In the centre of the room was a sunken bath, about 4 or so metres square. At one corner there were fours steps down to the pool with a tubular steel handrail on the left side. Around the edge of the pool were tiled covered concrete benches. There was no sign of a desk at all. But most shocking of all was the decoration at the bottom of the pool.

Stalin's jelly fish

Stalin’s jelly fish

In place of the images I had expected there was a mosaic of cartoon like jelly fish – with anthropomorphic characteristics. Four of these giant jelly fish were half out of the water and seemed to be about to attack a very strange creature (possibly representing a crab but if so it’s missing a couple of legs) which is sitting on a round patch of sand. In the water are cartoon fish and a huge number of starfish.

There were signs of renovation of the space, which seemed to have stalled. The only new work that had been completed was the replacement of the large windows – this would have taken place so as not to spoil the look of the facade of the building from the park. If the present owners follow their past practice then the jelly fish will go – that would be a shame.

The knowledge then crept up on me. This wasn’t a room built especially for one of the greatest leaders of the working class of all time – this was a children’s paddling pool.

But it was also Uncle Joe’s private pool. He is recorded as having been there some time in 1951. The search is on for photographic evidence.

Just goes to show that you have to be careful what you wish for. You will almost always end up being disappointed.

Location

Spring No. 6 is in the northern part of Tskaltubo’s Central Park, about a ten minute walk from the present day market in the centre of town.

GPS

42.3223

42.5989

How to get to Tskaltubo

Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.

Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)

When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.

To get to Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up), pass the mural of the telecommunication workers on your left and head down to a very wide road junction. Cross this wide expanse of tarmac towards an arch and at the open space at the top end of the park head south and pass by the right hand side of Spring No. 3. Continue south until you reach the white, side wall of Spring No. 6. The entrance is on the west side of the building.

Alternatively (if arriving by marshrutka) you could get off at the main entrance to the Tskaltubo Spa Resort and walk towards the back of Spring No. 6 through the park.

Spring No. 6 – Tskaltubo

Spring No 6 - Entrance

Spring No 6 – Entrance

Spring No. 6 – Tskaltubo

There’s no shadow of a doubt that Spring No. 6 is the most impressive of the Soviet era bath houses in the Central Park of Tskaltubo – the spa town less than 10km from the second largest (now) city of Kutaisi. This was the particular spa Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, used to visit on regular occasions both before and after the Great Patriotic War. Up to the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s there were more than 20 spa locations and/or hotels with spa facilities in and around the central park. Fortunately, to this day – after a recent restoration (by a private company called Balneoresort) – it still stands out as a special building.

Its neoclassical frontage and the entrance hall is what makes it so special. Corinthian columns support a classic Greek inspired portico but what makes it really special is the frieze high above the entrance on the interior of the portico. By the age of Uncle Joe and the other images included in this bas relief it would indicate it was created after the Great Patriotic War when the buildings in Tskaltubo reverted from being hospitals to their original use as health spas for Soviet workers and peasants.

The ‘Welcoming Uncle Joe’ frieze

This frieze is in three parts and depicts the arrival of Joseph Stalin in the town and the welcome he is being given by either local people or other visitors, like himself, from the rest of the Soviet Union.

Spring No 6 - Welcoming Comrade Stalin

Spring No 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin

The central panel

In the central panel an avuncular Joe (in the last ten years of his life) is shown in a left profile. He is dressed in what was becoming his normal garb of a dress suit of a Marshal of the Soviet Union following his role in the defeat of the Nazi invaders, murderers and aggressors. (I accept there’s a problem with the development of ranks and medals/honours within the Red Army and would like to address this issue at some time in the future – but time is limited here.)

Over his left arm is his (again) traditional overcoat and in his left hand he holds a bouquet of flowers which have just been presented to him. He is smiling and looking towards a woman with whom he is shaking hands. She is probably part of an official welcoming committee. Whilst she shakes Joe’s right hand with hers’ she cradles a young child (can’t determine the gender) in the crook of her left arm. The child is facing us and s/he extends his/her right arm around the neck of the woman – presumably the mother. The child’s left arm is extended towards the General Secretary, thereby acting as a conduit, establishing a unity between the woman and Joe. The child is relaxed and smiling, as are the two central characters.

Between Joe and the woman, and underneath their clasped hands, is a drinking fountain – suggesting the healing quality of the local waters of Tskaltubo. On each of the two sides visible of the pillar are a face and a cup of a fountain.

Behind Comrade Stalin are two young people, a girl and a boy. She is closest to Joe and holds another, larger bouquet of flowers in her right hand. The boy, slightly further back, is carefully cradling in both his hands something that looks like a ceramic tower (perhaps to be presented to the visitor) This is, perhaps, a symbol of the town (but it’s difficult to say as it’s indistinct from ground level). The girl has her left arm behind the boy and seems to be encouraging him to come forward and meet the great leader of the working class.

Behind these two younger children is an older girl holding a large basket of fruit, at shoulder height, which she is bringing to present to the honoured visitor. The three children are in contemporary dress. i.e., late 1940s early 1950s and are in left profile.

Behind the woman and child greeting the General Secretary is a man and a woman. He seems to be dressed in more traditional clothing from Georgia and holds high another gift to the visitor from Moscow. This looks like a cornucopia of grapes, representing the grape and wine culture of the region/state. I can’ make out what the woman at the rear is bringing. She seems to be clutching a couple of items to her chest. They are in right profile and they seem to be wearing traditional peasant dress of the region.

On the wall behind Joe, and appearing in a couple of other places behind the other characters, are white/cream markings. These perhaps represent a fluttering flag but the overall impression is somewhat confusing. The more I look at it the more I get the impression it’s a disintegrating halo – which is a little disturbing if that was the intention.

Spring 6 - Welcoming Comrade Stalin - right hand panel

Spring 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin – right hand panel

The right hand panel

On the right hand panel we have a continuation of the procession wanting to meet the leader. At the front is an older couple. She seems to be holding another bunch of flowers and he, much more frail and needing support, has his left on her left shoulder and in his right hand (which we can’t see) he is holding a walking stick – part of which we can see. This would seem to reference the healing claims of the spa resort.

Next is a young sailor – and I don’t really understand this reference. We are talking about only a few years after the most devastating war the country had ever had to encounter. Yet he looks young and healthy. Therefore, why is he depicted? Beside him is a very young girl, five or six, who has another bouquet of flowers but seems to be pleading with the sailor, presumably her father, for something. She is really close to him, pressing against his leg, and he has his left arm protectively resting on the top of her back.

The final individuals in this panel are a couple of newly weds. They are hand in hand and rushing to meet Stalin. He is dressed in a formal suit and she seems to be dressed in the traditional attire of a Georgian bride of the time. (Now you can’t move in present day Georgia for ‘desirable’ western style wedding dress shops – almost certainly with a price tag which inversely matches the lack of sophistication of the design.) He holds high, in his right hand the certificate of their marriage and he seems to be asking for some sort of blessing from the leader of the Communist Party. It takes a long time to eliminate these practices of getting some sort of secondary justification from a ‘superior’ entity. I don’t like the depiction of this in a Socialist Realist piece of art work but it probably represented the feeling of the time and its depiction confirms a reality without providing a way forward. In her left hand the bride is carrying what looks like a book, what and why I have no idea

Above the couple are vine stems/leaves as a sign of fertility. Yet again, another throw back to feudal superstition. As I’ve suggested in other posts on Socialist Realist Art we are still a long way from throwing off the old traditions and thinking and that comes across in the art produced – even during those few years of Socialist construction.

Spring No 6 - Welcoming Comrade Stalin - left hand panel

Spring No 6 – Welcoming Comrade Stalin – left hand panel

The left hand panel

The left hand panel contains five characters. Closest to the centre is a young, wounded Red Army man, in uniform. He has no obvious disability but he does have a walking stick in his left had to provide him with some sort of support. An interesting little bit of detail is that he has a camera on a strap over his left shoulder, his right hand under the strap at his chest with the camera resting on his right hip. This is possibly a Zenit or a Zorki, 35mm SLR, a huge number of which were produced after the Great Patriotic War.

Behind him is a young woman with her left hand on his right shoulder. She seems to be looking beyond him as if she were in a crowd of people wanting to get a glimpse of the visiting hero. Perhaps she is using his shoulder to allow her to get a slightly higher view of the proceedings. She is dressed in late 1940s clothing and her hair style is also from that period. She is also carrying a book in her right hand so a pattern seems to be developing here. Both of them are in right profile.

Behind the heads of this couple are what look like palm branches coming from above. They are similar to what we find in the central panel but there the leaves are totally chaotic, here more recognisable.

Next is an older man, dressed in contemporary 1940s semi-casual dress – he wears a tie but not a jacket. Unlike all the other characters in this story he is not looking in the direction of Uncle Joe. He is in left profile as he is looking back to others of his family who have come to greet the visitor from Moscow. His left arm is high above his head as if pointing in the direction of all the activity. He seems to be encouraging those behind him to hurry up and is pointing to where everything is happening.

His right hand is supporting the left elbow of a young girl who holds yet another large bouquet of flowers. She has her long hair tied back over the nape of her neck, her right hand on her hip and around her neck is a scarf which indicates that she is a Young Pioneer and is dressed in the uniform of the organisation. Her stance is as if she were running. In fact there is a feeling of movement in the depiction of this small family group which is completed by the presence of an older woman who is holding a banner, which is billowing out behind her, in both her hands. This presumably is the banner of the Georgian People’s Republic but any such detail is impossible to make out.

Above the heads of this last group a couple of branches of a vine come down from above, indicating the production of wine in the area.

I’m sure that many of those who enter the building are not really aware of the decoration that sits above their heads. With perhaps a few exceptions (those part of the building that have not yet had a major make-over) the only other part of the building that is interesting for its Soviet past is the main entrance hall.

The entrance hall of Spring No 6

In the renovation of the building it was fortunately decided to try to maintain the impression those thousands that had entered the building over the years would have experienced.

The impression of space;

Spring No. 6 - Entrance Hall

Spring No. 6 – Entrance Hall

the high ceiling;

Spring No. 6 - Entrance Hall ceiling

Spring No. 6 – Entrance Hall ceiling

the magnificent commemorative urn (more details of which will be published shortly) in the middle of the floor – with an interesting clock on the wall behind;

Spring No 6 - Commemorative Urn and clock

Spring No 6 – Commemorative Urn and clock

The tall ceramic lamp standards;

Spring No 6 - Ceramic light

Spring No 6 – Ceramic light

and the two, small stained glass windows;

Spring No. 6 - stained glass 01

Spring No. 6 – stained glass 01

Spring No. 6 - stained glass 02

Spring No. 6 – stained glass 02

The rest of the building

Spring No 6 is a huge building and won’t be getting anything like the number of visitors that it used to receive in the heydays of the 1980s and before. On my visits there were only a handful of people and that would indicate that the renovation that has taken place would not have covered the whole of the building – there would have been no chance to make any significant return on the investment – unless it was all part of a money laundering exercise.

The ‘renovation’ I saw was basically a total destruction of the original interior and the replacement by what would be found in a new build for the same purpose. That’s a shame as I’m sure the baths and rooms used for all the other services would have been tiled and decorated in an even more ornate manner that what can be seen in the abandoned and derelict spas that lie in ruins in the Central Park and surrounds.

So far I have been able to visit one very small part of the building that has undergone minimal ‘restoration/renovation’. That was the room I was told was ‘Stalin’s private bath house’.

But it is a working spa and there are a number of treatments that can be tried. One of the reasons there are few visitors now is that, for Georgians, any visit to the spas are very much a luxury and the foreign tourists who visit the country (and could afford it) might not be prepared to spend a couple of hours getting cleansed, pummelled and covered in mud.

An introduction to some of the treatments available will appear soon.

The driveway into Spring No 6

The main entrance to Spring No 6 is part of the public Central Park in Tskaltubo and there’s no strict dividing line between where the private and public meet. However, as part of the original project of Spring no 6 a large fountain – with a statue from Georgian mythology – was included. This is also worthy of a look.

Spring No. 6 - Fountain

Spring No. 6 – Fountain

Location

Spring No. 6 is in the northern part of Tskaltubo’s Central Park, about a ten minute walk from the present day market in the centre of town.

GPS

42.3223

42.5989

How to get to Tskaltubo

Marshrutka number 30 leaves from its terminus on the western side of the Red Bridge, which crosses the Rioni River beside the main Kutaisi market. Closer to the market is the stop for a number of buses but you walk through that area (passing a cheap out door bar on the right) to cross the red painted iron bridge. The marshrutka will be on the left once on the other side. They leave roughly every 20 minutes. Cost GEL 1.20 (not the GEL 2 as in some guide books – although some of the drivers will take the GEL 2 and say nothing although others are honest). The price will be on a piece of paper somewhere, normally at the front of the vehicle.

Journey takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Tskaltubo. Once you cross the railway track (after 20 or so minutes) you are at the bottom end of Central Park. The marshrutka then follows Rustaveli Street on the eastern edge of the park passing the railway station and information office, the Municipality, Court and Police buildings, and then the entrance to the huge (now luxury 5 star) Tskaltubo Spa Resort all on the right. (The marshrutka takes the same route when going back to Kutaisi and can just be flagged down anywhere along this road.)

When you get to the northern edge of the park the road widens out and after passing the Sports Palace on the left and the now being renovated (although seemed stalled to me) huge Shakhtar Sanatorium on the right the marshrutka heads up to the main market. Get off when the bus turns right at the corner by the ugly, modern Sataplia Hotel. This is where you would look for another marshrutka if you wanted to go to the Prometheus Cave.

To get to Central Park go back along Tseretseli Street (not the road you came up), pass the mural of the telecommunication workers on your left and head down to a very wide road junction. Cross this wide expanse of tarmac towards an arch and at the open space at the top end of the park head south and pass by the right hand side of Spring No. 3. Continue south until you reach the white, side wall of Spring No. 6. The entrance is on the west side of the building.

Alternatively (if arriving by marshrutka) you could get off at the main entrance to the Tskaltubo Spa Resort and walk towards the back of Spring No. 6 through the park.

Bolshevik Illegal Printing Press – Tbilisi

House at Kaspi Street 7

House at Kaspi Street 7

Bolshevik Illegal Printing Press – Tbilisi

You have to admire the work that was expended and the organisation needed to construct the room and infrastructure for the illegal printing press that the Tbilisi (Tiflis) branch of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (which, after the October Revolution of 1917, eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik)) created in the first years of the 20th century.

There’s a number of things to admire about this project that was in revolutionary use between November 1903 and April 1906.

First it was obviously a well thought through and planned project. The Georgian revolutionaries needed a printing press, they needed it well hidden from the Okhrana – the Tsarist ‘secret’ police – and they needed it to be open enough to allow the constant comings and goings that would be necessary for the printing and distribution of thousands of leaflets and pamphlets needed to spread the word of the young, revolutionary Marxist organisation in Georgia.

One remarkably bold enterprise of the Caucasian Union of the R.S.D.L.P., and an outstanding example of the Bolshevik technique of underground work, was the Avlabar secret printing press, which functioned in Tiflis from November 1903 to April 1906. On this press were printed Lenin’s ‘The Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry’ and ‘To the Rural Poor’, Stalin’s ‘Briefly About the Disagreements in the Party’, ‘Two Clashes’ and other pamphlets, the Party program and rules, and scores of leaflets, many of which were written by Stalin. On it, too, were printed the newspapers Proletariatis Brdzola (The Proletarian Struggle) and Proletariaiis Brdzolis Purtseli (Herald of the Proletarian Struggle). Books, pamphlets, newspapers and leaflets were published in three languages and were printed in several thousands of copies.

A decisive role in the defence of the principles of Bolshevism in the Caucasus and in the propagation and development of Lenin’s ideas was played by the newspaper Proletariatis Brdzola, edited by Stalin, the organ of the Caucasian Union of the R.S.D.L.P. and a worthy successor of Brdzola. For its size and its quality as a Bolshevik newspaper, Proletariatis Brdzola was second only to Proletary, the Central Organ of the Party, edited by Lenin. Practically every issue carried articles by Lenin, reprinted from the Proletary. Many highly important articles were written by Stalin. In them he stands forth as a talented controversialist, eminent Party writer and theoretician, political leader of the proletariat, and faithful follower of Lenin. In his articles and pamphlets, Stalin worked out a number of theoretical and political problems. He disclosed the ideological fallacies of the anti-Bolshevik trends and factions, their opportunism and treachery. Every blow at the enemy struck with telling effect. Lenin paid glowing tribute to Proletariotis Brdzola, to its Marxian consistency and high literary merit.

(Joseph Stalin – a short biography, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1949, pp20-21.)

Second it needed meticulous organisation, the involvement of many people with different skills and abilities and – perhaps most important of all – a revolutionary unity and confidence which kept the real intention of the project away from an all pervasive and vicious secret police known to depend upon traitors, collaborators and agent-provocateurs to achieve their aims. And that’s just for the building of the structure.

There’s no way that the press could have been installed after the construction of the building itself – a large house that would have been on the edge of the town of Tiflis (now Tbilisi). The very complicated nature of access and also the size and location of the room with the printing press (as well as the printing press itself) meant that the space had to have been excavated under the cover of constructing the building’s cellar.

The extra work needed for the illegal aspects of the construction site would have needed to be monitored carefully. The building workers were almost building two buildings under the pretence of one but they would have had to have completed the work in the normal time it would have taken to construct one such house – otherwise people would have started to ask questions and suspicion would have been aroused, especially in a predominantly peasant society.

Third, there would have been the need for an not inconsiderable amount of money for such a large and complicated project – as well as a state of the art lithographic printing press, plus all the paper and materials needed once in operation. We must remember that we are here talking about industrial workers who were barely earning enough to feed themselves and their families. The finances for such a major enterprise would have never have been available without the introduction of finances from other sources. Banks had those finances and they assisted in the development of the revolutionary movement by contributing to the coffers by way of the intermediaries, Comrades Kamo (Simon Petrosian, whose bones you might walk over – between the fountain and the Pushkin bust – on the way to the Tourist Information Centre in Pushkin Park) and Koba (who used to share a room with VI Lenin in Red Square, Moscow, but who now has a niche in the wall of the Kremlin.

An idea of the complex project

Plan of the project

Plan of the project

As can be seen by the plan above there was no direct access to the room of the press from the house. Looking at the diagram it would seem to me that much of the construction of the vaulted room of the press and the tunnels and shafts leading to the well shaft would have used access to what became the cellar/kitchen of the house itself. This would then have been filled in to give the impression of ground level. It’s possible that the present day access to the underground room would have been the place of access at the time of construction. So much soil and rock would have to have been removed that any other manner of excavation seems to hard to make sense.

The well and access to the room

The 'access' well

The ‘access’ well

Once the building was finished and the press installed the only way to get to it was via the well, covered by a small hut a few metres south-east of the main building. This is a deep well as the builders had to go down more than 18m before reaching the water level. Access down this well would have been by a removable rope, I’m assuming, anything more substantial would have raised suspicions in the event of a raid by the Okhrana.

Just before the water level (at 17.5m) a tunnel was constructed at right angles to the shaft, 8m long back towards the building. Then a shaft 15m high was built up towards ground level. At 8m another, short tunnel was constructed to provide access to the underground room itself. (This shaft goes up another 7 or so metres after the tunnel – but I can’t work out why.) Along the whole length of this shaft a ladder was fixed to the wall. Both the tunnels at the top and bottom were high enough for a person to walk through if bent double. Now electric lighting has been installed but, presumably, in the early 20th century the only lighting would have been oil lamps or candles.

All the tunnels and shafts are brick lined and the tunnels are arched.

The underground room

The underground room - looking towards present day entrance

The underground room – looking towards present day entrance

It’s a surprisingly large room if you think of the relatively narrow shafts and tunnels the Georgian Communists would have needed to negotiate to get there before starting work. I estimate the vaulted room to measure, roughly, 11m long, by 4m wide and 4m high – to the apex of the vaulted ceiling. This is large enough not to feel too claustrophobic to someone down there for a few hours.

But this isn’t the result of a group of amateurs. This is a well-made, professional construction. The floor is brick lined and the walls alternate with layers of brick and then large stone blocks cemented in place. The ceiling is a brick lined, barrel vault.

All that’s in the room now is a rusting-away, manually operated, lithographic printing press.

The press with the clandestine entrance

The press with the clandestine entrance

At the height of its use there would have been benches for the preparation of the plates, places for cutting the sheets for leaflets and folding and collating areas for pamphlets. I wouldn’t have thought it would have been possible to produce substantial books given the confines of the location but at the same time this location was constructed for the production of large scale, immediate propaganda and the aim would be to write the text, print and distribute in a relatively short time. More substantial books, such as some of the works of VI Lenin, would have been produced in commercial printing establishments outside of the country and then brought in illegally.

I can’t imagine this would have been the most healthy of places to have worked. Printing inks are, and have always been, quite toxic and there wouldn’t have been a great deal of ventilation in the cellar. I’m not aware of any through draft which could have taken the stale and chemical air out and bring fresh air in. The construction of a shaft to the ground above would have created a security threat as if stale air had a way to escape then so would noise.

Structurally, the tunnels, shafts and the room itself seem to be in remarkably good condition considering they have been neglected for most of the 117 years of their existence.

The Printing Press

The printing press

The printing press

I wasn’t able to make out any manufacturers marks but I understand it is of a German make and was smuggled into the country in pieces. By all accounts it was state of the art machine at the time of its installation. Yet another expense that was ‘donated’ by the Tsarist state. By the beginning of the 20th century these presses could turn out thousands of copies relatively cheaply and from one plate.

The house

The house

The house

The house above would have been a relatively wealthy but basic house at the time. The living area is up a few steps and on to a veranda which leads to two reasonably sized rooms. Now they are quite dirty, unorganized and nothing like they would have been at the time they were the cover for illegal revolutionary activity.

There are a number of pictures, plaques and the like of the revolutionary Marxist leaders, Marx, Lenin and Stalin as well as piled up books by those same leaders.

There’s also an interesting picture that gives the modern viewer an idea of how the underground room would have looked like when it was being used. No idea of when the picture was created but certainly long after the 1917 October Revolution and decades since the press printed in anger.

The press in operation

The press in operation

In the corner of one room (the one on the left) is an old, single bed – with a very lumpy mattress. Above this bed is a photo of Uncle Joe at about the age when the press was functioning. The guide will encourage you to have your picture taken, by him if you are alone, lying in ‘Stalin’s bed’. Here is another example of where tourism distorts history.

Any revolutionary who came to work on the press would not have stayed overnight in the house. That would have compromised security and put the whole of the project in jeopardy. And even though many of the leaflets and pamphlets would have been written by Uncle Joe he was not a printer and would have been in the way. Revolutionaries don’t always have to be able to carry out all tasks.

After April 1906

I haven’t been able to find out exactly why the press was abandoned in 1906. I can’t see that it was discovered by the Okhrana as I’m sure they would have destroyed the access shafts and tunnels – if not the whole of the building above. In the revolutionary movement there are always changes in trajectory, reaction becomes powerful for a period of time curtailing certain activities and then when circumstances become more favourable the revolution has moved on to other areas. The main focus of the Georgian Communists might have moved to other areas, for example Baku. Whatever the reason it wasn’t ever used again for its original purpose.

I’ve picked up a bit of information to indicate that it was opened as a museum in 1937 – probably at the time that Lavrenty Beria was in command of the Georgian Communist Party. That might have been when the present spiral metal staircase and new entrance to the underground room were created. Then the Great Patriotic War would have intervened.

Whatever might have been the fate of the building in subsequent years it now has no ‘legal’ status as a state museum and is showing serious signs of decay. The spiral staircase is a bit dodgy and the ladder that allowed access to the print room is rusting away in sympathy with the press itself.

Next to the house, on the right as the gates to the grounds are on the left, there’s a relatively modern, red brick building. This has a couple of ‘Hammer and Sickle’ images on the doors. This looks like it was, at some time in the past, a small museum to accompany the visit to the cellar. It looks derelict but I have no information if it is possible to enter. Having someone with Georgian/Russian language skills could possibly solve the problem.

Stalin Museum

For those who have visited the Stalin Museum in Gori you might have noticed the maquette of the house and underground press in a glass case in Room No 1, close to the entrance to Room No 2. For those who are about to go there look out for it as it gives an interesting 3D impression of the site.

Visiting the Underground Press

There don’t seem to be any official opening times. The Guardian of the space seems to be there all the time during the day (and night). He doesn’t speak English but takes you to all the places and you can work out how matters stood over a hundred years ago.

There’s no entry charge as such but a tip of GEL10 seemed to be reasonably well received.

Location and how to get there by public transport

Arrive at 300 Argel Metro station. Leave the station and take the left, uphill. Take the second road right, towards the hospital, on Tsinandali Street (there’s a small bakery on the right, at the end of the street as you enter from the main road). Continue along this road, with the hospital on your left, to the end to arrive at a junction, going through two pillars of an entrance gate. Turn left, again uphill. This is Kaspi Street. Continue uphill, keeping to the left at another junction, and you will soon see a red brick building on the right. In the garden of the house with the press there are a couple of large plane trees. This is Kaspi Street 7.

GPS

N 41º 41.445′

E 44º 49.795′