SOCHI, Russia — “Nyet.”
I had not heard that word often here. While the Russian facilities weren't completely ready for the Olympics — a concrete sidewalk was still being poured at my hotel this week — the Russian people were totally prepared for us.
They've been friendly. They've smiled. They've tried to help visitors.
Not this guy.
“Nyet,” said the uniformed guard with the weather-worn face again, refusing to let my very nice taxi driver past a checkpoint.
I guess that's what happens when you try to knock on Stalin's door and visit his man cave.
Which I eventually did, by the way. But not without some adventures along the way.
At every Olympics, I try to get outside the events bubble at least once. During the Los Angeles 1984 Games, I visited with Judge Wapner of “Peoples Court” for his opinions on the gymnastics judges. At the 1998 Seoul Summer Games, I traveled to the hostile North Korean border. At Beijing 2008, to the Great Wall.
Here in Sochi, my choice was easy. I wanted to see the historic dacha (summer home) that former USSR leader Joseph Stalin built just outside town in 1936.
Stalin was one of the 20th century's most ruthless and brutal despots. He executed 700,000 of his own country's citizens and caused millions of other deaths. Russians today regard him even less fondly than they regard complaining American sportswriters.
But believe it or not, Stalin is proabably one reason the Olympics are here.
“Sochi is his child,” explained Sergey Volobyov, a Sochi native and historian who is volunteering at these Games.
See, when Stalin picked previously isolated Sochi as his favorite summer getaway spot, he spent millions of dollars creating infrastructure and popularizing the city to vacationers. The area became an outdoor sports mecca, perfect for a future Olympics.
“Every Sochian now likes to swim or bicycle,” said Volobyov.
Maybe that's why they couldn't get all the concrete poured on time.
Anyway, Stalin's old crib is now a tourist attraction, visited mostly by Russians. I called ahead. The chief dacha guide and curator, Anna, spoke no English. I handed the phone to an interpreter. They conversed. Anna assured the interpreter that I could join another English-speaking group that was arriving at the same time as me.
But now, after my taxi ride to the dacha's entrance gate guardhouse, I was stuck with grumpy old Comrade Nyet.
My kindly driver, Alexei, argued with the guard. Got nowhere. Alexei then pulled out his cell phone to call Anna. Got a recording. Alexei argued some more. Nothing. We all stared at each other for five minutes. Suddenly, as if on a whim, the guard opened the gate. We drove up the hill.
And I must say, while I am not a big dacha afficionado, this one was pretty impressive. Multiple structures with multiple balconies. Stalin called the house Zelenya Rosha (“Green Grove”). In case some enemy ship in the Black Sea below had bad intentions, the dacha was designed and painted in forest colors to blend into the hillside as camouflage.
Coincidentally, I had the same effect when I showed up at the dacha front door. No one noticed me. The other “English-speaking group” turned out to be a television crew from “NBC Dateline” doing a feature on the dacha. This created confusion. The NBC crew didn't really want me there. Anna thought I was part of the NBC crew.
She was also, frankly, a little starstruck. Anna played to the cameras and ignored my questions. But I still managed to work the perimeter and learn a few things.
“Stalin liked cowboy movies,” Anna said at one point, gesturing to a couch where the mustachioed tyrant would sit and chain smoke while screening films to decide whether the Russian public at large should be permitted to see them.
The immense couch, Anna said, was stuffed with horsehair to stop bullets if Stalin needed to duck and cover. It was located in that aforementioned communist man cave (my term, not his), in a wing off the main house where Stalin slept.
I sat down on the couch. It must have swallowed up Stalin, who was only 5-foot-4 inches tall. That's why his indoor pool was only 5 feet deep and the steps in the main house are only a few inches high. He cleary wouldn't be the first guy you'd choose in a pickup hoops game.
The man cave is said to be haunted by Stalin because the room is always cooler than other rooms (and colder than most Olympic venue weather). Disturbingly, the room also has a desk with a wax dummy of Stalin sitting behind it, as if he might jump up any minute and execute someone for touching his billiard table, in an adjoining room.
Of course, I touched the table, anyway. Then I quickly had someone call another cab and split.
Back at the media center, I asked Sergey the local historian what he thought Stalin might say about these Winter Games on his old turf — or what event he'd like best.
Sergey laughed at my question before deciding: “I don't really know what he'd think of all this — but I do know Stalin was a mountaineer.”
It's true. Stalin did indeed have a hiking path built to the top of a local peak. I wonder if anyone hiked up there with him and never came back?
I don't want to say his place creeped me out. But if the guy were around today and asked me to come over to watch Olympic snowboarding telecasts from his couch, my answer would be fast and easy: