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COLUMN ONE : Sad Legacy of Lenin in Leningrad : Once elegant, the cradle of socialism teems with pollution, hunger and hopelessness. But the city has exorcised Communist power and is desperate to start anew.

September 02, 1991|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LENINGRAD, Soviet Union — They don't look much like revolutionaries, the hundreds of haggard workers drawn by a common purpose to the foot of Dictatorship of the Proletariat Street.

They plod drone-like outside the grim concrete Universam grocery store, concerned only with the dictatorship of standing-in-line etiquette, which ensures that the righteous triumph in their battle to buy cottage cheese.

Stone-faced and emotionally deadened by a lifetime of hardship and broken promises, the desperate foragers appear too docile and downtrodden to ever confront authority.

Yet it is these stoic victims of institutionalized inefficiency who have brought down the monolithic Communist Party, most swiftly and ironically in this city of Soviet power's birth.

More than the allure of building a socialist utopia, it was a March, 1917, food riot that toppled the last czar in this former capital of Imperial Russia. V. I. Lenin and his zealous Bolsheviks filled the power vacuum seven months later.

Now, after 74 years and another spate of days that shook the world, it is again hunger and hopelessness transforming the cradle of the Great October Revolution into socialism's grave.

A counterrevolution by the bitter and disappointed proletariat has decisively swept Leningrad Communists from power, bringing what may be history's most devastating political experiment to a merciful end.

But discrediting the ideology that was born of one coup and died of another will likely prove the easy part of Leningrad's latest political upheaval. The party's one undeniable accomplishment during the better part of a century of absolute rule was its penetration of every level of society and building a bureaucracy that threatens to live on.

"Today the situation is much more difficult than in 1917, because everything has been destroyed during this 70-year experiment," says Ernst Perchik, head of the city government committee for social justice. "We have lost our beautiful city, our hope and our ability to work."

Pondering a question that was unspeakable even just a few weeks ago, Perchik wonders aloud from his cellar cubbyhole of the stately Marinsky Palace: "What was Lenin thinking of when he created such a state?

"Such a principle could never succeed," insists the bearded municipal deputy, typical of Leningrad's post-Communist leadership whose reforms have been bolstered by the failed Kremlin coup.

"Our people go to their workplaces to sit and eat and talk. They earn only a little, but they get that salary for doing nothing. Nothing is ever produced because no one can get anything for his effort. Was this the society Lenin had in mind?"

The ravages of a philosophy by which ambition and property were deplored as evil are most visible in this city where elegance has been wholly displaced by willful neglect. The "Venice of the North" now has little in common with the Italian city it once sought to emulate, aside from periodic floods and waterways plugged with sewage.

The Baroque architecture of the city founded as St. Petersburg is encased in grime from the oily exhaust spewed out by a constant convoy of empty trucks and overloaded buses.

Most of the mud-encrusted delivery vehicles crowd the rutted city avenues without good cause. Some drivers are simply running up the odometer, since they are paid by the distance they drive rather than by the quantity of goods delivered. Others are on personal errands, ferrying girlfriends to work or moving a heavy object for a friend, building up points in the favor network on which the quality of Soviet life depends.

With so few trucks transporting their intended cargo, shops stay empty even when food and goods are sufficiently produced.

"We are not poor. We have gold and a wealth of natural resources," says Perchik, digging at the roots of Soviet discontent. "Yet we are in such a state that just a rumor of butter will bring masses of people flocking into the streets."

Lenin's attempt to make reality out of Karl Marx's dream of a workers paradise stalled in his namesake city more than a year ago when voters were allowed to hold free elections for the first time in their history. Democratic reformers won more than two-thirds of the seats in the new Lensoviet government, relegating the Communists to opposition status.

In a stunning expression of Leningrad's ideological sea change, residents decided in a June referendum to restore the name given their city when it was founded by Peter the Great. The reversion to St. Petersburg still awaits Russian Federation approval, but the popular vote inflicted a deep scar on Lenin's icon-like image.

And since the party's bungled coup attempt in Moscow, what little remained of Communist power has been thoroughly exorcised.

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