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.
Other protesters said they were fed up with bureaucratic corruption, which had grown rampant under Putin.
"Some aspects of life are better. But in many ways we're worse off. You can travel abroad now but only 10 to 15 percent of the population has enough money to do so," said Oleg Nevsky a retired physicist.
Some were angry.
"Putin is worse than Hitler," one man said, waving a homemade banner showing Russia's leader disappearing down a toilet.
"Eight million men have died," he said, a reference to Russia's spectacular population decline under Putin, especially among Russian men, who on average are dead by 58.
"Russia now has 9,000 villages where there are only old ladies," the man said.
United Russia already dominates Russia's sycophantic State Duma. But early last month Putin announced he was putting his name at the top of the United Russia party list, a move that boosted its poll ratings from 47 percent to 56 percent.
Under Russia's Constitution, Putin is obliged to step down as president next May. But most observers believe he will carry on in power, either as prime minister, president or in a new role. New electoral rules raising the threshold for getting into parliament from 5 percent to 7 percent will make it hard for any opposition party to win seats.
This means that the party that once believed in proletarian dictatorship is now Russia's last democratic option -- and the only thing preventing the country from becoming a one-party state. The Communists and United Russia could well be the only two parties in the new Duma, analysts say.
"The others have been excluded from the parliamentary sphere. The Communists will be the only oppositional force. This means voters who want to retain opposition in any form have to vote for the Communists," said Leonid Sedov, of the Levada Center.
Sedov said that after seven years of Putin most Russians no longer believed their country was a democracy. They also felt the Kremlin would probably tweak the election result.
"I think at the stage of counting the vote it will be done somehow by giving fake details of turnout," he predicted.
"I don't think the Kremlin cares very much about its image in the West any more," he said.
Zyuganov, who nearly beat former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, has been accused by some of secretly conspiring with the Kremlin. In 2004 he mysteriously dropped plans to run against Putin. Zyuganov rejects such claims as smear stories.
"There are no completely independent actors in Russian politics," said Grigorii Golosov, a professor in the faculty of political sciences and sociology at St. Petersburg's European University. "But I would still say that the Communists are relatively autonomous among Russia's not completely autonomous political parties."
At the theater Tatiana Viktorovana, an engineer, said she is impressed by Zyuganov. She thinks he is a strong leader.
"Putin doesn't think about the needs of ordinary people. Zyuganov does," she said.
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