MOSCOW — TRYING to pin down the political positions of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is as hard as catching a silver fox in the snows of Siberia.
One day, glad-handing over platefuls of veal in mushroom sauce at a luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce, he is promising tax cuts and praising the virtues of private enterprise and foreign investment.
The next, addressing a provincial campaign rally, he is warming the hearts of impoverished pensioners muffled up against the cold with the vision of a reborn Soviet Union, plaudits for Joseph Stalin, and vilification of Russia's nascent democracy as ''the power of the mafia, not the people.''
Rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union's collapse four years ago, the Communist Party is leading the field in opinion polls as Russian voters prepare to elect a new parliament Dec. 17.
But just what the Communists will do with such power if they win is largely a matter of guesswork, both for political analysts and ordinary voters.
At the luncheon, US executives worried about the future of business here were largely soothed. ''There is a feeling that they are a new breed of Communist, a more pragmatic crew that seems content to work in a democratic framework,'' says Peter Charow, director of the American Chamber of Commerce.
This is the image that Mr. Zyuganov takes pains to project as he crisscrosses the country on the campaign trail. He has a mantra that he repeats at every stop: The Soviet Union self-destructed ''because it claimed a monopoly on truth, a monopoly on power, and a monopoly on property.''
The new Communists, he implies, have no such pretensions, least of all when it comes to property, and no intentions to renationalize companies that have been privatized under Russia's economic reform program.
''We will not take anything away if we come to power,'' Zyuganov told regional officials recently in Kursk, an industrial city 350 miles southwest of Moscow. ''If we started doing that, people would start shooting at each other from the Baltics to the Pacific; there would be civil war.''
Orthodox Christianity resurfaces
When it comes to truth, too, the Communists no longer adhere to Karl Marx's adage that ''religion is the opium of the people.'' Indeed, Russian Orthodox Christianity - deeply rooted in Russian society despite seven decades of official atheism and often brutal repression - makes up a large part of the spiritual heritage that Zyuganov now claims as his own.
''This is a modern party, not looking backward but forward to the 21st century,'' he told his audience of American businessmen. But he was careful not to distribute his party's election manifesto, emblazoned not only with a hammer and sickle but also with a slogan redolent of the past: ''For Our Soviet Motherland,'' the country's rallying cry during World War II.
The manifesto is designed to appeal to older Russians nostalgic for their superpower past and for cradle-to-grave security. The Communists stand for the re-creation of the Soviet Union (albeit only if the other 14 newly independent countries want to rejoin), for price controls on basic consumer goods, and for state control of key sectors of the economy.
At the least, that would mean returning oil and gas, transportation, and military-industrial enterprises to government ownership, despite Zyuganov's pledges not to renationalize anything. If hard-liners in the party got their way, it would mean much more.
Party ideology boss Alexander Shabanov, for example, says he would leave only retail trade and the manufacture of items such as food, clothing, and household goods in the private sector, and he would allow that limited activity only on the condition that ''the product benefits society ... and that most people can afford it.'' Once again, a Communist Party bureaucrat, rather than the market, would determine what goods should be made.
What communism would mean to political freedom - a tender young shoot in Russia after many centuries of autocracy - is also a matter of speculation. While Western Europe's social democrats would find little to quarrel with in what Zyuganov says, his party keeps its ''communist'' label, he explains, because ''communism means the communal; we prioritize the general interest over the individual's interest.''
Russians know only too well what that meant under the old Communist Party. The new party's emphasis on the importance of a strong state draws on an old Russian tradition, but also raises new questions about the party's commitment to respect for individual freedoms as they are understood in the West.
Those questions, however, are of minor importance to most Russian voters next to the more urgent needs of everyday life, which they have always expected the state to meet. And when the Communists lard their promise of strong central government with nationalist slogans that play on a deep-seated mistrust of the West, their message enjoys increased resonance.
This new ideology, which the Communists call ''state patriotism,'' also meshes well with other rising forces in Russian politics, all of which share a nationalist flavor. Zyuganov himself points to the Agrarians (a collectivist party appealing to farm workers) and the Congress of Russian Communities, another nationalist grouping, as his natural allies in the next Duma (parliament).
That constellation of parties, bolstered by any other kindred spirits that win seats in the Duma, could end up with a majority of the 450 seats. But predictions are unsafe. Polls show that more than 50 percent of voters have not made up their minds for whom, or even whether, they will vote.
In the short term, the election will have only a limited impact on the direction of Russian politics. Under the Constitution, it is the president who wields almost all the power. The Duma enjoys little direct authority over anything except the budget.
But the Duma does have influence. ''On the nuts and bolts of legislation, Communists can make decisions that would hurt foreign business,'' worries one American executive here. ''If the Communists controlled the agenda, they would have the power not to reverse the process [of economic reform] but at least to slow it down.''
Slowing economic reforms
There is little doubt that they would use their power to that end. ''We support privatization over 10 to 15 years, not overnight,'' says Aman Tuleyev, second to Zyuganov on the Communist Party electoral list. ''The process should be continued but in a sensible way.''
But not reversed. ''These people know how to run a country,'' argues Alexei Podberyozkin, one of the strategists behind the Communist platform. ''Very few of them put ideological priorities before state priorities today. Zyuganov is a professional politician. He understands that you cannot [suddenly] turn a large ship 90 degrees. Even if the new course were absolutely right, the ship would break up.''
* First of a two-parts series. Tomorrow: Who's voting Communist, and why.