Communist Party Comes Full Circle
By Ana Uzelac
All trust is now in ashes,
And there are glib slanders in the papers,
But I know that there will be rewards,
There will be an honest trial in our souls,
There will be new shoots, like the gifts of spring.
Anatoly Lukyanov, the head of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R., wrote this poem, as translated in David Remnicks "Lenins Tomb," while awaiting trial for his role in the 1991 coup. He is now an influential deputy in the State Duma.
Gorbachev holding the notes Yeltsin gave him on Aug. 23, 1991, indicating the stand each minister took during the failed coup.
BRYANSK, Central Russia — On the morning of the coup, Igor Sherman, the young editor of his citys first independent newspaper, Bryanskoye Vremya, was woken up by a telephone call from his father. "He rushed to warn me — if anybody was ripe for closure and arrest it was us," Sherman recalls.
As the day unfolded, the news from Moscow 400 kilometers away slowly seeped in, and by noon everyone in town was talking only about the coup. With one exception, that it.
The scheduled meeting of the Communist-dominated regional Soviet was dedicated in its entirety to the harvest. "They didnt mention the coup once," Sherman says, laughing. "They were simply too scared."
But the local TASS correspondent knew better. Just an hour later, Mayak radio broadcast his report saying that the Bryansk "peasants and workers wholeheartedly supported the GKChP." His name was Yury Lodkin.
A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
Ten years later, Lodkin is serving his second term as the communist governor of Bryansk, a sleepy province of 1.5 million people on the southwestern border. And Shermans paper is again threatened with closure, this time because local companies have stopped advertising in it under pressure from the governor.
History in Bryansk seems to have come full circle.
As it has in the numerous Russian regions run by governors who either are members of the Communist Party or claim affiliation to it and enjoy the support of its huge network. The party effectively rules in about 40 percent of the regions and controls 30 percent of the seats in the State Duma. Ten years after the hard-line Communist coup, the Communists may not be back in power, but they are the biggest single political force in the country.
Yevgeny Finogenov, a mid-ranking Bryansk party official in his early sixties, said the party is strong because it tells people the truth.
"We never lie to the people," Finogenov said, smiling, while sitting at a particle-board desk in his office in what is still called the Political Enlightenment Building. Lenin gazes serenely from the wall.
The truth, he explained, is that the great Soviet Union fell apart 10 years ago because of the treacherous behavior of the Communist Partys secretary general, Mikhail Gorbachev. And that only the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation, cleansed of all traitors, can some day put an end to the catastrophe that is called "democracy."
The promise seems to satisfy the millions of Russians who regularly vote for the Communists. They have come a long way since those first days after the coup.
Beginning of the End
By August 1991, glasnost had dented the Communist Partys credibility. For years the press had been allowed to publish documents confirming its involvement in the murderous repression of the thirties, in the persecution of the Orthodox Church, in everyday human rights violations.
And now, the last attempt to hold onto power had failed miserably, the coup confirming the partys penchant for brutality, and the trembling hands of the plotters emerging as an embarrassing symbol of its incompetence.
During the days after the coup fell apart, the streets of Moscow were packed with angry, often vengeful crowds, tearing down Communist monuments, threatening to storm the partys headquarters and demanding the plotters and the whole party be put on trial. In all major party offices, people were busy destroying incriminating documents. Many destroyed their party cards as well.
There were no crowds on the streets of Bryansk, but the party members were still busy. "The first night after the coup failed I went home to try to get some sleep," Sherman recalled. "Just a few hours later my photographer called me: Igor, theyre burning something at the party headquarters.
"So I sent him there to check it out. Another few hours passed when the phone rang again and a male voice said my photographer had been arrested for trespassing on a closed territory."
Sherman, who was a deputy in the regional Soviet, said he went to the building and ordered police to set the photographer free and close off the building "and all the other party buildings in the region."
"The policemen were stepping all over each other to do it," he said, smiling nostalgically. "They knew the changes were coming and didnt want to be caught on the wrong side."
The changes were quick in coming. On Aug. 23, just a day after Gorbachev returned from Foros, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called a session of Russias Supreme Soviet and demanded the still shell-shocked Gorbachev to condemn the party. Gorbachev faltered, and the victorious Yeltsin demonstratively signed the first of three decrees that brought an end to party rule.
The first decree suspended the activities of the CPSUs hard-line Russian branch. The following day Gorbachev resigned as CPSU secretary general and disbanded the Central Committee.
On Aug. 25, Yeltsin signed the second decree, confiscating the partys property: innumerable buildings in prime locations, printing houses, dachas, sanatoriums, kolkhozes, cars and planes. This immense wealth formed the basis for the presidential property department, whose former head, Pavel Borodin, once estimated was worth $600 billion.
The final blow came on Nov. 6, when Yeltsin disbanded all party organizational structures and banned its vast network of regional offices and party cells at state companies.
The party that once counted 19 million people as its members and held the country in a firm grip for more than 70 years seemed crushed.
The New Communists
"Everybody thought that the party and the ideology were finished," Andrei Andreyev sighed, sipping his double cappuccino in a trendy Moscow coffee shop. "But life has proven them wrong."
Andreyev should know. At the age of 25, the tall, well-dressed man with a taste for good coffee and expensive cigarettes is the main spokesman for the Communist Party faction in the State Duma. He is "the new shoot" that Anatoly Lukyanov wrote so longingly about in his prison days after the coup.
Andreyev is the new face of the party that has emerged from the ruins of the Soviet giant — modern, professional, with its feet on the ground of Russian reality, almost social-democratic if only it werent for those portraits of Lenin on the walls and the unmistakable apparatchik-like demeanor of its rank-and-file members.
But it took Russian Communists a long time to get there. The most difficult was undoubtedly the year they spent trying to recover from Yeltsins decrees.
In summer 1992, a group of 37 ardent Communist legislators lodged an appeal with the fledgling Constitutional Court, demanding legal expertise on Yeltsins decrees. The new democratic government saw it as an opportunity to put the party on trial.
For four months the court sifted through piles of documents and on Nov. 30, 1992, ruled that Yeltsin had acted according to the constitution. The ruling, however, allowed rank-and-file members to resume grassroots activities and even reclaim some party property through the courts.
Although this left the door open for the partys revival, Yeltsins lawyer Andrei Makarov was not worried. "These grassroots organizations are practically nonexistent," he said at the time. "I doubt that the former communist will now rush to join their ranks."
He couldnt have been more mistaken.
After the party was banned, the Communists dispersed to form a multitude of small organizations, ranging from Stalinist fringe groups to the moderate Socialist Party, which formed the core of the future KPRF.
"The core of the party was saved under a different banner, of course, mostly in the Socialist Party," Finogenov said. "The socialists were constantly searching for any sound forces left in the regions, and when the Constitutional Court made its decision, it was just a question of organization."
And the organization of bureaucratic structures is what the Communists excel at.
Just days after the Constitutional Courts decision, the work to consolidate the "left flank" began. Sovietskaya Rossia printed an appeal to all "comrade Communists" to join forces and send delegates to an All-Russian Congress of Communists, where the party was to be rebuilt.
The appeal condemned the poverty and lawlessness in the new Russia and the countrys loss of its status as a Velikaya Derzhava, or great power. These themes would figure prominently in Communists public speeches for years to come.
The KPRFs founding congress was held on the weekend of Feb. 13-14, 1993. By that time the party already bragged of half a million members.
But tensions in the country started mounting again, and in October many of the party members serving as peoples deputies in the Supreme Soviet found themselves fighting Yeltsins "anti-people regime."
During the months preceding the showdown at the White House, the Communists backed Supreme Soviet chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice President Alexander Rutskoi in their attempt to wrestle more power from Yeltsin.
But as the situation began to turn violent, the party backed off and its leader Gennady Zyuganov told Russians to "stay calm." Khasbulatov would later call this a "knife in the back," but it helped the party avoid another potential threat of closure and allowed it to proceed with feverish preparations for parliamentary elections on Dec. 12, 1993.
The shadow of 1991 still hung over these elections, and the party finished third. The elections were won by Vladimir Zhirinovskys Liberal Democratic Party — a fiercely populist, chillingly anti-Semitic movement that was neither democratic nor liberal, but managed to soak up most of the protest vote.
The Communists quickly grasped the lesson and soon enough had incorporated some of Zhirinovskys nationalistic rhetoric.
By 1995, the Communists had opened thousands of regional party organizations all across the country and were learning how to do politics in the new environment.
When new elections were held in 1995, they emerged as the biggest single party in the Duma.
A Communist Comeback
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov dancing with young children during a present-giving visit to a kindergarten in December 1996.
The victory in 1995 was the beginning of the most exciting period in the new partys history, which culminated with the presidential elections in 1996 when Zyuganov almost succeeded in unseating Yeltsin.
But the Communists rising popularity was not entirely their own doing. The reforms that Yeltsin once promised would turn Russia into a developed market economy within six months bogged down.
Poverty and unemployment spread, the gap between rich and poor grew as corruption permeated all institutions, and ambitious privatization plans turned into an embarrassing looting of state property.
Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the failure of the reforms was one of the major causes of the Communist comeback.
"The economic policy strengthened social inequalities too much, and Russian society was not ready for that," he said. "Russia is essentially a paternalistic society. Communism here didnt fall because people wanted more freedom, but because it turned out to be economically inefficient — people wanted democracy in the hope that it would put more sausage on their plates."
The sausage stayed behind the shop windows, unattainable for most of the population. And as disappointment in the reforms and reformers grew, Yeltsins ratings plummeted.
Riding a wave of growing Soviet nostalgia, a gray, dull Zyuganov toured the country to campaign for president. His wooden speeches filled with Pravda-esque phrases must have been music to the ears to millions of people.
But Zyuganovs presidential bid failed, as the new elites money and influence was used to create a red scare. He lost in the second round.
The Communists became a zealous opposition in the Duma, staging long drawn-out battles over every budget and spewing accusations from the Duma rostrum. The struggle peaked with the failed attempt to impeach Yeltsin in 1998.
But for all the fuss that the communists made, many analysts believe theirs was essentially an insincere opposition.
"The events of 1993 showed Yeltsin how dangerous it was to divide the political elite of the country and keep parts of it out of the system," Ryabov said. "So from 1993 on, he started incorporating the Communists into the system."
As the biggest party in parliament, the Communists were given the biggest slice of the political pie: A large number of Duma committees and practically all of the Duma administration went under their control, they enjoyed all the privileges of state dachas and holiday resorts, and were able comradely to vote for their own high salaries.
"By 1995, the party had already learned how to be a part of the new political system. It had mastered the art of lobbying interests, had rebuilt its commercial background," said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the INDEM foundation. "By now they have many sponsors among Russian industrialists and agrarians, not less than other parties."
"They were assigned the role of the bad guys and they accepted it," Ryabov said. "They made a lot of noise, brought people out onto the streets in token demonstrations but made sure everything was controllable."
Eventually all budgets were passed, no demonstrations turned violent, and the Communists often proved flexible.
When Communist deputies in April 1998 refused to approve Yeltsins nominee as prime minister, the president publicly hinted that he could have Borodin deal with their housing problems. At the next Duma session, Sergei Kiriyenko was confirmed with 25 votes more than he needed.
The post-communist Communists are a party of nomenklatura — hundreds of thousands of people with the mentality of state bureaucrats waiting for someone to tell them what to do, Ryabov said. They couldnt be real opposition even if they wanted to.
Korgunyuk called the Communists a quintessential conservative party, "Russian-style." "And Russian conservatism is quite peculiar: Its a combination of the paternalistic idea and bureaucratic ethics."
The contemporary party "doesnt even smell of the old communist ideals of equality and fraternity," he said. "These are people that Marx and Engels wouldnt even shake hands with."
On the Streets of Bryansk
It is in cities like Bryansk that their voters live. The main street is still called Prospekt Lenina and it leads from Partisans Square through Lenin Square to Revolution Square, all adorned with the corresponding monuments.
There are no advertising banners on Prospekt Lenina, just lamps in the shape of five-pointed stars stretched on thin wires over the street. "Theyve been here for the last 20 years," said Sherman, the newspaper editor. "They turn them on for major holidays, a few times a year."
Lodkin, the former TASS correspondent, was first elected governor in April 1993, but after he supported the deputies locked up in the White House, Yeltsin dismissed him. Bryansk had several governors over the next two years.
"Maybe that was the problem," Sherman said. "None of them was even remotely competent." So when the time came for the next gubernatorial elections in 1996, Bryansk again voted for Lodkin. And then re-elected him, late last year.
Finogenov, the local party official, said he knows exactly why people are voting for the Communists. "Disappointment. A very simple reason."
"Everybody is comparing what they had before with what they have now," Finogenov said. "What the government used to give them before and what it gives them now: market prices for food and communal services that eat up their budgets.
"The media say we are free now, but I ask what kind of freedom is that: to kill, to rob? People have no use for such freedom.
"In Soviet times, you maybe couldnt criticize the central government but could go to the regional party committee and complain about a neighbor building something illegally or about your colleague stealing. And they would do something about it. Now, that was freedom."
Yury Levada, the head of the VTsIOM polling agency, also sees nostalgia as the main driving force behind the Communists success.
"Their voters are older, less educated people who have failed to adapt to the new circumstances. Their only wish is to go back to what they perceive as safer times.
"This is more than sentiment or ideology," he said. "Its the only reaction they can muster to their new living circumstances."
According to Levada, 33 percent of the Communists electorate lives in villages, where the aging population lives in ever worsening conditions and has seen no benefit from the reforms.
As in Strashevichi — a village some 40 minutes drive from the city of Bryansk, consisting of two rows of wooden houses along an overgrown dusty road.
"Kolkhoz? There is no kolkhoz left," said Ivan Tokarev, 66, shaking his head at the ignorance of the question. A retired kolkhoznik, Tokarev was spending a sweltering afternoon on the little bench in the shade of a plum tree shade in front of his house.
The village is still part of the Druzhba kolkhoz, but the uncultivated fields that surround it bear witness to Tokarevs claim. "Everything has been destroyed. Out of five cow sheds only two are still standing, but only one has any cows in it. And it makes me cry just to look at the fields: only bushes growing there now. There is no one left to plow the fields and theres nothing left to plow them with."
With few exceptions, the villagers of Strashevichi are pensioners. Their children are long gone, either to the city or to the only functioning farm in the region. They all live off their small vegetable gardens, chickens and in some cases a cow. The average pension is 1,000 rubles ($30) a month, which at least arrives on time.
Strashevichi votes Communist. Invariably. In an election on Aug. 12, the villagers chose another Communist representative for the local parliament to replace the one that had been sent to Moscow recently.
The outcome was never in doubt.
"Ill vote as the village council says," Anna Maryina, 76, said just days before the election. "Ive always voted like that. They know best."
The village council is headed by a member of a Communist-based coalition, and if Tokarevs account is anything to go by, council members take it upon themselves to tell people whom to vote for.
"They always stand there next to the ballot box and ask me, Ivan Vasilyevich, who will you vote for?" he said angrily. "Last time I told them, None of your bloody business, and voted for Denin, the head of the neighboring farm."
"Administrative resources" is one of the Communists main tools in the region, Sherman said. "Ideology, Soviet nostalgia, thats all nice, but their main power is in the bureaucratic organization of the party, which repeats the state structures," he said. "They have their people in every single village, and they make the village vote for whomever they want it to vote for."
Although the villages might be slowly dying out, there are still enough voters to keep the Communists going for years to come, Levada said. "Old people are a very large part of the Russian population and their political preferences are not likely to change."
The Communist success on the regional level will be a common feature of Russian politics for years to come, said Alexei Titkov, regional expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center. As long as the Communists remain a token opposition, the Kremlin will tolerate them and give them a piece of the political pie.
"The old Communist guard knows how to rule regions, how to keep them peaceful and quiet, how to feed them and make sure theres electricity and heating during the winter," Titkov said. "So if the region is not very important, if theres no oil or gas there, then why not leave it to people who will keep it under control?"
The Party Under Putin
Especially if they are as tame and supportive as the Communists have been ever since Vladimir Putin became Yeltsins heir apparent.
Putin was something for everyone: a patriot, a reformer or a fighter against the oligarchs. But for almost everyone, he held the promise of making Russia once again a Velikaya Derzhava.
With this he stole the Communists thunder.
Unity, a party that came from nowhere and whose only political platform was support for Putin, gathered almost as many votes as the Communists did in the parliamentary elections in December 1999.
So when Yeltsin resigned on New Years Eve, the Communists knew they didnt stand a chance in the presidential elections. But Zyuganov gentlemanly extended his help to the future president and gave the elections legitimacy by agreeing to run. This time he didnt even make it to the second round.
But the party was duly rewarded when it came to giving out posts in the Duma. Communists were named to head numerous committees and a faction member was chosen as speaker.
The peace in the house was complete for the next year and a half.
But now, the KPRF is again on the verge of turning into a loud, if not effective opposition. The rush with which the Kremlin pushed the contested Land Code and pension reform through the Duma angered the Communists, who, more so than other parties, are in touch with their electoral base, which will be the first hit by these reforms.
In an interview published last week in Pravda, Zyuganov warned against a new wave of "outrageous liberal reforms" and called for a nationwide protest on Oct. 5 against the Land Code — the first such move since Putin moved into the Kremlin. "Were talking about the peoples right to live," Zyuganov said.
The new life in the Communist ranks might be an attempt to gather the protest vote ahead of time. "It looks as if the Communist analysts have assessed that Putins reforms are going to fail and they are trying to make sure they gather the protest vote once it comes," Ryabov said.
Then, Ryabov argued, they could use it as a bargaining chip to get their people into government. But the experiment could just as easily end in early parliamentary elections, as Unity has threatened once already in calling a Communist bluff over a no-confidence vote.
But for a party that has more than half a million members in over 17,000 regional organizations, elections are not necessary a deterrent, Ryabov said. "If elections happen, the president and his party could be in for an unpleasant surprise."