Visiting Russia’s Uncle Joe

The shoulders of the man who bears responsibility for the deaths of millions of people and the enslavement of millions more, are reassuringly narrow. He sits at his desk with his hands gripping the arms of his chair, as if trying to explain himself. Even though he is seated, it cannot hide the fact that, for a man who had such a big impact on the modern world, Josef Stalin was surprisingly small.

Stalin, ­or at least a lifelike waxwork model of the man, lives on in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where his dacha (summer residence) is the solitary tourist attraction. Like Sochi itself, Stalin’s dacha is remarkably uncrowded. Half-hidden on a wooded hillside, it is painted green as camouflage and has been left much as it was in his day. Moreover, the Russians, so paranoid in other ways, are relaxed about tourists visiting. You can touch the personal items on Stalin’s desk, sit on his uncomfortable horsehair sofa (with its armoured back, to guard against assassins), play on his billiards table or even use his personal toilet.

Sadly, visiting the dacha is about all you can do in Sochi. If you haven’t got a personal visa, the Russians will not let you off the ship except on an organised, accompanied coach excursion. Want to visit a market, meet locals, soak up the atmosphere? Not a chance.

But Sochi is an exception. Russia’s Black Sea neighbours – especially Romania and Ukraine – are keen to welcome cruise passengers. So much so, in fact, that it is surprising how few ex-UK cruises go there every year. If you have ‘done’ the Mediterranean, a four-week Black Sea cruise is full of interest.

Local dancers greet the ship as it arrives in Constanza, Romania, and high spot – apart from visiting Uncle Joe – are a visit to the opera in Odessa; touring the battlefields of the Crimea from Sebastopol; and ‘discovering’ the beautiful resort of Yalta. It was here in 1945, in the dazzlingly white Livadia Palace, that Roosevelt and Churchill had their historic meeting with… Stalin. You just can’t get away from him.

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