Moscow — My wife and I, plus 10,000 other select guests, were invited to our first Soviet birthday party the other day. Ordinarily, I would have taken the shocking lack of exclusivity as an insult. I would have fed myself, in about equal measure, warm milk and Pravda's latest editorial (entitled: "Lit Up by a Great Name"), and I would have dozed.
But this particular birthday boy is very much worth knowing here, even though he died in 1924.
This, in itself, is not at all odd. Soviet officials love to throw birthday parties for the deceased. So do Americans, I suppose. We remember George Washington and a few others. But here the practice is more elaborate and more widespread, more carefully orchestrated by a government that thrives on bright red symbols of power. More on this in a later letter.
The birthday boy in question is someone special, even by Soviet standards.
Born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov on April 22, 1870, in the provincial city of Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) on the edge of the Volga River, he died Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, founder-leader of the Soviet communist state.
For many Muscovites, especially of the generation that lived through the 1917 revolution and the upheavals that followed, Lenin is very much alive. He is adored.
Official ceremony has very little to do with this. Most Russians don't seem to take the incessant churning of the Soviet propaganda machine very seriously. It is background noise.
My wife and I attended the granddaddy of all Lenin Day fetes, at the enormous modern Kremlin Palace of Congresses. Seated at a dias on stage were the members of the ruling Politburo, including President Brezhnev. In a rapid monotone, longtime Brezhnev protege Konstantin Chernenko addressed the crowd. He spoke about Lenin, about communism, imperialism, peace, politics.
We had arrived a few minutes late and were fortunate enough to be seated not in the foreign press section, but among the less prominent of Russian guests.
In our aisle, two men slept quietly. Another pored through a stamp album. A young woman was reading a book about birds.
But Lenin lives.
First, in a web of folk tales encouraged but not created by his communist heirs. As far as I can tell, Vladimir Ilyich never tossed a silver ruble across the Moscow River. There were no cherry trees for him to chop down.
But he could not tell a lie. He occasionally tried, or so the stories go, but would tearfully confess in the end.
He could be compassionate. At one time, he began chain-smoking. His mother is said to have warned him it was bad for his health. Vladimir didn't listen. Then she reminded him that cigarettes were expensive -- she was supporting him with her pension. He stopped.
But there is much more to Lenin's legacy.
"If Lenin were here today, . . ." some Muscovites are still apt to say to each other in rebuke of his successors.
"I am not the one to ask about details of communism or things like that," a smartly dressed young woman explained. "But even for me, there is something real about Lenin, something I can feel inside."
Out for a stroll the next morning, I stopped a young man and his white-haired father and asked them how they had celebrated Lenin's birthday.The son answered in Pravda-ese, sterile and unconvincing.
His father interrupted angrily: "Lenin is a great man," he said. "He is the only man in history to have so turned the history of a country upside down."
Muscovites gripe. Many still long for a better life. But i wonder whether we foreign transients tend to forget that, especially among older generations, there are those who cherish Lenin and what he lived for.
Not too long ago, a European colleague was invited to tea by a gray-haired Muscovite whom he had got to know quite well.
He and the Russian woman talked about life in Moscow, the problems and promises and, in the end, he gently pricked at Soviet socialist ideals.
Tears of anger came to the woman's eyes. "Don't you ever criticize socialism in my home," she snapped.
"I am an old woman. But socialism gave my children an education. They went through university, even. They have given them a life they might never have dreamed of."
Moscow is a city of many things, and one of them is the true believers.