Nostalgia for Soviet Era Sways Older Russians
Communist Party set to do well in parliament elections
KURSK, RUSSIA — TATYANA STYUKHINA, a bubbly young accountant, beams as she walks onto the stage of the local college auditorium and laughs as the secretary general of the Russian Communist Party plants a beefy kiss on her cheek.
Along with the kiss, Gennady Zyuganov gives Ms. Styukhina a once-coveted document, a party card. The bookkeeper from the home-appliance store on main street in this provincial Russian town (still called Lenin Street) has just become the newest member of the Communist Party.
Her youth makes her an unusual Communist in today's Russia, but her reasons for joining the party are typical. ''I want order and security, so I can be sure of tomorrow,'' she explains. ''I've got kids, and I want them to have at least what I had - a calm atmosphere and a stable upbringing.''
An increasing number of Russians, nostalgic for the security that came with life in the old Soviet Union and disoriented by the chaos that has accompanied political and economic reform in the new Russia, plan to vote for the Communists in the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections.
Mr. Zyuganov's party, which he has refashioned in the four years since communism collapsed in ignominy across Europe, is ahead in the polls in the days leading up to the vote and looks certain to bolster its parliamentary strength considerably.
To an outsider, it might seem astonishing that after 70 years of having communism forced on them by a totalitarian and repressive government, a significant number of Russians are prepared to vote for the Communist Party of their own free will, in open elections.
But plummeting living standards, rising crime, and alarming uncertainty about the future have combined to give the past a rosy glow in many Russians' memories. The Communist Party, drawing on its old organizing skills, has been quick to capitalize on the nostalgia.
Tradition of the communal
It has also found fertile ground in Russians' sense of community and age-old reliance on a paternalistic state. ''The Russian tradition is a tradition of the community, which is the defining unit of society, rather than the family or the individual, as in the West,'' says Alexander Shabanov, the Communist Party's man in charge of ideology.
Although younger Russians are adopting Western values in greater numbers as the years pass and taking more responsibility for their own lives, says sociologist Leonid Kesselman, most people are still imbued with a Soviet sense that the state should take care of them.
This sense has been shattered by the economic, social, and political upheavals that have shaken Russia on its roller-coaster ride through free-market reforms. The large majority of Russians are worse off materially than they were 10 years ago, and few have much faith that continued reforms are going to make things any better.
They were comfortable with the old predictability, and they knew where they stood. ''Our economy was built on different principles from yours,'' says Inna Pechatnikova, a woman celebrating the 78th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution at a Communist rally in Moscow Nov. 7. ''It can only work when it's planned.''
A ready audience among the poor
In the new, privatized economy, meanwhile, ''We have no rights at work; if you don't like it, you can just get out,'' lamented Galina Voronkina, a veteran Communist who had turned out in a snowstorm to welcome Zyuganov to Kursk on a recent campaign trip. ''We have nowhere to go if we want to complain.''
Nowhere to go but the Communist Party, and though it doesn't have the power it once did, it still has a network. Party offices still exist all over the country, and the half-million members constitute the only truly organized political party in Russia.
The party is strongest in the so-called ''red belt'' of industrial cities, such as Kursk, that encircle Moscow in a southern arc. But all over Russia, the Communists find a ready audience among the poor, a large group considering that nearly 30 percent of the population lives below subsistence levels, according to official figures.
Free medical care, guaranteed lifetime employment, nominally priced vacation trips arranged through trade unions - all the social buffers that made life cozier under the Soviet system - are things of the past. Those who remember them most fondly are those least able to fend for themselves today: middle-aged people and pensioners.
These are the people with memories of the glory days of the Soviet Union, especially its epic victory over Germany in World War II, and who are bitter at the collapse of Russia as a superpower. ''They have seen their country fall apart,'' says Alexei Podberyozkin, a candidate for parliament on the Communist ticket. ''Everybody remembers what life was like in 1985 compared with 1995, and 90 percent of them feel the situation has worsened.''
Many older people are not just financially at sea, but also confused by the uncertainties in the new Russia. ''We used to believe in one party that was big and powerful,'' recalls Galina Sergeyevna at the Revolution Day rally. ''Now there are too many little parties. We just need one that the people can believe in.''
For most Russians, this yearning for moral certainty, or even just the desire for a living wage, outweighs any concerns they might have about the intellectual freedoms that their Communist rulers extirpated for three generations. ''For 80 percent of the population, these political freedoms mean either very little or nothing at all,'' argues Mr. Podberyozkin, a political scientist who helped draft the Communist platform. ''People want economic freedoms - to raise chickens, for example - but that's it.''
In the longer run, the rise of younger generations is likely to spell trouble for the Communists and their appeal to nostalgia. But in next month's elections, the party's strength among older people is expected to pay dividends: Polls show that only about one-third of voters under 35 intend to cast a ballot, while nearly two-thirds of voters over 55 plan to go to the polls.
* Second in a two-part series. Part 1 ran yesterday.