Sat, Nov 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Communist Party could be Russia's last democratic option

By Luke Harding  /  THE GUARDIAN , KOROLYOV, RUSSIA

Gennady Zyuganov grinned at his wrinkled audience as a voice booms out: "Comrades, let us salute the heroes of the revolution!" A procession of rather ancient men shuffled forward. Zyuganov gave them each a medal.

One 94-year-old hero -- born under the tsar -- had problems mounting the wooden stairs of the theater where the election rally was being held. Zygunov bounded down from the stage.

"Ninety-four," he exclaimed, pinning on a medal for long service. "Amazing."

Ninety years after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Russia's Communist party is still alive and well, if rather long in the tooth.

Lenin may have been dead for 83 years, the Soviet Union may have disappeared, and the prospects for world revolution look dim. But as Russia prepares for a parliamentary election next month, the Communists are enjoying a revival.

Opinion polls suggest the party will finish second in the Dec. 2 poll with 15 percent of the vote -- behind Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. With Russia's liberal opposition in a state of disarray, the Communists are the last democratic force left. Even Lenin might have appreciated the irony.

Zyuganov, the party's long-standing leader, is campaigning in the grim concrete town of Korolyov, 24km outside Moscow. The town was once famous for its cosmonauts. Now, though, its engineers and rocket designers are among capitalist Russia's many losers.

Speaking beneath a faded Soviet era stucco ceiling, Zyuganov said that the Communists are the only party in Russia that cares about social justice.

"If all of Russia's resources were divided fairly you'd have US$160,000 each," he said.

Instead pensioners survive on just barely 3,000 roubles (US$120) a month.

"When Putin came to power there were seven oligarchs. Now there are 61," he said.

It wasn't Josef Stalin's fault that Adolf Hitler invaded Russia, he added, in response to a note passed from the floor.

Zyuganov tells a Roman Abramovich joke. Roman arrives in heaven only to find his way blocked by St Paul. St Paul asks Abramovich: "Do you own Chelsea, five yachts and a 5km stretch of beach in the south of France?" Abramovich replies: "Yes." St Paul replies: "I'm not sure you're going to like it in here."

Zyuganov's message is a seductive one for the vast majority of Russia's 142 million inhabitants -- and, in particular, its 38 million pensioners. They have failed to benefit from the country's enormous oil wealth, he said, while a kleptocratic Kremlin clique has grown prodigiously rich.

"We are the only party stopping Russia from descending into full-blown corruption," Zyuganov said.

Is Russia a democracy?

"Not really," he said.

Russia's Communists still enjoy widespread support despite serial attempts by Kremlin technologists to kill them off. The 90th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution drew some 20,000 onto the streets of Moscow. Steered away from Red Square they ended up outside Moscow's new US$1,000 a night Ritz-Carlton hotel, where young Communist pioneers danced and waved red pom-poms while men in cloth caps sang patriotic songs with the eyebrow-raising words: "For motherland and for Stalin."

"Life was much better under communism," Pavel Kotov, 16, said.

How would he know?

"My parents are both communists. I started to support them two years ago," he said.

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