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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sweet Memories of Stagnation in Brezhnevland

DNEPRODZERZHINSK, Eastern Ukraine -- Welcome to Brezhnevland, a Communist planner's dream of gargantuan chemical and metallurgy factories where just a mention of the U.S.S.R.'s second-longest serving leader is enough to revive pleasant memories. The visitor does not have to look far to find the distinctive Leonid Brezhnev eyebrows in this city of 300,000 where he was born in 1906. In fact, they are right there on the city's main traffic intersection, which is graced by a bust of the father of stagnation. "Hero of the Soviet Union, Hero of Socialist Labor," the inscription reads, a reference to two of the categories in an area where Brezhnev surpassed all previous Communist leaders: self-congratulatory medals. At the Hotel Zarya, the newcomer's gateway to Brezhnevland, a guest requesting toilet paper and a light bulb quickly learns the true meaning of stagnation. "Toilet paper is out of the question, but you might be able to get a new light bulb," the receptionist explained, "except that the floor attendant is trapped in the elevator." Like the attendant's muffled cries from the elevator shaft, the past still echoes throughout the city, even in the name Dneprodzerzhinsk, a fusion of Dnieper as in the river and Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police. Next stop of the tour of Brezhnevland is the town museum, a veritable warehouse of Brezhnev memorabilia and gifts from workers' collectives. "Here is a completely useless gift," said exhibition curator Natalya Bulanova. She pointed to a bizarre desk set with two of Brezhnev's books enclosed in plastic topped by three massive plastic pencils. One of the most original designs here is a set of four wooden nuclear reactors which 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, most recently earlier this year, the Brezhnev bust on Lenin Prospekt is always there, and few are talking about retiring it to the ash heap of history. "Of course the statue should remain!" said an emotional Tamara Kiktova, 56, shocked that anyone would even suggest its removal. "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." 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 in such a pro-Brezhnev city was the publication of his photo on the front page of the local newspaper. Newlyweds still lay flowers at the bust, but it has been years since people have paid tribute to Brezhnev's birthplace and boyhood home. "Visitors used to come by the busload," said Nadezhda Gretskaya, 62, who moved into the Brezhnev family apartment in 1965. "Now, no one comes." Gretskaya said she never received anything for accommodating the Brezhnev worshippers, although she did get some 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 that his apartment would become a museum, as had Lenin and Stalin's birthplaces. That idea died along with the leader in 1982. The city residents here tend to gloss over Brezhnev's repression, invasion of Afghanistan and other dubious legacies. "Many people remember those times with nostalgia because there was stability," said Mayor Sergei Shershnov. But at his old apartment, the freedoms of post-Soviet life have revealed at least one family of rare critics 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."