You never knew when you walked into the 100-foot-long dining room at Josef V. Stalin's dacha, one old Bolshevik said, whether you'd walk out, still a trusted member of the dictator's inner circle, or be dragged out, your name having been added to the list of the enemies of the people.
This room, with its light-wood paneling and milky-white light fixtures, its corner fireplace and view of the birch woods surrounding the dacha, was the heart of terror: a terror that held an entire nation in its grip, that sent perhaps 30 million to their deaths.
Last week the dining room was filled with cameras, lights, monitors and assorted electronic gadgets. On the spot where the dictator collapsed of a brain hemorrhage, crew members lounged on a sofa, waiting to be needed. And there in the great dictator's own easy chair sat Robert Duvall, with a great, thick shock of brown hair, a stiff mustache, and that unmistakable heavy brow.
HBO had come to Moscow, to shoot a four-hour miniseries on Stalin, and had managed to wangle access to the normally off-limits kelly-green dacha that he built in an out-of-sight spot in the western part of the city.
On this particular day the scene being filmed was of a ballerina (played by Svetlana Soy) dancing alone for an appreciative Stalin. She performs the dying swan, from "Swan Lake." The scene is to be intercut with another -- the jail house execution of one of Stalin's enemies.
"It's real 'Godfather' time," said Mark Carliner, a Baltimore native who is producing the film. "This is not a historical biography. It's a gangster movie."
But this is the tender part. The lighting is perfect and golden, the music swelling and romantic. The '30s decor -- the scene is set in 1936, just as the real tidal wave of Stalin's terror is about to hit the Soviet Union -- is stylish in a not-quite-familiar way.
After the first take of the ballet scene has been shot, an assistant rushes up to Mr. Carliner. "It's extremely Degas, Mark. It's very Degas."
Mr. Carliner, who graduated from Gilman High and went on to earn a Russian history degree at Princeton University, is brimming with excitement. During seven weeks in Moscow, the crew has shot scenes in the Kremlin, at the Kievski railway station, and now, finally, at the dacha.
They've put up with uncertain food, leaden skies, bureaucratic snarls, hands extended for bribes -- and at last they're almost done.
Early on, they threw themselves a party at the elegantly restored, hard-currency-only Savoy Hotel. There, amid more art nouveau gilt than one can imagine, the Hollywood deal-making sensibility fairly glinted off the mirrors, while outside all was still Russia. Big, insincere smiles are not a natural part of the Moscow landscape these days.
"The Savoy -- a floating, cut-off, upper-class prison," said Mr. Duvall during a break in the shooting at the dacha. The Savoy is where he stayed, except for four days when he actually lived at the dacha itself -- eating at Stalin's table, sleeping in Stalin's bed, bathing in Stalin's tub.
The dacha, which is still sometimes used as a guest house, had no ghosts, Mr. Duvall reported.
Acting comes down to hard work, and this job particularly so, he said, "because I still don't understand this guy. It would be presumptuous of me to say I did. It's an interesting search, to uncover history in this way. You've got to play it simply and truthfully, but you've got to find the effortlessness in any given take."
He's not quite comfortable with Mr. Carliner's description of the film as a gangster movie.
"They keep saying that," he said. "It's a quick sell -- I guess it's true. But it goes beyond that. This guy was a street gangster with rural smarts. That was a hell of a combination."
He thinks of Stalin more as a crocodile -- unpredictable, devouring.
"I'll tell you, he really did a job on this city. I haven't had a joyful time here. It's a joyless city."
All this time it's like talking to Stalin himself. We are upstairs, in the suite once used by Mao Tse-tung. Mr. Duvall is in his full and terrible makeup.
But suddenly he's talking about crabs. Mr. Duvall spent eight years as a boy living in Annapolis. He said he once worked delivering The Sun. Somebody he ran into knows how to cook a hard-shell crab until it's soft enough to eat shell and all. Down in Houston..
But then it was 2:30, and the sun had set -- end of shooting for the day. Tomorrow, Stalin will die all over again, in the same bed in which he expired 38 years ago. Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, will kiss his hand, then spit on him. Nikita Khrushchev and an associate will retreat into the huge but plain bathroom, trying to figure out what to do next.
"Stalin" will be broadcast late next spring or summer.