PERM, Russia -- Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist who wants to be Russia's president, is trying to rescue his party from its own history. But the past keeps rising up to taunt him.
On a campaign swing through Perm, infamous as the gateway for political prisoners on their way to the concentration camps of the Soviet-era gulag, a former inmate grabbed the microphone at a news conference and demanded that Zyuganov accept responsibility for the repression of political dissent that stretches back to the 1930s.
Zyuganov merely shrugged, tired of answering the question that dogs him and other Communist officials at nearly every stop.
"I was born after the war and I didn't see any of [Stalin's repressions]. Zyuganov never betrayed anyone. He never persecuted anyone," the candidate said, emphasizing his distance by referring to himself in the third person.
"It's like saying to the United States, you are at the roots of slavery," Zyuganov added. "It's like saying to Catholics, you are responsible for the Inquisition. You can't criticize history. You can only study it and know it and not repeat its mistakes."
A burly former village schoolteacher who toiled backstage for most of his political career in the party's ideology unit, Zyuganov wants to be seen as a post-Communist communist, one who admires the church, accepts private property as a necessary evil and eschews political repression.
But in the process of remaking his party's image, Zyuganov brought a lot of the baggage of the past with him. He has put together a coalition that includes openly Stalinist orthodox communists, former KGB agents pushing for a czarist-era autocratic state and plotters of the 1991 coup who want to restore the Soviet empire.
A cautious man, he is often constrained to stamp out brush fires caused by those allies' more incautious threats, while trying to appeal to his natural constituency of pensioners and dispossessed party functionaries.
Zyuganov's central message to Russians is one of almost unrelenting doom -- a message that goes down well in the Russian heartland, where inefficient factories no longer work, electricity is often cut for lack of municipal funds and bitterness over the loss of superpower status runs deep.
He can work a sympathetic crowd to a frenzy with warnings of the imminent "extinction" of Russia, rousing pronouncements about a Western conspiracy to harm the country and popular jokes about Boris N. Yeltsin's drinking habits, while assailing "the robbery of the entire country by an insignificant minority under the guise of privatization."
On the campaign trail for the June 16 election, his speeches are capped by songs and poems geared to combine those themes of apocalypse, xenophobia and nationalism. "It's time to pray to God, to ask him to help us avert disaster," sings a folk singer who accompanies the Zyuganov campaign. "Get up, mother Russia, get up from your knees! Take a step toward salvation!"
His medicine for a sick Russia includes easy credit, protectionist trade policies, renewed state management of energy and banking, and subsidies for retirees and ailing factories. Everyone will be guaranteed a job, low prices, low taxes and social benefits, he says.
Zyuganov can sound like a democrat: "We will not enforce a monopoly on truth," he said at one campaign stop.
Or he can sound like a Soviet-style autocrat. "We will guarantee citizens rights to the truth," he said, saying that the news media are biased against him and must be forced to tell the truth.
If Zyuganov's views seem cobbled together from old Marxist dogma, extreme Russian nationalism and Westernized socialism, it is because there are vast differences within his circle of advisers, his own party and his political allies.
Victor Anpilov of the Working Russia Party, a powerhouse within the candidate's People's Patriotic Bloc, has said a Zyuganov win will be followed by immediate renationalization of all banks and the dispatch of unruly directors to assembly-line jobs in factories.
Taking another tack, Alexander Shabanov, the Communists' ideology chief, casts the party as the political equivalent of an underground church. "Communism is the ideal society," he said.
"No society can live without ideology. We are not going to sell our ideology. We are simply going to preach it like the early Christians who were thrown into prison and killed but who won by strength of spirit."
At the other end of Zyuganov's party are pragmatists who eschew dogma. Yuri Maslyukov, author of the campaign's economic plan and former director of the Soviet state-planning agency GosPlan, said, "We realize that we don't have the resources to immediately satisfy the high expectations that are being raised."
He added that Russia's economy should not be run on an ideological basis because "we are already convinced from our experience and others' that this is a path to nowhere."