The guide at the 19th century mansion near Moscow where Vladimir Lenin died was searching for a Chinese tourist who, in haste to pose for a photograph with her fellow travellers on the portico outside, had left her flask of tea behind. "We get so many visitors from China here . . . at least three big groups each week," she says. "It's Lenin that interests them. He had such an influence on their lives."
Russia has grown increasingly ambivalent about Lenin since the Soviet Union collapsed, along with communist rule, just over a quarter of a century ago. However, in China, where the authorities invoke Marxist-Leninist ideology to justify the one-party state, the leader of Russia's Bolshevik revolution is revered as a visionary who changed the political map of the world.
Russia, the country where the world's first worker state was born, and the incubator for Mao's 1949 revolution, is a natural extension for Beijing's red tourism drive
Lenin is one of the major attractions for the growing number of Chinese tourists visiting Russia as ties between the two countries improve, says Anna Sibirkina, a director at the World Without Borders tourist association in Moscow. "The Chinese have a special interest and admiration for the figure of Lenin."
"Red tourism" is big business in China, where pilgrimages to sites linked to Communist party history and the life of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong are promoted by the authorities as part of a patriotic education.
Russia, the country where the world’s first worker state was born, and the incubator for Mao’s 1949 revolution, is a natural extension for Beijing’s red tourism drive.
The Kremlin's growing rift with the West over Ukraine has been a setback for Russia's tourist industry, sapping the number of US and European visitors. So when China invited Oleg Safonov to Mao's hometown of Shaoshan in 2015 and proposed to help develop and market red tours, the head of Russia's Federal Tourism Agency official could hardly refuse.
Without doubt, Lenin would be appalled by the idea of using communist shrines for commercial gain. Yet visitors from China are reaching into their pockets to pay for red tours that weave from Ulyanovsk, a Volga river city 890km east of Moscow where Lenin was born, to Kazan, where the young revolutionary studied law and then on to Saint Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia and the epicentre of the Bolshevik revolution.
Some travellers may view the whole enterprise as more of a shopping opportunity than a pilgrimage. Russia’s ruble has not fully recovered from a sharp depreciation in 2014 that made amber, gold and other goods the Chinese crave a bargain for foreign currency spenders. But even faint-hearted red tourists are unlikely to skip the highlight of a visit to the tomb in Moscow’s Red Square where the embalmed body of Lenin lies on display.
Russia is throwing down the welcome mat to Chinese tourists at a time when both countries are seeking to broaden economic ties. Visiting Moscow in June for his third meeting with Vladimir Putin this year, China's leader, Xi Jinping, told reporters that bilateral relations "had never been better".
Chinese fascination with the tumultuous events of 1917 is oddly in contrast to the indifferent attitude of their Russian hosts
China has been pouring investment into oil and gas developments in Russia, buying real estate and leasing agricultural land. Tourism is a new departure, moving co-operation into the cultural sphere.
Russia has made special concessions for its Chinese friends, offering visa-free entry for large groups of travellers, something that European visitors can only dream of. At World Without Borders, Sibirkina is overseeing the “China Friendly” project that aims to make Chinese feel at home from the moment they set foot in Russia.
To overcome the language barrier, Chinese signs have been installed in Moscow airports, museums and malls. China Friendly branded hotels are obliged to offer Chinese food, free wifi and an unlimited supply of boiling water to fill the flasks of tea that so many Chinese visitors carry around.
The hospitality drive has helped boost Russia’s popularity as a tourist destination among the Chinese, with visitor numbers estimated to have more than doubled over the last four years to top 1.3 million in 2016.
With many Chinese eager to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution this year, 2017 is set to be a boom year for red tourism. In the first six months of this year, the number of Chinese visitors was up 36 per cent on the same period of 2016, according to the Russian Federal Tourist Agency.
Chinese fascination with the tumultuous events of 1917 is oddly in contrast to the indifferent attitude of their Russian hosts.
In Soviet times the annual revolution holiday was marked with huge banner-waving processions across the land every November 7th. But Vladimir Putin, who flags stability as the main achievement of his rule, is not inclined to celebrate the violent upheaval that saw the Bolsheviks ruthlessly grab power.
Putin has already denounced Lenin for murdering Tsar Nicholas I and thousands of Russian priests. As the 100th anniversary of the revolution approaches, there has been speculation that the Russian president will go a step further and order the removal of the mummified revolutionary from the mausoleum in Red Square.
For the most part, the Russian public would likely approve. More than half of respondents to a survey by the Levada Centre, an independent Moscow-based pollster, this year said Lenin should be given a proper burial, even if his imposing marble and granite tomb was left in place as a historic memorial and tourist attraction.
But the mausoleum just wouldn’t be the same for the Chinese if Lenin was taken away, according to Andrei, a Russian philatelist who sells Soviet postage stamps illustrated with iconic scenes from the Bolshevik revolution to tourists in Red Square. “The Chinese are by far my biggest customers these days,” he said clutching a wad of crisp renminbi notes. “It’s difficult to understand, but they just love Lenin.”