Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 26

The Communist Party won with a new, improved “Holy Russia” ideology

by Aleksandr Tsipko and Maryanne Ozernoy

Back in 1991, no one would have imagined that the Communist partywould be at the forefront of Russian politics today. Only fouryears ago we watched TV images of crowds toppling statues of Lenin,Boris Yeltsin denouncing the CPSU and its ideology, and thousandsof Russians enthusiastically embracing the new democratic era.Now Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation(KPRF) has shocked the West and some Russian observers by winninga substantial portion of the popular vote in last Sunday’s parliamentaryelection.

The Double Deal of Neo-Communists

Why do Russian voters see the KPRF as defender of their interests? What is the appeal of the KPRF and why is it so popular in someparts of provincial Russia?

An analysis of Zyuganov’s Communist party ideology gives us insightsinto its winning strategy.

The founding of the KPRF coincided with the discrediting of Marxist-Leninist ideology. The new party’s leaders are the onlypoliticians who have understood the needs of post-Soviet man,and who have successfully filled the void left by the collapseof the old ideology. They realized that most Russians have outgrowntraditional Soviet values and do not want a return to the daysof Marxist-Leninism, and created their new ideology accordingly. Zyuganov himself understood that a simple remaking of the CPSUand its nomenklatura system would not satisfy voters. That’s whythe KPRF calls itself the heir to the party of prominent workerAleksei Stakhanov, astronaut Yuri Gagarin, and Marshal GeorgiZhukov, the World War II hero. It isn’t the party of Lenin, Stalin,Brezhnev, or Gorbachev. The KPRF sides with ordinary party members.They often remind their constituents that "the KPRF was borninside the CPSU at the initiative of the people."

The democrats and radical nationalists, on the other hand, havefailed to find the appropriate message to give hope to the demoralizedpost-Soviet citizen. Zyuganov’s neo-communist interpretation ofSoviet identity offered a simple solution for the ordinary Russianman: he could escape traditional communist ideology while at thesame time retain a sense of dignity from Russian history. Theessence of the KPRF is not the Soviet symbols of the hammer andsickle on the red flag. Instead, Zyuganov’s symbol is the Russianepic hero Ilya Muromets, who represents a Slavophile statehoodidea. Zyuganov writes, "In fact, our epic Ilya Muromets standsat the crossroads." In this, like other Russian fairy tales,there is only one safe road that can be chosen out of the threeat the crossroads. Zyuganov urges Russia, personified in IlyaMuromets, to choose neo-communism, as offered by the KPRF. Thecommunist leader states that it is the only safe road to ensurethe nation avoids the objectionable alternatives: either the breakup of the Russian Federation or the transformation of Russia intoa Colombia-like crime ridden nation.

Thus the party’s success may be attributed to Zyuganov’s artfulplaying of the patriotic card of Russian national statism (gosudarstvennost).The notion of Derzhava, or Great Russia, is another commonterm used by the patriotic front, vocabulary which symbolizesa shift in national efforts from nation-state building to empirerestoration. The patriots or traditionalists as they are calledin Russian politics, lead the opposition to Yeltsin’s government.

This approach allows communist believers to see Zyuganov as atrue communist, and Russian patriots to see him as a true patriot.Zyuganov, as leader and ideologist of the KPRF, has created anideology which is red and communist in form but white and restorativein essence. Zyuganov created an ideology that we might call "officialstate patriotism." It is characteristic of Zyuganov to callhimself an heir to ideologists of the so called "conservativexenophobic camp," such as monarchist philosophers K.N. Leontievand N.Y. Danilevsky in Imperial Russia. As Zyuganov states, "froma historical point of view Russia is a unique type of civilizationthat inherited and developed a thousand-year long tradition ofKievan Rus’, Muscovy, the Russian empire, and the USSR."It is important to note that Zyuganov pictures the USSR as a naturalsuccessor to Russia’s historic tradition. Accordingly, he interpretsthe Soviet identity as Russia’s national identity. "The SovietUnion was a geopolitical heir to the Russian Empire," saysthe KPRF Program, and "in its very essence the Russianidea is a deeply socialistic concept" [emphasis givenin the "Program"].

Zyuganov makes a connection between Marxism and the preservationof Russian traditions. For example, he connects Marxist egalitarianismwith egalitarian traditions of Russian communal life. In his speeches,Zyuganov typically replaces the Marxist notion of collectivismwith the Russian word "obshchinnost’"(communality).Even in his nightmares, Lenin couldn’t imagine communists whopraise Holy Russia and promote the Slavophile idea of Sobornost’.But today Russia has Holy Russian Communism. Zyuganov’s KPRFalso capitalizes on feelings of nostalgia among the voters, feelingswhich have grown in proportion to the level of disappointmentwith market reforms. But Zyuganov does not need to promise economicmiracles to win popularity. It is enough for him to demand thehalting of reforms that lead to the "destruction of industrialproduction and the scientific-technological base of the country."

This economic platform won the KPRF votes among the intelligentsiaof the military-industrial complex (VPK) in particular. Disappointedwith the democrats and their economic reforms, the VPK turnedtoward state patriotism. Clearly this intelligentsiawould never have voted for the KPRF if it perpetuated the communistbeliefs which had been imposed upon three generations of Sovietpeople. But the VPK could find hope in the new communist’s promisesto restore the scientific and educational base in Russia. It isfair to assume, as well, that the VPK approves of Zyuganov’sfirm stance on state control over the economy.

The new communists have also successfully tapped into the emotionsof the electorate, especially to what we would call "doublenostalgia." These nostalgic feelings, which are particularlystrong in provincial Russia, are directed toward two importantelements of the past: historic ties to the Orthodox church anda desire to return to the security of the Soviet system. The factthat the KPRF has won popular support in rural Russia leads usto assume that voters believe Zyuganov offers them both: he isthe defender of both "Soviet and Russian traditions."He satisfies the nostalgia for both the former Soviet Union andfor Imperial Russia. This explains why people in both factoriesand the intelligentsia of the VPK listen with equal satisfactionto speeches of the KPRF propagandists.

The KPRF ideology offers comfort to that part of the electoratewhich, for various reasons, is not ready to accept the truthabout Soviet history. Zyuganov falsely justifies the October revolutionof 1917 by stating that "it was the only chance for Russiato preserve its national statehood." In the provinces,this is a welcome message. Unlike the major cities, the provinceshave retained many of their holy communist shrines — statuesof Lenin and other monuments to the greatness of the USSR. Manyprovincial Russians, especially the older generation, derive asense of dignity and pride from the contributions which they madeto the Soviet cause. Their dignity is threatened by nihilisticattitudes toward these communist shrines which are expressed bythe younger generation and the Russian liberal press. Thus Zyuganov’s protection of Soviet history appeals to ordinary peopleand offers them an emotional protest against those who deridethe sacrifices which they made under communism.

However, the new communist ideology rejects a moral approachto the evaluation of the nation’s history. Zyuganov’srevisionist version of Soviet history omits mention of the participationof millions of Soviet people in the collectivization crimes. Hedoes not discuss the destruction of churches or the strugglewith so-called "rootless (bezrodny) cosmopolitanism,"(a Stalinist "code phrase" commonly used in Soviet anti-Semiticcampaigns).

Moreover, the KPRF ideology is popular among people who stillhold archaic beliefs about class divisions and class identification.People who identify themselves as children of workers and peasantswho, as a result of the revolution of 1917, were able to dramaticallyimprove their standard of living, are afraid of becoming serfsonce again. The KPRF successfully exploits their hatred of masters,landlords, and capitalists.

Thus Zyuganov has successfully campaigned on the personal andmoral achievements of the soviet epoch, the heroism and sacrificeof the Russian people, and their loyalty to the motherland. Thecornerstone of his strategy is to respect Russia’s national traditions.

But the KPRF ideology has no future because it is based on utopianeconomic promises which cannot be fulfilled, and a falsified moralfoundation. The tragedy of Russia is that in the contrast to whatis perceived as Yeltsin’s "reform for reform’s sake"Zyuganov’s surrogate patriotism is viewed by many voters as somethingdear to their hearts.

What’s Next?

The ruling political elite in Russia is not going to allow the"red flag" party to define it. Fortunately for Chernomyrdin,the KPRF has no constitutional means to remove his governmentfrom power, and it cannot organize a parliamentary coup. Moreover,Yeltsin has established firm control over the power ministriesby installing people who have strong personal loyalty to him:Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev and Mikhail Barsukov, headof counterintelligence (FSB), are committed to Yeltsin’s teamand will continue to side with the president.

With Zyuganov at the helm of the KPRF and its parliamentary faction,we would not expect the KPRF to undertake any actions aimed atdestabilization of the situation inside the Russian Federation. Zyuganov belongs to the old Soviet school of apparatchiks andexercises caution in his decision making and his actions. Whilehe defends his own political position, he will not support anyshowdown which risks violent confrontation. In critical situationsduring the last several years he has proven he does not advocateviolence. For example, Zyuganov did not tell his supporters totake up arms, as did Yegor Gaidar and Aleksandr Rutskoi, duringthe parliamentary uprising in October 1993. We can therefore concludethat Zyuganov will pursue tactics of compromise and will seekchange by installing KPRF people in national offices. In otherwords, Zyuganov’s strategy will be to influence government policyfrom inside the government apparatus. For example, the KPRF coulduse its influence in the Duma to amend the constitution articleby article, and it will try to reach a consensus with the FederationCouncil on a number of issues.

Finally, the victory of the KPRF does not portend revolutionarychanges in the Russian government because, in fact, Yeltsin andChernomyrdin have already undertaken a kind of counterrevolution. Even before the parliamentary elections, communists had been returning to power in Russia, as the president has returned theold cadres both in the provinces and in the national governmentto positions lost during the August 1991 coup. Therefore,the new communist parliamentarians will not find many people ingovernment structures who seriously oppose them.


The Communist Party of the Russian Federation won the parliamentaryelection not just because it opposed the Yeltsin/Chernomyrdingovernment. More importantly, the KPRF satisfies the imperialrestorative mood in Russia, supports Russian national dignity,and preserves the belief in Russia’s historical strengths. Zyuganovhas successfully exploited the unfulfilled desire for a mightyRussia which exists today. Zyuganov himself is a traditionalist,who pays political homage to the Russian Orthodox church, stateand nation. He opposes the liberal reformers who would WesternizeRussia, not because he is a Marxist-Leninist: His criticism comesfrom the perspective of a patriotic traditionalist.

There is a growing restorative nostalgia among the voters. Peopleyearn for lost Soviet welfare and stability. It is an environmentwhich Zyuganov has exploited better than any other politician.While Russia is undergoing both a statehood and national identitycrisis, the imperial and Soviet traditions offer a sense of orderand stability. The new communists have combined both in theirnew ideology, with great success.

Dr. Alexander Tsipko is a Senior Research Fellow at the Instituteof International Economics and Political Studies (IMEPI), theRussian Academy of Sciences. He is currently a visiting Scholarat Kennan Institute, Washington, D C. Dr. Maryanne Ozernoy isa Professor and a Research Scientist at George Washington University