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Stalin Still Remembered in Georgia

Joseph Stalin, like other dictators in the twentieth century, remains the subject of enduring fascination to this day - 55 years after is death. An empire builder to some -- a brutal, ruthless tyrant to others.

In his native country of Georgia, he remains a figure that still arouses a strange sort of respect -- sort of a mythical embodiment of Soviet power.

Jamil Ziyadaliev is an ardent Stalin admirer. He sports an uncanny resemblance to the once feared dictator, right down to the bushy mustache, the uniform and the pipe.

He's been impersonating Joseph Stalin for the past 10 years. "I was told I look so much like Stalin, I should dress like him. My friend bought me the uniform so people will remember him," Ziyadaliev says proudly.

And so the retired accountant and part-time taxi driver puts on the uniform and makes guest appearances at weddings, christenings and birthdays. But, he doesn't wear the uniform when he drives his taxi. "I don't think Stalin would appreciate that," he says.

What may have begun as an odd joke by a friend has turned into a bit of an obsession for Ziyadaliev. Why does he do it?: "People respect me as Stalin," he says. "They all know right away who I am and recognize me."

And twice a year - on the anniversary of Stalin's birth and death, Ziyadaliev heads to Gori. That's where the real Stalin was born as Josif Dzhugashvili in 1879. This small, dusty city houses the Joseph Stalin Museum along with the odd Stalin monument, among the few to survive in the post-Soviet era.

The Stalin museum is an imposing structure that houses all sorts of memorabilia: from the young Stalin who wrote poetry; the revolutionary who plotted against the Russian czars; and, eventually, the man who became General Secretary of the communist party and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.

The museum’s deputy director, Mzia Naochashvili says it's important for the public to see this, especially young people, who, she says, don't know much about Stalin. "It's 55 years since he died but people around the world are still interested in this man," Naochashvili says.

Much had not been know of Stalin until the opening of the Soviet archives in the mid-1990s. Since then, the public has come to know that Stalin was a survivor of grinding poverty, an abusive family life and a bout of smallpox that nearly killed him at age 6. He also wrote romantic poetry in his early years, which he seemed to abandon when he became more involved in rebellion and revolution in his early twenties.

To many Josef Stalin was the builder of an empire, the man who molded the Soviet Union and helped turn it from a backward agrarian nation to an industrial power, able to defeat Hitler's Nazi armies in World War II and rival the might of the United States during the Cold War.

But, there was a much darker side to the man widely viewed as among the most ruthless dictators of modern history, who sent millions to their death through torture, executions, imprisonment and mass starvation.

"He left a very negative legacy because of the purges, the number of people killed," Naochashvili acknowledges. But, she feels it's still important to have a place to remember him - no matter how many "mistakes" he made. "He created a strong state, he was no ordinary person," she says. "Why should we forget him?"

Admiration for a strong leader seems to have appeal, at least among the older generation in Gori.

"He was part of our history, our tradition," says one woman proudly - even adding that she thought Stalin "a genius."

Walking in the park outside the museum a young man is not so enthusiastic. He admits he likes the idea that Stalin put the little town of Gori on the map, but says most people don't think much of the dictator. "They don't think he did much for Georgia," the young man says matter of factly.

The sun sets slowly behind the massive Stalin statue in front of the museum and among the young people in the park, most seem more intent on taking advantage of the late afternoon sunshine than to talk about Stalin. Maybe a sign of the times.

But that's not likely to sway Jamil Ziyadaliev, who remains a proud Stalin impersonator and who, as we leave him this afternoon, is getting ready to head into town to meet friends. Ziyadaliev is in full uniform. "When you say Stalin is coming, everyone knows who I am," he says with a wave goodbye.

For him, Stalin's legacy lives on.