Stalin Slept Here - You Can, Too
HAD it with Hawaii? Bored with Biarritz? How about a holiday in the palace once reserved for the personal and exclusive use of the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party?
The collapse of the Soviet Union was no bad thing for the citizens of the former superpower. But it has been an absolute boon for the adventurous traveler in search of unusual leisure destinations.
Where Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev once lounged corpulently by the shores of the Black Sea, you too can now luxuriate in the sunshine. Privileged hideaways built for the Soviet elite have opened their doors to cash-paying customers. Three former state dachas on the south coast of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine now have been converted,with the demise of the Soviet state, into hotels. And if the word dacha conjures up an image of a log cabin in snowbound woods, think again.
These are mansions, set in parks overlooking the sea, nestled amid exotic trees and bushes that flourish in the southern Crimea's Mediterranean climate.
Summer-house building near Yalta was a tradition begun by Russian royalty and eagerly continued by its Soviet successors. Leaning on a balcony, a sea breeze ruffling your hair, cypress and palm trees framing the view, roses and honeysuckle scenting the air, you can easily see why.
There could scarcely be a stronger contrast between this and the grit and grime of a Moscow winter or the long, damp darkness that shrouds St. Petersburg for much of the year.
The Crimea came to prominence as a hideaway for top Communists in the mid-1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power. His predecessor, Joseph Stalin, had preferred to take his vacations in his native Georgia, but Khrushchev was from Ukraine and favored Yalta.
So, in 1956, he had an eight-bedroom mansion built for himself, well hidden from public view, and a slightly smaller, but equally elaborate guest house constructed a short walk away for important visitors. Former President Richard Nixon stayed there with his wife, Patricia, in 1974.
Nobody bothered to give these hideaways proper names. Like everything else in the Soviet Union, from button factories on up, they were simply numbered: Dacha No. 1 and Dacha No. 2.
But they were certainly more sumptuously appointed than any other Soviet household. Karelian birch, walnut, and other rich woods panel the walls. Overstuffed armchairs covered in beige velvet with chocolate trim line the walls, reflecting Leonid Brezhnev's dubious taste.
Built into the hillside, the dachas overlook a private dock and heated sea-water swimming pool. In the basement of each are private movie theaters. And all around is a 26-hectare (65-acre) park offering absolute tranquility.
Even in such isolated surroundings, however, Communist Party leaders were always linked to the Kremlin by a special, direct-line high-frequency telephone. Designed to resist eavesdroppers, the phones were also easy to cut off if you could get to the KGB-operated switchboard, as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev found to his chagrin in 1991.
He was staying just down the coast in the village of Foros - his wife, Raisa, had complained that the boats offshore made too much noise at Dacha No. 1 - when coup plotters in Moscow had him confined to his dacha for three days, cut off from the world.
Today's guests - a new breed of wealthy Russians who have made their money in the cut-throat market that passes for capitalism here, and where gangland killings are common - need good security almost as much as did the Gorbachevs.
And here, they get it. ''One of the most important things is that we can provide bodyguards for our guests if they haven't brought their own,'' says Valery Klimov, vice president of the firm that operates the two former state dachas as a hotel.
Mr. Klimov's firm rents the dachas from the trade union that was given the buildings by Gorbachev's decree in 1989, when he moved his summer home to Foros. With enough space - including two beach houses - to put up 34 guests, the hotel is full in the summer months even though room prices range from $140 to $350 a night, Klimov says.
WHAT brings rich ''new Russians'' here, when they could go to the Caribbean, he says, is that ''our natural surroundings are no less beautiful than the Bahamas, and in the Bahamas you cannot sleep where a general secretary of the CPSU used to live.''
If that prospect thrills you, the ultimate dubious pleasure is an offer at Yusupovsky Palace, 20 miles up the coast from Yalta, where you can sleep in the bed that Stalin used during the Yalta conference.
It was during that 1945 summit that Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Stalin drew the map of postwar Europe.
For $350 a night in the summer, you have a choice of two bedrooms - Stalin never slept in the same bed two nights running. Though nobody guarantees you sweet dreams, the view from the front bedroom, over an ornamental garden to the sea, is stunning.
The palace was built by Prince Feliks Yusupov, the man who arranged Rasputin's murder, for his bride, a niece of Czar Nicholas II. After years of service as a state dacha and rest house for senior KGB officers, the building was given to the Yalta municipality, which has rented it out to a private hotel company.
Other czarist-era dachas in the Crimea have opened to the public not as hotels but as museums, such as Livadia, a neo-Renaissance palace on a cliff a few miles west of Yalta.
The last Russian czar, Nicholas II, built this dream home in 1911. But war and revolution meant that he and his family stayed there only four times before he was executed, and Vladimir Lenin decreed that all former royal dachas in the Crimea should be converted into rest homes for peasants and workers.
After 70 years as a sanatorium not much is left of Livadia's original furnishings. In the pink-walled bedroom where the Empress Alexandra once slept, for example, ''there is nothing left but the view,'' laments museum guide Lyudmila Prokopova.
But thousands of visitors come to Livadia each year to see the room where the fateful Yalta conference was held. During the conference, the US president stayed at the palace, eating in the dark wood-paneled room where Czar Nicholas and his courtiers once played billiards.
Today, visitors are equally keen to see the new exhibit, only two years old, of photographs of the Russian royal family at play - photographs taken by the imperial court photographer and kept in a cellar for the past 70 years.
Another royal palace, at nearby Massandra, has also been converted from Communist use into a memorial to the czars.
Ordered by Alexander III, and built in fantasy French chateau style with steeply pitched gray mansard roofs above its ornately decorated facade, the palace was still not completed by the time Alexander died. His heir, Nicholas II, did not like it.
So it was never used, except as a backdrop for occasional royal picnics, until the Soviets turned it into a government guest house. With no more Soviets to welcome any guests, the palace has become a museum dedicated to the life and times of Alexander III.
Yusupov's palace, meanwhile, has become a small hotel that does a roaring trade from June to September, according to manager Sergei Vasko. Some foreigners have stayed at the Yusupovsky, but most of Mr. Vasko's guests are drawn from the new class of Ukrainians and Russians who can afford the $100-plus room rates.
''People come here for the peace and quiet, the privacy, the high level of service, and because here a Russian is at home,'' Vasko says. ''We get a lot of bankers here, and maybe they don't know foreign languages,'' he adds. ''In Cyprus, or anywhere else, they would be foreigners.''
Even with costly room rates and high occupancy in season, the hotel is not yet turning a profit, according to Vasko, partly because of fear of the mafia. ''We don't accept just anybody who wants to stay here,'' he says.
For a house that has hosted Stalin, concern about the probity of guests seems a shade bizarre. But the policy at least assures a guest of a peaceful night.
''We don't let gangsters in,'' Vasko insists. ''This is a historic place and there are different kinds of people around. We can't have an ambassador staying here, for example, and allow a racketeer to stay in the next room.''
r To stay at Dachas No. 1 and 2, contact Valery Klimov by fax or phone (from the US) at: 011-7-0654-318667. To stay at Yusupovsky Palace, write: Sergei Vasko, A/O Yalita, Yusupovsky Palace, Koreiz-1, Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine 33425. Phone: 011-7-0654-318610.