Josef Stalin, the late tyrant who sent millions of Russians to death and enslavement, has achieved in the centenary year of his birth a shadowy fictional place in Soviet history acceptable to millions in the nation he brutalized and debased.

The stealthy evolution of Stalin from Nikita Khrushchev's discredited despot of 1956 to a man whom many openly say they respect and even admire has been a mysterious phonemenon. It was composed of elusive strains of mass psychology at the popular level abetted by blatant official obfuscation of the truth of his grim regime. But whatever the genesis, there can be no doubt that esteem for the great dictator is real.

When he appears on the screen at a posh downtown movie theater in a brief newsreel clip, there is sudden, fervent applause. Young bus and truck drivers who never knew his times increasingly display his photo in their windshields. In his native Georgia, where he was born Dec. 21, 1879, in the small Caucasus Mountain town of Gori, several state factories do a lively sideline business churning out approved souvenir portratis to be hung on the wall at home.

A working woman, recently seeing one of these 24 ruble ($36) lithographed and lacquered pictures of Stalin at his writing desk, fell back in awe. "He was so good, a real leader. He was wise and gentle and saved the country during the war."

For many, the legend of Stalin seems heightened by the fact that his present successors are so bland in comparison. Although Leonid Brezhnev has gathered more individual titles than anyone since Stalin -- president, general secretary, marshal of the Soviet Union, chief of the U.S.S.R. Defense Council -- he has not sparked devotion in the heart of the Soviet masses. At the same time, his country is faced with intensifying economic difficulties, crime, flagging workplace discipline and weakening party fervor.

By comparison with these confusing times, when heroism is in short supply in Russia, recollection of the mortal wartime dangers of Stalin's time evokes genuine nostalgia in many. His memory summons admiration bordering on love in the hearts of millions of grizzled World War II veterans who flung themselves into battle shouting: "For the motherland! For Stalin!"

The party has fostered this image of Stalin as supreme wartime hero, allowing the veterans to live more happily with their memories and the party more comfortably with itself.

Dealing directly with Stalin is a painful task, tangled by deep emotional sufferings still borne by millions. It is compounded by the inescapable fact that although the Kremlin has relinquished terror as a weapon of rule, the Soviet state today remains Stalinist in its character and workings.

Indeed, even as the party insists that it has fully recovered from what are glossed over simply as "unjust repression," its security organs ruthlessly repress open dissent. Stalin created the myth of mass unanimity within the Soviet Union and the party has found it prudent to preserve that fiction.

Rigid censorship introduced by Stalin in all aspects of creative life still exists. While mass extermination of artists no longer occurs, adventuresome intellectuals and political free thinkers live in a world darkened by administrative reprisal and the threat of search and arrest for anything from "hooliganism" to "anti-Soviet activities."

Violations of individual freedoms, such as last year's political trials, the failure to redress mass wartime deportation of minority peoples, are continuing specters of Stalinism that haunt the Soviet Union today.

Moreover, the post-Stalinist leadership has never come to grips with the vestiges of his reign, which in the long run may cause more harm to the Kremlin's interests than any of the others: the disastrous effects of agricultural collectivization and centralized economic administration.

The Soviet Union cannot feed itself and it cannot compete in world markets. This legacy of impacted, inefficient and coercive Stalin-style bureaucracies has been intensified by Brezhnev despite danger signals of flagging economic expansion all through the past decade.

But these matters, so important to the West in measuring the survival of Stalinism, remain at the periphery of most Soviet citizens' lives. They keep their heads down and their eyes averted from any political strain or conflict with the party. As dissident historian Roy Medvedev said recently, "There is a constant fear in this country that the terror will begin again, This fear is a consequence if Stalinism."

Although Soviets are complaining with new vigor and outrage about chronic shortages of food and goods, Stalin-era fear is a visceral reality of Soviet society, living in the memories of millions. It can appear suddenly and almost without warning. Some time ago, a Westerner was remarking to a Soviet friend in a Moscow sidewalk conversation that Russians only rarely invite Westerners home for a meal and "real talk."

"You don't understand at all," retorted the Soviet, who was in his 40s. "Twenty-five years ago, I would have been crazy to even be seen with you in public . . . I would be taken." And he abruptly looked around himself with visible alarm.

People's memories clash with the extensive coverup of Stalin's crimes now foisted on the young in schools and universities where discussion of the purges simply do not occur. Recently, a 31-year-old woman was expounding the view common among the young that Stalin was a great leader whose faults had been exaggerated.

When an older man sitting with her quietly agreed, she became emboldened, asserting, "The stories about the camps are fictions."

The man looked disconcerted as she went on, until finally he leaned over and quietly murmured, "My uncle died in the camps."

Part of the mystery of Stalin's survival is suggested in the duality of the older man's remark. Even though a relative disappeared, the nephew could easily agree -- up to a point -- with the notion that Stalin's achievements outweighed the harm he did. Admiration and fear live side by side in the hearts of many here.

The ambiguous formulations of Stalin's regime assembled by Breznev-era party theoreticians do little to eradicate the fear. Unable to repudiate the man whose rule still marks its own character today, the party is stuck with nervous defensiveness in dealing with the man who ruled Russia from 1929 to 1953.

An example of this problem appears in a centenary commentary circulated three days ago by Novosti agency writer Gennady Gerasimov. While conceding "it is not easy to write about him," and that "Stalin's personality cult harmed Soviet society," Gerasimov adhered to the accepted view that the West "makes out as if nothing has changed [here] or at least that enough things remain as they were to besmirch socialism in the Soviet Union . . . that the root cause of what happened lies in the Soviet system and Leninist ideology."

He added, "It is impossible to deny the positive contribution of a man who held the highest party and state posts during the time of historic goals, some of which were fully reached." Gerasimov thus neatly summarized the party's own dilemma indealing with Stalin.

In 1969, it is now known, a struggle erupted at high party levels over positive way. But the attempt was snuffed out at the last minute, in part because of the impact even a partial rehabilitation could have in Soviet Bloc countries and among Western Communist and Socialist parties.

Pravda today continued the tradition of bland references to Stalin's crimes, while attacking outsiders who say that Stalinism remains part of Soviet life. At his birthplace, Gori, in the Georgian Republic, thousands carried flowers and sang in the streets near his museum in what was officially described by local officials as a low-key celebration. In Moscow, some Young Communists laid flowers at his grave, marked by a granite bust outside the Kremlin wall where Stalin's body was reburied after Khrushchev ordered it removed from the Lenin mausoleum.

Today's celebrations do not add up to a rehabilitation of the man. They are simply one more example of the paradox of life in the Soviet Union 100 years after he was born.