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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lenin Museum Courts Capitalism

TAMPERE, Finland -- It was all so different in Soviet times when Finland's quirky Lenin museum could rely on a steady stream of Russians, expected to pay homage to the founder of their state.

Now, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, the tiny museum in western Finland dedicated to Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov is resorting to capitalism by selling memorabilia, turning to the web to attract visitors and putting on new shows to stay afloat.

The museum, established in 1946, has a special place in history.

It is housed in a turn of the century workers' palace in the town of Tampere, where Lenin first met Josef Stalin, at a gathering of Russian revolutionaries in 1905 to plot the tsar's overthrow. Finland was then part of the Russian empire and much used by the Bolsheviks as they worked to undermine the tsar.

It was also here that Lenin signed a declaration promising to give Finland its long-awaited independence once the Bolsheviks took power.

"We are giving people a reason to think about these issues," said museum director and former communist Aimo Minkkinen.

"I want to show a more realistic Lenin," he added, showing off the sofa where Lenin and Maxim Gorky, considered by many as the father of Soviet literature, crashed out overnight at the Helsinki University library.

He says he runs the world's last functioning Lenin museum. Similar institutions in the former Soviet Union and old Eastern bloc have shut down.

Nowadays Russians, increasingly using the freedom to travel abroad, are no longer interested in visiting the Tampere museum even though Finland, as a destination, is growing in popularity.

"We used to be an obligatory destination for Soviet groups visiting Finland," said a nostalgic Minkkinen, who has run the museum for 20 years.

"Times have changed and Russians don't want to be reminded of their past. I think that's wrong because Lenin did great things as well," he added.

The museum has 12,000 visitors a year compared to almost 30,000 in the Soviet Union's heyday. Most come from Finland, with Britons, Germans and Swedes also regular visitors.

Minkkinen understands that Russians are no longer so interested in Lenin, who created the Soviet Union after the October Revolution in 1917 and is among the world's most iconic figures.

After World War II, Finland's relationship with its former enemy was uneasy as it walked a tightrope between East and West. Mindful of its powerful neighbor, Finland did not openly criticize Moscow and remained militarily non-aligned.

"I hope this museum will be 'alive' for a long time. In Russia, Lenin is not so popular now. But we need to know and remember our history," Sergei wrote in the museum's visitor book.

The museum documents the life of Lenin and his relationship with Finland. It is crammed with paintings, prints, writings, publications and photos as well as the furniture that Lenin used while in Finland.

Lenin visited the country more than a dozen times, spending almost 20 months there, and finding shelter from the Russian authorities.

His famous train journey to the Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917 from exile in Switzerland, to launch the Bolshevik Revolution, took him through Finland.

Minkkinen admits the museum needs a face-lift. "We must show all the facts on Lenin, not just the good side," he said. "Our museum was last refurbished in the 1980s and since then facts about Lenin that we did not know at the time have propped up, like his comments on terrorism."

The museum devotes much space to Lenin's role in Finnish independence and argues that Lenin and Stalin's connections with the country meant it was ultimately spared from Soviet control.

This is an issue that has been hotly debated in Finland, which has a difficult relationship with its bigger neighbor.

Finland's bloody fight for survival against the Soviet Union in the 1939-40 and 1941-44 wars resulted in much bigger losses for the Red Army than those of the outnumbered Finns.

The Lenin museum is owned by the Finnish-Russian Society but is largely funded by the Finnish government. Without these funds it would be hard to survive, Minkkinen admits.

The government is helping the museum record its entire contents digitally and put them on the web site (www.tampere.fi/culture/lenin), which now has some 50,000 visitors a month.

While showing where Lenin and Stalin first met in this building, Minkkinen cannot help philosophizing on the past.

"In this hall they met for the first time. The rest is history, but you could also say that had they never met here Stalinism and all the terror that came with it may never have occurred," he said with a sigh.