THE bells atop the Kremlin's Savior Gate may soon toll their last for the Soviet era's most sacred symbol.
The Red Square mausoleum of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, opened for visitors as usual yesterday. But the honor guard that had stood watch over the tomb since the Bolshevik leader's death in 1924 was gone. The last watch marched away at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Many Russians believe the removal of the guard, known as Kremlin Post No. 1, is a likely precursor to Lenin's removal from the tomb. The Kremlin's commandant said the removal was part of a ``change of ritual,'' and there is speculation that the guard may be placed at the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Not all Cabinet members supported removing the guard. The Izvestia daily, quoting ``well placed sources,'' said Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called the Kremlin commandant to say ``he was categorically against the removal of Post No. 1,'' and asked that the order be rescinded. The commandant declined to restore the guard, saying he had the ``necessary authority'' to remove it, the newspaper said.
The prime minister also said Lenin's fate should be decided by the new legislature, to be elected in December, Izvestia said. Others, however, appear indifferent.
``After Monday's events I don't care what they do with [Lenin]. I am just happy to be alive,'' said Sergei, a militia officer who was part of the tomb's security detail and took part in the fighting around the parliament building, or White House, that killed 120 people.
Following the failed coup in 1991 against then President Mikhail Gorbachev, angry mobs tore down statues to Bolshevik leaders, including Felix Dzerzhinsky and Mikhail Kalinin. But monuments to Lenin - who is still revered as God-like by many Russians - were largely left untouched.
That is not the case now. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has plans to move the City Council to the Lenin Museum, a building that housed the capital's legislature before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The museum was closed yesterday ``for technical reasons.''
If Lenin is removed, his most likely final resting place is in St. Petersburg's Volkov Cemetery. In conversations with relatives before his passing, Lenin reportedly said he wanted to be buried next to his mother in the Volkov Cemetery.
Yesterday a trickle of visitors arrived at the mausoleum. None seemed disturbed at the removal of the guard. ``I wanted to see him before he is removed,'' said 68-year-old pensioner Tamara Frenovskaya. ``He is a big figure in our history, whether people like it or not.''