A nondescript, crumbling house in Georgia’s capital hides a series of tunnels where in 1906, a young communist printed magazines, pamphlets, and newspapers calling for the removal of the Tsar. At the time, Georgia was still part of the Russian Empire, and that young communist went by his given name, Iosif Djugashvili. The world would later come to know him as Joseph Stalin.
Hidden beneath the house, a printing press—old even by the standards of 1906—was smuggled into Tblisi in pieces by a network of Bolshevik supporters. For three years, the press clandestinely cranked out thousands of pamphlets written in Georgian, Russian, and Armenian.
On the porch, lookouts—mostly women—would ring a bell if police were passing the house, a signal to those below silence the noisy press. A series of tunnels led from the from subterranean room to a nearby well, an escape route in anticipation of raids by Russian officials.
By the time Stalin began working at the printing press, he was already robbing banks and running protection rackets to raise money to support the Bolsheviks. Some of that money went toward printing and distributing the materials from the press around the region.
In 1906, three years after it printed its first pamphlet, the press was destroyed when the underground room was discovered.
Thirty-one years later, Stalin had consolidated power in what had become the USSR. Under his government, the press was restored and the building turned into a museum that included a movie theatre that screened Soviet films. But in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the museum was abandoned.
Today, the museum is operated by the Communist Party of Georgia, but it receives no money from the state. The printing press is caked in rust and the museum itself is largely in disrepair. But in recent years, the story of Stalin’s printing press has found a new audience: Chinese tourists.