MOSCOW -- On his first day back as a mortal man yesterday, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin received visitors as usual at his mausoleum on Red Square.
President Boris N. Yeltsin had removed the ceremonial guard from Lenin's tomb Wednesday, and with one stroke of the pen Lenin went from god to historical figure; communism's holiest shrine became an ordinary monument.
All day, a small crowd ebbed and flowed to witness the previously unthinkable. An old woman dissolved in tears, a young prostitute stood silent and sad, an elderly man worried that the guards had been arrested.
But the prevailing sentiment was weary acceptance: The time had come, they said, to bury Lenin. The time had come to make the final break with the Communist past.
"I know the whole story of Lenin from the beginning," said Narkis Chetverakov, 79, a retired worker who was born while Lenin was in exile in Switzerland plotting the Communist revolution.
"I don't like to think about it. It's too painful, what happened to this country. As soon as I was grown up, I understood the whole ideology was a mistake. But I wanted to be here today. I wanted to see the reaction."
Lenin's preserved body was guarded by what was reverently known as Post No. 1, an elite unit established Jan. 26, 1924, five days after he died.
Exactly 2 minutes and 45 seconds before every hour, two sentries of the same height, escorted by an officer, would goose-step from the Kremlin's Spassky Gate to the red marble mausoleum. There, in a spell-binding, split-second maneuver, they would relieve the earlier shift exactly as chimes rang out the hour.
"It was the basis of all ideology," said Alexander Nikishin, 75, a retired doctor. "Not so much the guard, but Lenin lying there. They tried to make a Mecca out of him.
"Today is a moment of great importance. The ideological meaning is very great. After the events of the last days, they can do nothing but take this guard away."
Although it has not been officially announced, most Russians assume that the next step will be to close the mausoleum and bury Lenin. He had asked to be buried with his mother and sister in St. Petersburg.
But it took a traumatic clash of ideologies, climaxing in tanks shelling the Russian parliament building Monday, to make that possible.
Even Russians who loathe communism have a difficult time blaming Lenin for it.
"The propaganda was very good," a 45-year-old woman said. "As children, they won our hearts. And when we were old enough to think, they used our hearts to influence our minds."
For many, Lenin represented complete security. "Who knows what will happen now?" asked Tatyana Ivanovna, 70. "We grew up under this system, and it was a symbol of perfect order."
She had worked nearby and often, when exhausted, would find her steps turning toward Lenin. "I would come here and it would refresh me."
Still, she said, it was foolish to think of returning to the past.
"There are only a few like us left in Russia," she said, gesturing toward two elderly friends. "We can't decide the future. We have no future.
"It's for our young people to decide the future. We can feel only fear and sadness. No, we have no future. We have ruined this great country, which suffered through a terrible war. We built it up from the ruins of war, and now we have ruined it again. We have left it in ruins."
Yesterday, Lenin was open for his normal viewing hours. The nearby Lenin Museum was closed for "technical reasons" and may not reopen. The Moscow mayor plans to restore it as the City Council building.
Vladimir Yeremeyev, a 50-year-old man with a long, gray beard, was disturbed by the removal of the guard. "Where did you take the guards?" he asked a policeman. "Were they arrested?"
Of course, the Communist authorities oppressed the people, he said, but as a result people were warm and loving toward each other.
"Lenin was a great symbol," Mr. Yeremeyev said. "He taught people to love each other. There were cruel events. But through blood he taught love. Now there's more blood, and it's only cruelty."
He blamed U.S. influence in part. "It is impossible to pray to God and money at the same time, and America taught us to do both," he said. "Thank you for your democracy."
A few feet away, a young girl wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and a jean jacket stood, staring, at the mausoleum.
"This is our history," said Alona Artomonova, who described herself as a 22-year-old prostitute. "You can't change that overnight. Millions died and fought and lived for him. Now we don't have a single leader who can inspire that."
'Lenin will live'
She repeated the words she had known from earliest childhood. "Lenin lived. Lenin lives. Lenin will live."
Those days must end, said Nikolai Voropayev, 41, an administrator for a business center. "He was our brightest symbol. We had no other. Now we must bury the past. It's time for a new symbol."
Mr. Voropayev thought for a moment about how Russia could replace Lenin.
"Survival," he said, turning to look at the magnificent domes of St. Basil's, rising ethereally as they have for centuries, surviving war and atheism, czarist rule and proletarian dictatorship. "For Russia we need a symbol of survival. This is a symbol for Russia -- St. Basil's."