SOCHI, Russia — At the Australia Olympics, I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In China, I walked the Great Wall. In London, I scaled the 530 steps to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Monday afternoon in Russia, I stepped into the summer home of a mass murderer.
Josef Stalin became enchanted with Sochi in the late 1920s, soon after assuming total power as the leader of the Soviet Union.
Stalin, who had smallpox as a boy, was in ill health and attracted by the healing power of the mineral springs here.
He built one of his seven summer villas - or dachas - here in the hills overlooking the city. Stalin built it in 1936, the same year Adolf Hitler hosted the Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Stalin was fondest of his Sochi dacha, where he would stay for three or four months of the year, running his vast Communist nation, watching movies and brooding about his enemies.
They offered a tour of the dacha to visiting journalists Monday. Five of us made the trip, escorted by Galina, our Russian interpreter, and Ivan, our driver, who more than lived up to the stereotype of the crazy European driver.
I’m not sure what Joe Stalin would have thought of sports writers wandering around his summer home, making wisecracks about the furniture and trying to sneak selfies next to the wax figure of Stalin at his desk.
But I have a suspicion the old tyrant wouldn’t have been amused. By historical estimates, Stalin sent some 700,000 people to their deaths at the height of his collectivization effort in the 1930s. Some feel that figure is too low, that the victims numbered into the millions.
“One death is a tragedy,” Stalin once said. “A million deaths is a statistic.”
Stalin died in 1953. All over the Soviet Union, people wept. There are still many Russians who believe Stalin was a great man. I get the sense I did with the Chinese and Chairman Mao Zedong, that many Russians still have trouble coming to grips with their own tortured history.
“Part of the people believe Stalin was a great figure,” said Ana, our Russian guide, as Galina translated in passable English. “The other part feels he was a criminal. He really created a great country, the Soviet Union.”
The fans do not include the current president, Vladimir Putin. Anna said Putin has never visited the dacha. Ana said that’s because the state considers Stalin a negative figure and not good for Putin’s image.
History paints Stalin as a paranoid megalomaniac. You can see why. You drive up a winding road to the front gates. The first thing you notice is that everything is dark green. Stalin wanted the dacha, which he named “Green Grove”, to blend into the landscape and be camouflaged in case of attack.
The dacha is a two-story complex with four wings and a courtyard in the middle. Almost everything is original. The rooms are spare, with wooden walls and high ceilings for acoustical value. Stalin did not have a commanding voice and wanted to enhance it.
We walked into the main building and the first thing you saw was a wax figure of Stalin, seated at his desk in his study. He has a pipe between the fingers of his right hand. There’s an old telephone in front of him.
“It went directly to the Kremlin,” Ana said. “The ink pot there was a personal gift from Chairman Mao.”
On the wall behind fake Stalin is a map of the old Soviet Union, sprawling across nine time zones. There are photos of Stalin on the walls, and photos of his wife and children in a display. There’s a big, wide green couch, which is said to be stuffed with horsehair to stop bullets.
“He was such a small man (Stalin was 5-feet-4). He seems ill,” said Ana, as if assessing a live being. “He was really ill at that time. He spent a lot of time in Siberia for his revolutionary deeds.”
There was a small bed alongside the desk. Ana said it was the original bed - “an ordinary bed, 118 centimeters.”
“He never slept in one place,” Anna said, “Nobody knew where he slept. He was very afraid, maybe. It’s some kind of mania, I don’t know. He changed beds three or four times a night.”
Stalin sent people by the tens of thousands to labor camps, had his political rivals executed over imagined betrayals. And he lived in fear? He diverted himself from his troubles by watching movies in his study.
“In this room, he liked to watch films very much,” Ana said. “It’s interesting, he was always alone when he watched films. Nobody could see him on the couch. He didn’t want people to see his emotions. He liked comedies, Charlie Chaplin.”
You can see the projection box cut into the wall above the couch. In the adjoining room, there’s a big billiards table, which was made in 1909. Stalin played, but he wasn’t very proficient due to the aching in his joints.
We went to another wing of the villa. On the second floor, there was a large dining room with three large tables. Stalin entertained visiting dignitaries there. There’s a portrait of him above the fireplace. The man wasn’t lacking for vanity.
“It doesn’t look real,” Ana said. “He is too powerful. He had marks on his face, problems with his skin. But of course, you can’t see it in the portrait.”
Stalin had his own swimming pool, which is more like the world’s biggest bath tub. He didn’t like swimming in the Black Sea. Too many common folks.
In the room off the pool, there’s a chess board with oversized pieces. Ana said Stalin was a good player. Who would dare beat him? If you put Stalin in check, would he put you in the gulag?
Ana said Stalin wasn’t much for sports, though his son liked soccer. But he understood the appeal of the mountains and the sea. Back at the turn of the 20th century, Russians wanted to turn Sochi into an outdoor sports destination.
Stalin poured millions into Sochi to develop its infrascture and turn it into a health resort. If he hadn’t done so, leaving Sochi a remote, undeveloped place, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be observing an Olympics here today.
“I agree,” Ana said. “He was a creative man who understood how to develop ideas for his country. He would appreciate the Games.”
That may be so, but there was something creepy about the dacha. There are people who say it’s haunted. You can’t walk out of that place without feeling the man’s evil, hovering presence. I’m afraid I’ll have dreams of wax Stalins in my sleep.
I might even have to change beds.