"What is published in the press is mostly sensationalism," he declared. ''I think a lot of it is the fantasy of journalists."
For fantasy, come to the museum, a bizarrely ornate marble palace opened only 15 years after Stalin assumed power in 1924. There are testimonials, memorabilia and official gifts. There are china teacups bearing the dictator's likeness.
And there is an eerily lit circular room lined with blue plush and bathed in soft music, whose centerpiece is an altar that holds Stalin's bronze- colored death mask.
"This room," Tseradze said tersely, "will not be changed."
But some things are being changed: The museum is being "re-expositioned" to reflect the enlightened, glasnost-era assessment of Stalin. Some relatively mild quotations from a speech by Mikhail S. Gorbachev criticizing Stalin have been added. And Vladimir Lenin's so-called "testament" - a letter to party leaders warning of Stalin's perverse potential and terming him "coarse" - has been given a more prominent display.
"It's a good thing they are doing this; the museum was just much too positive," an Intourist guide named Natasha said. "It is hard not to explain the truth."
The "truth" now being redefined - irrevocably and for eternity if Gorbachev and his supporters have their way - is the public persona of Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, aka Stalin (the name means "man of steel"). Official Soviet opinion, not just Western Kremlinology, now regards him as a vicious, vengeful autocrat, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his countrymen through the famine induced by forced collectivization of agriculture and through the purges and repressions of the 1930s and '40s.
The new Gorbachev crusade argues that Stalin destroyed Lenin's blueprint for the Soviet Union and, motivated by paranoia and a lust for power, bowled through the china shop of socialist democracy like a deranged bull.
Next week, at an extraordinary nationwide party conference in Moscow, the Gorbachev leadership will attempt to further distance itself from the architect of the "terror" and of the ruinous centralized economic system that brought the country to the brink of catastrophe.
Gorbachev's motives go beyond merely wanting to fill in the blank spots of history or freeing the citizenry from a whispered legacy of tyranny. The Soviet leader needs this clear repudiation to defeat the conservative opposition to perestroika. He needs to pull away Stalin's coattails from the faithful and give them no reasonable chance of holding back change as they hang on to their myopically sanguine view of the past.
The process known as de-Stalinization began in 1956, when Nikita S. Khrushchev made his famous "secret speech" to the 20th Communist Party Congress, a speech that laid bare many of Stalin's excesses and which led to Stalin's systematic expurgation from the pantheon of Soviet heroes.
In 1961, Stalin's corpse was removed from the Red Square mausoleum where he had lain with Lenin, the father of the Soviet state, and reinterred in a lesser site in the Kremlin wall.
During the 18-year reign of Leonid I. Brezhnev, however, Stalinism enjoyed a revival, and the dictator's memory was not further sullied. He was warmly remembered as the ultimate patriot, a heroic wartime figure, a benevolent despot ruined by the "cult of personality" that flourished around him. Nostalgia was strong for his kind of decisive leadership.
What Gorbachev proposes to do - is doing - is nothing less than driving a stake through the heart of the beast, preventing it from ever again arising to torment the country.
But in some parts of this vast nation, the nostalgia remains.
Here in Gori, in front of Stalin's museum, stands a two-room wooden hut - now enclosed in a pavilion - where a son was born in 1879 to Ekaterina Gheladze Dzhugashvili, wife of the cobbler Vissarion Dzhugashvili. Down dusty Stalin Street, in front of the party headquarters, a black statue looms over Stalin Square.
It is the only statue of Stalin remaining in the entire Soviet Union.
Fifty miles to the east, in the Georgian republic's capital of Tbilisi, an empty pedestal on Mtatsminda Hill marks the place where a huge statue of Stalin was torn down in 1959. Not all the memorials are gone - paintings of Stalin are still hanging inside some public buildings, and a massive bas relief of the dictator glares down on Rustaveli Prospekt from the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.
In any case, removing the totems cannot erase the scars Stalin left on the Georgian people. For some, who remember that he imprisoned or intimidated the intellectuals, as he did the entire country's intelligentsia, the dictator's most shocking crime was the betrayal of his heritage. For others, that is merely a single line in a catalogue of abuses.
"Everything he did was criminal," said cultural figure and writer Akaki Bakradze, 60, who counts himself a survivor of the repressions.
"There isn't one republic that suffered more than Georgia in 1937 and 1941," said Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, whose prize-winning film, Repentance, is a phantasmagorical expose of the Stalin terror.
Throughout the Soviet Union, the "cult of personality" - which is how Stalin's era is now officially described - is deemed responsible for many of the nation's ills. (The remainder are ascribed to Brezhnev's era of ''stagnation.")
Once hailed as the architect of the Soviet victory over fascism in World War II, Stalin is now blamed for almost losing the war because of his notorious purges of top military figures in the late 1930s, and for agreeing to the 1939 nonagression pact with the Germans, which gave the Nazi regime valuable breathing room at the outset of the war.
"The pact was Stalin's major miscalculation, effectively a criminal one which in 1941 and several times afterwards put the very existence of the U.S.S.R. under threat," wrote former Soviet diplomat Semyon Rostovsky last month in the newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda.
"We cannot forget that or forgive it," he wrote in a startling departure
from accepted wisdom. "In fact, Stalin failed to understand exactly what was happening and played right into the hands of fascism."
Almost daily, the Soviet press publishes revelations about Stalin's political blunders and personal cruelty. In April, playwright Mikhail Shatrov published here what many in the West already knew - that Stalin's wife killed herself. Nadezhda Alliluyeva died in 1932 as famine swept the Soviet Union during Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture. Driven by guilt and abhorrence of the man she lived with, Shatrov says, Alliluyeva chose suicide.
In February, prominent Soviet sociologist Igor Bestuzhev-Lada wrote that Stalin's repressions could have been permitted only by "a man driven by the thirst for power and by persecution mania."
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, 50, a leading Georgian dissident, said in a recent interview that Stalin's days in exile in the early 1900s forged a hatred and a ruthlessness that branded his soul forever with a cruel streak.
"He came to know that the power of a mighty ruler is based on repression," Gamsakhurdia said. " . . . He continued the history of such people as Ivan the terrible and Peter the Great."
As the layers of the Stalin myth have been publicly peeled away by glasnost, corrective measures have followed. Prominent victims of the purges such as Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev have been officially rehabilitated.
Just last week, the State Institute on Historical Archives made a startling public call for the exoneration of Leon Trotsky - the Soviet revolutionary who was kicked out of the party in 1927, was assassinated with an ice-pick on Stalin's orders in 1940, and has been officially taboo ever since.
Earlier this month, a government commission headed by Soviet President Andrei A. Gromyko reversed Stalin's 1944 decision to expel the ethnic Tatars
from their homeland on the Crimean Peninsula. Stalin had decided the Tatars had "betrayed their country" to the Nazis and deported 200,000 of them; Gromyko's decision will allow them to return home.
On Tuesday, the campaign for the de-Stalinization of the Communist Party was made public. Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, printed a full page of comments by participants in a round-table discussion of the party's role in Soviet society. A common theme running through the 14 statements is that Stalin's repressions changed the party, and it is up to the Gorbachev reforms to change it again.
"Does the party really have no relationship to the appearance of Stalin's cult of personality?" wrote F. F. Petrenko, identified as a philosopher. ''. . . Much of the blame lies with the Communist Party as the ruling party."
A. I. Gelman, head of the Soviet cinematographers' union, wrote: "If the processes of democratization are halted, if perestroika is thrown out, a moral death awaits our party, the party of Lenin."
Here in the republic of Stalin's birth, some people with views too radical for the Kremlin pour scorn on the campaign to discredit Stalin, calling it a show for the West.
"The whole wave of perestroika is against Stalin, but not Stalinism," said Gia Chanturiya, 29, a historian and Georgian nationalist who believes that Stalin is still revered in the Kremlin for his Russification of the non- Russian Soviet republics. "They want to blame everything on the man, but in fact it was the system."
Said Gamsakhurdia: "In their hearts, they (the Politburo) are all Stalinists. They need Stalin's policy of Russification and assimilation."
And in Georgia itself, he said, "there are some common people who dislike Stalin, but most love him."
"There are even those among the intelligentsia who love him," said Bakradze. "I'm sure it's hard to understand, but it's a fact. There are narrow-minded people who, once they make up their minds about Stalin, cannot be changed.
"Even some of my friends feel this way," Bakradze said. "It's an emotional issue."
Some Georgians are convinced that Stalin is being used as a scapegoat to
break with the past and make perestroika an irreversible process. Some believe Stalin is merely a convenient ideological symbol for the dispute between Gorbachev and his conservative number two, Yegor K. Ligachev.
Others, like Tseradze the guide, refuse to believe most of the revelations about Stalin. He derided Anatoly Rybakov's Children of the Arbat, a highly publicized novel that portrays life under Stalinism, as exaggerated and over- fictionalized.
"Rybakov came to the museum and someone asked him where he got the information about how Stalin was thinking," Tseradze said. "He answered that he had his own idea about Stalin.
"As a guide, I simply cannot accept this. I go by what is written in the documents."
The Georgian public has given a mixed response to the new exposition at the museum. Tseradze said that some people applauded the additions, while others thought them insulting and unneccesary.
"There are people who still revere Stalin here," said Tchabua Amiredzhibi, a Georgian intellectual. "These are the people who fought in the war. They don't recognize the mistakes he made. When they die, the cult dies with them."
Amiredzhibi spent 16 of his 67 years in a Russian prison, beginning in 1944. The sentence, he said, was for "counter-revolutionary activities," though his detractors contend he was jailed for counterfeiting bread-ration coupons.
Now a successful writer and historian, he sat in a hotel bar drinking gin and tonic, and told a story from his prison days. He shared a cell with another Georgian, he recalled - an engineer named Gyorgy Matsaberidze.
Matsaberidze said he had been jailed after he attended a party meeting at which Khrushchev's "secret speech" against Stalin was read. Matsaberidze jumped up as the speech was finished and screamed at the party leadership: ''Lies, all lies! I will shoot all of you for it."
Amiredzhibi asked him why he threw his life away with a single outburst. Matsaberidze replied: "I lived in the country and took the geese into the field. My brother tended the pigs. We both joined the Komsomol (the Communist youth league), and we went to college. Both of us fought in war for our country. My brother is managing a big factory. And I became chief engineer at Irkutsk Aluminum.
"Stalin made people out of us. He won the war. And I won't let anyone speak badly about him.
"Even you," Matsaberidze said to his cellmate.