ALMA-ATA, U.S.S.R. -- In the homes of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia, Leonid Brezhnev has about the same standing as Richard Nixon has in some parts of Manhattan. Which is to say his very photograph is an icon of a despised past, evoking ironic laughter and the cutting remark.
But among what the old propagandists used to call "the masses," there are frequent pangs of nostalgia here for "the age of stagnation" and the Brezhnev team of sultans, emirs and ward heelers. At least there was food then, they say. Especially here in the capital of Kazakhstan, many people yearn for their old chieftain, Dinmukhamed Akhmedovich Kunaev.
Kunaev ruled this republic -- a land mass the size of Western Europe -- for 34 years and was at Brezhnev's side in the Politburo for nearly two decades. One of the finest parks in Alma-Ata is still Kunaev Square. The focal point is a monument to the Great Man, his granite head perched on a column, looking like an enormous Pez.
In his attempt to start wiping out the old guard, Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev fired Kunaev in December 1986. Throughout Moscow, Kunaev, like Gaidar Aliyev in Azerbaijan and Grigori Romanov in Leningrad, was considered an unconvertible Stalinist, and possibly corrupt. Gorbachev's big mistake was to replace Kunaev with a Russian instead of a Kazakh -- a move that set off two days of demonstrations, the first signal to the leadership that the Kremlin could lose its grip on the republics.
Now Kunaev, 78, lives in a posh two-story house at 119 Tulebayeva St., not far from Kunaev Square. The house, which has the look of a middle-range motel in Miami Beach, is also home of the republic's first and second Communist Party secretaries.
In the macadam courtyard there is a willow tree and a KGB guard. It turns out Kunaev, the absolute ruler of Kazakhstan for three decades, is now powerless to meet foreigners at his home.
Through a Kazakh journalist, I asked to see Kunaev. There was no other way. Reporters in the past had tried coming unannounced to knock on his door, but the KGB guard kept them away.
Word came back from Kunaev that perhaps we ought to draw up a list of questions. The Kazakh journalist, mired in the folkways of Communist Party jargon, insisted that we ask such zingers as, "What are the key achievements of Kazakhstan in 70 years as a Soviet republic?"
While we waited for word from Kunaev, we ate dinner at the journalist's in-laws. His father-in-law spoke lovingly of Stalin's "iron hand," and the main course was shredded horse hearts with noodles. Tastes like chicken, my hosts assured me. They were wrong.
The call came and Kunaev said he'd see us at 11 the next morning. We arrived, four of us, at his house five minutes early. The KGB guard ran across the drive.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"We have an appointment with Kunaev."
"Impossible," the guard said.
"We do. An interview at 11. He is expecting us."
We all showed our various documents. The guard went to his booth and made a phone call. Then he went to Kunaev's place. He came out smiling. A very bad sign.
"The American is forbidden," the guard said.
"Why? Doesn't Kunaev have the right to see whom he wants?"
"No more need be said."
Then they all started talking in Kazakh and acting like the dumb American would never guess that the KGB would not allow a meeting with Kunaev. Every once in a while "KGB" popped like a rifle shot amid the slurry of Kazakh.
Finally, the guard led two of the Kazakhs, armed with my questions, up the path. After an hour they came out with the story: "Kunaev was stunned. He couldn't believe they wouldn't let you in. He had dressed up nice and smart and even laid on a lunch for us." (More horse hearts?) "He answered all the questions, though."
But the point was not so much what Kunaev had to say -- he had, after all, uttered countless speeches in his political life. Words, still more of them, were not the point. What was he like?
"Kunaev seemed sad when you couldn't come," explained my informant. "He said, 'It seems I'm powerless in my own house.' "
Later on, a well-connected Kazakh source said that neither the Kremlin nor the present Kazakh leadership has any interest in seeing Kunaev get attention. Aliyev has already reentered politics in Azerbaijan, winning a seat in the republic's parliament. Gorbachev could live without a renaissance of his worst enemies.
A few hours later, during an interview with a federal legislator, one of the Kazakh journalists leaned over and whispered in my ear: "We have to leave in five minutes. Kunaev is going to meet you on the street."
In 15 minutes we were waiting outside the gates of the Communist Party House of Rest. Kunaev's white Volga pulled up. He looked every bit the chieftain, a kind of Kazakh version of the African Big Man. He is about 6-foot-2 and wore a blue pin-striped Big Man suit. He wore dark sunglasses and carried a magnificent carved cane with winding snakes and a fantastic bulb at the top. A man could rule with that alone.
"My dear boy!" he said in Russian.
And then for the next 10 minutes Kunaev was off on a booming monologue about wheat production in the 1970s, the relative merits of Pravda and Izvestia and the need to preserve old Communist monuments. "I've never swayed," he said. "I am a man of the Leninist party line. Never forget that."
The Kazakhs were grinning, immensely proud to be occupying the same square of tar as the Big Man.
I began asking a question about March 1985, when Gorbachev made his bid for the leadership after the death of Konstantin Chernenko. I asked if the Brezhnev team -- including Aliyev, Kunaev and Romanov -- supported Gorbachev or his conservative rival, the former Moscow party boss Viktor Grishin.
"Oh, let's not talk about all that, dear boy," he said. "Yesterday is yesterday, today is today."
And, tomorrow, would he reenter poltics?
"I wouldn't be against it," he said. "Let the people decide. But tomorrow, I should tell you, I'm busy. I'm going hunting for ducks. I love hunting for ducks."