In Russia, young Communists see moment to vie for power

Under the impact of economic crisis and impatient with 'mutant capitalism' dominated by Kremlin cronies, younger members of the Communist Party say they could provide an alternative to 'Putinism.'

Grigory Dukor/Reuters/File
Gennady Zyuganov (c.), leader of the Russian Communist Party, takes part in a procession to celebrate the Defender of the Fatherland Day, on Feb. 23, in central Moscow.

Nikita Popov is too young to have any memories of life in the Soviet Union. Yet the Internet news editor and political science graduate is absolutely certain that the communist system that died around the time he was born is the key to Russia's future.

He's not alone.

In defiance of all expectations when the USSR collapsed, large numbers of youthful and often well-educated new activists are moving into Russia's old Communist Party, and starting to rejuvenate its complexion and its prospects.

And under the impact of a deepening economic crisis, and impatient with what Mr. Popov calls "mutant capitalism" dominated by Kremlin cronies, younger communists say it's time to vie for power in Russia again.

With parliamentary elections looming in September, polls suggest the party's fortunes are looking up. In the past two election cycles, the party increased its vote from about 12 to 20 percent, and could be set to make major gains this time around. The CP has pulled off some surprise upsets in recent regional polls.

"Russians tend to be left-wing, by their history and collective mentality," says Popov. "People are getting poorer and poorer, while all the profits go to a few friends of our president. And every year [Vladimir] Putin holds a televised town hall meeting where he pretends to solve all problems. It's just theater. He's actually ... slashing social benefits and impoverishing people. Sooner or later, something's going to break. I'm personally ready for revolution, just like in 1917."

A real opposition?

The CP is Russia's second largest political party, and it has survived all these years by appealing to the nostalgia of millions of older Russians for the Soviet social welfare state, and cultivating the image of a left-wing opposition while carefully evading confrontation with the Kremlin. A gallery of the party's nearly 100 Duma deputies, headed by its venerable leader Gennady Zyuganov, reveals only a smattering of youthful faces.

Of its some 160,000 members, about 40 percent are under 35, according to Yaroslav Listov, the party's chief of youth policy. As in the old days, the CP is organized into local cells, which meet regularly, discuss party policy, and plan activities. For some young Russians, alienated by Western culture but also put off by the corruption and what they see as the shallow values of the Putin regime, the party cell provides a vital personal support network and a forum to explore alternative ideas.

"I actually came to the party by reading Western literature, like Freud, Fromm, and Marcuse. I want to study more, and I found this circle of people who are completely enthusiastic about the same things," says Konstantin Kopelov, a law student. "These people are my comrades. We talk about everything, music, theater, movies, radical politics, whatever is going on. We are spiritual kin, and we are searching together for the way forward."

But Mr. Zyuganov, the CP leader, has trod carefully under Mr. Putin's popular and sometimes heavy-handed regime, seeming all-too-willing to accept the perks that go with being part of the establishment. When tens of thousands of middle class Russians took to the streets in 2011 to protest alleged mass fraud by the ruling United Russia party, the party was slow to join in, even though it had its own catalogue of grievances over alleged dirty tricks and vote-stealing by the Kremlin party.

And when the street protests wound down, the CP managed to avoid the fate of liberal and other leftist groups, who were hounded by mass arrests, subjected to political trials, and in some cases driven into exile.

That makes some long-time observers cynical about the CP's potential as a vehicle for genuine social change.

"In the Putin era the CP has become completely integrated into the system," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a veteran left-wing intellectual. "It has been said that 'the CP is not so much a political party anymore, as it is a licensed monopoly to provide opposition services to the public.' That sums it up pretty well."

'Period of survival'

But it's hard to dismiss a party that's over a century old, once led Russia to superpower status, and is coming back despite all the forces arrayed against it, says Grigory Azhogin, a party activist at Moscow's State University for the Humanities.

"Here in Moscow you don't see how bad things are. But I'm from a small mining city, where most mines and factories have been shut down," he says. "People know the present authorities are corrupt, they're not interested in listening to the people. For most Russians nowadays, this is the 'period of survival'. It will be followed by political mobilization, and who are people going to turn to if not the CP?"

The Kremlin has been worried enough about the CP, with its solid and durable base of support, to try about a decade ago to replace it with an artificial but totally loyal left-wing party, Fair Russia. But that did not enjoy much electoral success, leaving the pro-Putin United Russia party scrambling in this election cycle to outflank the Communists' "anti-crisis program" with populist measures such as raising the minimum wage and increasing pensions.

"Our biggest problem is that the ruling party keeps stealing our ideas," says Mr. Listov, the CP youth chief. "Of course they're not solid or systematic about it, it's just populism. But it shows what they are afraid of. People are hurting, and they know who is the most reliable defender of living standards and social equality in this country. And we are not going away."

Revolution, interrupted?

Unlike many European former communist parties, Russia's CP has never fully embraced parliamentarianism, where parties alternate in power according to the results of elections. Russia's CP continues to believe that social revolution will be necessary to return the country to the path of socialism. And younger communists seem more emphatic about this than their elders.

"We are not thinking of revolution as a change of one leader by another," says Mr. Kopelev, the law student. "For us it's a social transformation through mass action, and participating in elections is just one aspect of that."

Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Communist youth activist who joined Fair Russia several years ago in frustration over the timid style of the CP leadership, says that as long as the old guard runs the party, it will not be able to live up to the historic role it lays claim to. (Mr. Ponomaryov, as a Duma deputy for Fair Russia, was the only parliamentarian to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He was subsequently forced to leave the country under threat of what he says are specious criminal charges, and now lives in the US.)

"The CP is stuck between its past, personified by its leadership, and its future, which is personified by the very numerous and energetic youth in its ranks," he says. "Only time will tell."

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