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No God But Lenin
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We've been waiting several hours in the cold air of Moscow, in a line that stretches out for eight, nine, maybe ten blocks. Finally the mausoleum is opened. Finally the line begins moving, slowly and quietly, under the careful watch of soldiers and police. We get within six blocks before the line is cut off. The tomb will be open just three hours, not nearly enough time for all to pass through.

Thousands of people, many of them out-of-towners in the city for a rare visit, are cut off. A woman sobs bitterly to a policeman. But he, who doubtlessly has heard thousands of similar hard-luck stories, remains firm. The woman cannot get into the line.

Others openly offer the policeman money, but he disdainfully waves it aside. One man, very much agitated, yanks up his shirt to expose what he loudly insists to be the scars of combat wounds from World War II. For him, the policeman relents.

Waving our U.S. passport high, we push through the dense, swarming crowd. As foreign visitors, we have priority. We are escorted to the head of the line, just outside the red granite building in Red Square.

Wreaths and bouquets are piled on either side of the entrance. Behind them stand two army cadets, ramrod stiff. Only their eyes move, fast and constantly, as we pass by. It's utterly silent save for the unbroken sound of shuffling feet as we slowly descend a long winding flight of steps inside.

There are dozens of us, reflected in the highly polished walls of ebony marble flecked with gold and blue and red. Anxiously attentive cadets line the way, young men in olive drab hovering within inches of us, closely monitoring our every move. One of us speaks. A cadet glares at him, then turns swiftly to another visitor. He points accusingly to the man's beret. Off it comes.

Suddenly, a chill hits us. We shudder. And we know we're there before we actually enter the chamber. We hear an eerie thump, thump, thump, the barely audible whirring of the machinery that puts the chill in the air, the equipment that keeps the temperature and humidity just right for him.

There's but one light in the dark crypt. It is focused on the face of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, lying under glass.

His head rests on a red velvet pillow, his eyes are closed. His receding reddish hair and goatee are just as in the portraits. He's dressed in a plain black vested suit, plain black tie and white shirt. His hands lie folded before him, resting on a sheet of black cloth that covers him from the chest down.

He's a surprisingly small man. But he doesn't look like a man. He looks like a waxen dummy. Soldiers with fixed bayonets stand rigid at each corner of the glass sarcophagus in which he lies. It rests on a platform that enables us to view him at eye level as we circle the room slowly -- very slowly, but never pausing.

We try to concentrate on the man, if man he is. But what we mainly heed is what we hear. Thump, thump, thump....

I can hear it even now, many years later, the sound that has always meant the Soviet Union to me. Thump, thump, thump. That it could ever be silenced was unthinkable, particularly at that time of celebration in Moscow. It was 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution led by Lenin. After a half-century, the USSR was here to stay forever, a world colossus whose people pledged fervent and seemingly undying allegiance to V.I. Lenin.

He was everywhere, in stores, museums, offices, apartments, a deity. Statues, busts, photographs, paintings, memorabilia. Sheet music of the many songs written about him, phonograph records. Stacks of his books in kiosks and bookstores, in Russian and dozens of other languages: Lenin on youth, Lenin on social democracy, Lenin on revisionism, Lenin on the importance of physical exercise, Lenin on everything and anything. There was no God but Lenin, and Lenin was his own prophet.

That greatly distressed my wife and I, who had come to Moscow as part of a personal fact-finding trip through Communist Europe. It was the 1960s, after all, we were young and idealistic, and we were convinced the Soviet Union couldn't possibly be the dreadful place described by the cold warriors at home. Yet here were excesses as odious as those of the most fanatic religionists in the capitalist world.

We soon found other signs that cast serious doubt on our notion that although the USSR was far from what it should be, it was a far better place than American political leaders would have us believe.

Why did we see so few smiling people? Why were waiters and other service people almost invariably surly and indifferent? Why were people generally so impolite to each other?

What of the crude propaganda and outright lies of the government? Why had Leon Trotsky and other heroes of the revolution been declared "non-persons" and their images erased from historical photographs and paintings? What of the other evidence that history was indeed being rewritten to fit the Communist Party line of the moment? What about the party leaders being driven through the streets in curtained limousines?

Most distressing of all, we saw no signs -- none -- that change might ever come. Yet finally, of course, it did come. The state founded by Lenin was dismantled and most of the statues and other memorials to him disappeared. Leningrad became St. Petersburg once more.

But though it's been more than a decade since then, and even though former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other leaders have sought to close the mausoleum and to bury V.I. Lenin at last, they've backed away under the pressure of popular opinion.

Still the visitors come, many bearing wreaths and flowers. The Soviet Union is dead, but the thump, thump, thump will not be silenced.

Copyright Dick Meister