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On 1917 Centenary, Russia's Young Reds Can Only Brood

  • Tom Balmforth

A new generation of communists and leftists is coming of age in modern Russia at a time when the left is enjoying something of a resurgence in the West. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Sporting a Lenin pin and extolling Marx over a latte in a bustling downtown cafe, Andrei is every bit the modern-day Russian communist. And don't expect the 19-year-old to get teary-eyed about the demise of the Soviet Union.

An aspiring university student, he has lived most of his life under President Vladimir Putin and his views have nothing to do with an abstract "nostalgia" for a country he never knew. He admits the Soviet Union "made mistakes" but insists horrors like the Gulag or the Great Terror don't discredit communist ideals.

Flanked by two fellow activists who occasionally chip in to cite Engels, Andrei recounts how he was just 13 when he set out to join the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth group whose earthy, leather-booted, pistol-toting partisans fought in the Russian Civil War that raged after the Bolshevik Revolution and claimed up to 12 million lives.

In a white hoodie and jeans, Andrei, who asks that we not use his full name, says he was drawn to the Komsomol by anger over how his liberal-minded mother and father subsisted -- working blue-collar jobs as a house painter and a driver -- in the capital of one of the most socially unequal major economies in the world. He himself worked summers in a crane-making factory from the age of 14 to save up for college.

"I've seen how the state deals with common people," says Andrei, who recently finished compulsory military service and hopes to start university this fall. "I was at the bottom of our society. The injustice we have in this country -- tiny salaries and pensions -- of course it makes you ask why this is the case."

As he rattles off grievances, one could mistake him for a liberal opposition activist: He rails against the "persecution of dissidents," condemns state propaganda's "militarization of society," and abhors colossal sums spent on national defense rather than a collapsing education system.

Left Front activist Aleksei Sakhnin fled Russia in 2013 and now lives in Sweden. (file photo)
Left Front activist Aleksei Sakhnin fled Russia in 2013 and now lives in Sweden. (file photo)

One hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Andrei's views speak to the new generation of communists and leftists coming of age in modern Russia at a time when a resurgent left in the West is producing figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and Jean-Luc Melanchot.

Russia's tightly controlled politics has no comparable figure -- although leftist thinkers and activists see gaping space opening up for leftist political forces, with the country sputtering out of its longest recession of Putin's tenure and two nationwide opposition protests suggesting that public politics has awakened from a deep slumber.

Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist and Marxist, says there is a widening disconnect between an electorate yearning for left-wing policies and a ruling elite that is, if anything, "moving to the right" and weighing further privatizations and huge constructions projects seen as self-serving.

"This creates a tremendous gap between what people want and what the government is doing," Kagarlitsky says. "I think there is going to be much more space for radical leftist politics in this country, probably already by this autumn and in the next year."

Old-New Guard

It is unclear who could occupy this space. The Communist Party (KPRF) has a strong foothold in official politics but is widely seen as a cog in the Kremlin-controlled system. Although it has used its sprawling nationwide infrastructure to support labor protests across the country, many voters perceive the top brass of the party as co-opted or cowed by the authorities, and its lawmakers regularly back Kremlin legislation.

The Communist Party has been led by 73-year-old Gennady Zyuganov for 24 years, including four failed presidential bids, each with fewer votes than the last.

Even youth activists inside the party tell RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that they hope Zyuganov -- "with full respect to him" -- does not run for the presidency in March 2018, potentially setting up another ballot-box encounter with Putin and the other usual suspects, liberal Grigory Yavlinsky and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"It's like groundhog day," Kagarlitsky says. "At some point, you have to wake up."

The Communist Party has nonetheless maintained a loyal following in a country where the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 for many seemed to usher in primarily economic hardship and a wave of white-collar and street crime. Since then, some have pined for the old safety net and resentment has grown at the rise of wealthy tycoons seen to have robbed the country in dodgy privatization deals under the stewardship of even-more-resented liberals.

Today, the party manifesto proposes nationalizing natural resources and "strategic" areas of the economy, strengthening defense capabilities, and replacing Putin's 13-percent flat tax with a progressive rate that would target the wealthy and ease the burden on the poor.

Ahead of parliamentary polls last year, the Communists tried to woo younger voters, circulating campaign posters and leaflets portraying old Soviet icons jazzed up for the modern era. A casual "hipster" Lenin was depicted on campaign paraphernalia, in jeans and a T-Shirt with a red laptop under his arm, while Karl Marx appeared in a leather jacket with Das Kapital, while Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was shown puffing an e-cigarette.

But despite such overtures, the longtime symbiosis between the Kremlin and the party has driven young activists like 30-year-old Vladislav Ryazantsev to form their own radical-left street groups.

"The leadership of the Communist Party fights for cozy seats in the State Duma and regional legislatures, has good financing from the state budget, and effectively is built into the system of power," says Ryazantsev, a Rostov-based activist for Left Bloc, a new grouping of socialists, communists, and anarchists founded in late 2015.

"I want to see a fundamentally new politician at the head of the KPRF who has never been in power," Ryazantsev says.

The left's radical street opposition has been in disarray since the crackdown on the so-called Bolotnaya antigovernment protests in 2011 and 2012. Sergei Udaltsov, the buzz-cut Stalinist who as leader of the Left Front became the figurehead of Bolotnaya's left wing, was jailed for 4 1/2 years. He is due for release in August but seems largely forgotten as a political force.

Police officers detain radical Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (center) during an opposition rally in August 2012.
Police officers detain radical Russian opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov (center) during an opposition rally in August 2012.

Udaltsov's Left Front gained a strong following during the 2011-12 protests in a tactical alliance with liberal leaders like an ascendant Aleksei Navalny and Yeltsin-era Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015. When the authorities cracked down on the movement with a string of arrests that became known as the Bolotnaya Affair, the Left Front was hit especially hard, with three of its organizers jailed.

Ryazantsev says he quit a Left Front group that was already unraveling under state pressure in part because of Udaltsov's subsequent praise for Russia's annexation of Crimea. That bold 2014 occupation and land grab from Ukraine unleashed patriotic zeal across Russia, dividing leftist and nationalist forces, and effectively wiped already beleaguered opposition politics off the landscape.

Navalny The...Leftist Populist?

Three years later, sociologists say the "Crimea effect" has worn off and street politics have jolted to life as opposition politician and anticorruption crusader Navalny has mobilized tens of thousands of protesters, first on March 26 and then on June 12.

The contours of a protest movement are emerging. But unlike Bolotnaya five years ago, there is no obvious leftist force alongside Navalny; leftist activists say the trained corporate lawyer has simply latched onto left-wing talking points to broaden his popular appeal.

"Navalny was a typical right-wing populist who criticizes corruption and migration, attending Russian Marches and ultraright mobilizations," says Aleksei Sakhnin, a 35-year-old Left Front activist who fled Russia in 2013 fearing arrest and claimed political asylum in Sweden. "Now the main accent of his rhetoric is the demand for social equality, raising the population's incomes, pensions, and the living standard, and fighting the oligarchy."

Among other things, Navalny proposes substantially raising the minimum wage, doubling health-care spending, and imposing a large one-off tax on oligarchs to "compensate for the injustice of the privatizations." He has locked horns in a surreal online video duel with Kremlin-connected tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who has rounded off his videos attacks on Navalny with the catchphrase "I spit on you."

Sakhnin says he sees both a threat in "unaccountable populism" in a country "without institutions," and grounds for encouragement in Navalny's program. "This is a huge democratic breakthrough, because an agenda that really worries millions of people in the country is beginning to be discussed," he says. "In 2012, it took huge effort to push this agenda, but the right-wing blocked it with all its force. Liberals like Navalny and Nemtsov said social demands should not be made. This is what led to the defeat of the movement and the reason it remained within the middle class in Moscow."

Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny (right) speaks at a rally in Moscow in 2016. (file photo)
Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny (right) speaks at a rally in Moscow in 2016. (file photo)

It is still hard to gauge the political stripes of Navalny's seemingly youthful new following, since both his 2017 rallies were held without official authorization and, as such, have been chaotic affairs marred by hundreds of arrests. "I think that many people following Navalny are much more radical than he is. I think they are much further left of Navalny," Kagarlitsky says. "If you follow what he is saying, he is attacking the oligarchs."

Ryazantsev says Left Bloc activists took part in Navalny's June 12 rallies in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Rostov, and one of them was among the more than 1,100 people detained. "We understand that rallies on the fringes won't convince the authorities to put an end to corruption because corruption is an integral part of the current system, and that means we need to change the system and not specific people."

Populist Revolt

Sakhnin casts the rise of populists -- both left and right-wing -- as a revolt in the West against the neoliberal economic model introduced under U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. "There is a demand for a left turn, not just in Russia, but across the world," Sakhnin says.

Prominent world economists like Christine Lagarde from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have highlighted issues such as rising social inequality as key underlying factors in the string of political upsets and populist insurrections in the West.

"Sooner or later, the trend will definitely repeat in Russia; only, in my opinion, it will be nonparliamentary 'street' politics," says Ryazantsev, who says there's no space for the rise of new forces inside the Kremlin-controlled State Duma.

A poll by the Pew Research Center in June found that more than half of Russians believe the gap between rich and poor is a major domestic problem, ranking behind rising prices and corruption and alongside a job shortage and terrorism.

Russia is one of the most unequal major economies in the world. A report by Credit Suisse published in 2016 estimated that the top 10 percent of wealth holders controls 87 percent of all household wealth in Russia. It said the figure was "significantly higher than any other major developed economy."

"Our country is a monster swallowing up not just the savings of its citizens, but the lives of it citizens," Communist activist Andrei says. "Some people give their whole lives to working in heavy industry and enterprise for kopecks.

A Bid For Unity

The groups RFE/RL spoke to all see roles for themselves as opposition politics reawakens. Sakhnin says the Left Front intends to restart activities soon to coincide with Udaltsov's release from prison. The Left Bloc's Ryazantsev says his group hopes it can unite left-wing street forces.

The Komsomol activists meanwhile see their role -- rather improbably -- as uniting society. The Komsomol was founded in 1918 as the youth wing of the Communist Party, with Russia's civil war raging after the Bolshevik Revolution. But today, they are not preaching revolution but see their role as battling the authorities from inside the system. They intend to continue their activism, engaging voters and relaying their concerns up the chain of command to lawmakers.

With Navalny campaigning for the presidency despite a likely ban on participation in next year's election, Andrei can't help drawing a historical parallel with 1917, when the February Revolution toppled the tsar and only the October revolution saw the Bolsheviks sweep to power.

He muses that if Navalny were to somehow rise to power, he would be unable to hold on for long, putting Russia's leftists and communists in a strong position to follow up.

"Let's just remember 1917. Who carried out the revolution? The liberals and the nationalists -- well, right-wing people. And then what happened? The left's socialist revolution: The Communists came to power."

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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