Russia's reds in from the cold

Banned in 1991, back with a vengeance in 2001, Russia's Communists rebound as political force.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Ten years ago, the hammer and sickle appeared headed for history's dustbin. The Communist Party, the force that had ruled the USSR for seven decades, was outlawed and dispossessed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who had just defeated a coup attempt by a gang of Kremlin hawks.

At the time, Mr. Yeltsin said the move was final, and Russia would shift into a democratic era minus the party that had long led - and symbolized - the USSR.

But, far from sinking into oblivion, Russia's Communist Party quickly rebounded. Today, it is the country's largest political organization, runs about 40 percent of regional governments, and controls a third of the seats in the national parliament.

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"How can you destroy an idea that is so deeply rooted in Russian society and culture?," says Vladimir Lakayev, second secretary of the city of Moscow's powerful Communist Party organization. "Yeltsin only strengthened the party with his constant attacks."

Following the collapse of the USSR, a group of left-wing members of parliament challenged Mr. Yeltsin's anti-communist decrees in Russia's Constitutional Court.

In the stormy trial in 1992, the Kremlin's lawyers argued that the party should be banned for leading Russia down a tragic path. They charged that, during its rule, the Communist Party supervised mass murders, built the vast gulag prison camp network, and systematically suppressed human rights.

The court concluded, however, that grassroots believers in communism had the right to organize. Reviving in 1993, the Russian Communist Party grew swiftly, claiming to have 600,000 members today.

"Our party preserves the best traditions of the Soviet Communist Party, including its ideology and principles," says Mr. Lakayev. "But, unlike Soviet times, when most members were just opportunists, all those who join us now are sincere activists."

Despite its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the new Communist Party demonstrates little taste for radicalism. It has won local elections and done well in national votes.

But there's less show than before: unlike its revolutionary founders, today's party faithful take to the streets only to celebrate Soviet-era holidays, such as May Day, and they are careful to confine such action to low-key parades and speeches.

"This is not a party, but a vestige of the Soviet state," says Svyatoslav Kaspe, a political analyst with the independent Russian Public Policy Center. "It is a cultural club, where people fondly remember the good old days and venerate the symbols of Soviet times. As a political force, it is deeply conformist and not at all a threat to the regime."

The party's latest public campaign is to change the name of the central Russian city of Volgograd back to Stalingrad, to honor the great battle won there by Soviet forces in World War II.

"This is nostalgia raised to the level of a political crusade," says Mr. Kaspe. "But, even if they win, it will alter nothing essential."

Most of the post-Soviet Communist Party's members are, in fact, elderly people who fought in World War II or grew up in the tough years of reconstruction and the subsequent struggle toward global superpower status.

But many experts say that the stubborn pride of lifelong Communists, and widespread nostalgia for the Soviet Union, do not fully explain the party's phoenixlike recovery.

"The original cause of communism was capitalism, and Yeltsin created one of the nastiest versions of capitalism ever seen," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a left-wing sociologist in Moscow. "It shouldn't be surprising that people who were experiencing harsh impoverishment and social humiliation would turn to the party that symbolized resistance to capitalism."

During the initial post-Soviet period, hyperinflation destroyed the savings of millions of ordinary Russians. Crooked privatizations of state assets put vast wealth in the hands of a small minority, while most people fell into poverty. A 1998 financial crash, brought on by Kremlin incompetence, slashed the buying power of already meager wages by two-thirds.

A popular joke of the mid-'90s asked: What has Yeltsin accomplished in a few years that the Communists couldn't in 70 years? The answer: He's made Communism look good.

Yeltsin's penchant for refighting his historic battle with communism, rather than building a viable new democratic movement, also played into the Communist Party's hands. In 1993, he mobilized tanks and troops to blast away the "Communist-dominated" - but freely elected - legislature.

In subsequent parliamentary elections, the Communists roared back, often taking a quarter or more of the votes. In 1996, the awkward and lackluster Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov captured more than 40 percent of popular support in a dirty campaign that narrowly reelected Yeltsin.

"Yeltsin liked confrontation, it was his political style," says Mikhail Ilyin, deputy editor of Polis, an independent Moscow-based journal of political studies. "But this had a polarizing effect on society. In effect, he forced people to choose between him and the Communists, and that did nothing to broaden the country's political choices."

However, Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin, could succeed in killing the Communist Party with compromise where Yeltsin's antagonistic approach failed.

A former KGB agent, Mr. Putin has restored many old symbols, such as the Soviet anthem. He has pledged not to remove Bolshevik founder Vladimir Lenin from his Red Square mausoleum, though Yeltsin threatened repeatedly to do so. Under Putin, military spending has been hiked and old Soviet allies, such as Cuba and North Korea, are back in favor. Perhaps most important, pensions have been significantly raised.

But how far Putin is ready to go in pleasing the Communists remains to be seen. A public appeal signed by Mr. Zyuganov and 42 other leading Communists last week urged the Kremlin to purge Yeltsin-era officials and give more power to the secret police in order to "cure a sick state."

"Traditional values are very important for Russians, and this accounts for the endurance of the Communist Party," says Mr. Ilyin.

"But few want to really go back to the past," he says. "Putin will probably respect the Communists as long as they stay in their place."

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