Nostalgic for the grand old days of the USSR? Ulyanovsk, Lenin's home town, is an island of communism; or, some say, an island of common sense. While the collective-farm bosses assemble at the Lenin Memorial Centre, Jeremy Nicholl explores the sombre delights of the city
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ALL IS NOT quiet on the eastern front. Moscow has been invaded by McDonald's culture, St Petersburg colonised by coachloads of camera- toting tourists from the West. In these days of entente cordiale and post- Cold-War package tours, is there anywhere a traveller can go for a taste of the old Russia, a freeze-frame portrait of the Soviet state as it used to be?

Welcome to Ulyanovsk, birthplace of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to the world as Lenin, where hotels still have secret telephone numbers, the city bridge is a "secret object" meriting an armed guard, foreigners are spies, and you need an invitation to go shopping.

A 625,000 strong city on the Volga River some 500 miles east of Moscow, Ulyanovsk offers a resolutely Soviet welcome to visitors. Attempts to check into the October Hotel - the best in town - are firmly rebuffed. Rooms are reserved for guests of the city administration; even the hotel's telephone number is an official secret. The Hotel Venets does accept visitors, but there's a catch. "What authority invited you to our town?" enquired the receptionist. It was a warning of things to come.

The visitor to Ulyanovsk is struck not so much by what he sees as by what he does not. Kiosks, those ubiquitous Russian symbols of capitalism that have appeared from Brest to Vladivostok, are rare. In the state-controlled shops imported goods, indeed many domestic goods, are scarce. The Western advertising hoardings that line Moscow streets are largely absent; the defunct Soviet state, with its roadside images of Lenin and exhortations to the workers, still holds the promotions franchise here. Mercedes are a rarity, casinos non-existent, and that key Moscow business negotiation tool, the car bomb, has yet to burst on the scene.

Local people are divided on the situation. "Welcome to the Soviet Union," grumbles Andrei, a local taxi driver. "This is the last little island of communism."

"Nonsense," retorts Sergei Sitin, a communist scholar who has taught history since Stalin's heyday. "Ulyanovsk is not an island of communism, it's an island of common sense."

Yuri Goryachev, the Ulyanovsk regional administration chief, has his own explanation. "We have our own way that we have followed for three years. The basis of our reforms is a socially directed economy, not the shock therapy advocated by Gaidar [Yeltsin's reforming adviser]. We plan for people to be well off today, not in some radiant future. For this reason we have presented a command economy, and the world's experience supports what we have done."

Hamza Yambyev, the general director of the regional fund for the support of small private-enterprise developments, tells a different story. "Business activities are far more tightly controlled than in other regions. As far as I know, Ulyanovsk is the only town in Russia where the administration takes kiosk owners to court. The mayor's office issues a licence to open a kiosk one day, and then revokes it the next. When a businessman asks why, he is given no explanation, even when he has already received approval from all the city commissions. If a bureaucrat doesn't like the kiosk, he gives directions to his subordinates, and they close it, even if privately they disagree.

"What the bureaucrats do not understand is that if you remove the kiosks it doesn't mean that you reduce the needs of the people. And the only way the people's needs can be satisfied is to open alternatives to the state shops."

The result of all this, of course, is a return to Soviet-style shopping. Ulyanovsk's food stores offer a modest selecton of domestic products, with all the flavour, appeal and choice of Soviet groceries. State shops all have notices posted instructing shoppers to show their vizitki kartochki, identity cards issued by the city government to stop out-of-towners snapping up any bargains. Of course, your vizitka kartochka doesn't allow you to go crazy, since there is another notice posted listing the goods that are rationed; this is a long list. Finally, some foodstuffs are only available in certain shops to people holding aloni, or ration coupons. The plus side is the prices, which are far below Moscow's. Most common foods go for roughly half the Moscow prices or even less; periodic surveys rank Ulyanovsk as the cheapest city in Russia.

Ulyanovsk shops differ from Moscow's in at least one other respect. Camera- toting foreigners are still an alien species, provoking alarm among both customers and staff, and the standard inquiry from the store administrator: "May I see your invitation to our city?"

Comrade Goryachev has a ready response to critics of the rationing system in Ulyanovsk. "Nowadays there is a huge shortage of basic food all over the country. In most Russian cities people can look, but there is nothing they can buy because the shops are full of expensive imported foods. What can be more important for the people than stable food supplies? So we co-operate very closely with the collective farms and they help us to survive. We live in a difficult time."

In former difficult times Soviet people would reassure themselves that "Lenin is with us". Lenin is certainly still with us in Ulyanovsk. He welcomes us at the city airport. His statue still dominates the main city square. He gestures toward the local car factory. His colossal image gazes down from the rooftops. His very name is cut into the hedgerows overlooking the city. Even the guitarist in the hotel restaurant band wears a Lenin badge.

And that's only the start. The city map lists nearly 50 monuments and places of interest to the Leninophile, including "Vladimir Ulyanov's Favourite Walks as a Child", the "Former Gymnasium Boarding House Which Vladimir Ulyanov Occasionally Visited", and the "House Museum of a Close Friend of the Ulyanov Family". But that's not all. Virtually the entire Ulyanov family gets a monumental mention somewhere in the city guides. Ironically, the only one excluded from this celebration is Lenin's beloved elder brother Alexander, who was hanged in 1887 for his part in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the tsar.

The best view of the Lenin hedgerows, unfortunately, is from the bridge that links old and new Ulyanovsk. And the bridge is officially designated a Secret Military Object. So secret, in fact, that it is permanently guarded by soldiers whose uniforms, judging by their age, look as if they might have been purloined from the memorial centre. Production of a camera sparks a red alert. Documents and press accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow cut no ice. The trooper squinted at them and glared at me. "Do you have an invitation to our city?"

Ulyanovsk is not what could be described as a happening town. After my waitress in the hotel restaurant disappeared for two hours between courses one evening - "to deal with personal problems" - I thought it might be time check out the alternative night spots.

She stared at me. "There aren't any."

"No other restaurants at all?"

"Well, there is one over in the new city, but it's only open at weekends, and you need an invitation to get in."

"So here" - I glanced around the almost deserted restaurant - "is where most people go out in the evening?"

"Oh no, we're much too expensive. Most people go out to the hotel buffet."

The next day I tried a local taxi driver, usually the font of all knowledge.

"What do people do in the evenings?"

"Go home and get drunk."

Undeterred, I ran it past an employee at UAZ, the local car factory. He thought about it for a long time. "It's a really good idea to go into the forest until midnight and drink vodka."

It was only when talking to my hotel floor lady, however, that I realised just what people in Ulyanovsk do for a little excitement. I happened to mention that the giant image of Lenin which adorns a rooftop on the way in to the city was unlit because of a power failure. "That's interesting," she replied. "I must go and see", and promptly disappeared.

It's Friday night, however, and things are livening up. The hotel restaurant has been invaded by a party of kolkhoz - collective farm - bosses, in town for a congress the following day, which is Agricultural Workers' Day.

Stoked up on Stolichnaya, one of the kolkhoz bosses at the next table is feeling expansive. "Ah, you should come back to our collective. It's beautiful, we have everything there."

"That would be nice. Where is it?"

He is about to answer when one of his fellow diners seizes him by the shoulder. "Are you crazy? Don't tell them our secrets, they're foreign spies..."

In the corner of the restaurant a familiar figure is addressing a crowd of admirers. General Secretary Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev is holding forth in grand style, speech in hand and five orders of Lenin on his chest. In reality a Brezhnev lookalike actor, he is in town to do some promotion work for the local aircraft factory. The real question is: what kind of company would use Brezhnev as a marketing strategy?

The next morning I am in the city government offices with the administration press officer, Valerii Sokolov. I'm already out of favour because I've neglected to alert the authorities in advance of my visit to the city. "You know," he says, "you really should have an invitation to be here. I hope," he continues warily, "this isn't going to be one of these reports that says Ulyanovsk is just like it was under Brezhnev."

Meanwhile, the kolkhoz bosses are gathering at the Lenin Memorial Centre in celebration of Agricultural Workers' Day. The Lenin Memorial Centre is easy to find. Straight up Lenin Street, turn left (of course) at Lenin Square on to Soviet Street, and continue past the Karl Marx Memorial, Communist Street and Karl Marx Street, arriving at the memorial centre in the Square Named in Honour of the 100th Birthday of VI Lenin. The Ulyanovsk authorities have managed to resist the frenzied renaming of streets which has overtaken many other Russian cities. This has significant advantages for the first-time visitor; for instance, it's probably the only city in the former Soviet Union where the street names on city maps actually match the street names in the city itself.

Once upon a time the Lenin Memorial Centre was the ultimate destination for those making the pilgrimage to the Soviet founder's home town. Not so long ago a dozen cruise ships a day called at Ulyanovsk. Today there's one a week, mostly carrying curious foreigners, and annual attendance at the cavernous museum has plummeted from nearly a million people five years ago to 160,000. Nevertheless, local schoolchildren are still herded to the preserved schoolhouse and desk where young Vladimir earned his model grades.

On this day, however, the centre is closed to the public; admission is reserved for the great and good of the local collective farms. Inside the entrance lobby kolkhoz bosses admire generous displays of their farm produce which, for reasons that remain unclear,do not appear to be available in the local shops. After a brief tour of inspection by local dignitaries, the delegates convene to a hall dominated by an enormous backdrop of the town's most famous son. A few minutes into the opening speech, I feel an ominous tap on my shoulder. "Young man, do you have an invitation to be here?"

Yeltsin's reformist champion, Yegor Gaidar, recently called Ulyanovsk a "communist preserve", a charge local officials are quick to reject; the term they prefer is "pragmatism". In Ulyanovsk, pragmatism is located right at the city limits, by the traffic police checkpoint on the Moscow Highway. Here, a group of mostly middle-aged women gather each day on a muddy patch of wasteland to sell clothes, mainly cheap Korean and Chinese jackets, gloves and boots, the staple offerings at markets across post- Soviet Russia. When these small-time capitalists first appeared on the city centre streets, the militia swept them away. "They told us, 'If you want to speculate, you can do it out here'," grimaced one woman. But just to show they hadn't entirely turned their backs on reform, the city authorities spent half a billion roubles building a new tramline to the impromptu market.

Another trader, Anatoly, summed up the feelings of all his colleagues: "Goryachev was elected by stupid people who do nothing but hope for ration cards. Give me freedom and an interesting life rather than his cheap meat and other rubbish. When Goryachev goes then our town will become a normal city."

Anatoly may have to wait a while for normality to break out, for Comrade Goryachev is in no hurry to go. Regional elections were scheduled for 27 March last year. Local reformers, however, complained that the election rules - drafted by Goryachev himself - contradicted the Russian constitution, and took the matter to the Central Electoral Commission. The CEC told Goryachev to change the rules. He ignored the ruling. The reformers then took him to court in Ulyanovsk, and Goryachev was again told to change the rules. He responded by annulling the elections at two days' notice, blaming the cancellation on the court. The case then proceeded to the Russian Supreme Court, which again told the recalcitrant administrator to form a new local electoral commission and change the rules. Predictably, Goryachev ignored that ruling also.

Travelling from Moscow to Ulyanovsk is like being placed in a time capsule and jolted backwards at astonishing speed. Never mind Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, Ulyanovsk is still feeling its way towards the Khrushchev thaw. Life there is best summed up in another old Russian communist slogan: "Lenin lived; Lenin lives; Lenin will live." For now at least, those words still ring true in Ulyanovsk. !

GETTING THERE: Progressive Tours (0171 262 1676) can organise flights to Ulyanovsk, via Moscow, for around pounds 250 return. They can also book hotels - which cost about pounds 30 per person per night for a standard tourist hotel and pounds 50 for more up-market accommodation - and arrange visas, which are necessary for travel to Russia.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Visas are also available through the Consulate of the Russian Federation (0171 229 8027), 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QS; processing takes about two weeks.