Fifty years ago today, the most frightening man in the world lay dying in his dacha. When it was announced on 6 March 1953 that Joseph Stalin had died the previous day, he was mourned across half the world. In Moscow, every flower stall was sold out, leaving none for the funeral of the composer Sergei Prokofiev. Vietnam's poet laureate, To Huu (who died only a few weeks ago) was moved to write: "Oh Stalin! Oh Stalin!/ What remains of the earth/ And of the sky/ Now that you are dead?"
Yet no posthumous reputation has deteriorated so rapidly. He was officially disowned by his successors within three years, and his admirers are now in a tiny minority almost everywhere, even on the outer reaches of the far left. Stan Newens, the former Labour MEP and member of the post-war Trotskyite Socialist Review Group, believes that "Stalin personified the black side of everything and in fact discredited socialism in a way that we still have to fight against."
Yet one country, North Korea, is ruled by a man whose father was Stalin's personal protégé and another, Iraq, is ruled by a keen admirer.
According to the writer Said K Aburish: "Saddam Hussein models himself after Stalin more than any other man in history. He has a full library of books about Stalin, and when he was a young man he used to wander around the offices of the Ba'ath party telling people: 'Wait until I take over this country. I will make a Stalinist state of it yet'."
The anniversary of Stalin's death will be commemorated by little groups in almost every country in the industrial world, especially in his homeland, Georgia. In Britain "several hundred" are expected to turn out for a memorial meeting of the Stalin Society, with several speakers and "possibly a drink" according to chairman Harpal Brar.
The society was formed in the 1990s, after the collapse of communism. One of its founders, a New Zealander named Bill Bland, was a devoted admirer of the late Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha. Mr Bland was later expelled in a doctrinal dispute.
However, this tiny, ageing and schism-ridden society has been bolstered by moral support from the best-known trade union leader of the past two decades: Arthur Scargill, now campaigning for election to the Welsh Assembly.
Since he set up the Socialist Labour Party in 1995, Mr Scargill has reverted to the beliefs which took him into the Communist Party in his youth. At a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Mr Scargill claimed that the "ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin" explained the "real world".
Mr Brar, the SLP's former parliamentary candidate in Ealing Southall, says Stalinism "is a minority sentiment" on the left in the UK, but "before you say it's irrelevant ... get out of Europe. Stalin is extremely popular in the former Soviet Union and with millions of people around the world".
Another admirer is Andrew Murray, chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, which organised last month's massive protest against war in Iraq. When Stalin's 120th birthday came round, three years ago, Mr Murray wrote a column in the Morning Star acknowledging that the dictator may have used "harsh measures" but invited readers to ponder why "hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others".
The question of how many people died through Stalin's "harsh measures" may never be answered. Last September, the authorities in St Petersburg uncovered a mass grave of about 30,000 people executed in the 1930s by a single shot in the back of the head.
An old Soviet hymn used to say: "Great Stalin lives, Great Stalin lives, Great Stalin lives forever."