Josef Stalin is back. Wearing his light-grey party uniform and holding his pipe in his left hand, the Soviet dictator stands on the "Boulevard of the Defenders of Stalingrad" in the southern Siberian city of Barnaul, surrounded by astonished pensioners. "I put an end to bread price increases 80 years ago and sent speculators out to work in the forests," says the dictator. The elderly onlookers, who are currently suffering the effects of inflation, applaud enthusiastically.
This macabre performance by an actor from the local theater is not some comedy act, but part of a political campaign by the Communists. Their national Web site promotes the show with the slogan: "He promised to return."
This is also the approach taken by Gennady Zyuganov, the Russian Communists' chairman and presidential candidate, when he appears at an event in Barnaul. He delivers an unscripted speech in a musty and unheated "House of Culture" dating from the Soviet era. The temperature outside is minus 26 degrees Celsius (minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit).
His audience of more than 500 people are dressed in shabby coats and jackets. Few of them are younger than 60. They listen attentively as Zyuganov speaks. "Stalin certainly made his share of mistakes," Zyuganov says, "but he built 9,000 factories before the war." The crowd applauds. No one objects to what this man is saying, not even when he praises the authoritarian regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. "There are no oligarchs or even stray dogs there," he says.
Unlike their former comrades in Poland, Hungary and eastern Germany, who grappled with the Stalinist past in agonizing debates, Russia's communists have refused to conduct any kind of re-examination of that era. In its agenda, the Communist Party describes the demise of the USSR as a "counterrevolutionary overthrow." Without reforms and modernization within the party, a return to government is likely to continue to elude them. But for the Putin system, the existence of this last major opposition party holds propaganda value.
There are allegedly about 160,000 people who still support the stubborn Zyuganov and his current platform. This is less than 1 percent of the Communist Party's membership in early 1991. For a long time, the party derived its strength from invoking the glory of Soviet battles. In the 1996 presidential election, Zyuganov forced incumbent Boris Yeltsin into a runoff election. Although Zyuganov lost to Yeltsin, he did manage to capture an impressive 40.3 percent of the vote.
The former official Soviet party has been headed downhill ever since. It now holds 57 of the 450 seats in the Russian parliament, the Duma, and is having trouble attracting new members. In regional elections last March, the Communists did manage to double their results over the previous election in St. Petersburg and Moscow, to 16 and 17 percent, respectively. In Orel, Zyuganov's hometown in central Russia, they even captured 31.3 percent of the vote.
Russia, with its deep social divide between millions of poor and a small class of the super-rich, holds strong potential for leftist candidates. According to a study by the well-known Moscow Levada Center, 55 percent of Russians support the notion of a planned economy. And according to a survey by the Academy of Sciences, 35 percent of Russians believe that the government should control factories and businesses.
While the US business magazineForbes counts 53 dollar billionaires in Russia, most of whom acquired their fortunes through dubious deals with government officials, about 40 percent of Russians must make ends meet with less than 6,000 rubles a month, or roughly €166 ($242).
Young and educated voters are also incensed over poverty, corruption and the dismantling of democracy. In December's Duma election, the Communist Party garnered 26.45 percent of the vote in Moscow's university district, placing it ahead of the Kremlin's party, United Russia. The Communist Party newspaper Pravda ridiculed United Russia's list of candidates, headed by President Vladimir Putin, for having achieved its best results in psychiatric institutions and military barracks.
But young voters, such as those at the Horizon youth club in Kolomna, an industrial city 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Moscow, who want to know how the red presidential candidate envisions the future are served up an answer from the days of Stalin. Speaking in the deep voice of an aging storyteller, Zyuganov tells them what his father once said to him: "There is nothing more honest, better and smarter than the Soviet power, my boy!"
The Communist Party leader recently revealed his deep roots in Stalinism during a discussion of cultural issues at a plenary session of his central committee, when he railed against "cosmopolitanism" and condemned "modernism, postmodernism and pop art." He described these movements as the weapons of a "devious and long-known enemy." His words echoed those of Stalinist ideologues in the late 1940s, when they inveighed against modern art and Jewish intellectuals, against the "cosmopolites."
Like a sailor on board a sinking ship, Zyuganov trudges from meeting to meeting, his ideological baggage weighing heavily on his shoulders. His demeanor, slogans and pathos are reminiscent of the Communist hero protagonist of the classic East German propaganda film "Ernst Thälmann -- Leader of his Class," shot a few years before Zyuganov performed his military service with the Soviet forces stationed in East Germany.
When he speaks to his voters, Zyuganov still gushes about his military days: "The Germans were always happy to see me, because I was a soldier of the victorious army." But even members of his party's central committee doubt whether his party is marching toward new successes. According to a party bookkeeper, the cadres who claim to be out to rescue the people are guilty of "sloppy and confusing accounting of member fees" at party headquarters.
Officially, the Communist Party collects less than €0.50 in monthly dues from each of its members -- hardly enough to run an effective election campaign in the world's largest country by land mass. This is yet another reason why Russia's oldest party is increasingly becoming easy prey for the country's current rulers.
Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the Kremlin administration and Putin's right-hand man on matters of domestic policy, uses a carrot-and-stick approach to domesticate the Communists. If they play along -- by taking part in unfair and manipulated elections like December's Duma vote -- they receive TV airtime and possibly even money from slush funds. Zyuganov gets the chance to speak on government-run television when, for example, he condemns the idea of a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution and when he apes Putin's warnings of a "revenge of the oligarchs."
The Communist Party has not withdrawn a resolution it adopted at its 2005 convention, which describes Putin's "Bonapartist, bureaucratic regime" as being "hostile to the people." Nevertheless, in private the president, who has reintroduced the Soviet national anthem, is on first-name terms with the head of the Communist Party.
The "conservative image of the Communists" suits the Kremlin perfectly, because it weakens them, says Oleg Smolin, a Communist Party member of the Duma who is seen as a social democratic defector within his own party. Smolin derides the nostalgic wing of the party, saying that mentally it is still stuck "in the time before the 1970s." A former Soviet Communist Party official, Smolin favors the "classic strategy of European leftists." Voters, says this reformist Communist, "don't want a return to the USSR, but a European-style social welfare state."
But that isn't something the Communist Party is capable of achieving, says Alexander Prokhanov, the editor-in-chief of the patriotic, leftist weekly newspaper Savtra and a popular novelist. Prokhanov, who spent a decade advising Zyuganov, believes that the party is "crude, intellectually undemanding and, as a result, incapable of developing new leftist concepts."
Most of all, says Prokhanov, the party is outdated because it "derives its fundamental energy from mourning the loss of the Soviet Union."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan