Should you ever find yourself in Batumi, "capital" of the optimistically named Adjara Autonomous Republic well, sorry ‘bout that.
Batumi might be the original gangster’s paradise. A subtropical seaside fiefdom once run by autocrat/gangster Aslan Abashidze, which, like its partner in attempted secessionism, Abkhazia, has been a thorn in the Georgian government’s side since the Rose Revolution. Misha reined Abashidze in with a backhanded bitchslap in 2004 that almost resulted in war, but low-rent bandits still prowl the streets in black Mercedes, clearly having nothing productive to do or steal.
Autonomy has not been kind to Batumi. In fact, I have never been to such a destitute place where probably one in three vehicles are Mercedes so hot flames spew from their tailpipes. These are the kind of stripped down models preferred by those who believe that driving such a car back to their home village communicates its owner’s increasing economic and social stature far better than, say, shoes for the kids or indoor plumbing.
Stalin at home in Batumi
Accordingly, the only commerce that appears to be thriving are sports books, mini-casinos and freestanding automats (like slot machines). The local government has tried hard to spruce up the downtown area, but walk a few blocks from the center and it’s positively third world – crumbling housing; women peddling a few kilos of day-old produce on broken sidewalks; sweaty, idle, unshaven, shirtless men with protruding bellies practicing their craft. I couldn’t wait to leave.
That’s not to say I couldn’t find a diversion. Like every good Georgian town, Batumi has a museum devoted to favorite Georgian son, Iosif Vissarioinovich Dzugashvilli. Iron Joe decamped in the little white wooden house for a couple months in 1901 to do some old-fashioned organizing. Now, lucky visitors get to gaze reverently at the rough framed bed he slept in.
This museum was interesting for two reasons. First of all, Stalin was in Batumi when he was quite young, so the paintings and photographs from that era depicted, in all truthfulness, what could only be called a hottie. Who knew Stalin was a babe?
Stalin at the Batumi Station
Secondly, it’s really rare that you get to see the human side of someone responsible for 20 million deaths and for engineering cultural experiments that are still causing mayhem today. The museum really tries to show a man who, in addition to achieving so very much in the realm of civil society, loved his mother and his two wives. Very touching.
Stalin and Mother at Gori
Stalin and Mother at Gori