Lenin industry collapses in wake of state he built

April 21, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- Experts on Lenin, who not long ago pursued the most celebrated of careers in this country, lately have watched as everything they built their working lives on suffered one punishing blow after another.

Once, Lenin was a boundless industry. He is cited nearly 1,500 times in the index of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (ah, the note cards, the footnotes, the hours of graduate work, the endless academic maneuverings coming from that one work alone).

The shelves of thousands of government offices are still crammed with books by him and about him. Party functionaries and working collectives spent uncountable hours over the 70 years of Communist rule lecturing captive study groups about what Lenin thought.

Lesser men, perhaps, would be driven to despair by the recent turn of events. (Hardly anyone cares any more what Lenin thought about anything.) But Valery A. Perfilov, head Lenin man here in Lenin's hometown, insists on seeing only opportunity.

"It certainly has cut down on the competition," said the affable -- and optimistic -- Mr. Perfilov. "There used to be thousands of dissertations. Now this theme is out of fashion. Now maybe my time has come. Perhaps I can even publish a book."

Lenin, who set off revolution by exploiting the smallest advantage, would have liked that.

Mr. Perfilov has done a remarkable job of keeping his bearings amid the sea change engulfing Russia. While the mayor of Moscow evicted the nation's central Lenin museum from its red-brick home just off Red Square and sent its countless bits of Leninist history packing, Mr. Perfilov's empire remains intact.

He presides over a huge 1970s concrete block of a museum that adjoins two attractive turn-of-the- century wood-frame houses, one where Lenin was born and another where the family lived briefly.

The house where Lenin, born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, spent most of his childhood is preserved across town in a sort of Communist theme park. The whole neighborhood has been kept as it was when Lenin lived here -- he was born April 22, 1870, in this town, which was known then as Simbirsk.

Mr. Perfilov, as keeper of the Lenin legacy here, has not permitted himself to remain in the past. For three days in February, the main museum was packed with young people -- eager to attend a rock concert with the latest Russian groups.

Only a few years ago, the idea of rock and roll -- enemy of socialism, destroyer of youthful purity -- being embraced in the Russian heartland would have been hard to imagine. Now here's Lenin, rockin' and rollin'.

"We used to have a whole system of Lenin museums across the country," Mr. Perfilov said. "There were museums in places where Lenin had been a few times and museums in places where he had never set foot. Mostly they were centers to serve ideological ideas. They were not devoted to Lenin. They were describing the life of the [Communist] Party at different stages.

"Now there are really only two museums. There's one in Leninski Gorky, where he died, and ours here in Ulyanovsk."

Having managed to weather the kind of anti-Lenin backlash that prompted the closing of the huge museum in Moscow, Mr. Perfilov thinks he has more history ahead.

"In previous years we were criticized sharply," he said. "But I think the wave of destruction is losing its force. Now the only real danger to us is financial."

The nation does seem to have tired of anti-Lenin behavior. The plan to haul Lenin out of his tomb in Red Square and bury him -- all the rage last October -- seems to have been forgotten.

Mr. Perfilov says Lenin and his ideas will live as long as there is social injustice in the world. "Even in your country there is a social basis for his ideas," he said. "They will die only when every member of society is satisfied."

Meanwhile, the members of society are busy elsewhere. The museum and Lenin's home in Ulyanovsk used to have a million visitors a year. Last year, 200,000 people came.

This was, of course, a national shrine. Still, foreigners, expecting such a revolutionary to have come from humble means, find the house more than startling. It's beautiful. It's big and bright and airy with an expansive back yard. The front parlor has a lovely piano. The dining room is huge. The children had their own rooms. Compared to what the average person lives in now, it's an unbelievable mansion.

What in the world could those millions of Soviet people have thought all those years, pouring through the house? Didn't they ever wonder why they had a revolution that destroyed houses like that and put people in slum-like cubicles?

Tatyana Brilayeva, the curator of the house, is aghast at the very idea that Lenin lived well. "Of course they had more space then we have now," she said. "But Lenin certainly was not rich."

Lenin, of course, was a god here. And gods can't be expected to live like mere mortals.

Here, at least, Lenin still lives. "Communism is a sort of ideal society," Mr. Perfilov said. "I will continue dreaming about that society, but I don't know, maybe I'll never reach it."

In the main museum, a huge map of the Soviet Union, made out of glass, rises out of the floor. Push a button, and pieces of the map come to life in brilliant red light, tracing the Bolshevik advance in the Revolution. St. Petersburg lights up with a flash, then Moscow, and onward to the East. With Yakutsk finally conquered, the entire map is ablaze with shining red light.

Then, in an instant, the switch clicks loudly off. The Soviet Union disappears into silent darkness.

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