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Russia: Political Activists Rarely Join Election Campaign

  • Sophie Lambroschini

About 100 million voters are expected at the polling stations next Sunday in nationwide elections for the State Duma. But only a few Russians actually participate in pre-electoral meetings. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks into who some of these political activists are and why they go against the generally passive flow.

Moscow, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Handing out flyers and collecting signatures in support of political parties are sources of extra revenue for the poor -- the unemployed, students, and pensioners -- during pre-electoral periods. For many, this mercenary contact with political parties will be their only one, except for what they see through televised advertisements, reports and debates.

Even the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which owing to decades of disciplined tradition is supported by more active and disciplined people, has only some 500,000 members. The Communist Party's press service tells RFE/RL that these members also make up the majority of those participating in its gatherings.

Meanwhile, for other parties, their few volunteers are seen as a curious exception.

Last Friday, Anna Zaytseva was among the dozen or so people demonstrating under Pushkin statue in central Moscow to protest against the war in Chechnya. Zaytseva has been a member of a little-known Radical Party and as she says "anti-militaristic associations" for the past five years.

She explains that when the democratic demonstrations during Perestroika attracted millions, people "thought that going down into the street is what democracy was all about." She says many democrats thought that they really did bring down Mikhail Gorbachev and put an end to the Soviet Union. She says that only later did it become clear that the people can't influence those who hold political power all that easily.

Besides, Zaytseva says, with the economic problems besetting the country, most people soon forgot about political activism and focused instead on survival. For her, she says that the wars in Chechnya shook her out of apathy.

For some others, the turning point came in October 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin allowed the shelling of the Supreme Soviet building to crush the Soviet era deputies' resistance to the old parliaments dissolution.

That was true for Anton Alipov. The twenty-year-old worker in communications services for a state company says he turned to "Stalinism" in reaction against Yeltsin. Alipov teaches Marxism-Leninism to newcomers to Viktor Anpilov's "Working Russia Party", which is represented in the Duma as part of the communist faction and is running at the head of the "Stalinist bloc" this year.

Alipov says that his primary education in Soviet school played a key-role in his interest in politics because at that time "even six-year olds were being taught ideology." Alipov still wistfully remembers the red neck tie worn by the Young Pioneers and the "moral certainty" of the times.

"I was young, there was still the Soviet Union, and I received an adequate education in Soviet School. When we were taught all those ideals of Soviet society, it wasn't as much instruction, as it was education. Now we have to fight for those [same ideals]. That apparently left a mark. And then that society was shattered. I reacted against this [change] in a simple childish way. And that's when everything started."

Alipov rejects the official Communist Party as "part of the system."

Andrey Kosmenin, a teacher from Ryazan, is also politically active, but his party of choice is Yabloko, headed by Grigory Yavlinsky. Kosmenin was one of the few activists from the reformist party at a pre-electoral debate held in a 300-seat auditorium in central Moscow last Wednesday. A candidate from Yabloko was debating that night with a communist. As is often the case, the room was filled with excited communists, mostly elderly. Drowning the Yabloko candidate's speech under cries of "dirty capitalist" and "blood-sucker", the communist supporters clearly dominated the evening.

Kosmenin, speaking with RFE/RL, said there is a need for Russians to become more active in the political process.

"You can sit at home in front of your TV set. But then elections will come along and the question is that [their results] will affect your life, and [determine] how much you will still enjoy watching that same TV. In 1989 everyone was interested in politics. But they weren't interested in real politics -- who to vote for. [They were interested] in the gray spots in [Soviet] history, in debating the path Russia should follow. You can be interested in politics in this way but a normal interest [actually] starts with discussing who you're going to vote for. And I think that this interest does exist [in Russia]."

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences with the Russian Academy of Science. He agrees with Anna Zaytseva that political activism almost completely died out after 1991, after economic hardship increased and people turned their attention to survival. He says that most of the people now participating in rallies are getting paid and that some companies even specialize in "renting out" participants.

But Kagarlitsky says that a renewal of civic engagement might surface soon in Russia. He says the current rejection of politics observed in Russian society may be more a reaction against the political establishment -- which is perceived as cynical and corrupt -- than against politics itself. He predicts that a renewal of civic activism might therefore lead to a revival of participation in more informal organizations rather than in established political parties.