The Essential Zyuganov

GENNADY ZYUGANOV occasionally relieves the deadly monotone of his campaign oratory with a flash of humor. In one of his favorite wisecracks, he compares himself to Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. ""I myself drink a lot less than Boris Nikolayevich,'' the line goes, ""and a bit more than Mikhail Sergeyevich.'' Thus he neatly positions himself between Yeltsin's weakness for booze and Gorbachev's unpopular attempt to break the country of its drinking problem. In his unbuttoned mode, Zyuganov can be quite disarming. When I first met him, at Yekaterinburg in the Urals three years ago, I introduced myself as ""Andrew Nagorski -- NEWSWEEK.'' With an impish grin spreading across his beefy face, he replied: ""Gennady Zyuganov -- the Soviet Union.''

By then, of course, the Soviet Union had been dead for two years, but not in Zyuganov's heart. He is still very much the captive of his ideological upbringing. Like many Western politicians, he has learned to tailor his message to his audience, preaching economic reform and political pluralism to foreign investors but denouncing capitalism at his own campaign rallies -- while turning a blind eye to the Stalin portraits and anti-Semitic posters brandished by his supporters. Writing for this issue of NEWSWEEK (page 36), he says soothingly that ""Russia needs genuine reform . . . including a strong private sector.'' Then he drops a chilling hint that he wants to revive the old Evil Empire. So what is he -- a fuzzy social democrat, a nostalgic Stalinist or just another politician?

Judging from both his writings and his record, the essential Zyuganov is an unrepentant communist. He has never accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union and means to put it back together, one way or another. He is profoundly distrustful (and deeply ignorant) of the West. He has a vast capacity for cynicism, grafting a dangerous strain of Russian nationalism onto a professed reverence for social justice. And he is, to the depths of his being, an apparatchik, a hidebound bureaucrat who is more his party's product than its leader.

Talking to Westerners, Zyuganov insists that he will not rebuild the Soviet empire by force. But he claims that a new kind of ""unified state'' can be re-created voluntarily. He maintains that inhabitants of the former Soviet republics, including the 25 million ethnic Russians who live outside the current borders of their homeland, ""themselves crave much greater economic integration and closer cultural and political ties with Russia.'' If Zyuganov becomes the next president of Russia, he can be expected to put heavy pressure on his neighbors to fall back into line.

ZYUGANOV SAYS THE UNITED States is mainly to blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union. He claims a conspiracy was cooked up during the Kennedy administration to destabilize the Soviet state by heating up the arms race, fomenting ethnic tensions among Soviet nationalities and establishing American control over the Soviet mass media. He's serious. ""A huge amount of capital was put into the implementation of this doctrine,'' he has said.

Now that foreign investment is flowing into his country, Zyuganov accuses Western business of exploiting Russian workers. Last month, during a rally at a textile plant in Novozybkov, a depressed town in western Russia, he observed: ""Your director told us what your factory is doing. It received a small order from Americans to sew overcoats for $4 each. For $4!'' What he didn't mention was that, while their terms were hardly generous, the American companies provided all the materials and preserved jobs for at least some of the plant's workers. Russian companies weren't offering a better deal -- or any deal at all. But at his next stop, without any such caveats, Zyuganov again told the story of America's greed and Russia's humiliation. Last year, in a dissertation for a doctoral degree in philosophy, Zyuganov said Russia had to make a choice between restoring ""a great empire and socialism, or further breakup of the country and its final transformation into a [Western] colony.''

According to Zyuganov, the real tragedy of the Soviet Union was that Joseph Stalin died too soon. In a 1995 book called ""I Believe in Russia,'' he praised Stalin for abandoning a strict Marxist course in World War II in favor of ""an ideology of patriotism,'' combining communism with Russian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity. ""He needed another five to seven years to make his "ideological perestroika' irreversible,'' Zyuganov writes. If the dictator had lived longer, Zyuganov contends, he would have ""restored Russia and saved it from the cosmopolitans.'' That refers to the Jews. Although anti-Semitism is implicit in his campaign, Zyuganov seldom mentions the Jews openly these days. But in another book called ""Beyond the Horizon,'' he claims that before World War II, Jews owned a ""controlling interest in the entire economic system of Western civilization.''

Working to revive the Communist Party after the 1991 collapse, Zyuganov forged an alliance of his own with nationalists, including some of the most unsavory ones, such as Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of the xenophobic weekly newspaper Zavtra, and Viktor Anpilov, the leader of Working Russia, an openly Stalinist party. Zyuganov dismisses the historical record showing that Stalin killed tens of millions of his own people; only about 500,000 died, he says, ""and most of them were party members.''

Zyuganov has been endorsed for president by Stalin's grandson, Yevgeny Djugashvili. And last month a jury of Russian ultranationalists awarded him the 1996 Mikhail Sholokhov literary award for his turgid, jargon-choked prose. The two previous prize winners were Cuba's Fidel Castro and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb president who has been indicted for war crimes.

Zyuganov seems comfortable in such company. Born in 1944 into a family of schoolteachers in Mymrino, a village in southern Russia, he shares his supporters' nostalgia for the Soviet era. Abandoning a brief career as a teacher, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party apparatus, starting in Komsomol, the youth organization, and eventually worked his way to Moscow as a party propagandist. He says now that he was a reformer who rebelled against the ""stagnation'' of the Leonid Brezhnev era. But Aleksandr Khokhlov, a local party official who helped to nurture his early career, recalls: ""I never heard him say that he disagreed with any of the policies at the time.'' Even today, Zyuganov claims there was no repression under Brezhnev, which comes as news to the human-rights activists who ended up in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals.

About a month before the failed coup against Gorbachev in 1991, Zyuganov joined party hard-liners and extreme nationalists in signing an open letter calling for a reversal of Gorbachev's reforms. Now he blames the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, a lapsed communist, for everything that is wrong with Russia. ""I have traveled the country from the Baltic Sea to Sakhalin,'' he says. ""Everywhere there is discord, shame, drunkenness and banditry.''

The candidate portrays himself as more moderate than the party's hard-line leaders, such as Anatoly Lukyanov, the former head of the Soviet Parliament and one of the plotters against Gorbachev. But his party's platform, approved last year, calls for a return to socialism and advocates a Communist Party role in ""all important spheres of activity.'' It also speaks approvingly of ""revolutions as the locomotives of history.'' Last March, the communists pushed a resolution through Parliament calling for nullification of the treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union. Zyuganov has denied the claim by one party hard-liner that he will implement a secret ""maximalist'' agenda if he wins the election. He claims he is a democrat and insists he will accept the people's verdict. Nonetheless, a gnawing suspicion lingers that if he wins Russia's first free presidential election, Zyuganov and his born-again party will never allow another one.