Ulyanovsk is a sleepy town on the Volga, but for over half a century it was a bustling shrine dedicated to its most famous son-Lenin. Robert Haupt took a river boat to the town in search of what shaped the Bolshevik leader, and listened to Russians trying to make sense of their communist historyby Robert Haupt / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
On the ninth day out of Moscow, we tied up unexpectedly at Ulyanovsk. “Welcome to Ulyanovsk” said the sign above the decaying, futurist riverboat station. But the passengers on the Fyodor Shalyapin river cruiser did not want to be welcomed-not there. If there is one thing the new Russians want no more of, apart from communist theory itself, it is the cult of the Ulyanov family and memorials to its brilliant son, Vladimir. To have had his birthplace on the itinerary at all was bad enough; to have allocated a whole day to it, unscheduled, was even worse. The passengers boycotted breakfast, and stayed in their cabins. Even the arrival of young women in tight dresses to rehearse their greetings for a boatload of businessmen expected from St. Petersburg stirred little interest. Those who had gone ashore eagerly at Kostroma and Nizhni Novgorod were now lounging on board, exasperated and sullen.
Lenin’s birthplace is atop a steep hill, reached by an arthritic bus which wears its exhaust smoke like a cowl. For most of this century the industry of Ulyanovsk has been, quite simply, the Ulyanovs. Its museums tapped the flow of millions of Soviet citizens who circulated each year around the shrines to Soviet communism and its founder. Now that Soviet power was broken, why would they choose to go to the sites they had been compelled to visit as children? Of all the ports on the Volga River, from Uglich north of Moscow to Astrakhan on the Caspian, the Fyodor Shalyapin had chosen for its unscheduled stop the one that nobody wanted.
The Ulyanov house is exactly where you would expect to find it, on a shaded street in the solid part of town. It is almost a pastiche of the petit-bourgeois ideal-upstairs, downstairs, lace, linen and grand piano. When the school inspector’s son developed his loathing for the bourgeoisie, it was above all a loathing of his own upbringing-the kind of self-loathing that can drive a zealot far from his roots and yet not prevent the memory of them returning every single loathsome day. Indeed, this memory of what he was once a part of can drive him so far that he ends up apart from everything and a part of nothing, as Solzhenitsyn saw: