The dance-and-dine hall of the Crown Hotel, across the street from the house where Lenin was born, vibrated to the electric din of a Soviet rock band.
''I don't work nowadays,'' confides a nattily attired blonde girl at a table well away from the dance floor. ''Work is boring. . . . I love beautiful things . . . like gold and crystal. . . .''
Her best friend, a quiet, dark-haired Tatar, has a simpler dream. She wants to marry her boyfriend, who is on Army duty in Moscow, some 500 miles to the west. And she wants him to be a good husband.
''I think faithfulness is the important thing. . . . For a while, everyone here was into free love, you know. But I don't think that is the right thing.''
For both women, the intrusion of two American reporters seems almost as enticing as dancing, something each does two or three nights a week in this sleepy political shrine-town on the banks of the Volga River.
The Tatar woman says she would like ''very, very much'' to go to America. Her vision of the United States is disjointed--rosy one instant and foreboding the next, like a television on the blink. ''I am almost sure I would not get permission to go to America,'' she adds. It is a statement of fact, without rancor or puzzlement.
''Will Reagan send American soldiers to fight Russians?'' she asks. ''Two such great nations should not fight. It is not right.''
''I think America was the first defender of freedom,'' she continues. The band wails, ''Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa,'' in almost intelligible English. The drummer drums. The enormous dance floor is crammed with gyrating Ulyanovsk youngsters. There are a few visiting Aeroflot pilots and a few Libyans who are studying at a nearby military institute.
''But America is imperialist,'' she says. ''Reagan is controlled by the powerful capitalist companies.
''All in all, I think our society is humane. The best people are true communists, concerned about people.'' Then, she pauses and sounds a discordant note, barely audible over the blast of the band.
''We have our swine, too. . . . For some, the party is a matter of money. It is wrong that some people have two apartments, and others have none at all. I wish that I had lived earlier, in Lenin's time. . . .''
At noon, in the same dining hall minus the band,a large table had been occupied by a visiting group from Komsomol, the Soviet Communist Party's youth organization.
Many of the thousands of pilgrims to Lenin's birthplace are young people. They visit the various homes where Lenin lived and grew up. His real name was Ulyanov, thus the present name of this town.
They also visit Lenin's school. Lenin sat here, says one sign. Lenin studied here. Lenin took his exams here. Parts of the old town center have been carefully restored.
A marble museum complex surrounds the house where Lenin was born. Young visitors crowd the exhibits. At least some see a slick film show that begins with old footage of the father of the Soviet Communist state, then melts into a full-color extravaganza of American police beating up blacks, American soldiers terrorizing Vietnam, Ku Klux Klanners wearing white sheets and hoods.
''Where did they get these pictures?'' a Soviet official asked me.
''American television, probably,'' I replied. He looked puzzled.
On the dance floor, there is no sign of the visiting Komsomol youngsters. The Tatar woman says she is a member of Komsomol. ''I do not plan to join the party, '' she says. Her friend has never joined Komsomol.
''I got married three years ago, when I was 17. I have a small child now. But I am recently divorced.
''My husband had lots of money,'' drawn mostly from the unofficial private economy that fills many gaps the state economy cannot.
''If you have a husband who works in that way, it is easy. He can earn, maybe , 1,000 rubles (about $1,400 at the official rate) each month. . . . It was good , he could buy anything I wanted.
''But he used to come home with his group of friends. They would drink and talk for hours. . . . I would be left waiting around. It was terrible. So we are divorced.''
Outside, spring is coming to Ulyanovsk. Melting snow has turned the town muddy in places, a visual contrast to last year's drought. Soon apple trees will bloom. There may be more rain, more grain, more meat.
In the state stores, there is virtually no meat. But, the Tatar woman says, enough is distributed through factories and other workplaces. Or it can be bought at officially sanctioned farmers' markets at 5 or 6 rubles a kilogram (some $3.50 a pound).
There are other ways, not officially sanctioned, to get meat. ''On the left''--na lyevo--is what the system is called throughout the Soviet Union.