Russia's beleaguered Communists trying to stay in step with times

Closing ranks on May Day with party on sidelines

May 01, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Shoved to the margins of power, its legacy scorned or ignored, the Communist Party hopes to draw 100,000 marchers to its May Day demonstrations here today, for its biggest show in a decade.

And Tatiana Skvortsova plans to be in the vanguard.

She is 62, a well-educated Muscovite who joined the party four years ago, long after the collapse of the Soviet state. It was only after the old order was demolished, she said, that she learned where her duty lies: to struggle to restore the glories of the socialist era.

"My father died protecting the Soviet system, for Soviet equality," said Skvortsova, whose father disappeared while delivering ammunition to Soviet troops in 1943 during the German siege of Leningrad. Now it's her duty, she said, to help resurrect that system.

On paper, the Communist Party remains a formidable force. It claims 510,000 members (in the late 1980s, that figure was 19 million), remains the largest bloc in the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) and according to opinion polls retains support of about one-third of the voters - more than any other party. President Vladimir V. Putin's United Russia is second-largest, with the support of about one-fifth of Russians.

But the Communists lack influence. None of their programs to renationalize industry or re-introduce a cradle-to-grave welfare system has Putin's support. Nor have the Communists been able to halt the country's drive toward a modern capitalist economy. They recently lost their battles in the Duma to block the creation of private property rights, and to block any easing of the rules for the firing of workers.

Duma members have also stripped the Communist Party of its last positions of power there by unseating the communist chairmen of seven of the legislature's nine committees. The two remaining Communist chairmen resigned. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, accused the Kremlin of waging a "moral and political terror" campaign on the party.

The Communists - once all-powerful - have little political credibility because of their seven-decade record of failure. Their only appeal is that they opposed the economic and political changes that brought hardship to Russians in the 1990s.

Even true believers like Skvortsova sound defensive

The executions, forced deportations and the gulags where millions were imprisoned? Those abuses were inspired by threats from capitalist enemies, she said.

Stalin? He was "cruel," and the history of Soviet communism was "contradictory."

"`It cannot happen like that again, single-party rule," she said. "People are more educated, more sophisticated than they used to be."

If the Communist Party regained power in Russia, she confidently predicted, it would support a multi-party democracy, tolerate dissent and respect human rights. That type of kinder, gentler Communist Party is reflected in its May Day fliers. Instead of the classic Marxist slogan "Workers of the World, Unite," leaflets exhort, "We Want to Have a Worthy Life!"

The Soviets adopted May Day as a celebration of solidarity with the world's workers. It became one of the most important holidays, an occasion for muscular parades of military hardware past Lenin's tomb in Red Square.

Communist demonstrators are banned from the square today, on orders of the Kremlin. The march will end in front of a colossal bust of Karl Marx, across the street from the Bolshoi theater.

The grandmotherly Skvortsova is a descendant of migrant laborers who worked in Russia's rural heartland. In gratitude for her father's sacrifice, party authorities paid an ample pension to his widow and four children. "It was the state that was completely responsible and took care of our family," she said.

After studying at a prestigious Moscow institute for foreign languages, she was sent to Cambodia in 1968 to work in a Russian-built hospital, where many of the physicians spoke French. In 1970, Khmer Rouge rebels, led by the Maoist Pol Pot, launched a savage guerrilla war.

Wasn't Pol Pot another example of a communist tyrant?

"He was a provocateur," Skvortsova said. "A communist wouldn't kill that many people."

After returning to Moscow, Skvortsova married Boris Skvortsov, who worked for a state-owned construction company operating earth-moving equipment and helped build the apartment blocks springing up around the city.

Boris Skvortsov joined the Communist Party in 1973 and became deputy of the party's Moscow regional council. Most party members took advantage of the perks that membership brought - such as better housing and vouchers for imported food - but not her husband, Skvortsova said.

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