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Possible Burial for Lenin Draws Visitors to Tomb

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His hands and waxen face lit by a ghostly glow against the black marble walls of his tomb, the goateed founder of the Soviet Union still lay in state on Saturday in his Red Square mausoleum, just as he has for the last 67 years.

But outside, among the lines of visitors that police say have suddenly grown longer in the last two weeks, the word was out that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s remaining days above ground are numbered.

“We came to say goodby,” Alexei Boyko, a 20-year-old drafting student, said with a sardonic smile after emerging from the tomb.

“We heard he was going to be buried,” fellow student Vitaly Kuyshevich, put in.

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“I was last here 10 years ago as a Young Pioneer,” Boyko recalled. “I was in a white shirt with a red tie, and it was all so solemn I was afraid to say a word. But now, it’s just a curiosity. It’s interesting to look at a former idol. But it’s not holy anymore.”

There is still a sense of sacred ritual in the mausoleum, with KGB guards scolding, “Hush! Quiet!” and even the most cynical of visitors awed by the descent into the climate-controlled tomb and the red-framed, pagoda-like coffin in which the dark-suited corpse lies, guarded on each side by blank-faced soldiers.

But with the Communist Party that Lenin led finally and irrevocably discredited by last month’s attempted coup and the country he founded breaking up, the political basis for maintaining the marble-and-granite mausoleum is gone.

When Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak proposed on Thursday that Lenin’s reported wish to be buried next to his mother in the city’s Volkovskoye Cemetery be granted now, he drew no objections even from Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

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Gorbachev, who had laid countless wreaths at the feet of Lenin statues in his Communist career, quoted the Bolshevik leader in speech after speech and often stood with other leaders atop the mausoleum during parades, merely recommended that the national Parliament, which meets Sept. 17, decide.

If Lenin is indeed given a normal burial and his mausoleum is demolished, a ritual almost as significant as the Muslim hajj will become extinct, marking the final demise of the Communist culture that the Bolsheviks imposed on the totalitarian, aggressively atheist society they built.

Millions of Soviet citizens over the decades made the pilgrimage to the mausoleum and to the orange-brick Central Museum of Lenin just off Red Square, where archivists had carefully gathered everything from the shoes Lenin wore in exile to the Rolls-Royce automobile he rode in as leader.

Lenin worship permeated Soviet culture. It was everywhere, from the Lenin portrait in every official’s office to the popular slogan “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live” and kindergarten songs the likes of: “I’m a little schoolgirl, I dance and sing and play, I never have seen Lenin, but I love him anyway.”

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The power of that conditioning still showed through in the comments of several visitors waiting in the line of several hundred people to be ushered into the mausoleum Saturday.

Lawyer Givi Dzhanikashvili, who said he was bringing his young son, Levan, to the mausoleum because “soon it won’t be here anymore,” recalled with nostalgia how, when he first visited 15 years ago, “Lenin was special, something clean. We didn’t know everything yet.”

“Now, it’s just history,” he said of the tomb and the ideology Lenin preached. “Nothing else. It was all like a dream, an unrealizable illusion.”

Valentina Saveleva, a police officer, said she was bringing her son because he had reached second grade and “it’s time to see, so he can have the vividness of a child’s impression.”

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She was not sure she supported the proposed burial, she said, because “for millions of people he is a symbol of freedom and democracy. Now it’s very fashionable to destroy everything and put everything down, but that’s wrong. We can’t stamp out 70 years of history. It’s not right.”

“The most terrible thing is that we’ve dethroned all our heroes,” she said. “We have no ideals left, no symbols.”

Shakarbek Osmonov, a Foreign Ministry employee taking his two sons to see Lenin, said: “My ideas about Lenin have changed, we didn’t know everything before, but he’s a great person who did a lot. He founded this state and he had very high ideals. It’s another question that not everything came to pass.”

“I feel torn,” he added. “This mausoleum and Lenin are part of this square. If the mausoleum goes, something will be missing.”

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Osmonov’s 12-year-old son, Ulan, agreed. “This is a holy place,” he said. “Here lies the leader of our nation.”

Not anymore. A wave of anti-communism has toppled Lenin statues and restored the original names to Lenin Streets and Lenin Squares across much of the country. Pravda, the Communist Party daily, no longer carries Lenin’s stylized profile on its masthead, and Russian legislative leaders announced Friday that they had approved Leningrad’s decision to revert to its historical name, St. Petersburg.

Predictably, the Central Lenin Museum has also fallen victim to the new political spirit: Moscow city officials have given it until Oct. 1 to remove all its exhibits from its Red Square premises so that they can be turned into municipal offices.

The decision has many of the museum’s nearly 200 staff members upset that their jobs will disappear and that the museum’s exhibits, gathered over the course of decades, are likely to be damaged and dispersed.

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Andrei Kazakov, the museum’s historical director, reflected on the irony of the museum’s existence: For decades, it struggled under the restrictions of the Communist Party’s ideologists, forbidden to exhibit pictures of leaders who had fallen from grace.

And just as it was finally gaining its freedom, he said, able to contemplate exhibits on crowd-pleasing issues such as the development of the personality cults around Communist leaders, it is being closed.

Kazakov said he and other employees were so frightened last month when angry crowds started toppling Moscow monuments and tearing down the museum’s own signs that they began hiding away valuable exhibits that they thought mobs might steal: Lenin’s watch, his medals, his pens and more.

The Lenin exhibits have been offered space in another city museum, but Kazakov said it wasn’t nearly enough, and many of the exhibits--enormous paintings of Lenin at congresses and at rest, larger-than-life sculptures and thousands of documents--might not weather the move.

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“To take all this apart will be terrible,” he said. “There’s no future at all--the museum will close and the people will be unemployed.”


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