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IT'S HARD to find anyone who believes in communism nowadays. Take Todor Zhivkov, the deposed Bulgarian dictator who slavishly followed the Moscow party line for 35 years. How could even he abandon the sacred idols of Marx and Lenin?

Yet Zhivkov conceded recently: "If I had to do it over again, I would not even be a Communist, and if Lenin were alive today, he would say the same thing."

Zhivkov, now 79, worked his way up through the ranks like many Communist leaders, serving as a Communist youth leader, a World War II resistance leader, party secretary and then president.

Now he appears to dismiss his entire life as a mistake, saying that "we started from the wrong basis, the wrong premise." He said his doubts began in the 1950s, when he was rising to power. But that did not stop him from continuing his use of the system for his own advancement.

Now he's sorry the spoils of war left Bulgaria behind the Iron Curtain. "Bulgaria would certainly be far ahead of where it is now if it had been Western-oriented," he said.

Of course, 20 years ago, he was saying the exact opposite -- that Bulgaria and the Soviet Union "act as a single body." And he supported the Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but now he says "nothing can justify it."

Much of what Zhivkov says may be self-serving, since he is under house arrest on charges of corruption in office. But he must be typical of thousands of old Communists who now look around at the utter ruins of their ideological empire. They spent their lives in blind obedience to an ideology and system imposed from the top, instead of evolving from the grass roots.

Democracy as a system can make dreadful mistakes, but it is self-correcting. The Communist system kept repeating its mistakes for generations, with its ranks strictly regimented to prop up an increasingly rickety structure.

Today, only a few remnants of Communist parties remain throughout Eastern Europe, and they are disguised under new names. In the Soviet Union, the party remains, but its power continues to fade, and many prominent leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin, head of the Russian Republic, have quit the party.

No one can say what Lenin would think if he were alive today, but no doubt he would be startled, after 73 years of communism, to see how rapidly and eagerly faithful old Communists are dismantling the system he helped to build.

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