YOU REMEMBER Vlady Lenin, the curly-haired kid who lived next to the Ivanovs: he had a few scrapes with the law and skipped town for a while, but then he caught a train home -- during the war, it was -- and made quite a name for himself. Some people thought he was a little crude, you know, but once you got to know him you could see he was a real go-getter, he made some good things happen. It was really a shame that another guy, Joey Stalin, came along after he died, and got really nasty.
We are led to ruminate in this fashion about Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, after reading the recent remarks about him by President Reagan. Nothing that Mikhail Gorbachev or anyone else in Moscow has even faintly contemplated in the way of rehabilitating the lost, dead and dishonored of the Soviet past matches the feat of historical legerdemain that Mr. Reagan casually pulled off in his interview with Lou Cannon. In a triumph of revisionism over reality, the president turned the Soviet-sainted Lenin into one of your basic Nice Guys of History, a Soviet Rotarian whose good works were cut short by his untimely death.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Reagan said approvingly, has gone back to what Lenin was teaching, to the programs of Lenin that Stalin reversed, to ''programs that he called the new economics and things of that kind'' -- the programs of which the current glasnost and perestroika (candor and reconstruction) smack.
In fact, Lenin was the original tough guy. When the one fair election he allowed went against him, he canceled its results -- this to do for the Russian revolution precisely the job of one-party consolidation that Mr. Reagan fears the Sandinistas will do for the Nicaraguan revolution. From the start Lenin used force to take grain from peasants and sanctioned terror against ''class enemies.'' In a second stage, Lenin loosened the reins a bit and gave market forces a run, and when he died Stalin took over and tightened up and applied terror with a vengeance. But ''Leninism,'' meaning above all single-party rule, was the foundation of Stalinism, and Leninism in the same sense underlies the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev champions now.
Mr. Reagan is not alone in struggling to address the question of what manner of man is Mr. Gorbachev: Where is he coming from? A good answer has got to be based, however, on a much less sentimental treatment of the historical facts.