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A wax sculpture of Stalin sits behind the desk he used at the dacha. From the time he first began to visit the villa, Stalin was signing death warrants for his rivals -- and living in fear of retribution. (AFP/Getty Images)

Sochi Was Once A Vacation Spot Fit For A Dictator

Feb 20, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's dacha, or summer villa, was built in Sochi, Russia, in 1934. Stalin used the villa -- which was painted green to camouflage it from prying eyes -- until 1945. The bucolic setting belies the violence of Stalin's rule. Two items in the conference room at the villa were not there during Stalin's time: the portrait over the fireplace (he claimed he didn't like portraits of himself) and the carpet (because he preferred to be able to hear approaching footsteps on wooden floors).

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Long before it became an Olympic host city, Sochi was a favorite getaway for one of history's most ruthless dictators: Josef Stalin.

The Soviet leader had a villa built in the hills overlooking the Black Sea, and he visited it during some of the most tumultuous years of his reign.

The villa, known as Stalin's dacha, or summer house, was built in 1934, and he used it until the end of World War II in 1945. No Soviet or Russian leader after Stalin is known to have visited it.

These days, an anonymous oligarch (and history buff) with a 49-year lease on the property keeps it open to the public.

The elegant building has wide balconies on all sides and a courtyard with palm trees. The grounds have a sense of calm that almost makes it possible to forget that Stalin's days here included the Great Purge, a wave of mass arrests, tortured confessions, imprisonments and murders.

But the house is full of reminders that it was the refuge of a deeply paranoid and isolated man.

A Villa Tour

Our guide Viktoria asks that we not use her last name, because Stalin's history in the region provokes controversy to this day.

She points out that the color of the building — forest green — reflects the dictator's obsession with security.

"The green color is a form of camouflage, so it can't be seen from the seaside or the mountains," she says.

And in fact, the building is still nearly invisible among the cypress trees.

Viktoria leads us inside, to the room that Stalin used as his office. The furniture is all original, she says, including Stalin's big desk. A wax figure of the dictator himself sits behind the desk — pale, creepily doll-like and smaller than you might have imagined.

From the time he first began to visit the dacha, Stalin was signing death warrants for his Communist Party rivals, intellectuals, military officers and others. State archives show that he personally signed orders to kill at least 40,000 people — and lived in fear that some enemy would assassinate him.

"The sofas are interesting," Viktoria says. "They're bulletproof, and the back and sides are built high enough so that Stalin's head wouldn't be visible when he was sitting there."

She adds that Stalin loved to watch movies, especially Charlie Chaplin comedies, but says he preferred to watch alone, because he didn't like to show his emotions in front of others.

Reconciling Deaths And The Bucolic Dacha

Viktoria leads the way into the billiard room, where the dictator used a special, lead-weighted cue because a damaged arm made it hard for him to feel the weight of a regular stick. Visitors are welcome to try a shot or two using that cue.

The house has more of Stalin's peculiarities. The curtains are cut short, so he could see whether anyone was hiding behind them. He didn't like carpets on the floor, because he preferred to hear the sound of approaching footsteps.

Historian Alla Guseva says Stalin turned Sochi into a "resort fairy tale" of how communist society treated its workers, with palatial health spas, theaters and sports centers.

Yet at the same time, Stalin and his collaborators were condemning people to slavery in labor camps by the hundreds of thousands, and ordering deportations of entire ethnic communities.

Sochi's City Museum of History, where Guseva is a deputy director, houses exhibits devoted to the many people who helped build Sochi for Stalin, yet still fell victim to his repressions.

During his 30-year reign, Stalin is thought to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people.

That history is hard to reconcile with the pleasant villa on the Black Sea, and the man who spent evenings there, watching Charlie Chaplin movies alone.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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