Great Russian leaders are nothing if not great builders, who saw in Pharaonic projects a way to pull Russia and--in their view--its stubborn, uncooperative population forward.

There was Czar Peter the Great, who molded the imperial capital of St. Petersburg out of a swamp, a project that was supposed to make Russia an instant Western country.

Czar Nicholas I ordered the building of Russia's first railway over the objections of his advisers, who opposed giving the population what they saw as dangerous mobility.

Vladimir Lenin campaigned for public support with promises to bring electricity to the country's vast interior as a step toward communist utopia.

Joseph Stalin dug huge canals connecting slumbering rivers, constructed vast factories and decorated Moscow's skyline with massive skyscrapers, as befit the capital of world socialism.

And, of course, there's Leonid Mulyarchik.

Who?

Leonid Mulyarchik, from Lebedyan, a rural market town of 23,000 people on the Don River, 250 miles south of Moscow.

Well, maybe he's not a great leader, but only a retired railway worker.

And, okay, so his project is getting off to a slow start. He does not have the benefit of slave labor, as Peter did, or German POW workers, as Stalin had. He doesn't even have a backhoe.

But Mulyarchik embodies the Great Russian Leader idea that if you build something grand, it will transform the country. Or, in this case, Lebedyan, which could use some transforming.

"We are in the 20th century. But here, many houses have no hot water. Nor telephones. And the phones that are around, they don't work. Roads are dirt. If they're paved, they are full of holes. We don't have to live like this," said Mulyarchik.

His solution?

"I decided to build a subway."

All by himself.

He began in 1991, when wild capitalism was dislodging the stagnant communism of the Soviet era. It seemed like a good time to change Lebedyan. He had also got his car stuck in the mud, and thought it would be more convenient to take a subway--never mind that you can walk across Lebedyan in about a half hour.

So he grabbed a pick and shovel and began to dig beneath his riverfront house and carry out the dirt in a wheelbarrow. News spread that something odd was going on. The people of Lebedyan soon lined up at the subway entrance for a look.

Perhaps for the first time in its history, Lebedyan could boast a curiosity, a feat of superhuman effort. The authorities were horrified. They sent inspectors.

"This tunnel is of no use," said Margarita Sekachyova, the municipal secretary. "You have to crouch to get in. Besides, what can one man do himself?"

As it turned out, there was actually nothing illegal about digging a subway. Mulyarchik kept digging until the tunnel reached more than 40 yards into a hillside, with a few short spurs to either side ("For a station," the builder said). About 170 yards in all, although at a little over 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, it is a little snug for a subway.

A few years ago Mulyarchik stopped. Parts of the tunnel crumbled. He needed machinery. He built a tractor out of scrap metal, but it exploded on its first trial. Then he built a boxy barge, to haul stones down the Don to shore up the roof. He forgot to design a place for an engine, so he built a paddle-wheel tugboat made out of turbine fans and a motorcycle sidecar.

These diversions tired him. He's 65, lives on a pension of $20 a month and needs a sponsor. "I will sell all the rights to the metro to whomever will fund it," he said. "The cars will run automatically, without a driver!"

In the meantime, the barge, which looks like a houseboat, became a summer amusement for kids. He charges them a ruble for a dive into the Don off the prow (or is it the stern?). That success gave him the idea of making a tourist attraction at his doorstep. He showed the plans to town hall, which blessed him with seven official stamps on the blueprint. Nothing else has come of it, so far.

Some neighbors admire Mulyarchik, and some think he's a nut, but they've gotten used to his digging and few bother to visit the subway anymore.

CAPTION: Leonid Mulyarchik has excavated about 170 yards of tunnels beneath Lebedyan.