THE Communist Party of Russia, once considered finished, has rebounded. As the result of last December's election, the party now holds a plurality in the new parliament: 157 seats out of 355 (34 percent). The complex election was organized with two ballots, one for party slates and one for candidates from single-member districts; the Communists prevailed in both votes.
Whatever other lessons may be drawn from the December elections, the results demonstrate the political difficulties of replacing a planned economy with a free-market system. Many non-communist countries have faced similar problems, especially in the developing world dominated by post-colonial planned economies. In Russia, however, the problem has been compounded by the almost total collapse of the previous system's institutions and by the lack of any strong capitalist traditions.
Those in Russia who voted Communist apparently did so for several reasons. Despite its earlier collapse, the party retains its organization in the country, with 500,000 members and 120 publications. The party structure benefits from negative public reactions to changes in Russia. Although symbols of capitalist progress exist in Moscow and St. Petersburg, they are alien to most Russians. McDonald's golden arches, even though popular, are seen by many as a foreign invasion. Equally repugnant to many Russians is the apparent influence of outside economic advisers on the Yeltsin government.
Unemployment and other uncertainties of reform create feelings of insecurity and nostalgia for what was remembered as a more orderly and dependable past. Thirty-seven percent of the voters in the December elections were ''pensioners,'' older people who have a more benign view of the past. Younger voters who might be expected to support the reforms represented only 20 percent of the electorate. And then there is the growing influence of crime in the marketplace. Under the old system, an underground economy existed, dominated by criminal elements. Many of them have become the first capitalists of the new era, bringing with them their ''Mafia'' culture.
What does the Communist Party's electoral victory mean for the future? The Russian Constitution gives far more power to the president than to the parliament. Yeltsin thus remains a key figure; much will depend on whether he can defeat antireform and nationalist figures in June. Nevertheless, certain conclusions are possible. Free elections have now become an accepted part of the Russian political scene, establishing a practice that can be reversed only at the cost of great internal upheaval. At the same time, earlier moves toward a free-market economy were too rapid, creating major trauma for the Russian people. The conspicuous foreign presence associated with the reforms has awakened emotions of Russian nationalism that have helped opponents of reform.
As experience mounts in the post-cold-war era, however, Americans are finding that the results of elections in other countries are disappointing. Nevertheless, the large numbers who went to the polls in Russia in relative freedom and order testify to a broad acceptance of the democratic way. Perhaps democracy and capitalism cannot be constructed simultaneously in a country that has known neither. In Russia, however, a start has been made. Less than a decade after the collapse of the old system perhaps that is as much as the world can expect.