Once a shrine to Lenin, his birthplace city seeks a new identity

Above, a monument to the Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin at the Lenin Memorial museum in Ulyanovsk. Crowds are sparse these days at the world’s biggest Lenin museum in Russia’s city of Ulyanovsk, which has fences round it to protect visitors after several massive panels dropped off the facade. (AFP)
Updated 28 October 2017
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Once a shrine to Lenin, his birthplace city seeks a new identity

ULYANOVSK, Russia: Crowds are sparse these days at the world’s biggest Lenin museum in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, which has fences round it to protect visitors after several massive panels dropped off its facade.
A giant topiary sign still spells “Lenin” near the white stone box of the Lenin Memorial Museum on the bank of the Volga River, but the former Soviet leader’s home city is in search of a new identity 100 years after the October Revolution.
The city of Simbirsk 700 kilometers southeast of Moscow, where Lenin was born and lived until he was 17, was renamed Ulyanovsk in his honor after his death in 1924.
It became a favorite for tour groups of Lenin lovers from socialist countries.
To communists, Lenin is still the best thing to happen to Ulyanovsk, and local 68-year-old communist activist Yevgeny Lytyakov says the city owes its growth and status to the fact that Lenin was born there.
“Before the revolution, Simbirsk was a nondescript little town,” he said.
But Lenin no longer resonates in the same way and there are now only a handful of visitors at the city’s showpiece museums.
“We call Ulyanovsk Lenin’s motherland, but all the same, the young generation has moved on,” admits Yelena Bespalova, head of research at the Lenin Motherland Reserve, the city’s second biggest Lenin museum.
In the red-carpeted halls of the Lenin Memorial Museum, which covers some 4,000 square meters, exhibits range from Lenin’s death mask to a giant map of the Soviet Union that lights up glowing red.
Contemporary touches include a huge photograph of President Vladimir Putin, who visited in 2002.
“Today practically the biggest (Lenin) museum that is left is ours, in his motherland,” says former director Valery Perfilov, 70, who still works there.
The museum was once lavishly funded by the Communist Party and had around 5,000 visitors a day, but after the breakup of the USSR “it all suddenly collapsed,” he recalls.
“We were left without any funding.”
“If in the Soviet period, Lenin was idolized, deified, in the 1990s he was demonized.”
Today the museum is financed by the regional culture ministry and the current director Lidiya Larina says the complex, including a concert hall, has half a million visitors a year, but admits it is “outdated.”
It is due for a makeover ahead of Lenin’s 150th birthday in 2020 according to Larina, who wants to bring in interactive displays as well as a better shop and cafe.
The museum is also shifting its focus from Lenin as a political figure to his childhood in Ulyanovsk, Larina said, as Lenin’s role as an ideologue in the Soviet era is now generally downplayed by officials.
A plaque on Lenin’s former school calls him “Vladimir Ulyanov, the head of the government of Soviet Russia and the USSR from 1917 to 1923.”
“There’s a certain number of people in power who according to their views would happily raze the whole memory of the October Revolution and Lenin,” complains communist Lytyakov.
“But society won’t let this happen.”
The Lenin Motherland Reserve museum, which has federal funding, has a different aim — to immerse visitors in the atmosphere of Simbirsk in Lenin’s day.
It is an open-air museum of colorful painted wooden buildings in the neighborhood where Lenin lived in various houses — his family moved constantly — including a fire station and a corner shop.
“The mission of our organization is to preserve this corner of old Simbirsk,” says deputy development director Oksana Solovei.
The complex has more than 200,000 visitors a year, mostly locals, she says.
“Unfortunately we don’t have as many foreign tourists as in the Soviet period.”
The museum also gives a darker picture, with an exhibition on 1917 documenting looting and robberies by freed criminals and ex-soldiers.
“It was very dangerous even to walk on the streets. In 1917 the curfew started at 6 pm,” says Bespalova.
The city markets its Lenin links as part of a “Red Circuit” for Chinese tourists to visit Soviet sites around Russia.
The city is also looking to other famous natives, including 19th-century novelist Ivan Goncharov, and to possibly end Lenin’s domination over its image.
Two 26-year-old designers from Ulyanovsk have created a range of funky postcards, magnets and mugs presenting what they call an “alternative view” of the city.
One postcard has the slogan “Ulyanovsk — motherland of talents” and cartoons of 20 figures including Goncharov — but Lenin is conspicuously absent, and the women say this is no accident.
“We have nothing against him — Vladimir Ilyich,” said designer Nataliya Chebarkova.
“But it’s nice to tell people that Ulyanovsk isn’t just Lenin and the USSR.”


Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

The Finnish Capital, Helsinki, shot from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

  • The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air
  • The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki

DUBAI: Access to Helsinki has just become easier for Gulf travelers thanks to the introduction of a new route from the UAE to the Finnish capital. Last month, budget carrier flydubai launched its Dubai-to-Helsinki flights, offering the best connection from Saudi Arabia as well.
Our first port of call after the six-hour trip was the utterly enchanting Hotel Kämp, arguably the best-known hotel in Helsinki — after all, it has been around for over 130 years. The classy, comfortable five-star property is known as a place to see and be seen.
While there, do check out Kämp Spa, where saunas are, of course, available. (There are almost as many saunas as there are people in Finland.) Kämp Spa offers two options: the eucalyptus-fragrance grotto steam sauna and a traditional Finnish one.
The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air. The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. You can take in the glorious architecture of Helsinki Cathedral, while also viewing the Government Palace, the main building of Helsinki University, and Sederholm House, Helsinki’s oldest building, dating back to 1757.

For shoppers, Helsinki is home to one of the world’s most exciting and influential design scenes, and a treasure trove for unique pieces. Try TRE, which stocks over 300 brands of well-known classics as well as mostly homegrown products — including fashion, jewelry and furniture — from new designers.
Be warned, though: Helsinki is expensive. Very expensive. So you’re probably better off investing in a cool design piece for the home rather than the usual gifts and gadgets. You’ll leave with something memorable that’s high-quality and, of course, unique.
For something on the quirkier (and cheaper) side, second-hand clothes store UFF has chains across the city, where you’ll find some gems that are as good as new.
Dining out in the city also doesn’t come cheap, but it is an experience to savor. For casual snacking, The Old Market Hall sells cheese, beautifully fresh fish (we’d recommend the salmon), fruit and veg, and has cute little cafés.

For dinner, it’s worth treating yourself. Garden by Olo is an official ‘spin-off’ of the Michelin starred Olo and serves Nordic ingredients fused with Asian elements.
One of the newer eateries on the block is Restaurant Andrea at the newly opened Hotel St. George. Here, Nordic and Anatolian kitchens come together to offer a variety of sharing plates, inspired by both cuisines.
If you fancy taking in some of Finland’s stunning scenery, head to one of the national forests close to Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park — forests and lakes spread over Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti — is easy to get to by public transport, and features eight marked trails for hiking in the freshest of air.

If you are visiting for more than a couple of days, then it is well worth exploring Lapland, the official home of Santa Claus. You’ll need to take a one-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
If time is tight, try a reindeer sleigh and husky sled experience, where you can interact with the animals on farms and enjoy rides through the snowy forests.
There’s so much more to see and do than is mentioned here, of course. We’re sure we’ll return to Finland one day, it’s definitely a trip worth making. Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.