Out of Russia: An outpost defends its faith in Lenin's dwindling legacy

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ULYANOVSK - Petty humiliations abound. A rock group called Bravo staged a concert in the main hall. Wax figures of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family have moved in upstairs and steal the limelight. They help pay the Historical and Cultural Centre's heating bill. Visitors cough up 1,000 roubles (40 pence) for a peek at the royals but only 50 roubles to look at statues, photographs, a dusty copy of Das Kapital, a school report (straight As) and countless souvenirs of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, the local hero better known as Lenin and in whose honour this town on the banks of the River Volga was renamed.

Guardians of the cult believe the worst is over. 'We used to get criticised all the time. It happens a lot less now,' says Valery Perfilov, director of the centre, or Lenin Memorial, as everyone in Ulyanovsk still knows it. 'Radicals still want to close us down but the wave of destruction has passed. It has lost its power. Maybe this is because there is not much left to destroy.'

Mr Perfilov's domain includes the wooden house where Lenin was born and a sprawling concrete exhibition centre built around it in 1970 to celebrate Lenin's 100th birthday. Across town stands the spacious two-storey house where Lenin grew up, lovingly preserved in cosy bourgeois splendour. The house was dismantled in 1947, each of its beams and boards soaked - like Lenin's body - in preserving fluid and then reassembled.

Aspidistras and ferns adorn the living room; a German piano stands in the parlour; portraits of Lenin's slightly priggish but kindly father, a school inspector, and loving mother gaze down from the wall. What was it in all this that led Lenin to revolution and his brother, Alexander, to terrorism?

Ulyanovsk's shrines formed the centre of a ideological archipelago linking research centres, museums and journals across the Soviet Union. Scholars studied Lenin's texts, embalmers the corpse, neoro logists his pickled brain. Only two outposts survive: Ulyanovsk and Leninsky-Gorky, the village outside Moscow where Lenin died in 1924. The Moscow Lenin Museum has closed; the brain institute studies Andrei Sakharov's cerebral cortex, with Lenin's kept in a cupboard; there are plans to close the Red Square mausoleum.

The retreat halts at Mr Perfilov's door. He does not look the stalwart defender, more a solicitious schoolteacher with a friendly, sad smile. 'For me it is just history. I feel a duty to save and not destroy all the time,' he says. He might as well be talking about Tutankha mun. 'We destroyed so much. After every great event we destroy. After the Revolution, after Stalin's death, after every leader. Every leader wants to forget, to eliminate what came before. This tradition should end. The same will happen to (Boris) Yeltsin. When he dies, everything will be destroyed.'

During the Eighties 1 million people visited his exhibits each year. Mr Perfilov remembers when, in summer, 15 ships a day would disgorge pilgrims from around the world. Barely 200,000 people came last year - to gawp at the Romanovs. The museum has tried to diversify. It sells the Bible in its gift shop, next to a Lenin Historical-Biographical Atlas, reduced to 500 roubles. Lenin has been updated, as Mikhail Gorbachev insisted he could be.

Mr Perfilov suggests the father of the Russian Revolution in 1917 may have had an adulterous affair with Inessa Armand, a French revolutionary: 'He loved her and she loved him. But I don't know how far it went. Every man has a girlfriend at some point.' No less modish are Lenin's economics. He is no longer the champion of collectivisation but of monetary stability who, as part of the New Economic Policy in the 1920s, introduced a gold-backed 10-rouble unit, the chernvonets. 'He was a man of such grand scale,' says Mr Perfilov. 'He could always find a way out. After the First World War, the February Revolution, the October Revolution and civil war, Russia got back on its feet. Look where we are nearly 10 years after they started perestroika.'

This is where past and present merge, where Mr Perfilov's claim to be a simple scholar dissolves. 'Only when . . . Russia finds some stability will Lenin become a historical figure. I feel sometimes as if he is still alive and still proclaiming his ideas. The problems he tried to solve still exist. As long as they do, so will Lenin.'

President Yeltsin shut down the Communist Party and did all he could to extinguish Lenin's memory. In Ulyanovsk, it is Mr Yeltsin's legacy that is fragile. The curator of the Lenin House Museum scoffs at the idea of the Yeltsin family home ever becoming a shrine: 'But I hear there is a vodka named after him.'