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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 July, 2003, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Stalin's ghost looms large

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC correspondent in Abkhazia

Josef Stalin
Stalin was careful about what he ate in Abkhazia
It is 10 years since the self-styled Republic of Abkhazia broke away from Georgia and declared independence.

Nobody recognises this land, where the Caucasus mountains meet the Black Sea, as a nation.

So a decade on its people live cut off from the rest of the world. Most of their borders are closed, their economy throttled by an international economic embargo designed to force them to reunite with Georgia.

But this forgotten region was once one of the former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's favourite places.

Budget traveller

The engine of our minibus straining, we wound our way uphill, round hairpin bends, through a forest of cypress trees.

Then, finally, a huge wall and imposing gates barred our way.

A soldier emerged, eyeing us suspiciously.

"Is this Stalin's dacha?" we asked. "Yes," he grunted, then vanished.

We had heard that it was possible to rent Stalin's favourite holiday home. It now belongs to the government of Abkhazia.

But Abkhazia is so strapped for cash that, for the bargain sum of $50 a night, you can have his seaside retreat all to yourself.

After 45 minutes, the soldier returned and waved us in.

Paranoia

An impressive two-storey building, painted camouflage green, perched right on the edge of the hill.

Far below, stretching to the horizon, were the waters of the Black Sea. The once lush garden had gone to seed, throttled by rampant grasses.

The soldier introduced an old man, sweeping a garden path.

At night we would all have to leave the dacha while Stalin decided which room to sleep in. We'd return, a guard outside each door, but we never knew which room he'd chosen. He didn't trust anybody
Valentin Arbatski
With watery blue eyes and wearing a white sailor's cap, Valentin Arbatski is almost 80.

He began working as a guard for Stalin, and has spent his life here. He unlocked the dacha and led us in.

Inside it was gloomy and still.

The interior was art deco in style, but deadened by dark, heavy wood everywhere. The walls and ceilings panelled with it.

The old man shuffled slowly through Stalin's rooms. "It's exactly the way it used to be," he said.

At first he was reluctant to tell too much about his former master.

Habits of discretion learnt serving a dictator linger even half a century later. But, egged on by the young soldiers guarding the dacha, he relaxed, slowly, cautiously.

"As guards we were never allowed to look at Stalin, unless he addressed us first," Valentin Arbatski said.

"And at night we would all have to leave the dacha while Stalin decided which room to sleep in. We'd return, a guard outside each door, but we never knew which room he'd chosen. He didn't trust anybody."

At mealtimes, Valentin said, Stalin would get several, identical plates of food prepared.

Only at the very last minute would he choose which to eat in case someone tried to slip some poison into his portion.

Too much love

We walked into a bedroom. The bed was tiny.

"These were made specially for Stalin. He was very short," Valentin explained.

Stalin was enamoured of Abkhazia.

Every summer he spent his holidays here. It had the best climate and the highest living standards in the Soviet Union.

Squeezed between the Caucasus mountains and the sea, the 8,000 sq km territory is a place of warmth, abundance and beauty.

A woman who stayed here swore she saw Stalin's ghost
Soldier
Palm trees grow on its coast.

Its orchards once overflowed with fruits like tangerines.

Snow-capped peaks rise in the distance.

Abkhazia was even part of the empire of ancient Greece.

According to legend it was the land where the ram with a golden fleece could be found.

But ironically Stalin's love of Abkhazia helped destroy its riches.

In 1931 he changed Abkhazia's status.

At the stroke of a pen, as only autocrats can, he incorporated Abkhazia into his native Georgia.

The two had been linked throughout their history. Now tens of thousands of Georgians were resettled in Abkhazia, Abkhaz schools were closed, the Abkhaz language and alphabet suppressed.

Resentments simmered until the Soviet Union collapsed and Abkhazia went to war to split from Georgia.

Some 10,000 people died in the conflict, a quarter of a million were made refugees and Abkhazia was left in ruins.

As we shuffled on through dingy rooms, Valentin said Stalin's dacha only survived the war intact because local people were too afraid to loot it.

He showed me the pool table where Stalin used to play, and always win, his opponents made sure they never beat him.

"And what about the ghost?" added one of the soldiers.

"A woman who stayed here swore she saw Stalin's ghost."

Running scared

That, I am afraid, was the final straw.

The gloom and ghosts were too much for me, even for $50 a night.

At the end of our tour I made my excuses and left. I chickened out of sleeping in Stalin's dacha.

An undersized bed is one thing.

Being visited by an undersized ghost quite another.

SEE ALSO:
Thousands pay respects to Stalin
06 Mar 03  |  Europe
How Russia faced its dark past
05 Mar 03  |  Europe
The mystery of Stalin's death
24 Feb 03  |  Europe
Stalin 'ordered spy's execution'
09 May 02  |  UK News


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