MOSCOW -- Marching in protest under a sea of red flags swirling in the frosty air at a recent demonstration, 31-year-old Yevgeny can't help but feel that a new generation of Russian socialists is on the rise. And he could be right -- if it weren’t for all the stumbling blocks.
In the 1990s, Yevgeny supported the Communist Party but eventually became disillusioned with its colorless and charisma-challenged leader, Gennady Zyuganov, a fixture in Russian politics for decades. Zyuganov is making his fourth run for the presidency in March.
Today, Yevgeny says his affinities lie more with the “Left Front,” a loose coalition of leftist groups that are not permitted to field candidates in Russia's tightly managed political system. But even if they were, he confesses he would be reluctant to vote for the Left Front's macho leader Sergei Udaltsov whose firebrand style of street protesting may have wounded his political credibility.
"I just don’t know, I cannot say for sure. He just doesn't seem to be the kind of leader that I could go and vote for,” said Yevgeny, who did not want to give his last name.
Yevgeny’s predicament encapsulates the quandaries of Russia's left-leaning electorate, which sociologists say comprise the lion's share of the country's voters. Analysts say there is a glaring disconnect between the country's socialist-leaning electorate, which favors heavy state intervention in the economy and a strong social safety net, and the dearth of attractive options for them to support at the ballot box.
Zyuganov, the Russian left's most visible personality, is largely viewed as a political dinosaur more concerned with maintaining his comfortable position as a permanent opposition figure acceptable to the authorities, than actually winning power.
Sergei Mironov's center-left A Just Russia is tainted by the party's reputation as a "pocket opposition" party established to do the Kremlin's bidding.
And Udaltsov's Left Front is unregistered and seen as too unwieldy and radical to be viable electorally.
Mindful of the electorate's leftist mood, Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin has increasingly campaigned on populist themes, promising increases in social spending and higher salaries for state employees.
Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist, author, and leading socialist thinker, says entrenched interests among the established left parties are preventing the development of newer, and more palatable, options.
"At some point some kind of left party is going to emerge, but only when it is able to get rid of the current left. Because at this point one of the biggest obstacles to the left is the groups and formations of the left itself. They are completely blocking development on this side of the spectrum," Kagarlitsky said.
As support for the United Russia party dwindled last year, the Communist Party won a hefty swathe of the protest vote in the December parliamentary elections, coming in second place with just under 20 percent.
The Communist surge was not surprising, says Aleksei Levinson of the independent polling organization, the Levada Center.
“If we take the left to mean socialist ideas in the strict sense, and in the Soviet notion of socialist ideas, then these represent the most widespread views in the bulk of the population, and among the elite," Levinson said. "I believe that the dominant views here are without a doubt the left."
But despite this, the Communists have been unable to expand their electorate.
Russians protested in their thousands against the Putin government on February 4
Transforming itself into a more modern social democratic party might do the trick, but Zyuganov has shown scant appetite for this, preferring instead to peddle nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, says this essentially relegates Zyuganov’s party to political irrelevance despite its status as the largest opposition force.
"If there's going to be any kind of rekindling of the left and a reinvention of the communists, it's going to take two things," Galeotti said.
"One is the Communist leadership itself deciding that actually they want to be in power rather than maintain opposition, and more to the point you're going to need other forces to reach out to the Communists."
In January, Udaltsov did in fact reach out to Zyuganov, pledging his Left Front would back the 67-year old Communist leader in the March 4 presidential election.
Support, But Few Votes
But given that the Left Front is such a loose coalition, analysts say it will be impossible for him to translate that support into actual votes.
Mironov's A Just Russia has recently shown some potential of becoming a force on the center-left. The party was founded in 2006 as a pro-Kremlin alternative to the Communists and won 7.74 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections.
But the party steadily began distancing itself from the Kremlin, a process that culminated in Mironov being removed from his post as speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, last May.
Running on an opposition platform in December 2011, the party nearly doubled its vote, winning 13.24 percent.
But Mironov, who is running in the March presidential election, is still not trusted by anti-Kremlin voters due to his decades-long ties to Putin.
And that leaves the 34-year-old Udaltsov, who with his pale face, shaved head, and upturned collar, looks more like a Maoist ascetic or a hero from the Matrix movies than an opposition leader.
A rough-and-tumble firebrand, Udatsov says he has lost count of the number of times police have detained him for public protests and says he spent around three months behind bars last year. His prominence spiked late last year when he was hospitalized after going on a hunger strike while in jail for participating in unsanctioned antigovernment protests.
Udaltsov calls himself a social democrat and calls for the nationalization of strategic industries and a tax overhaul that would redistribute income to the poor. He says the economic hardship gripping the Western world and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States show that the neo-liberal economic model has outlived its usefulness.
For a new generation of leftists like Yevgeny and his girlfriend Darya, these are the right words -- but they are nevertheless still searching for a new champion who could be more viable at the ballot box.
"In general this system can produce more worthy leaders," Yevgeny said.