MOSCOW -- In the waning days of summer, the last symbols of Leninism and socialist-realist kitsch are disappearing. While the lines to the Lenin Mausoleum get shorter all the time, the line to the McDonald's a few blocks away goes on forever. As if they had come to the citadel of the forbidden West, tens of thousands wait patiently for their Big Macs each day at the world's biggest golden arches. The wait at lunchtime is four hours. No one cares. "Sure it's long, but shorter than the wait for a visa," the saying goes.
Lenin's humiliations pile up daily. In Tbilisi last Tuesday, 30,000 Georgians cheered and chanted as the city's last and biggest Lenin monument toppled to the street. Workers blazed away at Lenin's knees with welding torches and pneumatic drills until the stubborn, 60-foot monument, its gigantic right arm outstretched toward a glorious utopia, collapsed in a clanging heap. Hundreds of people quickly leaped on the fallen idol and hammered away at it for souvenirs. Only Lenin's feet remain upright.
The local authorities had tried for weeks to protect the Tbilisi Lenin from the public's attacks. Lenin had been smeared with paint. People threw rocks and built fires around the statue's base; police defused a small bomb. So finally, the city council ordered it taken down. There will be multi-party elections in Georgia at the end of October. The Communist Party is expected to lose.
Such is the fate of Lenin and Leninism across the country. In Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Lenin's statue was vandalized, smeared with paint. Ukrainian city councils ordered statues taken down. And in Mossoviet, the capital's progressive city council, the bust of Lenin has been removed from the chamber by order of the majority.
Mark Zakharov, a theater director and a deputy in the Congress of People's Deputies, wrote in last week's issue of the liberal weekly Ogonyok that the most depressing feature of the congress of the Russian Communist Party in June was not the fire-breathing speeches of the neo-Stalinist apparatchiks and generals, but rather the "supernatural monument" of "the Party deity." The colossal size of Lenin's visage proved to Zakharov "that we still have not freed ourselves from the clutches of totalitarianism."
The Stalin cult disappeared shortly after his death in 1953, but the cult of Lenin was, despite his widow's protests, an Orwellian feature of everyday life here for decades. Describing the ubiquity of Lenin's presence in the Soviet Union, the poet Joseph Brodsky once wrote, "This face in some way haunts every Russian and suggests some sort of standard for human appearance because it is utterly lacking in human character."
The Communist Party's Central Committee last month showed its distress at this trend. The new ideology chief went on television and in a defensive voice gave a plea for respect. He compared the destruction of Lenin monuments to the destruction of churches in the 1930s. An odd analogy considering Lenin's suppression of religion as early as the first years after the 1917 revolution.
Nikolai Lekishvili, the leader of the Tbilisi city council and a Communist Party member, said the site of the fallen statue would probably no longer be called Lenin Square. Among the proposals for a new name are "Liberty Square."
Especially for the young, the city's gigantic images of Lenin have become an automatic laugh, an icon of irony. At last week's premiere of the film "Taxi Blues," the audience at the October Theater erupted in knowing laughter as the cab driver cruised past a massive May Day billboard of Lenin's angular visage.
"Hurrah Papa Ilyich!" one kid in a leather jacket yelled. Then he took another tug on his Zhiguliyovskoye beer.
"Taxi Blues," which was a sensation at the last Cannes Film Festival, is the latest in a long line of glasnost-era movies that is short on story and directing skill, but an honest dose of everyday anti-utopia. The film is about a hack who tracks down a dissolute saxophone player who has stiffed him for a fare.
Both men, in their way, live "the life": The cabby lives in a warren of a communal apartment with an ancient antisemite fascist for a roommate. He has good enough connections with the black marketeers to play middleman for some extra cash and to buy a decent fish for his birthday. He must survive, he says, "like all Russians, working like a cockroach." The saxophonist, played by the rock star Pyotr Mamonov, is a sponger who hangs out in Moscow alleys drinking with the local "bichi." He rips off his ex-wife for money when the occasion demands. In the course of the film, a great many bottles are smashed; it's ordinary life as a never-ending cycle of despair, labor and the occasional binge.
Just as entertaining as the movie was the hour-long stage show that came first. It was the sort of multimedia "happening" that was once the rage in Manhattan railroad flats and garages in 1966:
Once the audience was seated, a pair of sax players marched down the aisle to the stage and began an endless jam, a hard-bop freestyle ramble that sounded like an unrehearsed replay of Ornette Coleman. While the music roared (and a few people theatrically stuck their fingers in their ears), a dancer in a black jockstrap undulated wildly, a few others in leotards stretched idly to the side. A mime in whiteface pranced about with an umbrella. All the while, a woman in a huge transparent crate made whoopee like Blaze Starr. Inflated condoms bounced around the crowd like tiny beach balls; a peculiar waste, considering the shortages of contraceptives here.
When that extravaganza was done, Mamonov took the stage carrying an acoustic guitar. A manic cross between the Talking Heads' David Byrne and Pee-wee Herman, Mamonov sang the anthems of Soviet nihilism. One of the songs was from his days with the band Zvuki Mu:
I was sleeping on a garbage heap, rain coming down,
Nuthin' to do, not today or tomorrow,
All I see in my dreams is an asphalt highway ...
I'm garbage, I'm worse than you,
I'm the worst, I'm just dirt.
Lenin would probably be none too happy about the look of Red Square this summer. Suddenly the historic center of the czars and general secretaries looks a bit like Lafayette Square, a ramshackle tent city of Dostoevsky's "insulted and the injured."
For the past two months, people from all over the Soviet Union have come to the corner of Red Square closest to the colossal Rossiya Hotel to protest one indignity or another: lost jobs, lost apartments, lost dignity. They come here in the same way the peasants of old petitioned the Romanovs.
One banner -- one that masters the subtleties of meaningful punctuation -- read, "I believe in God! I believe in President Bush! I believe in Gorbachev?! I believe in Boris Yeltsin?! I do not believe in the foul teachings of Lenin!"
The tent city of about 100 people is facing an eviction notice due to be enforced when the political season starts this month.
In the October district -- the Moscow city region that features the capital's biggest statue of Lenin -- another sort of revolt is going on. The book and newsstand in the local government building has been given over to Sergei Grigoryants, the independent editor of Glasnost magazine whom Mikhail Gorbachev once called "a parasite" in an interview with The Washington Post.
Grigoryants has set up a kiosk that features newspapers by just about every aspiring political party in the Soviet Union -- monarchists and anarchists included. But the top-selling publication these days is a slim green volume by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Nikolai Berdyayev.
"The Sources and Thought of Russian Communism," published abroad after Lenin exiled Berdyayev in 1922, is an indictment of the Bolshevik Revolution. Now among the most popular authors in Moscow, Berdyayev calls Lenin "the maximalist totalitarian."
And all this a few blocks from a still-standing statue of the father of the revolution.