Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 1

Russian Communists Try Multi-Ethnic Fundamentalism

by Maryanne Ozernoy

In a recent broadcast, Russia’s official radio station "Voice of Russia" stated that Zyuganov’s Communist party, the KPRF, was backed in Russian provincial regions and autonomous republics for economic reasons. The central government halted subsidies to the periphery and as a result, living standards in regional Russia dropped far below the poverty line. This "economic" interpretation of regional public preferences, as we will see further on, is insufficient. It fails to explain why Russian people in regions and the ethnic minorities in autonomous republics voted primarily for Communists and not for Zhirinovsky’s LDPR or General Lebed’s KRO. These parties, like the Communists, used popular disappointment with Yeltsin’s regional economic policy to gain votes in the regions. What distinguished the ideology of Zyuganov’s Communists from that of the other opposition parties was their ethnic policy. This ethnic policy was a substantial component of the Communists’ strategy that was largely overlooked by observers and analysts of the recent elections.

Fundamentalism as a Core of Neo-Communist Ethnic Politics

The neo-communists have used the revival of ethnicity in Russia to appeal to militant nationalistic feelings and co-opt anti-colonial movements in the Russian provinces for their own ends. Zyuganov has skillfully connected Marxist-Leninist notions of friendship between nationalities with support for traditional cultural values and religious orthodoxy, opposing the latter to liberalism, democracy and the West. Zyuganov speaks to ethnic Russians as a Slavophile preaching Orthodox messianism. When talking to ethnic groups such as Tatars, Buryats and Bashkirs he poses as a defender of their civilization and religion. This point distinguishes his attitudes toward ethnic minorities from those of the Russo-centrists, who have preached russification of these minorities and the division of Russia into the old imperial guberniyas (regions equally subordinated to the Center as in Zhirinovsky’s program,) or into Western type territorial divisions (zemli modeled on the German Landers as Oleg Rumiantsev proposed in his initial draft of Russia’s new constitution.) If ethnic politics was used by both radical nationalists and democrats to undermine the ethnicity of the republic’s minorities, Zyuganov promised the national elite a new distribution of state property and a restoration of their influence which had been undermined by Yeltsin’s reform. These policies brought the new Communists political dividends in recent elections.

At first glance, it is hard to understand how it is possible for Zyuganov’s program to support the aspirations of local ethnic elites for independence and autonomy from Moscow while at the same time promising to prevent a disintegration of the Russian Federation. The explanation lies in his model of a multiethnic fundamentalist state, that includes Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists while excluding Catholics, Protestants and Jews as anti-national. The leader of the KPRF tries to merge left revolutionary ideas with rightist ultra-national values On one hand, he claims that the KPRF "Is a part of the union of Communist parties on an international scale."On the other hand, he supplants Lenin’s idea of internationalism and the proletarian state with the concept of the state as a federation of fundamentalist chauvinistic ethnic groups. He proposes a state model that offers equal comfort for Russian ethnic fundamentalists (pochvenniki) and Tatar, Bashkir, and Buryat nationalists. Zyuganov found and utilized the niche of multiethnic fundamentalism as a taming force for nationalistic and separatist movements in the regions. The patriotic idea of a strong mighty state embodies the communist concept of a union of equal nations at a time when other major parties have failed to recognize the importance of these components. The mighty State, Derzhava, cements ethnic orthodoxy into the Communist union of different multi-national fundamentalisms. This allows Zyuganov to speak as a true Communist-internationalist who promotes friendship between nations and multicultural diversity in the framework of Derzhava, the Great State.

The Eurasian Concept and Neo-Communist Ethnic Politics

It is not surprising that Zyuganov openly claims to be the heir of traditional communism and a proponent of the Eurasian concept developed by the ultra nationalist press in such newspapers as Elementy (the Elements), Ataka (attack), and Den, (the Day) that was renamed Zavtra (Tomorrow). When democrats consciously fought Russian authoritarianism and helped to destroy the USSR, Zyuganov insisted that first the Russian empire and then the USSR comprised Eurasian civilization. The new-Communists were not the first to feel threatened by nationalistic movements to central government authority. But they were among the first to elaborate an antidote to separatist movements in the periphery. Using the new guiding national doctrine of Russian communism, "the equality of nations, the friendship of nations, and international roots," neo-communists are using traditional communist internationalism to justify Eurasian chauvinism with its passionate hatred for Western civilizations, primarily the Anglo-Saxon world, and the Atlantic powers. Since Islamic fundamentalism is viewed by Russian Eurasianists as committed adversary of the US, the Communists consider an alliance between Orthodoxy and Islam as a coalition against Americanism which they associate with Moscow, Yeltsin’s government and market economics. The Communist Eurasians highest priority was to create an immediate geopolitical alternative to an Atlantic superpower. This new construction was Derzhava, a Great State, uniting the ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation into a continental power as opposed to the Atlantic, oceanic world. However, unlike many Eurasians, the Communists did not plan to break with Bolshevism, but to create a system combining the "best of two worlds."

Zyuganov praises the revival of "respect for historically developed religious beliefs as part of national cultures–Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism" and "regard for the traditional nature of all ethnic groups [emphasis given by Zyuganov] for the formation of not only cultural, but also social economic policy in the whole state, including each republic, and region." As a Communist, he talks about the new Communist Program that describes the coming "national liberation" wave "from the policy of national treason." The neo-communists exploit anti-Moscow and anti-Yeltsin governmental sentiments in the ethnic republics and provincial regions in the same manner the old CPSU exploited the anti-colonial drive in Africa or Asia. The success of neo-communists in the recent elections demonstrates that Zyuganov was, at least, partially successful in creating a mutually beneficial program that would be acceptable for the country, for the nation, and the multinational community."


The KPRF ideologists realized earlier than others that the disintegration of the USSR and Soviet identity is sharpening the search for a Russian national identity bringing the national problem to the forefront. The so-called "red-brown bloc," with which Zyuganov has been affiliated, redeveloped the pre-war Russian Eurasian doctrine into a nationalist concept that conflated proto-fascist ideas with Slavophilism and statism. The popularity of this new form of Eurasianism in Russian politics is so high that its rhetoric is occasionally used not only by Slavophiles, but by such "Atlanticists" as former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev who called for reconstruction of the Berlin-Moscow axis. But when it comes to ethnic politics, racism prevents Eurasianists from giving ethnic minorities equal rights with the Russian nation. The main ideologist of Eurasianism and Zyuganov’s close associate A. Prokhanov preaches "loyalty to national, ethnic and racial traditions …with a preference to the imperial type of ‘great nationalism’ over ‘little nationalism’ with separatist tendencies." That policy, in fact, means the automatic subordination of minorities to the Russian nation. In spite of his anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideas, Zyuganov never talks about the subordination of the ethnic minorities populating provincial Russia to Russian ethnicity. Unlike Eurasian ethnic politicians, he constantly gives reminders about equality and friendship of all nations comprising the Russian Federation. He has developed the idea of a supernational, national state that is a replica of the former Soviet Union. From this point of view it is a communist concept. However, the multinational fundamentalist state based on the Eurasian model is a dangerous nationalistic idea connected with traditional Russian xenophobic and messianic Slavophilism.

What kind of ethnic and national politics can we expect now, when neo-communists comprise the majority of the newly elected Duma? What steps should we expect from the neo-communists when the best minds in Russia’s political world are concentrated on the forthcoming presidential elections?

It is hard to foretell the exact direction of neo-communist policies in advance of the Communist Party Congress that is scheduled for January, 1996. However, it should be assumed that the Communists won’t take any responsible position in Yeltsin’s government.

There are several reasons for this:

1. By doing so, the Communists would lose their status as an opposition to Yeltsin’s unpopular government before the elections (unless they manage to negotiate substantial concessions from the Yeltsin’s government that they can claim as victory);

2. Their economic and foreign policies are utopian and certainly cannot produce success in the short run, that is, before the June presidential elections;

3. Their ethnic politics is a successful but volatile deal with the regions and that can work only as a result of a package of economic and political promises made during an electoral campaign.

Expressing ethnic fundamentalist ideas, neo-communists undermine the democrats and reformers cause and help the KPRF to present itself as the only true national (Russkaya) and supernational (rossiiskaya and sovetskaya) party. The Neo-communists made the emphasis of their electoral campaign the Russian provinces from the very beginning. With its more traditional and native ways of life, and a worsening economic, political and cultural situation, the KPRF’s patriotic communist fundamentalism were expected to get a better response from the local electorate and the results of the parliamentary elections are witness to the strategy’s success.

Other potential Russian leaders have shown little sensitivity to the feelings of Russia’s ethnic minorities.

In his interview with the leading Eurasianist A. Prokhanov, Aleksandr Lebed defines nationalism as a merger of ethnicity and statehood. His statements reflect the Russo-centrist plan to divide Russia into nonethnically based federal regions. "We are all Russians, we are finally Superrussians (Rossiyane), we all live on the same territory… we can’t convince a Bashkir that he is not superrussian… And the main point is why do we have to do this?" (Newspaper Zavtra, "Tomorrow," No. 34, August, 1995, p.3)

Lebed’s wishful thinking that the ethnic minorities would like to give up their ethnicity is in line with anti-ethnic and pro-Russian statements in which he objects to Kalmykia having more rights in the current administrative structure than Russia’s regions. His statements reveal an underlying feel for Russo-Centrist ethnic politics. "Kalmykia is populated by 300 thousand people. It has more rights and, accordingly, more opportunities than the industrial Sverdlovsk region which is populated by five million people. It is absolutely unclear why such discrimination takes place. Perhaps because the people of the Sverdlovsk region are not Kalmyks. I don’t have anything against Kalmyks but this is an abnormal situation." (Segodnya, No. 213, 1995, p.4)

Among the Russo-centrist Eurasianists, the most outspoken theoreticians of the privileged place for Russian ethnicity and race in the Russian Federation are A. Prokhanov and A. Dugin, the editors of Elementy. In an editorial, they state that "from the ethnic point of view, we prefer the imperial type of ‘big nationalism’ to the separatist kind of ‘minor nationalism’. On the religious level, we are for loyalty to genuine, traditional Orthodoxy and Islam." (Elementy, No. 2, 1992, p.2)

Dr. Maryanne Ozernoy is a Professor and Research Scientist at George Washington University.