Russia’s Communist Party Is Growing Again but Can It Be a Potential Vehicle of Social Change?

In the past two election cycles, the CP increased its vote from about 12 to 20%, and could be set to make major gains this time around.

 Supporters of the Russian communist party attend a rally. Credit: Reuters

Supporters of the Russian communist party attend a rally. Credit: Reuters

Moscow: With the collapse of the USSR, it was generally assumed that the failed state’s main architect, the Communist Party (CP), would gradually shuffle off to a well-deserved berth in history’s dustbin.

That didn’t happen. At first, amid the savage economic transition of the 1990’s millions of older Russians, motivated largely by nostalgia for the Soviet welfare state, rallied to the old party. In 1999, the party’s huge parliamentary fraction came within sight of impeaching then-President Boris Yeltsin.

Predictions that the CP would fade away as all those militant pensioners died off have not panned out either. The hyper-popular President Vladimir Putin has stolen much of the communists’ populist thunder by regularly raising pensions and civil service salaries and presided – until recently – over one of the most impressive economic expansions in Russian history. Putin also co-opted the rhetoric and powerful symbolism of old superpower, as seen in this week’s massive Victory Day parade, replete with marching troops, newly-minted Stalin medallions and flowing hammer-and-sickle banners.

Despite all that, the old CP is actually growing and appears ready to mount a serious challenge to the ruling United Russia party in September’s parliamentary elections. In the past two election cycles, the CP increased its vote from about 12 to 20%, and could be set to make major gains this time around.  The party has lately pulled off some surprise upsets in recent regional polls as well.

In defiance of all expectations, large numbers of youthful and often well-educated new activists are moving into the old party, and starting to rejuvenate its complexion and its prospects. The CP has some 160,000 members, about 40% of whom are under 35, according to Yaroslav Listov, the party’s chief of youth policy.

The leadership remains overwhelmingly gray – consider this gallery of the party’s nearly 100 current Duma deputies, with it’s smattering of youthful faces – but the party’s demonstrations and other public events reveal a much more youthful vibe. And conversations with young activists suggest they are far less concerned with the great achievements of the Soviet epoch and the bread-and-butter issues that animate older members, and far more interested in the ideological core of the old Bolshevik party, which involves radical egalitarianism and uncompromising anti-capitalism.

“Liberals declare that Putin has created a kind of Soviet-lite regime, and ask why we communists aren’t happy with it?” says Nikita Popov, a 26-year old political science graduate and internet news editor. “But there is less equality than ever in this country. There is a mutant type of capitalism, which enriches the friends of Putin, while the majority are gradually being impoverished and losing their rights. When Putin pretends to sympathise with communism, he’s just playing to simple people. In fact, he is domestically pursuing a liberal course, slashing social benefits and expanding the economic power of big business.”

Popov and his friends are derisive of Putin’s “hands-on” management style, in which the Kremlin leader holds big nationally-televised electronic town hall meetings, in which he addresses – and solves on the spot – the problems of average Russians who phone in to complain of unpaid wages, bad roads or rapacious bureaucrats.

“This is just PR smoke-and-mirrors,” says Popov. “Sooner or later, something’s going to break. I’m personally ready for revolution, just like in 1917.”

The fact that Russia is mired in its second year of deep economic recession may help to focus minds. Polls show that Russians tend to be left-wing in their political instincts, perhaps due to the Soviet experience or the country’s longer history of collectivism, and the communists speak to that in times of trouble more effectively than other parties can, Popov insists.

It’s not easy to ignore a party that’s over a century old, once led Russia to superpower status, and is coming back despite all the forces arrayed against it, says Grigory Azhogin, a party activist at Moscow’s State University for the Humanities.

“Here in Moscow you don’t see how bad things are. But I’m from a small mining city, where most mines and factories have been shut down,” he says. “People know the present authorities are corrupt, they’re not interested in listening to the people. For most Russians nowadays, this is the ‘period of survival’. It will be followed by political mobilisation, and who are people going to turn to if not the CP?”

As in the old days, the CP is organised into local cells, which meet regularly, discuss party policy, and plan activities. For some young Russians, alienated by Western culture but also put off by the corruption and what they see as the shallow values of the Putin regime, the party cell provides a vital personal support network and a forum to explore alternative ideas.

“I actually came to the party by reading Western literature, like Freud, Fromm and Marcuse. I want to study more, and I found this circle of people who are completely enthusiastic about the same things,” says Konstantin Kopelov, a law student. “These people are my comrades. We talk about everything, music, theatre, movies, radical politics, whatever is going on. We are spiritual kin, and we are searching together for the way forward.”

Under its venerable leader, Gennady Zyuganov, the party has been careful to avoid confrontation with the Kremlin. That has led a lot of critics to dismiss it as “Putin’s pocket communist party,” and it has indeed seemed all-too-willing to accept the perks that go with being part of the establishment. When tens of thousands of middle class Russians took to the streets in 2011 to protest alleged mass fraud by the ruling United Russia party , the party was slow to join in, even though it had its own catalogue of grievances over alleged dirty tricks and vote-stealing by the Kremlin party. And when the street protests wound down, the CP managed to avoid the fate of liberal and other leftist groups, who were hounded by mass arrests, subjected to political trials, and in some cases  driven into exile.

That makes some long-time observers cynical about the CP’s potential as a vehicle for genuine social change.

“In the Putin era the CP has become completely integrated into the system,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing intellectual. “It has been said that ‘the CP is not so much a political party anymore, as it is a licensed monopoly to provide opposition services to the public.’ That sums it up pretty well.”

But Listov, the party youth chief, insists that perception is wrong. For example, he says, the fact that the CP strongly supports the Kremlin’s current foreign policy is because Putin has come around to the CP’s point-of-view about the West, not the other way around.

“When Putin came to power, he tried his best to be a partner with the US. We warned that wouldn’t work, that they would only exploit Russian weakness to expand NATO and isolate us,” he says. “Now Putin has learned through hard experience that the West can’t be trusted. He won’t give us any credit, of course, but it’s our policy not his.”

Unlike many European former communist parties, Russia’s CP has never fully embraced parliamentarism, where parties alternate in power according to the results of elections. Russia’s CP continues to believe that social revolution will be necessary to return the country to the path of socialism. And younger communists seem more emphatic about this than their elders.

“We are not thinking of revolution as a change of one leader by another,” says Kopelev, the law student. “For us it’s a social transformation through mass action, and participating in elections is just one aspect of that.”

The Kremlin has been worried enough about the CP, with its solid and durable base of support, to try about a decade ago to replace it with an artificial but totally loyal left-wing party, Fair Russia. But that did not enjoy much electoral success, leaving the pro-Putin United Russia party scrambling in this election cycle to outflank the Communists’ “anti-crisis program” with populist measures such as raising the minimum wage and increasing pensions.

“Our biggest problem is that the ruling party keeps stealing our ideas,” says Listov. “Of course they’re not solid or systematic about it, it’s just populism. But it shows what they are afraid of. People are hurting, and they know who is the most reliable defender of living standards and social equality in this country. And we are not going away.”

  • garl margs

    Right on comrade, solidarity from Canada.