MOSCOW -- As a 21-year old leftist firebrand, Oleg Shein was among the hard-line Communists who barricaded themselves inside the Russian parliament in the autumn of 1993 in an ill-fated attempt to bring down President Boris Yeltsin's pro-Western government.
Nearly two decades later, Shein is once again at loggerheads with the Kremlin -- this time as the hero of the liberal democratic protest movement. And in between these two rebellions, he served as an obedient pro-Kremlin deputy in the State Duma.
Shein announced late on April 23 that he planned to end his 40-day hunger strike over alleged vote fraud in Astrakhan's March 4 mayoral election. His protest made him a national cause celebre and won him the admiration of Moscow's liberal intelligentsia, with such luminaries as socialite-turned-social commentator Ksenia Sobchak and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny traveling to Astrakhan to lend support.
Shein's transformation from diehard Communist to darling of the democratic movement illustrates the degree to which Russia's opposition has sought to reconcile disparate elements as it forges a broad-based coalition against the rule of Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin.
And Shein's political journey -- erratic as it may seem at first glance -- also reflects the turbulent twists and turns Russian politics has undergone over the past 20 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"In a way, he is a very typical character in Russian politics because he belonged to a far left with semi-Stalinist views [who] was gradually integrated into mainstream politics," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow-based sociologist, author, and leading socialist thinker. "In Russia, this also means [joining] the kind of fake political world of the State Duma and so-called managed democracy.... Now it seems he is still capable of mobilizing some grassroots support in Astrakhan."
'Hunger Strike For The People'
Shein's hunger strike placed Astrakhan, a southern port city of 520,000 people, firmly in the national spotlight as the latest battleground between the opposition and the authorities.
A member of the center-left A Just Russia party, Shein claims massive fraud marred the March 4 mayoral elections, in which official results showed him winning just 30 percent of the vote. United Russia's Mikhail Stolyarov was declared the winner with 60 percent.
Supporters gather around Oleg Shein in Astrakhan, where his hunger strike over the mayoral election results became national news.
On April 20, Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov said he had found "procedural" violations in the vote but "no falsifications," adding that there was no cause to overturn the official results.
Speaking to journalists in Moscow on April 17, Shein dismissed his opponents' allegations that he was trying to blackmail his way into City Hall. "I would never have declared a hunger strike for the post of mayor," he said. "I declared the hunger strike because the people lost their right to elections and to choose their officials."
In an entry on his blog on April 23, Shein wrote that despite not winning a revote as he previously demanded, the hunger strike "achieved its goal" because Churov admitted that "the law was broken in 129 of 203 polling stations." He also wrote that those detained at protests following the election had been freed.
Shein was born in Astrakhan in 1972 at the height of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's rule. He was a young history student in the late 1980s when Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika opened up the Soviet Union and ultimately led to its demise.
A hard-line Communist, Shein joined the ranks of the United Workers' Front, a now-defunct group opposed to Gorbachev's policies.
In 1993, following the Soviet break-up, he traveled to Moscow and joined then-Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi and parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov in a bloody standoff with Yeltsin that ended with tanks firing on Moscow's White House, which was then the parliament.
After the failed uprising, Shein returned home to Astrakhan to engage in local politics. Elected to Astrakhan's Legislative Assembly in 1994, he rapidly cultivated a reputation as an energetic, humble, and left-wing man of the people, according to analysts.
State Duma Deputies Dmitry Gudkov (left) and Ilya Ponomaryov demonstrate in Moscow's Red Square to support Oleg Shein.
He held regular daylong meetings with voters, championed housing and workers' rights, and was known for shopping at markets and kiosks rather than the glitzy haunts of the ruling elite.
Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think tank says Shein's popularity boomed when he set up and ran a local chapter of the Defense labor union, which quickly gained a reputation for "genuinely defending the interests of its members."
Carine Clement, Shein's French ex-wife, recalls how in 1998 Shein organized a tent city in Astrakhan to protest against growing wage arrears and looming layoffs at a bankrupt factory. She describes him as stubborn and tireless.
"I've seen how he works. He's capable of working night and day, barely taking any rest or eating," Clement says. "When he has an aim in his head, when he is convinced that he is right, and thinks that people depend on him for his persistence, then he will do it."
Joining The Establishment
The tent-city protest, which took place on the eve of the 1999 State Duma elections, earned Shein a seat in the lower house of parliament, where he would serve three consecutive terms.
Initially, he served in the Duma as an independent, but during Putin's first stint in the Kremlin between 2000-08 Shein gravitated toward pro-regime parties.
He joined the left-wing nationalist party Rodina (Motherland), which was led by Dmitry Rogozin, currently a deputy prime minister and Russia's envoy to Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. Motherland ultimately merged with other left-leaning parties to form A Just Russia, initially a pro-Kremlin project designed to siphon votes away from the Communists -- although it has since gone into opposition.
Nikolai Grishin, an Astrakhan-based political analyst, says Shein's leftist views always existed side-by-side with what were essentially democratic impulses. For example, he consistently condemned communist-era crimes such as Josef Stalin's terror and the mass killing of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest during World War II.
Grishin calls such views "uncharacteristic for communists" and have made him more palatable to liberals in Astrakhan and beyond.
"Unlike many politicians, Shein's image is not that of a patron. Many of our politicians try to play the role of benefactors, sponsors, and mighty guardians," Grishin says. "Shein's image is that of a simple fighter who defends the interests of workers in their conflicts with employers. That's his secret. He represents the people's political interests."
But nevertheless, Shein's leftist instincts are never far from the surface -- something that comes through in his writing.
In a 1998 monograph, he decried the Communist Party for not being sufficiently leftist. And a 2009 book he wrote about the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia was described by political commentator Yulia Latynina as "jingoistic."
His ex-wife describes Shein as a social democrat who has adapted his values to today's political realties, adding that the far-left ideals that marked the beginning of his political career now reside "somewhere deep in his soul."