Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 15

Is it too Early to Bury the Communists?

By Andrei Fedorov

Four years ago, speaking before American congressmen, Russianpresident Boris Yeltsin announced that "Communism is finishedin Russia. It is finished once and for all." But in the 1995parliamentary elections, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation[KPRF] got more votes than any other party and formed a factionwhich was strong enough to guarantee its representative’s electionto the post of Chairman of the State Duma. And in 1996, Yeltsin’smost serious opponent in the presidential elections was KPRF leaderGennady Zyuganov. Was this sheer chance or the result of a logical,historical process?

In my view, this is a logical process. The events of August 1991,which led to the demise of the old Communist system, did not,in fact, mean a renunciation of communism as an ideology and away of life for the overwhelming majority of the population. Thesepeople joyfully broke with totalitarianism and with certain concretepolitical figures, above all, the leaders of the CPSU, but thisdid not change the character of their thinking or the way theyperceive socio-economic processes. And this remains true to thisday. It was a system of government that crumbled, not the ideology,the psychology, or the historical memory.

It is true that Communist ideology is utopian. But during seventyyears of Soviet power, it succeeded in becoming the core of society’sspiritual life. The new government tried to take out that core,but it did not succeed in offering a new Russian ideology, whichwas "consolidating" in character. And such an ideologywould have to be offered, not to the political elites, but tothe masses of the Russian population, which saw many of theirmost cherished values discredited. The promise of democracy andreform with the

West supporting it and footing the bill soon faded away, as theharsh reality of the transition to market relations became clear,leading millions of Russian citizens to look back on the recentpast with nostalgia, and speak of how "things may not havebeen that good under the Communists, but at least there was order,and people could walk about freely on the streets."

Looking at the years of Communist rule in light of the hardshipsof contemporary everyday life, many in Russian society are nowconfident that a "modernized communism," which has learnedits lessons from the recent past, could be the way out of thedeep crisis which has engulfed Russian society. This mood dominatesamong the thirty million people who voted for Zyuganov in therecent presidential elections.

By the way, it wasn’t the regions whose socio-economic situationwas the worst that voted for Zyuganov. The most important characteristicof the Communists in Russia is that they have been able, whenthey are under pressure, to make a complete ideological turn,without changing the name of the party, and at the same time,have been able to exploit, to the maximum extent, popular dissatisfactionwith the course and the initial results of the reform policy.

The Communist movement in Russia today is the force which allpolitical parties and movements in Russia, the parliament, thegovernment, and the president, without exception, must reckonwith. There is no other way. A vivid example of this is the factthat Viktor Chernomyrdin, before he was confirmed again as primeminister, met twice with the leadership of the Communist partyand its faction in the parliament, but did not consider it necessaryto meet with his own supporters.

So what is the Communist movement in Russia today, and what isits future?

First of all, it must be noted that the Communist Party of theRussian Federation is the largest and best-organized politicalforce in the country. It now has on the order of 650,000 membersas well as its own organizations in absolutely every region. Inmany cases, these are resurrected party structures. (Bear in mindthe fact that today, the average KPRF member is 52 years old,although younger people have started to trickle into their ranks.)The previous system of vertically-linked party organizations hasbeen restored and even strengthened, which has allowed the KPRFleadership to communicate its positions and decisions to the localitiesefficiently, and to receive interesting information from themin return.

There are two nationwide newspapers under the KPRF’s control:Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossiya, which, together withtheir supplements, have a combined circulation of about one million,and more than 150 regional publications, not to mention numerouscity and village publications. Not much access to national television,KPRF representatives have more of an opportunity to use regionaltelevision and radio in more than thirty Russian regions.

In recent years, a so-called "red belt" has been formedout of the territories which have consistently voted for the KPRFand its allies. These are, above all, central and southern Russia,and parts of Siberia and the Far East. In the gubernatorial elections,which should last until December 31, 1996, the KPRF is countingon winning no less than 20 to 25 of the posts for its representativesor representatives of the national-patriotic bloc. If they succeed,the result will be a change in the correlation of forces in theupper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council,since many of the members who serve on it by virtue of being theleaders of the regional legislative structures, are already representativesof the opposition. The country could then greet the new year of1997 with a political landscape that would increase the possibilityof a Communist "renaissance."

The KPRF today is significantly different from the CPSU. Manyof the stereotyped positions and formulations which were characteristicof even the recent past have disappeared from its arsenal. Butits main focus continues to be on socialism as the goal, and Communistideology as the means of achieving it. The understanding of socialismis "social-democratic" and it recognizes political pluralismand the possibility of different forms of property ownership.Nonetheless, an endorsement of "private property" ispointedly absent. This, perhaps, was one of the main factors behindZyuganov’s defeat in the presidential elections. In a countrywhere private property has become a reality, refusal to recognizethis fact means losing public support.

In addition, the most recent program documents of the KPRF tendto be inconsistent, which, above all, reflects the party’s internaldivisions and the struggle, not always clearly visible from theoutside, between at least three different groups.

The first of these groups is led by Zyuganov, who is the undisputedleader of the party today. The members of this group are supportersof "modernized communism," and they advocate takingpower by evolutionary means, within the framework of the existingpolitical and legislative system. This group wants to "playby the rules, win, and then change the rules." Its strongpoint is that Valentin Kuptsov, the second highest-ranking figurein the party, who holds the KPRF’s whole organizational structurein his hands, is one of its members.

The second group is headed by Anatoly Lukyanov, the former chairmanof the USSR Supreme Soviet, who, at the present time, heads thekey State Duma Committee on Legislation. Its approach may be describedin this way: to undermine the foundations of the existing regimein any way possible, including through the legislative branch,and through introducing as many amendments as possible into existinglegislation, while strengthening the position of "firm Communists"on the regional level. In large part, they have succeeded in doingthis in one of the most recent versions of the Land Code, whichforbids the purchase and sale of land, and gives preference tothe collective form of farming in the "agro-industrial complex."It is Lukyanov who is the main coordinator of the activities ofthe KPRF and its allies in the State Duma. Using his influencein a large part of the party, above all, with pensioners, he hasa great "restraining" influence, preventing the partyfrom "slipping into social-democratism."

The third group, which is so far undefined and has no clear leader,is made up of the leaders of regional party organizations, manyof whom do not approve of the KPRF leadership’s "collaboration"with the present regime. They are bent on revenge. It must besaid that in many regions, the local Communist leaders, althoughnot in the top positions of the local parliament or administration,still play a more than significant role. At the same time, theexacerbation of the socio-economic situation in the regions, dueto the chronic non-payment of salaries and pensions, and the closingof enterprises, has a radicalizing effect on KPRF leaders at thislevel.

But on the whole, the KPRF today is not interested in intensifyingthe crisis in the country, since the party does not have sufficientguarantees that if there were, for example, early parliamentaryelections, that they would be able to repeat last year’s success.The KPRF is now interested in the population becoming more andmore disenchanted with the actions of the president and the government.This could make it easier to take power legally, in early presidentialelections. In other words, their dominating principle is "waituntil the time is right."

Understanding that the KPRF, in its "pure" form, cannotcome to power, the party organized a broad-based electoral blocto support Zyuganov in the last presidential elections, whichwas not only preserved afterwards, but successfully transformedinto a new political organization, the "Popular-PatrioticUnion of Russia [NPSR]," which includes the most seriousopposition organizations. Thus, the "return" of theCommunists through this bloc, which is headed by Zyuganov andin which they hold key positions, is quite possible. And for theKPRF leader, this bloc, in whose leadership decisions are madeby consensus, will be of help when he has to persuade the orthodoxpart of the party to settle for a more moderate line.

There can be no doubt that the KPRF will, on the whole, evolvetowards becoming a "constructive opposition," whichfights its battles on a constitutional playing field. Zyuganovand the party’s other leaders understand quite well that thereis no way back to the past. For them, the true path lies in combiningelements of the past with present realities. It is hard to sayhow effective they will be in doing so.

Working within the framework of the NPSR, the KPRF is simultaneouslytrying to solve the very complicated question of its relationswith two other large structures in Russia’s Communist movement,and has set itself the goal of forming a united Communist partyno later than 1997.

This applies most of all to the Union of Communist Parties-CPSU[SKP-KPSS], headed by one of the active participants in the August1991 events, Oleg Shenin. Having on the order of 60-70,000 members,this organization takes much more radical positions on a wholeseries of issues, and especially, on the question of the restorationof the USSR, which is one of its main goals. It is the SKP-KPSSwhich, today, is virtually the only link between the Communistparties operating on the territory of the republics of the formerSoviet Union. The recently-improved relations between this partyand the KPRF make the union mentioned above completely possible.If the question of the unification of the party is resolved, thiswould give Zyuganov the additional support of an estimated 2 to2.5 percent of the population, whose sympathies today are on theside of the moderately-radical Communists.

It will be much harder to unite with the Russian Communist Workers’Party [RKRP], whose best-known representatives are Viktor Tyulkinand Viktor Anpilov. In the last parliamentary elections, thisparty got almost 4.5 percent of the vote, and thus was on theverge of being able to qualify for the State Duma. Incidentally,virtually all the pollsters predicted that it would get no morethan one percent, which shows that they underestimated the radicals’influence on a certain part of Russian society. Today, the RKRPhas about 100,000 members in its ranks, and has a whole seriesof newspapers. The party is actively trying to create cells inindustry, in the defense complex in particular. This is a party,which adheres to orthodox Communist ideology and considers itnecessary to fight with the "regime" by any means necessary.The RKRP are the main organizers of the anti-Yeltsin and anti-governmentdemonstrations in various regions of the country. Quite "lumpenized,"the party finds most of its support in those regions which arein the worst socio-economic straits. It is useless to expect anyconstructive moves from the RKRP.

The RKRPs radicalism, which, at times, takes extreme forms, isthe most difficult barrier to its reaching a compromise with theKPRF. Recently, the RKRP leadership has intensified its criticismof the KPRF, accusing the latter of a "treasonous policyof appeasement." In turn, the KPRF has taken a number ofsteps intended to isolate the radical Communists and squeeze themout of Russian political life.

Thus, the Communist movement in Russia is still a heterogeneousmass which, nevertheless, has great influence and is graduallyconsolidating. While many democratic organizations have virtuallyfallen apart, the Communists and their supporters are becomingmore active every day.

In fact, the Communists can come back. They have practically "comeback" already, but their level of public support and participationin the organs of legislative and executive power as yet do notmake it possible to speak of a "complete" comeback.A return of the Communists to power is possible in Russia today.But it would be an unquestionably legal, civilized return to powerthrough legal means. What are the main factors which could acceleratethis process?

1. The continuation and even worsening of the economic crisis.The stabilization and the decline in inflation touted by the governmentare myths which are good for external consumption but is not acceptableat home. One more year of declining production combined with non-paymentof salaries, and society could vote for a "modernized past."

2. A change in the correlation of forces in the FederationCouncil as a result of the gubernatorial elections and the electionsto some of the legislative organs in Russia’s regions. Ifthe opposition, which controls the State Duma, is able to bringthe Federation Council under its control as well, that would openup the door to changing the whole legislative base and would putYeltsin in a most difficult position.

3. The holding of early presidential elections. Not oneof the candidates who could run against Zyuganov would be ableto muster the financial, human, and media resources that Yeltsindid in his campaign. Division on the opposite side would onlyplay into the opposition’s hands, especially if the Communistswere able to consolidate their forces.

4. The impossibility of carrying out as large, or as intense,an anti-Communist campaign as was carried out in the last presidentialelections. It will be much harder to scare society a secondtime with the Communist threat when there is a socio-economiccrisis still going on. The elections of recent years have shownthat anticommunism can no longer be a trump card in Russia today.

Even if this "comeback" takes place under a flag of"moderation and modernization," there is as yet no reasonto be sure that there will be no attempt at a "restorationrevolution." The Communist party, as always, remains a veryunpredictable force, and it is unknown which groups and personswill take control if, for example, Gennady Zyuganov is electedpresident. Nor is it clear how the latter will be able to avoidbeing in debt to his party. Perhaps the next KPRF congress, whichshould take place in 1997 and at which there could possibly beimportant changes in the party’s program documents and statutes,will give a partial answer to this question.

In my view, if Boris Yeltsin departs from the political arenabefore his term expires, the West should take the possibilityof a comeback, which would bring the Communists into power atevery level, very seriously indeed.

Translated by Mark Eckert