Joseph Stalin, so the conventional story runs, was a "monster", a "reptile" or just a "killing machine". These terms trip off the tongue, and it is easy to see why. When he rose to supreme power after Lenin's death in 1924, he was already notorious for his proclivity for mass violence in the Civil War of 1918 to 1919. And once ensconced, he drove the peasantry into collective farms causing millions of deaths. He drastically expanded the network of labour camps and instigated the Great Terror of 1937 to 1938, arresting, torturing and murdering further millions of innocent Soviet citizens. Terror campaigns continued in the Second World War and afterwards. If ever there was someone whose personality defied the normal vocabulary of description, it was Stalin.
Recently, though, writers have begun to look at the private lives of the 20th century's great dictators and to re-assess them in the light of their discoveries. First it happened with Mussolini, then with Hitler. A couple of years ago, when I started researching a new biography, I wanted to examine how this approach might help us to understand Stalin. The danger was obvious. By "humanising" him, I might be seen as excusing his brutal record - even in some sense condoning totalitarianism. Such concerns have made many historians wary of taking on similar projects in the past.
There have always, of course, been plenty of open supporters of these dead dictators both in their own countries and abroad. David Irving made his career by his indulgent treatment of * Hitler and until his collapsed libel action against Penguin Books in 2000 succeeded in getting much publicity for his views. German neo-Nazi organisations have proliferated, especially in the east of the country since reunification in 1989. In Italy, the flame of devotion to the memory of the Italian dictator has been tended by his granddaughter and parliamentary deputy Alessandra Mussolini. In Russia there are still Stalinists who gather outside the former Lenin Museum near Red Square in Moscow and noisily rail against everything that has happened in the country since their great leader's death.
But it is one thing for German skinheads or ageing Russian irreconcilables to have a soft spot for Hitler and Stalin. It is another thing altogether for serious writers to allow themselves to depict the more pleasant aspects of those dictators. A recent German film about Hitler has provoked a furious controversy in that country. Italian monographs on Mussolini have led to the same kinds of outcry.
Having spent three years researching Stalin, I nevertheless think he does require the same treatment. From a mountain of recently available memoirs, as well as from interviewees, it became obvious he had attractive sides to his personality. His talents, moreover, were not confined to murder and administration.
Even at the beginning of his life, the received wisdom is wrong. Far from being an ill-educated dullard, Stalin was picked out as a boy of enormous promise. In 19th-century Georgia, the Orthodox Church seminaries offered a prestigious schooling for boys like him from poor backgrounds who would otherwise have had to become factory apprentices. He trained until his 21st year to become a priest, of all things. As an adolescent he read great swathes of secular literature against the seminary rules. Walking round the gloomy dormitories of this building in Tbilisi in summer 2002, I could well appreciate why he found the priestly atmosphere stultifying. One of his outlets was poetry, and such was the limpid quality of his verses that they were published in the chief Georgian literary journals of the 1890s.
This congenial side did not disappear when, at the turn of the century, he became a Marxist activist and dropped religion and poetry composition. He continued to read his favourite novelists such as Dostoyevsky. He loved to recite the epic works of the medieval Georgian poet Shot Rustaveli, and went on singing hymns to his dying day, despite his commitment to atheism.
He would also hold jolly soirées in his dachas in the interwar years, during which his main henchmen Vyacheslav Molotov and Kliment Voroshilov would gather with him by the piano - played by Politburo member Andrei Zhdanov - and belt out trios remembered from their religious schooldays. Molotov cheerily recalled: "Stalin had a decent singing voice."
Strange as it may seem, Stalin was known by his subordinates as a very considerate party boss, at least until the full development of his despotic power in the mid-1930s. He sent them to sanatoria when they were ill. On other occasions he got them holidays in the warm south or better housing in Moscow. And women found him courteous and charming. After his second wife's suicide in 1932, such was his distress that his friends worried that he might undergo a mental breakdown or even kill himself.
He had a gallant streak, too, demonstrated in the post-War years when a guest insulted the wife of his confidante Lavrenty Beria, by calling her a "bird in a gilded cage". Beria overlooked the slight but Stalin didn't. Walking across the room, he took Nina Beria's hand and kissed it ostentatiously. And Nina Beria, who had every reason to be fearful of Stalin, treasured this gesture for the rest of her life.
In late 1998, I met Stalin's niece Kira Allilueva, who authenticated many of these stories. I had never met any of his relatives and did not know what to expect. Mrs Allilueva turned out to be a remarkably bubbly former actress in her seventies, who remembered her uncle fondly. Seated in her plain flat in north Moscow, she refused to entertain the notion that Stalin had been a monster. Instead, she remembered how he had sung songs to her and taken her on his knee. This chimes with many other accounts of how he loved children and would delight in giving them treats.
What makes Allilueva's view of her uncle so remarkable is that she herself was a victim of Stalin after the Second World War, when he turned against most of his surviving relatives. The only ones spared from arrest or persecution were his daughter Svetlana and son Vasili. Allilueva was thrown into the Lubyanka. She knew that this could not have happened without Uncle Joseph's connivance. Her strategy for survival, if she were to avoid execution (which was by no means certain at the time), was twofold. She decided to keep quiet and eschew any plea for mercy. She had calculated, probably wrongly, that any such pleading was likely to irritate the dictator into doing something still worse to her. "I decided simply to look on the bright side and put dark thoughts out of my mind," she says.
After Stalin's death she was freed from confinement and resumed her theatrical career far from Moscow. And to this day, while recognising that Stalin did dreadful things, she prefers to remember the good times and not to torment herself with the injustice she underwent.
She can still mimic his singing - and did so during our interview while dancing around the flat, shouting, "I dance like a hooligan, Robert."
Allilueva also admires his poetical juvenilia, and gave me a copy of them in a modern edition. Coming from a family trampled by tragedy, she insists that the author of her misfortunes was more complex than most people have imagined. "He could be very entertaining," she told me sincerely.
There were many others in Russia and Georgia who felt similarly. When Molotov's wife was the first person to be released from confinement after Stalin's death, she had lost none of her admiration for Stalin and his policies. In summer 2002, I gave a public lecture on Stalin in the National Library in Tbilisi. I was aware that the contents of the lecture might prove unpalatable to parts of the audience. What took me aback, however, was the sheer diversity of the support for him. One elderly, religious lady, wearing a crucifix round her neck - who must have lived through the years of terror - came up to me afterward and, in the most polite Russian, explained to me: "You must understand that Stalin was a deeply spiritual person.
Tales of the more affable side of Stalin often tell us more about the tellers than about the man himself. Nevertheless, there is enough truth in some of them to give a jolt to the simplistic traditional accounts of him. That Stalin murdered millions is beyond dispute. Why he did this, though, is beyond comprehension unless the complexity of his character and motivations are accepted.
Stalin was a cold-blooded instigator of state terror. He acted out of an inner compulsion to get even with his perceived enemies. His perceptions were not entirely inaccurate. Millions of better-off peasants, priests, Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, nationalists (including Russian ones), former Communist oppositionists and ill-nourished factory workers detested his policies. They knew the identity of their oppressor because the cult of Stalin repeatedly indicated that nothing happened in the Politburo without his consent.
But if he had made enemies, why did he deal with them so brutally? Ever since childhood he had hated any rival to his dominance. First it was his father and the boys on the streets of his native town Gori. Then it was the priests in the seminary. Then it was fellow Marxist activists who failed to allow him to run their organisations as he wanted. His character was formed in this mould early on. There was a custom of blood feud in the mountains of the Caucasus, and this too must have had an impact. But not all Georgians, especially educated ones, followed the old ways. Marxism too had an influence. Indeed, the idea that dictatorship and terror were of positive value was key to Lenin's analysis and the Civil War, after the October 1917 revolution, reinforced the policy of violence.
When Stalin's programme of Communist transformation produced a wave of popular resentment, it was entirely predictable that he would revert to these tried and trusted methods.
All this time he went on loving poetry, hymns and dandling children on his knee. The supreme truth about Stalin is contained in the history of his awful despotism. But one of the reasons why he got into a position to act in this fashion was that his early Communist associates did not think he had a particularly dangerous personality or political programme. So, more power to the elbow of the German film-makers and Italian historians, as well as those Russian commentators willing to address Stalin in all his complexity. If we are to pre-empt the re-emergence of extremist politics, we should not anticipate that practitioners of dictatorship and terror will look or act like beings from another planet.
'Stalin, a Biography', by Robert Service, is published by Macmillan, priced £25