Russia's reds in from the cold
Banned in 1991, back with a vengeance in 2001, Russia's Communists rebound as political force.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
"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.