The endless burial of Lenin

After four years in Moscow, I have heard many predictions. None turned out to be true
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The Independent Culture
VLADIMIR ZAITZEV, a retired trawler captain, had the air of total conviction you find among men of the sea. "Believe me," he told me, "They may bury Lenin tomorrow but his ideology will never die. Never." We were standing in a queue on the edge of Red Square, waiting to see the remains of the great man himself. Mr Zaitzev, 69, who has been visiting the mausoleum regularly since Stalin's rule, had brought along his 15-year-old grandson in the hope of teaching him something of his treasured Soviet past.

I was there to make a final farewell on my last day in Russia, before moving on to pastures new. "The country will return to Lenin's ideas again one day, you can be sure of that," the old trawlerman continued. "It may take a couple of generations, but it will happen."

In the past four years of working in Moscow I have heard many, many predictions. There was to be civil war, an economic boom, famine, martial rule, another coup, the break-up of the Russian Federation. None turned out to be true. And frankly, Western journalists - and I include myself in this - have proved false prophets with unfortunate regularity.

You can perhaps understand why we have repeatedly proclaimed the imminent demise of Boris Yeltsin, given the constant illnesses which at times reduced him to little more than a zombie, barely able to walk and clearly unable to think. But the fact remains that he is alive and in office, albeit propped up by his daughter, Tatyana, and a tight circle of courtiers.

The same cannot be said of his arch enemy, the Communist Party. When I arrived in Moscow in late 1995, the Communists were on the march again, having regrouped after their post-Soviet collapse, and were deemed to have a chance of taking the Kremlin itself. No more. Undeterred by past soothsaying failures, I forecast that the Communists will lose seats in the parliamentary elections in December, and suffer a drubbing in next year's race for the presidency.

There are too many more powerful rivals with access to the levers required for electoral success - big money, media, regional bosses. Lenin's corpse may remain entombed on Red Square for a few months longer, although Boris Yeltsin wants to bury him. But Lenin's successors' hopes of power are already six feet under. So, in reality, is ideology in Russian politics, if it ever really existed. Only a few years after embarking along the road to democracy, cynicism has set in. The electorate is alienated, knowing that - with a few honourable exceptions - the political landscape is dominated by middle-aged men who parade under a variety of banners but have much more in common with each other than anyone else.

These are Russia's version of the old English public school elite - members of a class, reared to rule by the Soviets, who carried on gliding upwards after the empire's collapse. What they care about, above all, is their place at the high table with all the attendant luxuries - from free travel and Moscow apartments to chauffeur-driven cars.

This general venality, added to their lack of constitutional power, explains the dismal record of Mr Yeltsin's political opponents in the past four years. They have had no shortage of causes to champion: the catastrophic war in Chechnya; Mr Yeltsin's firing of four prime ministers in 17 months for no good reason; more than $400m (pounds 250m) spent tarting up the Kremlin at a time of grinding rural poverty. In other countries, this list would have been more than enough to bring down a president. But self-interest prevailed. Earlier this year parliament could not even muster enough support to get an impeachment off the ground.

Largely forgotten in all this are the 147 million Russians struggling to adapt to their new society amid a depression that saw the economy become increasingly dependent on the vagaries of the oil price and International Monetary Fund loans. A significant minority of Russians have quietly emerged better-off, the beneficiaries of land hand-outs, new opportunities in a half-baked and heavily criminalised market economy and the corrupted privatisation process. But far more have struggled to survive, disoriented by the loss of jobs, services and expectations that came with the break- up of the USSR, watching in horror as corruption sank its talons even deeper into the heart of an already long-corrupted society.

Both these groups tend to be described in the press as "ordinary Russians", although I did not meet anyone who fitted that category. Four years here taught me that the caricature of the Russian as cold and stern-faced is no more accurate than Hugh Grant's portrayal of the repressed and bumbling Englishman. Sure, there is no shortage of scowling cops, interfering pen- pushers and meddling snoops. But many, many more Russians are warm, funny, hospitable (lethally at times), curious, fond of ideas and - on certain issues - pleasingly liberal.

This is, however, often outweighed by other social attitudes which thwart the evolution of Russia into a modern European nation and these have not diminished much in the past four years. Human rights remain a remote concept - witness Russia's diabolical prison conditions. Only occasionally during my stint did Russians seem shaken out of this numbness by an act too obscene to ignore. It was, in a very sad sense, heartening to see 20,000 people silently lining the freezing streets of St Petersburg last year to pay their respects to the democratic politician, Galina Starovoitova, gunned down in yet another contract killing.

The Russians' approach towards race proved no less backward than their views on human rights. Throughout my four years in Moscow, I was constantly reminded of my 1960s childhood in xenophobic rural Britain, which even now - though improved - is no model of race relations.

Although Russia embraces a vast range of nationalities, non-Slavic people face a mixture of clumsiness and outright bile. Otherwise reasonable Russians have told me that the Vietnamese are dirty, the Jews are cunning and voracious and the Caucasians are nothing more than savages. Our four- year-old Russian-speaking, African-American daughter was treated with universal warmth - Russians adore children - but I should not like her to have lived in Moscow for much longer because of the risk of a hurtful encounter.

As for sexual liberation, young Muscovite women drive in unprecedented numbers, go to nightclubs alone and no longer expect to marry at 18, but the rest of the country hasn't changed much. Guests at a provincial dinner can expect to suffer an excruciating moment when the males toast the females for adorning their table with their charm and beauty - after they have summoned them in from the kitchen to hear it.

All this is, in part, a symptom of the absence of a common cause from which a sense of purpose and social ethics would flow. The search for a national idea has continued in the past four years. Russian pride and patriotism have become the hunting cries of the aspirants to Boris Yeltsin's throne - notably the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who backed his words by throwing up a vast and hideous statue of Peter the Great in the middle of his city. But Russians remain disoriented, dislocated from their historical roots by seven decades as Soviets.

So where does Russia go next? Do not believe the prophets of gloom or the western boosters who - with a greedy eye on the stock and debt markets - predict roaring success. The picture is much foggier than that. However, one concrete conclusion was underlined yet again during that final visit to Red Square.

Before entering Lenin's tomb, I was accosted by a policeman who unearthed my mobile phone during a search of my assistant's handbag. Did we not realise that it was an offence to carry a mobile without a licence? Did we not know that this meant three hours in a police cell, and a hefty fine? There was, of course, a solution to this. In the shadow of the building containing the father of Soviet ideology, the cop slid our 500 rouble bribe - some pounds 13 - happily into his pocket.