Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate in Russia’s March presidential election, was once seen as the greatest threat to the country’s fledgling democracy. In 1996, Zyuganov looked poised to win post-Soviet Russia’s first presidential vote on a wave of popular anger with the chaotic rule of incumbent Boris Yeltsin. The ailing president mustered every “administrative resource” he could – from campaign finance schemes to media smear campaigns – and still only defeated Zyuganov in a second round of voting.
Since then, the possibility of a communist backlash has faded, as Vladimir Putin inherited power from Yeltsin in 2000 and presided over an eight-year economic boom fueled by record-high oil prices. The Communists became the perennial silver medalists, consistently placing a distant second in national elections to Putin’s United Russia party.
Russians vote Communist for any number of reasons: the old and destitute out of nostalgia; the young and successful out of protest. Zyuganov, 67, a lifelong party activist and head of the Communist faction in the Duma, has already run in three presidential elections. On March 4, he will win 14.8 percent compared to Putin’s 58.6 percent, according to a poll published this week by the state-run VTsIOM agency.
Last Thursday afternoon, Zyuganov arrived at the Bolshevichka textile plant off Komsomolskaya Square in his official black Audi. The company, which dates back to 1929, houses both the production and sales of its men’s suits in a nondescript building across from the Hilton Leningradskaya, a Stalin-era high-rise.
While Zyuganov met with the plant’s director, about 150 workers shut off their sewing machines and steam presses and gathered on the shop floor. Low fluorescent lamps and fans hung from the ceiling. A Zyuganov calendar was displayed on a cabinet. Rows of dark suits hung on rolling racks against the walls. The cheapest Bolshevichka suit starts at 5,204 rubles ($175), according to the company web site.
They were mostly middle-aged seamstresses, though a few male workers in green overalls lingered in the back. Copies of a campaign newspaper printed under the Pravda (Truth) masthead were lying around on a table along with calendars and brochures featuring Zyuganov’s balding head. Four camera crews, including state-run Channel One, were taking up position.
As we waited, I attempted to strike up a conversation with a seamstress in a yellow and black house dress who wasn’t busy sending text messages or engrossed in the agitprop. I asked her what she expected from the Zyuganov visit.
“Let’s listen and find out,” she said.
“Does Zyuganov have a lot of support here?”
If the laconic seamstress was hoping my next question would be if she wanted to get a drink after work, I let her down.
Soon Zyuganov came sauntering onto the shop floor, accompanied by the plant director and half a dozen helpers. When he saw the Channel One microphone, he said: “They won’t show me anyway.”
The fact that Zyuganov is still around after so many years is more a testament to the Communist Party’s inertia than to any leadership traits such as intelligence, eloquence or charisma. He started out as a provincial apparatchik in Orlov region and never grew out of that role. The best and brightest of the Communist Party jumped ship 20 years ago.
Under communism, there were 500,000 textile workers in Moscow region, Zyuganov said in his low growl. Today there are 50,000. Russia’s light industry is dying because cheap imports have flooded the market and domestic energy prices are higher than in Europe or the U.S.
“We produce a sea of oil: 500 million tons, or 3 tons for each one of you,” he said. The first point of the Communists’ economic program is to nationalize natural resources and other key sectors of the economy.
“The country needs a new course and new economic policies,” said the candidate who is proposing an old course and old policies. He continued with the unfairness of the electoral system. The current Duma is not legitimate because of massive vote rigging that took place in the December elections, Zyuganov said. Media coverage is biased in favor of Putin, who has refused to take part in televised debates.
Zyuganov’s complaints are well-known and often repeated by fellow presidential candidates Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democrats, and Sergei Mironov, leader of the social democratic Fair Russia party. While certainly not groundless, these attacks against Putin’s electoral machine ring hollow. If all three opposition parties in the Duma know that large-scale cheating took place in the last election, they should boycott the parliament. And if the three opposition politicians really believe they have no fair chance against Putin, they should team up with independent candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and quit the race.
No wonder everybody assumes that each candidate has reached his own deal with the Kremlin.
Zyuganov droned on in his monotone voice. He showed understanding for the problems of working mothers, promising higher child support and affordable housing. At times it sounded less like a stump speech than a eulogy to the Soviet Union.
The seamstresses looked at Zyuganov with solemn faces. This candidate wasn’t offering hope for a better future; he was only reminding them of how bad things had gotten. Even the buttons and threads used in Bolshevichka suits are imported, Zyuganov said. “The Chinese are saying to us: ‘When we still rode bicycles, you were flying in rockets. What happened?’”
Forty minutes had passed, it was time to stop. “I invite you to support our team,” Zyuganov said. He was sweating in his suit and tie; a thermometer mounted on the ceiling showed that it was 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit) on the shop floor.
With the boring formalities over with, Zyuganov loosened up and started acting a little more like a politician trying to get votes. Since none of the seamstresses were forthcoming with questions, he broke the ice by cracking a couple of jokes and promising to buy two summer suits.
Timidly at first, the women approached the candidate until they completely surrounded him, voicing concerns over child care, corruption and illegal immigration. The women wanted answers, while Zyuganov basked in the female attention. He calmly mumbled bromides while signing card-size campaign calendars shoved under his nose.
After Zyuganov left, I talked to one of the seamstresses, a young woman with short, dyed blond hair from Moscow region.
“Are you concerned about vote rigging and ballot stuffing?” I asked.
“No, those things don’t happen in our country,” she said.
“You mean nothing in this election is predetermined?”
“No,” she said.
In fact, she was still debating whether to vote for Putin or Zyuganov.
“But they’re completely different!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” she said, not minding the contradiction in the least.