Where Stalin once rested, busy preparations for tourists

Joseph Stalin's favorite dacha is now a privately owned bed and breakfast, where $500-plus a night can land you in the dictator's bedroom.
Joseph Stalin's favorite dacha is now a privately owned bed and breakfast, where $500-plus a night can land you in the dictator's bedroom. (SI LIBERMAN)
Posted: March 11, 2012

SOCHI, Russia - If he were alive today, Joseph Stalin wouldn't recognize the place.

This subtropical Black Sea resort of nearly 350,000 residents at the foot of the snowcapped Caucasus Mountains is on the verge of becoming a major international destination since being designated the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup.

More than 100 building projects are under way, as a capitalist fervor grips the city, fueled by the anticipated Olympics and a robust oil-driven economy. Radisson already has three hotels up and running - operated by entrepreneurial oligarchs - and the Russian government reportedly is pouring $12 billion into area development projects.

Real estate values have gone through the roof, topping those in Moscow, a two-hour flight away, according to our neatly coiffed, middle-aged Russian guide, who gave her name as Ludmilla. Average-size villas have brought $2 million to $3 million, she said.

Fewer than 10,000 of the 3.6 million tourists who visited Sochi last year were Americans; most were East Europeans.

My wife, Dorothy, and I came ashore on a boat tender in the fall from the sleek, white Crystal Serenity cruise ship on a rare voyage to the city.

Sochi, long known for its many sanatoriums, health resorts, and 90-mile-long coastline, had the fresh look and feel of a South Florida or French Riviera resort, except for the mostly pebbled beaches and all the signs being in Russian.

The specter of the Soviet dictator still hangs over the city, though, and Zelenaya Roscha (Green Grove), his 74-year-old villa, draws tourists by the busloads - some of whom are allowed to rent one or more of the 12 bedrooms.

The government and three private investors own the two-story green building and the adjoining wing that housed Stalin's bodyguards. A 137-acre forest surrounds the dacha, which is hidden from the road by clusters of California pine, oak, and magnolia trees, and shrubs.

"It's not advertised as a hotel, but certain people know about it and come here regularly," Ludmilla explained, attributing her near-perfect English to an outstanding teacher. "The price, $120 for a small bedroom and $450 for a suite, includes up to five meals a day."

Of the 18 dachas the government maintained for Stalin during his 31 years as general secretary of the Communist Party and later as premier of the Soviet Union, this was the one he favored. "Because it's so close to Georgia, where he was born and raised, that's probably why," the guide said. "In 1945, after a mild stroke, he stayed here for three months."

The main building wraps around a pretty, flowered courtyard. Inside, there's a movie theater, a small, tiled swimming pool that had no water, and a billiards room with a restored original large pool table. Some rooms have the original oak and beechwood paneling, brass chandeliers, and balconies with views of the Black Sea.

From behind the dictator's desk in what was the cinema hall, a wax figure of Stalin, stiff and unsmiling, stares ahead. After his death in 1953 at the age of 74, the dacha was unoccupied and not carefully maintained for many years, Ludmilla said, and most of the furnishings disappeared.

Upstairs in a large, modestly refurbished banquet room, a long table spread with red wine-filled glasses and small plates of fruit welcomed us. The wine, described as local, had a pleasant fruity taste, and went down nicely.

Overall, the place has the feel of an oversize, creaky, sparsely furnished B&B.

In a book titled Twenty Letters to a Friend, Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, described spending time in Sochi with her aging father.

"In the summer of 1947, he invited me to have a rest with him in Sochi. . . . It was pleasant, but sad and very difficult. It was difficult for us to talk with each other. . . . Sometimes we walked. It was easier. I would read aloud newspapers, magazines to him. He liked it. He grew old. He wanted peace. He himself sometimes did not know what he wanted."

Ludmilla had her own take on Stalin. "He was brilliant but a ruthless tyrant who caused the deaths and exile of thousands of people, including my own grandmother."

To comment, e-mail TravelTalk@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus