MOSCOW — Gennady Zyuganov, the leading candidate to be Russia's next president, is a kind of Communist that Marx and Lenin would hardly recognize.
He rejects the ideology that inspired the early Soviets to dream of world revolution and the solidarity of international working class. Instead, a strong patriotic sense of Russia's destiny lies at the heart of his political philosophy.
No longer the "opium of the people," as per Marx, the Russian Orthodox religion has a special role in Russian civilization in contrast to the "aggressive lack of spirituality" of the West, according to Mr. Zyuganov. The driving force in history is not class struggle, as in classic communism, but the geopolitical clash of civilizations. In particular, he means the clash of the "continental" civilization led by Russia with the "oceanic" civilization of the cosmopolitan West, represented by the United States.
Zyuganov believes that the values at the core of Russia's cultural heritage are collectivist, in contrast to the radical individualism of the West. He also still believes in the role of the Soviet Union to stand as a geopolitical bulwark against world domination by the West.
In the late 1980s, as Zyuganov rose to the second highest position in the ideology department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was aghast at what he perceived to be the weakening and Westernizing of the country under Mikhail Gorbachev. In that period, "he developed his dominant idea of a Western conspiracy to undermine the Soviet Union," says Sergei Kolmakov, political counselor for the Reforma Foundation, a Moscow-based think tank.
Zyuganov has written three books in recent years, with one published just a few months ago. In them he tends to praise Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, generally credited with killing at least 20 million of his own countrymen. He has little to say about the early Stalin, who engaged in deadly party purges. Instead, he points to Stalin's use of patriotism and religion, rather than communism, to rally Russians in World War II.
Lira Leonova, chairwoman of the Communist Party history section at Moscow State University, says his views are just a reaction to the current social disorder in Russia. Zyuganov is at root a social democrat, she adds.
Yet others see him as a national socialist, such as Tito of Yugoslavia. Sergei Markov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, compares him to Peron of Argentina or Chiang Kai-shek of nationalist China: "He will be authoritarian, but not too strong. He will try to manipulate democracy, but not to kill it."