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Old Habits Die Hard

Leninist day of voluntary labor makes a comeback

A PAINTING immortalized in the annals of Communist mythology depicts a stern Vladimir Lenin in 1920 joining a brigade of factory workers and Red Army recruits. Swept up by revolutionary fervor, they have volunteered to help build communism by carrying an immense log across Kremlin Square.

That glorious day marked the second of what would eventually become an annual event on the Saturday closest to Lenin's April 22 birthday: the ``All-Union Leninist Communist Subbotnik,'' or day of mass voluntary labor.

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``People went to work carrying red flags and singing the Internationale. They worked with dedication, furiously making sure to exceed all quotas,'' Moscow News glowingly reminisced in 1977 during the good old Brezhnev era. ``Had anyone not been given the right to take part, they would have really felt hurt.''

Seventy-four years later, the cult of Lenin is dead. But the concept of the Subbotnik - from the word Subbota, or Saturday - has been born again.

This Saturday, thousands of Muscovites gave up their precious day off to collect garbage, rake leaves, and sweep city streets to commemorate the first official Subbotnik since Communist times - now renamed the ``Spring City Community Service Day.''

``We changed the name so people would not have any association with the past,'' Moscow Vice Mayor Anatoly Petrov says. ``Before, people were forced to participate.... [Subbotniks] were a good idea in principle, but unfortunately giving labor voluntarily turned into a burden.''

Russian tricolor flags adorned some parts of Moscow in honor of the event, jointly organized by city officials, trade unions, and PRES, the moderate Party of Russian Unity and Accord. Soldiers brandishing rakes and hoes planted grass on the sides of highways, and city residents swept building courtyards festooned by mounds of rotting garbage.

Once heralded as a day for citizens to show their loyalty to communist ideals and revolutionary traditions, the new Subbotnik emerged as a day for Muscovites to do what city sanitation workers should be accomplishing daily.

Nowhere was this more evident than outside the Kiev Railway Station, where workers nostalgic for Soviet glory days cleaned up after their more reform-minded compatriots hawking wares in makeshift stalls.

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``Why should I take part in the Subbotnik? To clean up after bandits and speculators?'' grumbled an elderly woman as she threaded her way past a heap of garbage festering behind a line of kiosks. ``Look at this dump! Why should they be allowed to make money while we choke on their filth?''

``We aren't to blame for the mess,'' retorted chemist Valentina Sozona as she supplemented her income selling pink-and-white toilet seats on a nearby sidewalk.

Past Subbotniks were decidedly more dignified. In 1980, hard-working Soviet laborers manufactured over 900 million rubles worth of items, Moscow News reported in 1981.

``Workers at the Likhachov Automobile Works in Moscow made 600 trucks and 500 refrigerators; Gorky shipbuilders launched the m/s Odinnadtsataya Pyatiletka [literally ``Eleventh Five-Year-Plan''], a sea and river-faring vessel; Elektrosila workers in Leningrad began testing two new generators,'' the paper exulted. ``Auto workers at the Togilatti plant made 1,280 Zhiguli cars, and members of the Progress Collective Farm in Moldavia planted 50 hectares of an orchard.''

``We gathered together to celebrate the birthday of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and the [World War II] Victory Day,'' echoed pensioner Ailita Smorodinskaya, one of the few Muscovites still honoring the original Subbotnik spirit. ``For us, these days are holy.''

Journalist Mikhail Smetnik stayed home Saturday, recalling the times he was reprimanded for being a ``bad young Communist'' when he stayed away from Subbotniks. ``We used to joke that Lenin was very far-thinking,'' Mr. Smetnik said. ``He happened to be born in spring, so people could clean up dirt and by this courageous act commemorate his birthday.''

Lenin, meanwhile, lies in his red-granite tomb, his fate uncertain following the collapse of the Soviet state. His once-sacred museum off Red Square has been forced to close, and Russian activists commemorated his birthday Friday by proposing at a Kremlin demonstration that his embalmed body be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In fact - according to popular legend - even the log Lenin helped carry back in 1920 has turned out to be an inflatable replica of the real thing.

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