Whatever Happened To... The Communist Party

You would expect Oleg Kulikov and his comrades in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) to be grateful to Vladimir Putin for resurrecting the ghosts of soviets past. But Kulikov, ideology chief for the party's Central Committee, is having none of it. "It's an attempt to exploit nostalgia. By introducing these symbols, the president is trying to show that he's heir to that epoch, to its best qualities. It's a kind of political advertising," rails Kulikov. "The patriotic rhetoric should be reinforced by real deeds."

For a while Putin and the communists seemed to get along well enough. Putin even made common cause with the reds in Parliament for a time. His first state-of-the-nation speech last year contained plenty of talk about "patriotism" and "strengthening the state"-- the sort of thing you never heard from Boris Yeltsin. But these days the communists are feeling jilted. They point to Putin's most recent message to the Parliament; a few weeks ago the president announced an ambitious program of liberal economic reforms that made the communists blanch. Kulikov ticks off the list of horrors: tax and customs reform; proposals to enable the free sale and purchase of land; the restructuring of state-run monopolies. "Yeltsin was afraid to set out such a deeply liberal reformist course," says Kulikov.

It's not as if the party hasn't changed. The communists remain the largest and probably the best-organized party in Russia. They say candidates they supported won 12 of 19 regional elections in 2000 and that they control a third of parliaments at the local and regional level. Most of the CPRF's 500,000-plus members are still the disadvantaged intelligentsia (teachers, engineers, etc.). But a Bolshevik would hardly recognize the party. While it pays lip service to Marx and Lenin, its ideology is mostly Great Russia patriotism and socialist economics. It even allows that though the state should control the commanding heights of the economy, there's room for private property.

With most of their voters older and poorer, though still impassioned, it's understandable that the CPRF doesn't like Putin poaching on its turf. (His Unity Party draws from the same group.) The party says his pro-Soviet rhetoric is designed to conceal the continuing demolition of the Soviet welfare state and Russia's vast social inequities. "What does 'Soviet' mean to the average person?" asks Kulikov. "Accessible medicine, accessible education. It's about security." Or insecurity.