Despite the growing gap between the rich and poor, the traditional left still has a low profile in Russia. But as state education and healthcare continue their slow decline, the rouble collapses, and factories close across the country, do the chances for the left look any better?
A shadow of its former self
In Russia, the concepts of equitable distribution of oil revenues, the preservation of the welfare state, and control over official salaries are all highly popular. According to the Levada Centre, the country’s leading independent polling agency, about 40% of Russians support socialist principles and 20% — communist.
40% of Russians support socialist principles and 20% — communist.
Two of the four parties represented in Russia’s parliament, the Duma, are nominally left-wing. One of them, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), is the direct successor of the Soviet Communist Party (KPSS). Gennady Zyuganov, its leader since 1993, almost beat Boris Yeltsin in a presidential run-off in 1996.
Since then, the party’s influence has gradually declined and it has been reduced to a bit player in the Putin political game. In the 1990s, the KPRF controlled many regional authorities. The party’s nominated governors were in power around the country. Now the party’s presence on a local level is minimal, while the regional elites have long since defected to the ruling United Russia Party.
The KPRF now boasts just one governor, in the small Orlov region, as well as mayors in a few cities (among them Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city). But those who exercise executive power in the provinces under the party banner risk falling out with its national leadership: Zyuganov evidently sees them as his rivals to head the party. The KPRF leader continues to run for president every four years and always comes second, but since 1996 the gap between him and the ruling party candidate has always been enormous.
As the slogan says: 'Zyuganov - Our President!' But he always comes second... (c) Demotix / Alexander Chernyavskiy.
More pressingly, many KPRF deputies in the Duma now represent big business and so the party can’t really be considered the successor to the ‘proletarian’ KPSS. It opposes any government measures to cut social benefits, yet it also has a fondness for imperial great-power rhetoric and xenophobia, as well as fanatical support for the Russian Orthodox Church. Last spring, for example, KPRF members turned up at a demonstration carrying placards with racist slurs against US President Barack Obama.
A Just Russia
The second, nominally left of centre party in Russia’s parliament, A Just Russia, was created in 2006 as a Kremlin-sponsored ‘social democratic’ project. A Just Russia won seats in the last two parliamentary elections, although its presence in the Duma after the next elections in 2016 is far from assured. In 2011-2012, a section of the party’s membership participated in the protest movement. These ‘rebels’ have been gradually expelled from the party’s ranks.
Practically the only ‘true’ socialist left in A Just Russia is Oleg Shein, a highly respected left-winger who has supported Russia’s independent trade union movement and other grassroots initiatives for many years. Shein’s dream, however, is to be mayor of his home city of Astrakhan, a city of half a million inhabitants in the south of Russia; and since A Just Russia supports this ambition, he generally follows the party line.
Much like KPRF, A Just Russia speaks out in support of welfare benefits, but it also shares certain imperial and Orthodox fundamentalist religious tendencies. It was a Just Russia deputy, Yelena Mizulina, who was the chief author of the notorious 2013 law banning ‘gay propaganda'. Indeed, both A Just Russia and KPRF use aggressive anti-immigrant language that would be unthinkable for the European left.
Both A Just Russia and KPRF use aggressive anti-immigrant language that would be unthinkable for the European left
The ‘left’ is in bed with Putin
Since 2013, the Putin administration has had so much influence in the Duma that the four major parties — United Russia, KPRF, A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia — often vote in unison. Many laws are passed without debate, and more or less unanimously. Both A Just Russia and KPRF are in full agreement with the government on the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s policies in the Donbas. The crowning moment of parliamentary unity came at a demonstration and rally on 4 November 2014 (National Unity Day), when the leaders of all four parties held hands on stage to show their support for the Kremlin.
In other words, both A Just Russia and KPRF would find it hard to front some mass protest movement, even if it were putting forward a socialist agenda. As the anarchist theorist Mikhail Magid puts it, ‘Nostalgia for the Soviet Union — that dictatorship and mighty empire which challenged the West and forced its own peoples (Chechens, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs) into submission – that’s what motivates most Russian voters and, indeed, most people on the left. And from that perspective, everything the Kremlin has done and continues to do is correct.’
‘Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is what motivates most Russian voters and indeed most of those on the left’
But Magid also sees the risks. ‘Another important factor for the left is the preservation of the welfare state in Russia today, which was central to the USSR. And here too the Kremlin has not done badly in the last few years. For example, public sector salaries have increased. Hospitals have received new equipment and so on. But today Russia is in the middle of another crisis, and a much more serious one than that of 2008. So the ideal conditions for the emergence of an influential non-Bolshevik left-wing are only appearing now.’
Over the past decade, the government has pursued a policy of weakening the KPRF by supporting splinter groups within the party — particularly those who had come into conflict with Zyuganov and his circle. Most of these groups have now come together in a new party, Communists of Russia. Founded in 2012, Communists of Russia now has 16 members in regional legislative assemblies — an unusual success for such a new party.
The Communists of Russia hold rallies to promote their social agenda and, on the face of it, look fairly left-wing. However, this party also supports Kremlin policy in the Donbas and have had little difficulty when it comes to registering as an official party. These days, such ease suggests compliance with the Kremlin. Official registration makes it easier to take part in elections, but for the moment all the new party seems interested in doing is putting up ‘spoiler’ candidates to split the KPRF vote in the regions.
Two other officially registered parties, the Social Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party for Social Justice, are both controlled by Andrei Bogdanov, a political consultant loyal to the Kremlin. Bogdanov is known for having set up numerous spoiler parties, and the Communist Party for Social Justice is so far best known for including the name of a dead person in its party election list in Arkhangelsk in 2013.
Two other left-wing parties, the Red Front and the United Communist Party, are also trying to register at present.
‘For the moment, the social democratic movement in Russia is still a matter of small local groups’, says Nikolai Kavkazsky, a social democrat who was arrested as part of the 2012 Bolotnaya Square case (when protesters were accused of rioting and violence against the police following the presidential elections). Kavkazsky was amnestied, and is now gaining a reputation as a left-wing politician. This autumn Kavkazsky took 12.79% of the vote in elections for Moscow’s city council, having plastered leaflets about internationalism (an exotic subject in today’s Russia) all over his constituency.
Yet the path to political action is tricky. Kavkazsky told me about a recent conference in St Petersburg, where four social-democratic groups came to an agreement about collaborative action. But they failed to muster 500 real active members between them — the minimum necessary for official registration. ‘It’s still much too early to talk about a party’, Kavkazsky remarked.
Aleksei Sakhnin is an activist for Left Front, which came to the fore of protest activity in 2011-2012. Now Sakhnin has been forced to hide from the Russian authorities in Sweden. He admits that Left Front was mistaken in imagining that the Kremlin would recognise an independent left-wing party as an alternative to the KPRF.
‘We underestimated the Putin regime’, says Sakhnin. ‘We thought we could break down all the administrative barriers… that a voluntary organisation could intensively recruit new members, become a real leftist party and be recognised by the Kremlin. We thought that if we could show them we were pretty tough customers, they would say, go ahead and take part in what passes here for a political system, and that we would then have more of a chance to move on. But we were too naïve. They wouldn’t go for it.’
‘We – the Left Front – underestimated the Putin regime’
At that time, to register a political party required not 500 signatures, but 50,000, and one still had to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops in the process. Left Front and Red Front tried to register together six times; and six times they were turned down. As Sakhnin recollects: ‘One time I was just flabbergasted at the craziness of the procedure. You had to pay some kind of registration fee, and we had to calculate its size ourselves. We worked it out as either 600 or 800 roubles, and paid 800, just in case ... And then we received a letter saying that they couldn’t register us because we had overpaid!’
March 2012 saw protests at the arrest of Left Front Leader, Sergey Udaltsov (c) Demotix / Alexander Chernyavskiy.
Just as Left Front rose to the fore during the 2011-2012 white ribbon protests, the Ministry of Justice received an application from several pro-Kremlin activists in the Siberian Altai region to register a party of the same name — just to stop the real Left Front being registered. With all these official machinations, many active left-wing and anarchist groups in Russia do not even consider applying for registration in the foreseeable future.
One of the most serious problems for left-wing groups in Russia is the lack of established sources of funding. There is no equivalent of Western grant-giving organisations that might help finance left-wing projects in Russia. The best-known attempt to raise funds was the secret talks held between leftists and representatives of the Georgian government, during the 2012 protests, but the only result was the arrest of Left Front’s leader Sergei Udaltsov, as well as fellow activists Leonid Razvozhayev and Konstantin Lebedev.
According to Aleksei Sakhnin, criminal cases have been opened against certain active members in the 20 Russian regions where Left Front operates. Still others have been called as witnesses (and threatened with charges), which eats up time, money and energy.
Another problem of the Russian left is that it lacks any recognisable leadership
Another problem of the Russian left is that it lacks a recognisable leadership. While Sergei Udaltsov and Aleksei Gaskarov gained a certain fame (or notoriety) during the 2011-2012 protests, both are either in prison or under house arrest in connection with the 2012 Bolotnaya Case.
The Russian left also lacks a clear political agenda. It has only very general ideas about how the political theories of their favourite thinkers can be implemented in everyday life. Leftists attempt to get involved in other people’s social conflicts, but with little notion of what they can offer working people, even if these people were to sympathise with the leftists who have helped them out in concrete situations.
All this goes together with a neurotic inability to engage in discussion. Conversations about tactical matters, from the appropriateness of LGBTQ groups taking part in leftist demos to how to react to events in the Donbas often turn into heated arguments, with people calling one another ‘fascists.’ This only leads to further splits in the movement.
The rebirth of the Russian left
The first ‘non-Soviet’ leftists appeared in Russia before Perestroika and had considerable influence on the dissident movement. At the time, it was difficult to imagine the collapse of the USSR and the establishment of capitalism. The aim of most dissidents was to reform the Soviet regime without rejecting socialism. Perestroika, however, changed everything: you were either for the USSR, or the USA; and liberal ideas eventually elbowed out socialist principles. The Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists, founded in 1988, and with several thousand members at its peak, quickly collapsed, as did the many other new social-democratic parties that had sprung up.
For Russians now in their 40s, the word ‘socialism’ means shops with empty shelves and other grim reminders of the last years of the USSR. Those in their 20s and 30s, however, have a different view of leftist ideas.
For Russians now in their 40s, the word ‘socialism’ means shops with empty shelves and other grim reminders of the last years of the USSR
While many left-wingers from other countries (and especially members of Trotskyite organisations) flocked to the USSR to contribute their two kopecks-worth to changing the course of the Communist giant, their influence in Russia was minimal. A revival of interest in leftist ideas only came in the early 2000s, when young Russians were stimulated by bloody clashes between anti-globalist protesters and police during international economic forums, which they saw on their TV screens. Clones of Western leftist projects began to appear, such as the Animal Liberation Front, Critical Mass, Food not Bombs. But the most successful of these initiatives was the anti-fascist movement, which developed into a political youth subculture that attracted thousands of young Russians.
You can now find dozens of works by contemporary left-wing intellectuals on the shelves of Moscow’s highbrow bookshop. Around 80% of these books are by foreign authors — Toni Negri, David Graeber, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Bob Black and so on. Much like Coca-Cola, left-wing ideas in today’s Russia are imported.
Much like Coca-Cola, left-wing ideas in today’s Russia are imported.
Between the spring of 2013 and autumn 2014, a left-wing online media platform Russian Planet emerged at the forefront of comment and reportage, gaining tens of thousands of readers. But recently the owners of Russian Planet, the Morton construction group, decided to develop a right-wing media presence under the same brand name — a shrewd move to keep in with the Kremlin. Now the only remaining leftist site that can still pay its authors (although a lot less than most liberal sites) is Rabkor.ru, and even then its owner has a reputation for accepting money from the Kremlin.
Thanks to the anti-fascist movement, though, there are now many journalists with left-wing sympathies working in Russian media. It would be untrue to say that all work, which leans to the left, is censored in liberal media outlets: the left-wing is simply not involved in newsworthy projects — and so they receive little attention in the media. This limits the opportunities for journalists to rebel against their editors, and as a result one has to cover general ‘democratic’ subjects.
Left-wing participation in social protests also continues to have an impact. You can find leftists in all sorts of grassroots groups. Some are involved, for example, in fighting against construction projects where a modern building will ruin a historic city centre or green belt site, or as members of independent trade unions.
The Russian Confederation of Labour (KTR) is the country’s second-largest workers’ organisation, with two million members (although only a minority of them are active, of course). New unions are constantly joining the Confederation, which was set up mainly through the efforts of various left-wing groups.
Ilya Budraitskis, editor of the Openleft.ru platform, believes that it is the influence of the left which has kept the independent unions generally free from Russia’s endemic xenophobia, and this also explains why the KPRF and A Just Russia have not been able to entice the unions into their embrace.
On the other hand, as Budraitskis points out, the position of leftists in trade unions bears a certain resemblance to their position in the media. While leftists have little influence on how unions operate, they are susceptible to the influence of union officials. ‘The left is too weak to lead the unions’, says Alexei Sakhnin . ‘And the unions aren’t strong enough to become a power base for the left.’
But given the difficulty of registering any left-wing political group in today’s Russia, perhaps the only hope for the left lies with the trade unions.
Standfirst image (c) Demotix / Anna Volkova