TOWARD THE END of the 19th century, in a remote province of the czar's empire, there was a poor woman who kept getting pregnant but always lost her child. "My husband beats me," she told to the princess she worked for as a washerwoman. "He is a cobbler who drinks, and he beats me when he drinks, and he drinks more when I get pregnant." "You must to to the priest and ask for his advice," the princess suggested. "He will tell you what to do."

The poor woman went to the priest, who told her that next time she conceived she must offer the child to God. "Then God will see to it that your child lives," the priest said. "But you must make sure that your child becomes a priest, because if he doesn't God will get very angry, and terrible things will happen to your family, to Russia and to the whole world."

The woman went home in peace. And next time she conceived she did not lose her child. It was a boy, and she sent him to the seminary. He was not a bad student, but his ordination never took place. He became a revolutionary -- an enemy of God and the czar.

The boy's name was Yosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, better known under his nom de guerre Stalin -- Man of Steel. His three decades of rule turned feudal Russia into the world's first socialist state, and the terror he instituted defined for this century the standard of communist theory and practice.

Dec. 21 is the centenary of Stalin's birth. Or is it? People who lived under him have often suspected that like other parts of his biography, his birthdate too must have been invented. Perhaps the idea was to have his birth coincide with the longest night of the year -- Stalin had a sense of black humor. Or, just as likely, a date close to Christmas was chosen -- the better to supplant a chief rival. In 1949, when the communist bloc celebrated his 70th birthday, novelist Leonid Leonov prophesied in Pravda that soon the world would have a new calendar with Stalin's birthdate as Day One.

Every few years, Stalin had the history of the revolutionary struggle revised. By the mid-1930s, he was the co-leader, with Lenin, of the abortive 1905 uprising as well as of the victorious 1917 revolution. It mattered little that people were still around who could recall that in 1905 Lenin and other leading revolutionaries barely knew Stalin's name, or that in the period between Lenin's triumph in 1917 and his death in 1924 there were some half-dozen Bolsheviks with more brilliant achievements than Stalin.

(In John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World," the book Lenin called the best history of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin is mentioned briefly on two occasions.)

The jobs Lenin assigned him were unimpressive. "Coarse" was the word he used in characterizing Stalin, and in his political testament Lenin urged the party to refuse Stalin a top position. After Lenin's death, Stalin had that document dismissed as forgery, and he had himself proclaimed with the assistance of old Bolsheviks as Lenin's designated successor. (Stalin later ordered most of his allies shot, just as he liquidated the judges who had sentenced to death the top brass of the Red Army prior to Hitler's attack.)

Since there was no authentic photograph of Lenin and Stalin together, photographs were spliced and paintings painted to suggest that the two of them had been the closest of friends and collaborators. One such document showed them in a relaxed moment sitting on a park bench; another captured them at the top of a staircase in the Supreme Soviet, surrounded by an admiring multitude of workers and peasants. These two icons were reproduced endlessly, and as the years passed one no longer remembered which one was supposed to be a photograph and which one a painting, and it took a contentious mind to recall that both pictures captured moments that never were.

After World War II, Stalin was "the Architect of Allied Victory" and "the Great Teacher of Mankind." He was more than Lenin's "closest associate" and "most faithful disciple." By the time he died, in 1953, Stalin had Lenin cast in the role of John the Baptist preparing the ground for the Messiah.

I was 7 years old when the Red Army and Wehrmacht fought their battle in Budapest, in January 1945. When the German troops finally fled from our building, they took with them Hitler's picture that had presided over the air raid shelter where we spent most of our time. A few hours later, the Russians came. Their commanding officer carried under his arm a framed photograph of a mustachioed man with medals spread across his chest. "This is your new father," the commander said, in German, to the assembled woman and children. And he hung Stalin's portrait on the same nail that the Germans had used for Hitler.

In the communist world, Stalin's portrait was everywhere, by itself or flanked by the cunning Tartar face of Lenin and the bearded, grandfatherly Karl Marx, and in the people's democracies, by the local leader, known as "the Little Stalin." For symmetry, Marx's friend Friedrich Engels was added. It was an inviolable rule that Stalin's picture hung a few inches above the others.

There were only two or three Stalin portraits, each showing an ageless, vaguely Middle Eastern face, stern in an avuncular way. In photographs and films, he was always dressed in a military tunic buttoned up to the neck. In group portraits, he was not only center stage but tall, at least as tall as the others, though in fact he was no taller than 5 feet 5.

It is widely believed that prior to the 1917 revolution. Stalin was in the pay of the Okhrana, the czarist secret police. His noncommunist biographers speculate that he was either an agent provocateur or an informer who traded information for his freedom.

"Like other revolutionaries, Stalin wanted to stay free to do his organization work," an old Bolshevik once explained to me. "To cooperate with the police was a pragmatic decision. Stalin, a born plotter, could not resist the temptation of getting paid by the regime that he was determined to destroy.

"There were two types of early Bolsheviks. First, you had the creative, emotional types. Then, you had the calculating, secretive types. Trotsky belonged to the former group, Stalin to the latter. Trotsky must have refused cooperation with the police because of his high principles, but Stalin probably seized the opportunity."

Stalin is rumored to have begun his police career in the seminary, where he was one of many Georgian nationalists protesting Russian oppression. Others were punished severely; he was merely reprimanded, and, in the end, he was expelled because he failed to show up for the final examinations.

Later, as a professional revolutionary, Stalin was captured, imprisoned and exiled many times, yet he always managed to escape. In innumerable Soviet stories and films, he evaded his pursuers alone, braved packs of wolves and conquered sleep by walking resolutely through a Siberian snowstorm. Somehow, he found his way in the wilderness and among strangers, and he surprised his underground comrades by surfacing suddenly in a distant city.

As a youth and as a stateman, he was depicted as quiet and introspective, with an intuition that was infallible and a learning that embrased western culture and military strategy, agriculture and linguistics. His pronouncements -- whether on the origin of language or the terrain best suited to confront a Nazi army or biology or modern music -- settled all arguments. When he entered a room, he gave heart to every revolutionary and when he spoke he showed the way, the only correct way.

Yet his subjects knew the truth: Stalin had crude manners, and his appearance was unimpressive. He spoke Russian with the thick foreign accent of his native Caucasus. He had a pockmarked face and he hid his crippled left arm. In the underground movement, he did not exchange ideas and seldom read books; fellow revolutionaries did not consider him intelligent. He was the silent, surly fellow in the back of the room, saying little or nothing at meetings, contemptuous of comrade and foe, lonely and miserable.

In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev wrote of the permanent scrutiny to which Stalin had subjected his closest associates. At one time he accused his veteran foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, of working for the Americans and he thought that Anastas Mikoyan, later president of the Soviet Union, was a Turkish spy.

He often went out of his way to assure future purge victims of his personal liking for them -- sometimes the day before their arrest. Shielding himself from blame, he intimated to visitors -- particularly to foreigners -- that his secret police were acting on their own -- as if such independence could have been possible. He liquidated two of his secret police chiefs as traitors.

"Stalin was a killer," a cousin of mine who spent 10 years in Siberian labor camps once summed it up. "He had to keep killing."

Unlike other tyrants, Stalin had no soft spot for an old friend and responded to no appeal to his mercy. Expressions of loyalty left him unmoved -- perhaps he didn't believe that anyone could be loyal to him. When he was told that one of his victims, a Red Army general, shouted "Long live Stalin!" just before he was shot, Stalin muttered an obscenity.

It was always a shock to listen to his favorite song -- described as such and broadcast at least once a day while he was alive but forgotten since. It was a soft Oriental tune, written to accompany a maudlin 19th century nationalist poem, an allegory filled with beautiful nightingales and whispering leaves, and a search for a beloved whose grave could not be found. Stalin was a compulsive Scheherezade spinning yarns of intrigue and treason, plot and counterplot. He had a penchant for the romance of murder.

Between 1948 and 1953, Stalin ordered the "people's democracies" to repeat his purges of the 1920s and '30s. Veteran communists who had fought Franco and Hitler were executed as agents of fascism and imperialism. Secret police officers posing as emissaries of the CIA or British intelligence approached suspected critics of the regime and suggested that they organize cells to take over the government once western armies launched their liberation of Eastern Europe. When enough people were thus recruited -- no less than 10, no more than 25 -- the secret police struck. The press reported the trial: The leader was usually hanged, others received long prison sentences. And, of course, they all confessed.

In 1949, the one and only time Mao Tsetung visited Moscow -- to sign the Eternal Friendship Treaty -- Stalin made him wait for one full day before letting the Chinese delegation know that he would receive Mao. The Chinese had planned a brief visit, but Stalin kept them in Moscow for a full month -- as honored guests, of course, but with the intimation that they might become prisoners if Stalin so decided.

Stalin explained to his inner circle that he disliked Mao, "a craven bootlicker like all Chinese." He recalled that in 1939, after the signing of the Russo-Japanese neutrality pact -- which gave Japan a free hand to despoil China -- Mao sent an effusive message on Stalin's 60th birthday. From that day on, Stalin declared, he could never trust Mao and warned that the Chinese were all "margarine" communists, not the real stuff.

When he died -- on a cold March day in 1953 -- thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of communists burst into tears, among them the party secretary of my high school in Budapest, a tough, unsmiling bitch who knew little of the history and geography she was supposed to teach. "What will happen to us?" she kept repeating in the teachers' room, oblivious to the fact that her colleagues were not communists and wished her and her kind dead. Like other people who depended on the party, she was overcome by the fear that without Stalin the system would collapse.

Stalin's funeral was a denouement Dostoyevsky might have devised. The heirs, feuding among themselves, barely expressed grief. Instead, they stressed "high political vigilance and the irreconcilability of the struggle against domestic and foreign enemies" lest "disorder and panic" erupt. As Stalin lay in state, the NKVD activated one of its crisis mobilization plans and arrested several thousand.

In every East European capital, much larger crowds than anticipated filled the streets, ostensibly to pay their last respects to Stalin by filing past the party's reviewing stand, usually the base of an enormous Stalin statue. Army and police contingents were visibly nervous, their hands gripping their submachine guns. In Budapest and elsewhere, the authorities ordered shots fired in the air.

To the men in uniforms, the demonstrators, though organized by party units in factories, offices and schools, must have looked menacing. From the beginning, there was a strange restlessness and suppressed joy. The masses -- and for once the Marxist term had a meaning -- sensed their power and sensed that an era had come to an end.

People pushed and panicked, and an absurd, inexplicable stampede began. Suddenly, everyone was running, or, rather, trying to run.

In Moscow, hundreds are said to have been trampled to death.

A few weeks later, stories circulated claiming that Stalin had collapsed during a Politburo meeting and was identified as dead, upon which Lavrenty Beria, the NKVD chief, began shouting: "The tryant is dead! We are free." Then Stalin opened his eyes, and Beria got on his knees to beg forgiveness. It was a second stroke a few days later that finally killed Stalin.

The effectiveness of this legend of two deaths, circulated by Beria's enemies, was enhanced rather than diminished by the fact that historians record a similar story about Ivan the Terrible.

Can one ever throw off the memory of a hateful father? I am afraid that those who have once turned against a tyrant may be marked for life. But what about those for whom the tyrant is a distant memory and live in peace with his successors?

The same way Germans must face their Hitler, Russians must face their Stalin. Sooner or later, they must find the connection between a particular type of killer and a particular type of system.

Would it have been different under Trotsky, Bukharin, Rykov or whoever? Yes, a hundred times yes. Yet it was not an accident - how this phrase is dear to Marxists! - that Stallin emerged victorious. No serious Soviet thinker can fail to come to grips with that fundamental dialetic; there can be no self-respecting Soviet regime that fails to address itself to the meaning of Stalin's three decades of terror.

Khrushchev's anti-Stalin posturing belied his guilt; Leonid Brezhnev's temporizing is unlikely to outlive him. Unless it is exposed to the sunlight of free debate, Stalin's ghost can be resurrected by those who did not know him or knew him only too well.