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From Soviet Ash Heap, Russia's Reds Arise

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1995


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.

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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.