The underground press has a long history, from the 16th century tracts printed in Calvinist Geneva, to the psychedelic magazines of “Swinging London” in the 1960’s, and the “samizdat” literature of the USSR.
In most cases the term “underground” simply means, anti-establishment, clandestine or banned by authorities such as the state or the church.
At the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum , in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, the printing press is, literally, underground.
Stalin (1878 – 1953) was born as Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili in Gori, a town about 85 kilometres east of Tbilisi.
His early revolutionary activities included bank robbery, the proceeds of which funded the secret press which the museum celebrates.
Between 1903 and 1906, when the press was discovered by the Imperial Russian Police, flyers, pamphlets, and newspapers were printed in Azeri, Armenian Georgian and Russian for distribution in the Eastern Caucasus – a compositor’s nightmare of four different alphabets.
In 1937 Stalin and the notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, decided to rebuild the house and cellar, and, with a new building for exhibits, to open a museum, which survived until 1991.
Between 1991 and 1998, when the local Communist Party took over, the museum lay empty, exhibits were pillaged, and the cellar flooded regularly in winter.
A visiting Chinese General berated the Tbiblisi local authority about the flooding and since 2012 the problem has been rectified.
I was shown round by Zhiuli Sikhmashvili, deputy chairman of the Georgian Communist Party, a sprightly man in his 80’s and a committed Communist for over 50 years; he has little English, I have little Russian, but somehow, we managed to communicate.
Visitors now descend to the printshop down rickety stairs from an undistinguished bungalow.
In the gloomy cellar stands the rusty flatbed press, perhaps capable of restoration if the job is tackled soon.
The maker’s name is Maschinenfabrik Augsburg, the date of manufacture 1893. The press made its way from Germany to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was then dismantled, transported 600 kilometres to Tbilisi, and reassembled where it now stands.
A small bonus for the printing historian is the F M Weiter Liberty Press which rests, without explanation, in the room above the cellar. Apparently in good condition, how one of the most popular American jobbing presses of the 19th Century arrived in the museum is a mystery.