Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 9

By Andrei Kolganov

Vladimir Putin’s coming to power in Russia has engendered (perhaps temporarily–a discussion we shall return to later) an atmosphere of some political spleen. Serious opposition to the regime has been made almost impossible, not only by the convincing victory, but also (as it seemed until very recently) by the arrival of a political leader who combines absolutely incompatible qualities. Indeed, what can an opposition do if the president himself combines all possible political oppositions within himself? On the one hand he is a KGB officer, and it was in this department, the successor to the NKVD-KGB, that he reached the pinnacle of power; on the other hand, he is a leader of democrats, who enjoys the support of most of the intelligentsia. On the one hand, he is committed to the doctrines of the liberal Right, keeping such obnoxious characters as Anatoly Chubais in high office and appointing Gref as an adviser; on the other hand he is a great-power advocate, concerned for the prestige of the Russian state, army and authorities…


What can the great-power advocates of the Left do, if the president is one himself?

At first the opposition–particularly Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (KPRF)–did indeed flounder. Their great-power statist rhetoric, on which their opposition to the Yeltsin regime was mainly based, was borrowed by the new president–in a tougher form than Zyuganov himself, what’s more. The two years since Putin’s victory have demonstrated that the opposition can find a place for itself even in this situation. The question is: Where exactly?

The answer to this tricky question is difficult to find in official KPRF documents (they still bear the same stamp of a moderate, social, great-power critique of the system that they always did). The answer must be sought by analyzing the actions of the KPRF in the new socioeconomic and political context. And these actions are frankly pretty wishy-washy.

Why is this? Since Putin came to power is there really no room for genuine opposition activity?

At first sight, it would seem that this is the case. As we have seen, great-power opposition to Putin is unproductive. And it would seem that the relative stabilization of the economy, the end of major nonpayments of wages and the fact that the population has become relatively accustomed to the pseudo-market environment, have also removed the opportunity for serious socioeconomic opposition to the president’s policies. Yet… it is these socioeconomic policies which are worth a closer look. Without excessive publicity, and with one-sided (naturally propresidential) coverage in the press, a new wave of right-wing liberal reforms has begun to gain force in the socioeconomic sphere. The most important of the Putin camp’s trial balloons are the new measures to make the transition to private ownership of the land, the development of commercial principles in education (the so-called “voucherization” of higher education and a number of other measures to undermine the principle of free education which still exists in the country), the reform of communal services (designed to strengthen the market in this sphere, thus lowering even further the standard of living of the poorest in society, who on their pension or salary of US$30-$70 will clearly be unable to pay for housing, heating, electricity and so on at commercial prices), and, most importantly, the new Labor Laws (Russian abbreviation KZOT), the government’s original version of which shook even conformist western trade unionists by its grim, Victorian antiworker measures (from a twelve-hour working day and no right to form a trade union to the possibility of paying part of workers’ wages in kind, using the company’s products and so on).

One would have thought that here the Communist Party–the defender of workers, particularly hired workers–would turn itself around with a powerful, justified and angry protest, mobilizing its army of half a million members, dozens of “red” governors and over 100 members of parliament, for an organized, systematic and coordinated attack on the president and his government. An attack which would clearly be justified, and would clearly reflect the interests of most workers (from farm workers, most of whom do not support the transfer of land into private hands, to “ordinary” teachers and lecturers, who do not need the voucherization of education, not to mention the workers and pensioners who would clearly lose what little they had left if the new KZOT and communal reforms were to be implemented).

Yes, we might have expected such an attack, but… No, the KPRF and its parliamentary faction of course spoke out against these measures of Putin’s team, the corresponding statements were made at plenary sessions and so on, critical articles were published in the newspapers, but there was effectively no tough, decisive strategic attack, mobilizing its internal resources. (One fact will confirm this: At a congress of independent trade unions held in Moscow in June and devoted to developing a coordinated package of measures to oppose the anti-worker KZOT, there was not one official representative from the KPRF; the only Left deputy to speak was O. Smolin, a member of the council of Alternativa, the democratic left movement).

Why was this?

Before I offer my own theory, let us note one more fact: Putin’s comment, at a press conference in the summer, that Russia always has been and always will be a place for communist ideas (which in this context means communal-collective ideas), and that the KPRF should, in recognition of its historical roots, adopt the name “social democratic party”. A good line. But aren’t there some social democrats in Russia already?


A considerable amount has already been written about Gorbachev’s initiative, started a year ago, to create a new social democratic organization in the West. Indeed, the project was generally a good one all round. It derived from the many previous attempts to create a united social democratic movement based on various parties, groups and movements of a social democratic persuasion (all sorts of people have been and still are involved: The successors to Aleksandr Obolensky and Yury Petrov, Ivan Rybkin and Vasily Lipitsky…). Gorbachev’s project was based on an already existing structure (the Gorbachev Foundation) and the popularity of its leader (if not in Russia then certainly in the West). Gorbachev’s social democrats had (and still have) the sympathy of a significant section of the intellectual elite. The organization’s leaders include many people with connections in high places. There are a number of current and former regional leaders who tend to support Gorbachev. Finally, it is said (though the author has no reliable information about this, so we will consider this to be conjecture) that the Gorbachev project is supported by some moneyed people. Gorbachev’s social democrats have everything except…

… except that little matter of any sort of mass support among the public and their unions. Unlike Western social democrats, who grew out of the massed organized labor movement (albeit a very long time ago), and are still connected one way or another with the trade unions, the Greens and other voluntary organizations, Russian social democratic projects, with the enviable stubbornness of a man stepping on the same garden rake over and over again, are always created on the basis of the theoretical ideas of the intellectual elite that a social democratic party would be useful for Russia.

This approach may seem strange, but it is in fact not that strange and irrational. Why is it that people who are clearly not naive and have been in power themselves (Gorbachev, Petrov, Rybkin and others) keep on trying, despite the collapse of perhaps a dozen attempts, to build social democratic parties in Russia on the basis of an “idea”? Why is it that first Yeltsin dreamt of a social democratic opposition and now Putin is saying the same thing?

For the moment let us leave this question unanswered too, and dwell on the question of whether Gorbachev or any of the candidates for the “social democratic throne” is able of creating a genuinely strong, mass organization which is not only capable of crossing the 5-percent barrier at the Duma elections, but of becoming a real political force which might influence politics, affect the socioeconomic course the state is following, and defend the interests of certain social groups?

It looks like the answer to that question is negative. Evidence of this is provided by the many, not particularly well publicized attempts by Gorbachev’s people to create a broader coalition than the current one, joining forces with a serving governor (or if the worst came to the worst a former governor who had retained his money and connections), or with an active politician close to the president’s administration, or with…. And all this in order to have a outside chance of forming a party with 10,000 members, if the Law on parties is finally passed (which looks more than likely). This is not very much for a serious social democratic project, but even this is still a dream for Gorbachev’s people.

But it seems that nobody in the party is seriously concerned with what they should really be doing: Lengthy, systematic work to support and grow from below a mass movement of new, real trade unions with local product management, and grassroots ecological, youth and women’s organizations… Neither was there any decisive opposition to the antiworker KZOT and the communal reforms, with appeals to the international community (where Gorbachev has some clout); although there were of course statements and small articles in the party newspaper.


Let us return to the two questions left unanswered: Why does the party of power need a social democratic opposition, and why is it that neither the KPRF nor other pretenders to the role of “constructive opposition,” defending the interests of the workers, wants to fight for these interests actively, toughly and committedly?

I think the answers are quite clear.

Let us start at the end: Any political organization that wants to seriously defend the interests of those at whose expense the “reforms” are being implemented, will immediately run into bitter resistance not so much from state officials but from the real bosses of today’s Russia: The clan-based, criminal, nomenklatura monsters of Russia’s primitive capitalism (we have written about this phenomenon before). And this will be a battle. A battle not for life, but to the death. It will not be possible to remain part of the political elite; nor will it be possible to keep the offices, privileges and trappings of life in the Duma.

As for the authorities, it is naturally advantageous for them to have not a real opposition but a fairly broad organized structure to channel the energy of protest (which cannot fail to be generated by the liberal-right policies), which will wittingly guarantee not to aspire to power, or to enter into any sort of decisive battle with the authorities.

Yeltsin, as a far more direct politician than Putin, and moreover a figure convinced of his ability to do anything he wanted with a flourish of his pen, tried to artificially create test-tube social democrats, either under Rybkin or someone else… It did not work.

Putin is looking for another way. Having been persuaded that the KPRF will not launch an all-out war against the authorities, he will slowly try to house-train the Communist Party leaders (we are seeing just the first steps towards this). This is not just about his statements at press conferences.

Let us not forget Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev’s project to create a social democratic structure. The attempt was technically successful, but as in the Gorbachev case, the movement that emerged was somewhat artificial, as it did not garner any broad support and existed solely by virtue of the authority and connections of its leader. Eventually Seleznev’s movement (“Russia”) joined the union of popular patriotic forces (where the leading role is taken by the KPRF), and Seleznev is still one of the KPRF’s leaders. But at the same time Seleznev is not just a man of the communists. He is also a member of the establishment, who is rather flexible and not at all awkward; effectively he is a prominent figure in the “party of power”. Thus Seleznev’s position is ambiguous: Either the communists have their own man in the party of power, or the Putinites have their own man at the top of the KPRF.

For now, though, Putin’s house-training of the KPRF is moving quite slowly. This is understandable: Most rank-and-file members of the KPRF, who live in the real world of Putin’s Russia and have first-hand experience of what Putin’s “reforms” mean, are hardly likely to take the conversion of the KPRF into “Her Majesty’s Opposition” lying down. We may expect a battle here.

As for the other social democratic projects, as long as they continue to be built by groups of intellectuals “out of an idea,” they will remain no more than projects. They may be attractive to the democratic intelligentsia in the West, but that does not make them more realistic.

The real opposition in Russia is still only in the formative stage. It is being formed quietly and unobserved. Not only in Moscow; in fact mainly outside Moscow. Not among the well-known political elites, and without the help of policy makers and spin-doctors. It is growing secretly. It is beginning to look for ways of expressing itself. It is very diverse. But unlike the prominent oppositionists on the political stage today, it is capable of real action…

But that is a subject for another article.

Andrei Kolganov is a doctor of economics and a senior research fellow at Moscow State University.