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Time Warp in `Brezhnevland'

Soviet leader's hometown honors him with a museum of useless gifts, a hotel minus lightbulbs

LEONID BREZHNEV'S hometown here in eastern Ukraine re-creates the era of the Soviet leader who made stagnation a household word.

At the Hotel Zarya, a guest requesting toilet paper and a light bulb is brusquely rebuffed. ``Toilet paper is out of the question, but you might be able to get a new light bulb,'' says the receptionist, ``except that the floor attendant is trapped in the elevator.''

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Like the attendant's muffled cries from the elevator shaft, the past still echoes through the city of 300,000 where Brezhnev was born in 1906. The Soviet Union's second-longest-serving leader is still honored with a bust on a main square.

``Hero of the Soviet Union, Hero of Socialist Labor,'' reads the pedestal. This communist planner's dream city of gargantuan chemical and metallurgy factories could be called a theme park of the Soviet past - a ``Brezhnevland.''

The town museum is a warehouse of Brezhnev memorabilia and gifts from workers' collectives.

``Here is a completely useless gift,'' says exhibition curator Natalya Bulanova. She points to a desk set with two of Brezhnev's books enclosed in plastic topped by three massive plastic pencils.

One original design is a set of four wooden nuclear reactors that fit into each other like matrioshka dolls, courtesy of the country's atomic scientists. Mills in Kiev, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere did their part for the Brezhnev cult by weaving his portrait into carpets.

Although the museum only periodically displays its treasures, the bust of the leader is always there on Lenin Prospekt, and few speak of retiring it to the ash heap of history.

``Of course the statue should remain!'' said an emotional Tamara Kiktova. ``He was a very good man and our leader for 20 years. Under him we lived well, not only here, but across the Soviet Union.''

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In 1990, a disgruntled plumber did the unthinkable: He defaced the shrine with white paint. He was caught and charged with hooliganism, although his greatest punishment was the publication of his photograph on the front page of the local newspaper.

Newlyweds in Dneprodzerzhinsk - named after the Dnieper River and the founder of the secret police Felix Dzerzhinsky - still lay flowers near the bust.

But at Brezhnev's boyhood home, nostalgia may be giving way to apathy. ``Visitors used to come by the busload,'' said Nadezhda Gretskaya, who moved into the Brezhnev family apartment in 1965. ``Now, no one comes.''

Ms. Gretskaya said she never received anything for accommodating the Brezhnev worshipers, although she did get some quick repairs after she wrote a letter to Pravda complaining about the shabby condition of the apartment.

When Brezhnev himself came by in 1979, he apparently believed his apartment would become a museum, as had Lenin's and Stalin's birthplaces. That idea died with the leader in 1982.

Down the street, Brezhnev still gets a wall full of photos at the Dzerzhinsky Metallurgy Factory where his parents met and where he once worked. The factory smoke ``was the clouds of my childhood, and its soot the paint atop our home,'' he wrote.

Residents tend to forget about Brezhnev's political repression and invasion of Afghanistan. ``Many people remember those times with nostalgia because there was stability,'' explains Mayor Sergei Shershnov.

But at his old apartment, post-Soviet life has spawned at least one critic in Brezhnevland. ``We've never had a good leader,'' said Gretskaya. ``We didn't live well in Brezhnev's time; only now, things are even worse.''

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