RUSSIA: Is there life for KPRF after Yeltsin?

Issue 

BY BORIS KAGARLITSKY

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the child of Gennady Zyuganov, might to almost the same degree be called the child of Boris Yeltsin. Throughout the entire period from 1993 to 1999 the party had a clearly scripted role in Russia's political life as the pro-capitalist Yeltsin regime's loyal "opposition".

The wise Yeltsin knew perfectly well that the surest way for him to retain his dictatorial powers was to create the appearance of democracy. There was, indeed, democracy in Russia, only it did not extend to the Kremlin. The opposition could speak, the press could criticise, the citizens could vote, and everything was wonderful — except that none of this had the slightest bearing on the question of power.

For the system to work properly, it required an opposition that was incapable in principle of taking office. Zyuganov's party coped with this role to perfection. In this sense it has always been one of the system's fundamental political elements. The KPRF has also been assigned another task, no less important and perhaps even more so: to struggle against any attempts at founding a political alternative to the regime. Zyuganov and his associates have fought consistently and with determination against anyone who has tried to attack the regime from the left. The Communist leaders have denounced such people as extremists, as "traitors", or simply as "unserious individuals".

This struggle has been a complete success. It is enough to recall that within the Communist movement itself, Zyuganov's party was at first neither the sole organisation, nor the largest. Bit by bit, however, all other Communist organisations were forced out of political life. This occurred not because the organisations in question were weak, but because it was the KPRF that had received the Kremlin's official approval as the sole recognised opposition. Of all the ostensibly left parties, only the KPRF took part in the elections after the shelling of the parliament in 1993. All the others were either denied permission to run, or themselves boycotted the elections as illegal.

The other organisations of the Russian left were in any case too weak to score successes independently. The KPRF firmly rejected collaboration with any and all opposition groups, except of course for its own satellites. No-one attempted to build a broad opposition bloc, either on a working-class foundation or on the basis of general democratic principles. Both variants would have amounted to a breach of the rules set down by the Kremlin.

Paradoxical situation

In sum, a paradoxical situation arose: throughout the period from 1995 to 1999 opposition moods were growing in society, but the political opposition grew steadily weaker because it could not give expression to these moods, and had no wish to express them.

Society was moving leftward, but the KPRF was shifting ever further to the right. The party bureaucrats had received their training in Soviet times, and during the Yeltsin years as well, these habits stood them in good stead. On trips abroad, KPRF representatives spoke as leftists. Depending on the audience, they were resolute Leninists or moderate social-democrats. Talking to people in the provinces, they came across as fighters for social rights, as populists. In the State Duma they were apolitical and exceedingly deideologised pragmatists, regional and sectoral lobbyists. With business entrepreneurs, they spoke as colleagues.

Within their own circle, meanwhile, the Communist Party elite were more reminiscent of white guards, monarchists, and members of the Black Hundreds; they made no particular effort to conceal their dislike for Bolsheviks, for Lenin, Trotsky and other "rebels". In his theoretical works Zyuganov defended the achievements of far right-wing anti-communist ideologues from Ivan Purishkevich to Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. In the language of the party elite, all this went by the name of "state patriotism".

One after another, "anti-social budgets" were passed on the votes of the Communists. As a reward, the party elite received confirmation of its status, while the sectoral lobbyists got to introduce a few beneficial amendments. Naturally, the Communist deputies also received consolation prizes, in the form of packets of green notes. The honest deputies put the money into their re-election funds, and the less honest ones, straight into their pockets.

The only problem with politics such as these was that the party's real goals could never be admitted to the masses of party supporters. The promised "struggle against the anti-popular regime" could never be carried out in practice without the KPRF ceasing to be one of the main props of this very regime.

So long as the situation remained stable, the party leaders were not much troubled by such contradictions. As the crisis of Yeltsin's system grew, however, the difficulties for the KPRF increased as well.

The first challenge was the 1998 default. For a time, the Kremlin actually lost control of the situation. Even if the Duma politicians could not have taken power at this point, they could at least have had a real influence on the government's actions. The outcome of the crisis was the installing of the government of Yevgeny Primakov and Yury Maslyukov. Primakov, as is well known, was nominated by none other than neo-liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, and the Communists gleefully backed the candidacy of their fraction comrade Maslyukov for the post of vice-premier. The striking thing is, however, that from the very first days of Primakov's cabinet, Yavlinsky's Yabloko bloc became its most implacable parliamentary enemy.

Meanwhile, the KPRF Duma fraction, which had pledged to support the government, left it to the whims of fate. Once Primakov had done his work, Yeltsin decided: "The moor has done his work; let the moor depart." The moors, Primakov and Maslyukov, dutifully made their exit. Zyuganov and his comrades then declared cheerfully that the change of government altered nothing.

Changing rules

But a great deal was to change, above all the rules of the game.

Unlike Yeltsin, the new people who have come to the Kremlin since 1999 are no longer capable of playing delicate political games. President Vladimir Putin does not understand that the Duma was planned as an enticing political side-show, a sort of free circus to be presented to the population when there was no bread. Putin and his team see the parliament solely as a voting machine; they have no need of a simulated opposition, since they cannot see why they need an opposition at all. Accordingly, they do not demand that the KPRF play particular roles in an elegantly conceived farce, but simply that it carry out orders. This, on the whole, the KPRF does, especially since the orders do not in the least contradict the political predilections of "state patriots".

The story of the national anthem is instructive. The liberal intelligentsia protested when they heard the Stalin-era melody of the composer Aleksandrov. In one way or another, everyone accepted that this had been the hymn of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is as though people had forgotten that until the hymn of the Communist Party was the Internationale. Until 1944, this was also the anthem of the Soviet Union.

In the middle of the war against Nazi Germany, however, Stalin took a series of decisions aimed at breaking with revolutionary symbols and traditions. Epaulettes made a return to the army, ministries replaced people's commissariats, a deal was struck with the Orthodox Church, people with non-Russian surnames began to be moved out of key posts, and the Communist International was dissolved. History was rewritten once again, this time laying stress on the "patriotic" exploits of the tsars. Stalin personally decreed that less should be written about rebels such as Stenka Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev.

The Soviet anthem was composed in order, without admitting as much, to resurrect the style of the old monarchic regime. The work is nothing more than a "party" variant of "God Save the Tsar". By uniting the two-headed eagle with the Soviet anthem, Putin is completing what Stalin began. There is no contradiction here, and Zyuganov in his theoretical works calls for precisely such a synthesis.

The trouble is, however, that the "backward" masses do not understand what is going on! They cling to the memory of the USSR not because dissidents were thrown in prison or because there was a large army, not because we had military advisers in Africa or the world's best political police, but because we had a free education system that was arguably the world's best, because medical care was accessible to all, and because the children of workers had the chance to make careers for themselves. Such trifles are alien to "state patriots"; what the latter need is a "strong regime", "firm authority", and discipline.

The only things of value for them in Soviet history are those that link it with tsarist times, not those that differentiate it, and the only things of value in Stalinist totalitarianism are those that link it with the Hitlerite variety, not the factors that allowed the Communist Parties to wage a successful struggle against fascism. The bloc between Zyuganov and Putin is intended to be the culmination of what the Stalin-Hitler pact began.

Unfortunately, acknowledging this openly would mean arousing the fury of the most loyal, hitherto uncritical supporters of the party. The Communist Party elite is forced to lie, to contradict itself, to sink into confusion, and as a result, to lose influence.

The fact that the party is losing authority among workers is of little concern to the party leaders, firstly because this authority has never been particularly high, and secondly, because workers have "nowhere else to go"; there is no-one else they could vote for. The trouble is that the party leadership is losing influence over its own local organisations, and this is already something more serious.

At the December congress of the KPRF, the formerly very cautious and loyal head of the party's Moscow organisation, Aleksandr Kuvaev, came out with a criticism of the leadership. There was now a quite obvious conflict between what "left" ideologue Aleksandr Kravets was saying, and the declarations of the Duma fraction leaders.

The "leftists" maintained openly that an "opposition party" ought to be in opposition to the regime. This was not a particularly original thought, to say the least, but at the KPRF congress it sounded like an epochal discovery. Meanwhile, Gennady Seleznev called openly on the party "not to get above itself", and to give its open support to the Kremlin. No conditions were urged, and nothing was requested; if the KPRF deserved encouragement, the Kremlin leaders would see this, and encouragement would be given. Then Viktor Ilyukhin astounded the liberal viewers of NTV with a "sudden and total change of image". He began speaking like Sergey Adamovich Kovalev, transforming himself into a leading defender of civil rights, dissident thinking and pluralism. At the same time, he hinted quite openly that all these democratic values needed defending not only from the Kremlin and the liberals, but also from the Communists. Again, this was not very original, but on the whole it was true. Most importantly, it sounded very timely in conditions when the "democrats" were approving genocide in Chechnya, and the "communists" were ready to support an anti-worker government.

Until recently, a division of labour existed in the KPRF. The "left" figures, with their more radical declarations, provided cover for the "pragmatists", working hand in glove with the Kremlin. Now, however, everything is collapsing. Radicalism and loyalty are becoming incompatible. Does this mean the impending disintegration of the KPRF? It is still too early to draw this conclusion.

The collapse of the party has been predicted time and time again, but nothing has come of these forecasts. Going from failure to failure, from one humiliation to the next, the party leadership has held firm to its positions, since it knows a rule discovered by Stalin: whoever controls the apparatus, also chooses the leading cadres. And cadres, as Stalin said, decide everything.

The problem, however, lies elsewhere. Zyuganov will somehow cope with the criticism and put down the mutiny, especially since the mutineers are, after all, on their knees. None of the protesters has had the courage to say outright that the leaders are pursuing criminal policies, especially in relation to the members of their own party. But what will Zyuganov's services be worth to the new regime? Why is such a party needed at all, if the rules of the game are changing?

Zyuganov and his team are merely part of the Yeltsin heritage that has been bequeathed to the new Kremlin rulers. What Putin and his associates should do with all this, they have no idea. Of course, the Duma Communists do not do the regime any harm, but neither are they of any use to it. In the Kremlin, consequently, the KPRF's share price is falling. This will be much more of a problem for Zyuganov than the protests from his own comrades.