Soviet Communists Still Out in the Cold

But prolonged crisis could attract backers

THE remnants of the once-powerful Communist Party of the Soviet Union seem mired, both literally and figuratively, in the political wilderness.

A group of mostly communist, hard-line members of the former Soviet parliament tried on Tuesday to reconvene the disbanded body in an attempt to assert the continued existence of the dismembered Soviet state. Instead, they led hundreds of journalists on a goose chase through the Russian countryside, searching for a spot to hold their meeting, finally ending up in the darkened meeting hall of a dairy farm.

Later that evening the communists, along with a smattering of Russian nationalist extremists, gathered for what was billed to be a huge rally next to the Kremlin to commemorate the March 1991 referendum that agreed to maintain the Soviet Union. The demonstration managed to gather about 15,000 people, an unimpressive turnout in a square that has held mass rallies of hundreds of thousands of democrats protesting Communist rule.

The crowd, largely composed of older people, expressed a not-uncommon nostalgia for the old era of Communist rule. Rally organizers led them in rhythmic chants of the name of the country which disappeared after the failed Communist putsch last August: "Sovietski Soyuz." Flags of the 15 former Soviet republics were hung behind the makeshift podium. An old woman in a wool cap clutched a picture of Lenin.

Hand-lettered signs and banners carried slogans: "Yeltsin - Bush's lackey!" "Socialist Revolution will be victorious over bourgeois counterrevolution in Russia!" A carefully drawn signboard portrayed Hitler and Yeltsin arm-in-arm with the admonition, " 'No' to Fascism!"

A small group of youths staged their own counter-demonstration at one side of the square. "Down with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," they shouted, waving the tricolor flag of the reborn Russian state. Onlookers, such as small businessman Gregory Germanenko, seemed pleased with the lack of strength displayed by the communists. "It is the funeral of this evil idea," he said. "They have demonstrated their weakness."

The Communist Party was formally banned last fall for its role in organizing and supporting the failed coup. But at least nine parties have emerged claiming to be successor organizations. They range from moderate communists who pattern themselves on Western European communist parties to neo-Stalinist groups such as the All-Union Bolshevik Communist Party led by Nina Andreyeva and the Russian Communist Workers' Party.

Approximately 200 former members of the Congress of People's Deputies - about one-tenth of its former membership - met briefly Tuesday, led by people who were prominent hard-line opponents of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies. These included the notorious "black colonels," Viktor Alksnis and Nikolai Petrushenko, as well as Gen. Albert Makashov, another military hard-liner. Moderate Communist Roy Medvedev, who leads one of the communist splinter groups, was also in their ranks.

Political scientist Andranik Migranyan, who attended both the attempted parliament meeting and the rally, agrees that "as an ideology and as a party, the communists have no future." But he is quick to add his fear that the communists, merged as they are becoming with the nascent neo-fascist Russian nationalist movement, could exploit the severe economic crisis which shows no signs of abating.

The communists increasingly share views and platforms with those nationalists who hanker for a restoration of the boundaries of the former Russian empire. A small entourage from the party of Russian chauvinist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who garnered more than 6 million votes in last year's Russian presidential election, noticeably joined Tuesday's demonstration, for example.

"What worries me is not the communists, per se, but people who are frustrated and angry at the Yeltsin government," Mr. Migranyan says. "The communists can be organizers of those people, but not under communist slogans."

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