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The struggle for new blood and the future of Russia’s Left

A new candidate is helping to reinvigorate Russia's left-wing politics ahead of the presidential election, but what space will there be for voices and movements from below?

Gennady Zyuganov, head of KPRF. (c) Emile Alain Ducke/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In a televised interview broadcast before the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) party congress, Gennady Zyuganov, the party’s head, announced that the KPRF had already laid the basis not only for the 2018 Russian presidential elections, but also beyond. Curious phrasing for a party that had only just put forth a candidate with less than three months to go before the elections. Still more curious was how Zyuganov deflected when asked a question about whether or not he intended to run, as he has in all but two of Russia’s post-Soviet presidential elections:

“I am the leader of one of the largest parties. This isn't any one person's party. If Zhirinovsky [head of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party] leaves, it all falls apart. It’s the people's party, for the people and defense, and we have created a powerful, authoritative organisation.”

The party’s congress took place just before New Year, and one of its main tasks was to rejuvenate the party that has actually been “one person’s” for some time. After an abortive announcement earlier in the year, Zyuganov took a step back and was not the party’s pick for presidential candidate at the December congress. That honour now belongs to one Pavel Grudinin, a relative unknown and head of one of the few collective farms, or sovkhozy, operating privately in Russia today.

After so many years at the helm, what’s prompting this change? Overall, it’s been a trying year for Zyuganov: a public spat with Chechen leader Ramzan Kaydrov over whether or not Lenin should be buried, a seemingly singular focus on a “back to the USSR” mentality at the expense of a broader electoral platform, and for the first time, a dip in popularity — the bombastic Vladimir Zhirinovsky now slightly outperforms Zyuganov among the Russian electorate. This is part of a larger tendency of the party’s decline: whereas once the pro-Kremlin United Russia party saw the KPRF as its main political opponent, given how the party forced the 1996 elections into a second-round runoff and their continued (though diminishing) presence in the Duma, it seems the Kremlin now believes that any viable competition to Putin’s 2018 presidential bid has yet to ripen.

January: KPRF's presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin (centre) at the Kirov Factory in St Petersburg. Source: KPRF. These recent setbacks speak to a larger malaise that has set in among the party base, which is dissatisfied with the party’s leadership as they have been since its first days on the political scene. From its founding in 1993, the KPRF has had to delicately balance managing the expectations of its rank-and-file members and the electoral needs of the party’s leadership. Ostensibly operating within a multi-party system, the Communists had to adjust their politics in the pursuit of enlarging their electoral share, a process described in great detail in Luke March’s biography of the party, The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia. Under Zyuganov’s leadership, the party adopted more moderate views and outmaneuvered more radical groups, often co-opting their members for party aims. This cynical approach to grassroots movements colours the party leadership’s relationship with local members and activists to the present day.

To get a sense of the party’s criticism from the left, I spoke with Yevegeny Myshayev, a municipal KPRF deputy in Moscow, and Vladimir Zhuravlev, an activist from Left Block. Though their views are by no means uniformly accepted across the KPRF and overall Russian left, they do demonstrate the tensions inherent between party leadership and the rank-and-file, and leftist activists outside of the party.

From power to opposition

The story of how the KPRF adapted to playing the role of sanctioned opposition has already been told. The party initially relied on the votes of the disaffected working-class and mid-tier party functionaries who had been swept aside with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overtime, however, as other parties adapted to the post-Soviet political landscape and stripped away this working-class base, the party was left with an electorate of elderly pensioners and committed leftists.

In a bid to expand this narrowing demographic, the party leadership, with Gennady Zyuganov at the helm, opted to “reinvigorate” its vision: not just a return to the policies of the Soviet Union, but a revamped socialism, with Russian state interests at its centre. This “red-brown” alliance of communists and nationalists has left its mark on the party, most notably in terms of ideology and legislative action. Commentators have noted that the party toes the Kremlin line in all foreign policy matters, a result of adopting outright nationalist views. This was most evident in the party’s unanimous vote on the recognition of the seizure of Crimea.

“Even high-ranked members in the district don’t do any work that would yield results because there’s no ‘political’ will for this in the KPRF’s leadership”

It is perhaps this willingness to play within certain bounds that has allowed the KPRF to hold on to its official opposition designation. Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party that supports him have made use of nationalism in a similar fashion as a way to realise their ambitions of reestablishing Russia as a global hegemon, with an imperialist foreign policy as the main implement to see this through. Even if the KPRF leadership by-and-large did not support this foreign policy, it would risk a lot to openly defy the Russian government’s foreign policy aims. After all, the only parliamentary deputy that voted against the recognition of the Crimean referendum was later threatened with expulsion and ultimately investigated for embezzlement, effectively leaving him in exile abroad. If the party were to follow a similar course, it could face the sorts of repercussions the Communist Party of Ukraine dealt with, when it was banned outright in 2015 after the Maidan revolution.

Domestically, the party has more leeway to express its opposition views. A glance at the vote tallies for the controversial Yarovaya Laws, which aimed to subject telecommunications data to government collection, was opposed by the KPRF as a bloc, without a single vote in favour. At the local level, however, party activity is noticeably more muted.

Enter Yevgeny Myshayev. Elected to the municipal council of Moscow’s Strogino district in 2012 under the KPRF banner, Yevgeny Myshayev, 59, immediately set his sights on fighting corruption and abuses of power. In 2015, Myshayev and two of his KPRF colleagues visited a site where illegal demolitions were taking place. The foreman assaulted one of Myshayev’s fellow deputies, and Myshayev physically intervened, earning him an arrest. His confrontational demeanor has earned him the party’s reproach: they have tried to expel him twice before, and he thinks the next attempt is not too far off.

Yevgeny Myshayev. Source: "I'm a resident of Koptevo". Joining the party ranks in 2011, Myshayev has since become disillusioned with its milquetoast political strategy.

“Even high-ranked members in the district don’t do any work that would yield results because there’s no ‘political’ will for this in the KPRF’s leadership. I’ve come to understand that I have to act on my own and not count on the KPRF struggling for power. As practice has shown, the KPRF only fights for power in words and not deeds, and reforming the party is impossible.”

The problem, in Myshayev’s view, is that the party is dominated by retirees who willingly submit to the official party leadership. This demographic issue is indicative of the KPRF’s reformulation after the disbanding of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Myshayev complained that the party’s primary activity is the collection of party fees and not much else. Although the party has an advantageous logistical situation, with district committees all over Moscow, it appears to be squandered:

“In every Moscow district, there are pressure points, usually related to the violations of residents’ rights. No party or social organisation helps them to stand up for their rights and interests. [The district party members] don’t carry out any work with the residents, who need organisational and legal help.”

These local issues are the main points of contention between the party and Myshayev. The most recent flare-up centered around the September 2017 Moscow municipal elections. These elections were a blowout for Yabloko, a center-left party that put a lot of effort into cultivating the exact types of local relationships Myshayev feels the KPRF has neglected. This helped Yabloko catapult their candidates into gaining a stunning 152 seats across the city’s various districts. The communists, meanwhile, lost a comparable amount of seats: 159.

Before voters even went to the polls, the KPRF threatened to not recognise the results, citing what they called campaign violations. They joined a chorus of opposition voices who complained that voters had not been sufficiently informed about the elections and where they could vote. With turnout at 15%, even Russia’s Central Election Commission agreed with this notion, saying the Moscow city government had failed in its efforts at notifying its citizens. At the eleventh hour, however, Zyuganov personally intervened and pressured the party’s city committee to walk back this threat of non-recognition. This infuriated Myshayev, who started to petition the Moscow authorities to annul the results in several districts. In his words, this is what will precipitate the next attempt at expelling him from the party, as he is going against what he feels is an agreement between the party and the Moscow authorities. “This is just one example of when I have come into conflict with the party, but there have been many such conflicts.”

Focusing on electoral work at the expense of other political projects is a sore point for leftist organisations across the world

Myshayev’s disagreements go far beyond electoral politics, however. With the worsening economic and social situation, he feels the time is ripe for the creation of “a real Communist party, because there is no political force in the country that could organise the people in the struggle for power.” Although he cites his experience living under socialism in the Soviet Union and still adheres to Marxism-Leninism (you would be hard-pressed to find many socialists in Russia who do not), Myshayev went on to state:

“Now the proletariat does not exist, and in the struggle for power, you have to rely only on the young, the working people, who have to be organised since nowadays a revolution can only be achieved through ‘colour approaches’ [a reference to the various “colour” revolutions that have swept across some countries of the former-Soviet Union]. The KPRF is only concerned with parliamentary work.”

Despite his other qualms with the party, Myshayev’s last line of thinking reflects another shift the party undertook in the 1990s, namely, abandoning the idea that systemic change can only come about through revolutionary and not evolutionary means.

His maligning of the party’s almost singular focus on parliamentary puppet theatre reflects the extent to which the KPRF has abdicated even its nominal role in the worker’s movement, diminished as it may be by Myshayev’s calculations.

1 May 2016: Russian labour activist Alexey Etmanov leads a demonstration of autoworkers through St Petersburg. Source: MPRA / Facebook.Recently, a court liquidated one of the largest and most politically active unions in Russia under the auspices of Russia’s “foreign agent” law, whereby any individual or organisation receiving any level of funding from abroad open themselves to government scrutiny. Aside from publishing a piece on this in its central committee’s paper, Pravda, the KPRF has not done much else to address what is undoubtedly a major blow for the working people of Russia during economically challenging times. The KPRF’s absence in this arena is all the more striking because worker grievances are on the rise in Russia, suggesting that a more energised and combative left movement has some fertile ground on which to work.

The youth question and the non-systemic left

Focusing on electoral work at the expense of other political projects is a sore point for leftist organisations across the world, and Russia is of course no exception. The idea that young people can also form the basis of a new left movement is not exclusive to Russia either. One need only look at Podemos in Spain or the Democratic Socialists of America in the United States. I asked Myshayev what prospects he sees for achieving this goal of a “party of a new type” with a broad youth base: “Young people are especially sensitive to injustice. The disposition in the youth scene is becoming more and more radical.” Myshayev, born in 1958, cannot reasonably be seen as part of the “youth”. His views, however, have become commonplace among young leftists in Russia.

There is a slew of non-systemic (that is, not taking part in official party politics) leftist organisations in Russia, like the Russian Socialist Movement, Left Front, and Left Bloc. The last two are perhaps the most interesting because they represent the tensions inherent in the left today, a legacy of the KPRF’s role as the official leftist opposition and its reconfiguration to accommodate nationalist views. Left Front, founded in 2008 and currently led by Sergey Udaltsov, is a conglomeration of leftist organisations that has long been rumored to have deep ties to the KPRF. Udaltsov, who spent several years behind bars as a result of his protest activity in 2012, has spent the months since his release trying to reconstitute the organisation into a viable political force.

Sergey Udaltsov, of Left Front, is currently campaigning on behalf of Pavel Grudinin in Russia's presidential election. (c) Finistre Arnaud/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Left Front’s focus for the past few months had been choosing a candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. At the end of October of this year, Udaltsov announced that Left Front would be holding “online primaries” to determine who would stand for the left in the upcoming elections. Voters were invited to choose from almost 80 candidates in an effort to find the best person to put forth in the elections. Demonstrating Zyuganov’s lack of appeal, he came in 15th place. After two turns, the winner was none other than the aforementioned Pavel Grudinin. Prior to the conclusion of the primaries, Udaltsov did not respond when asked exactly how this candidate would declare his candidacy and through which party’s organisation. The lack of transparency surrounding the primaries further perturbed leftist observers. The fact that the KPRF has now nominated Grudinin and that Udaltsov continued to openly support this move shows the degree to which the Left Front and the party are interconnected.

The fact remains that for now, the KPRF has a lock on orienting leftist politics by virtue of its size and role as sanctioned opposition

The similarities go beyond political work. Ideologically speaking, Left Front mirrors the “red-brown” approach the KPRF innovated. In fact, some of the founders of the latest newcomers to the leftist-opposition scene, Left Block, split from Left Front when it explicitly supported the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

Vladimir Zhuravlev, a Moscow activist in Left Block who was recently detained protesting the excesses of Russia’s elite, described relations between the two groups: “We are happy that leader of Left Front Sergey Udaltsov is free now but we [aren’t] sure that [the] restarted Left Front will be a point to unite the left. It is more left-patriotic than we are and I think we just have different views and goals…We are against any capitalistic government - Russia, Ukraine, ‘people republics’, etc.”

Vladimir Zhuravlev at a 2017 rally in defence of internet freedom. Source: Facebook. Zhuravlev’s view on the KPRF differ little from those of Myshayev, the disenchanted KPRF municipal deputy:

“It is a highly bureaucratic, nation-oriented and corrupted puppet of the regime. But there are lot of good people inside of it and we are trying to cooperate with them and use resources of the KPRF. The head of KPRF doesn’t want to cooperate with anyone, only to use our activists as youth crowd scene.”

This cynical use and neglect of the youth activists is a point Myshayev returned to later in our conversation. In his assessment, the youth scene needs a radical guiding force, though he wasn’t sure Left Front could provide this.

“I think that Left Front isn’t capable of bringing a lot of young people into the movement, let alone struggle, apart from sanctioned meetings and marches. People of different political views and those dissatisfied with the current authorities do take part in the movement, but the leader of Left Front Udaltsov doesn’t have an idea about how he plans to come to power, and that’s why the group’s main activity is organising protests and marches. He can’t and doesn’t know what to propose. It’s for this reason that the movement’s composition isn’t constant.”

He was more optimistic about Left Block: “Left Block is more radically oriented and despite it also having ideological discord and vacillation, it’s exactly this radical attitude that keeps them in.” Nevertheless, Left Block has a ways to go before it can truly have an impact on leftist politics. By Zhuravlev’s calculations, the group counts on the support of about 300 members nationwide, though a lax approach towards dues collection and different tiers of membership and supporters complicate this count a bit.

"Capitalism is shit": officers in the elite Moscow district of Barvhikha demonstrate protesters' banner inside the police station. Source: Left Block. No matter the true number, the fact remains that for now, the KPRF has a lock on orienting leftist politics by virtue of its size and role as sanctioned opposition. Myshayev welcomes the KPRF’s recent soul searching and apparent desire to reinvigorate itself by shaking up its leadership. More has to be done, however:

“The loss of the party’s vanguard nature of its activity (or rather, inactivity) has paralysed the people’s will for victory over counterrevolution, the forces of which have only strengthened in just a quarter century that was lost for the country’s development on the path to socialism. The party has to publicly offer an apology to the people for forfeiting (by its own volition) its vanguard role in constructing socialism and issue a Leninist appeal to join the party to all legal-aged citizens who recognise the objective necessity of the resumption of constructing socialism in the country taking into account the material conditions. Without a large scale appeal and an influx of new energy, there’s nothing but a dead end, the people can’t organise on their own!”

Judging by the decisions made at the December congress, the KPRF has also taken some of these lessons to heart. In announcing his decision to not run in the elections, Zyuganov cited his age and the need for “fresh blood” in the party. He will, however, continue to be the party’s Chairman and will lead Grudinin’s campaign headquarters. This gambit may also not pay off. As both official and independent polling demonstrates, Grudinin, once enjoying a lead on Vladimir Zhirinovksy, has now come neck-and-neck with him. Also, due to Zyuganov’s long-lasting hold on the party, many in the electorate are not even aware that the KPRF has nominated someone else. In short, a nominal reshuffling at the top a reinvigorated leftist opposition party does not make.


About the author

Christopher Moldes got his MA in Slavic and Eurasian Studies, and is a writer and translator living in the Washington, DC area in the United States. He is a contributor to Global Voices’ RuNet Echo project.


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