If you’re paying close attention to the run-up to the Russian State Duma elections this week, you’re already familiar with the weapons of dirty tricks, “black PR,” and info warfare being brandished to try to guide Russian voters to the outcome desired by the Kremlin.
On the receiving end of much of the skulduggery up till now: jailed opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and his nationwide network of anti-corruption crusaders, as well as a liberal candidate in St. Petersburg and an independent-minded candidate in a Far Eastern region.
Now, there may be a new target to add to the list: Russia’s formidable Communist Party, known as the KPRF.
It holds the second largest bloc of seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, after the ruling United Russia party. And despite (or because of) the Soviet collapse, it still commands a formidable base of support, particularly among older voters.
That said, the party is widely seen as part of the “systemic opposition,” meaning it’s sort of independent but not THAT independent, critics say -- not to the point that would endanger the perks of being in the Duma. (In other words, the party knows which side its bread is buttered on.)
And perhaps for that reason, it doesn’t typically attract the same sort of electoral mudslinging.
Last week, an online news site reportedly once linked to a Kremlin “political technologist” -- read: spin doctor -- published an article describing a ceremony in several Moscow cemeteries, in which “communists” laid flowers at the graves of several top officers in the Stalin-era NKVD, the predecessor agency to the KGB.
Historians have implicated some of the officers in some of the worst excesses of the mass executions and political purges under the Soviet dictator.
In addition to photographs of the wreaths at the grave sites, the article purportedly quoted a statement from the party saying the graves should be protected from the “liberal political opposition.”
As it bounced around Russian social media, Telegram channels, and the online commentariat, some Russia watchers began poking holes in the story. Some noticed that the main website for the Communist Party had no mention of any such ceremony.
And in the article, the KPRF isn’t even formally identified; just a generic “communist party.” No other news outlets, reputable or otherwise, had any similar story.
(As it happens, there are at least two other “communist parties” in Russia. There’s the Communists of Russia, which uses the acronym KPKR, and there’s a group that calls itself the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which inhabits the very fringe margins of the Russian political landscape. Neither of them made any announcement about laying flowers on the graves of NKVD officers, though the latter said it held such a ceremony three days later for the founder of the Soviet secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, on the anniversary of his birth.)
The KPRF may have been hit earlier with some “black PR,” as negative and sometimes untruthful publicity is known in Russia. In July, photographs of a man who was freed after 17 years in prison on a charge of kidnapping two girls and holding them in a basement for nearly four years circulated on Russian social media. The man was shown wearing a shirt and hat with the Communist Party logo.
“Ahead of us, I think, voters will see many more statements of this sort,” one party official, Sergei Obukhov, said at the time. “This is just more black PR technology.”
Long story short, to many Russophiles and Kremlinologists what the flowers-for-NKVD-officers article appears to be is an effort to undermine not only the REAL Communist Party but also undermine “Smart Voting”-- an initiative spearheaded by Navalny that is aimed at undermining the headlock that United Russia has on the Russian political landscape.
In some places, Smart Voting might end up endorsing Communist candidates by drawing support for liberal-minded opposition voters who are looking to Smart Voting for ballot guidance in the September 17-19 elections.
Making the Communists look bad -- asserting they are honoring men responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens -- would undermine this tactic and confuse voters.
Will it work?
You’ll have to wait until September 20 to find out.