Plotting a party's future

Communists seek relevance in Russia


MOSCOW -- Today used to be their day. This country used to be their country.

But as the nation's Communists celebrate the 88th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that brought Lenin to power and laid the foundation of the Soviet state, their party finds itself without reason to celebrate much else.

Once a well-organized and dominant force in the first decade after the Soviet Union's collapse, the Communist Party now stands on the outskirts of power.

The party lost more than half its seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in 2003. Its candidate was trounced in the last presidential race. It has been mired in internal squabbles over ideology and direction; last year, a dissident faction attempted to oust longtime leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has been criticized for lacking charisma and the will to modernize the party.

Even today's holiday, which traditionally brings thousands of red-clad party faithful to the streets in a mix of nostalgia for what the country used to be and objection to what it has become, technically no longer exists. The Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, the most revered of Soviet holidays, lost its identity in 1996 when it was renamed - awkwardly - the Day of Reconciliation and Accord, then was scrapped by the government altogether last year.

If it is hard to imagine a reason to champion the rejuvenation of the Communist Party, which during its more than 70 years of rule epitomized the worst kind of repression, corruption and cruelty, there is one: The existence of viable political opposition in the new Russia may well depend on it.

In the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, dissent is not seen so much as a necessary component of democracy but a reason to further consolidate power. And the Kremlin has largely succeeded in driving its opponents into the political wilderness. The pro-Putin United Russia party controls enough seats in the Duma to legislate more or less as it wishes.

That has left the Communist Party in something of an unlikely spot: championing values it once abhorred. During a recent party congress, Zyuganov stood before his comrades and spoke of the need for a "democratic revolution" to oust the Putin government.

"Communists are more in favor of democracy than the present party in power," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Communists can be seen as promoters of democracy because they are interested in political competition. They are interested in political pluralism."

In some ways, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is not much different from the Communist Party of yore, save for the gray hair of many of its members and its much-depleted ranks. Party congresses open to the hymn of the Soviet Union. There is talk of collectivism and the detested bourgeoisie. In one recent article, the party's political journal trumpeted the advantages of socialism over capitalism - which has created a new class of elite rich and left Moscow awash in gaudy wealth.

"The Communist Party is a party of the masses," said Anatoly Lukianov, former head of the Supreme Soviet and reputed mastermind of the 1991 coup against Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Still, the party has had little choice but to bow to some political realities that would likely shock its forebears. It now accepts the notion of private property and religious freedom and is among the more vocal proponents of the kind of open discourse that amounted to heresy in Soviet days.

Banned for a time after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the party staged a successful comeback beginning with the 1993 Duma elections. In 1996, Zyuganov made a strong showing in the presidential race against Boris N. Yeltsin, finishing with 40 percent of the vote in second-round balloting. By 2003, the Communists controlled 113, or about a quarter, of the Duma's 450 seats, and formed the largest bloc.

But the party was dealt a crushing defeat in that year's parliamentary elections, the first since Putin was elected president. The Communists found themselves on the wrong side of state-controlled television, whose nightly newscasts sounded like campaign advertisements for United Russia. They lost support to the nationalist Rodina, or Motherland, party, whose formation the Kremlin had encouraged in the name of splintering the Communist vote.

The future of the party, if it has one, will lie in part in its ability to capitalize on the discontent that, earlier this year, fueled mass demonstrations against the Kremlin's bungled reform of social benefits. Said Lukianov, now a party adviser: "It doesn't lead anywhere when it's not organized."

The party's future may also rest in its willingness to forge alliances with other opposition groups. At the recent Communist Party congress, Zyuganov, the son of schoolteachers and a one-time leader of Komsomol, the party's youth wing, pledged to work alongside any group "offended by the state of our country."

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