Russian Communists Court Discontented Youth

A snazzy new Communist Party poster shows two young, tech-savvy and attractive Russians. Both are smiling and dressed in red: The woman holds a red iPhone; the man holds a red laptop, his T-shirt emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.

The slogan: “For the victory of the majority.”

Roman Kononenko hopes the poster will attract more young people to the Russian Communist Party. The 29-year-old, sporting a lapel pin with a picture of Lenin, is secretary of both the party’s St. Petersburg chapter and its youth league. He says the party has never been popular in St. Petersburg, but he is seeing a small change.

A few years ago, the party had no representation in city government. Now, it holds roughly 14 percent of the seats. He says where the party sees its most growth is in the youth league, with about 500 members — more than double what the number was a couple years ago. He attributes that to disaffection with the ruling party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“Most of them just make their decision not with [their] mind but with their hearts, and they come to the party and they say, ‘We want to help,’ ” Kononenko says. “Most of them do not understand anything in Marxism, in Leninism, in our political theory, but they understand something is wrong in the country.”

Two decades after communist rule came to an end in Russia, the sense that something is wrong is growing, and the Communists see it as an opportunity to make a comeback.

Tapping In To Discontent

At first, after a tumultuous transition in the 1990s, capitalism and high oil prices raised the standard of living for some Russians. But now, dissatisfaction with the country’s ruling United Russia party, and specifically with Putin, is mounting.

In places like St. Petersburg, the Communist Party is now trying to tap into a wave of political ferment, especially among the country’s young.

Take Vasiliy Krivonos, for example. The 20-year-old university student joined the Communist Youth League because of his concern about the widening gap between rich and poor in Russia. He says the social welfare system is inadequate, and looks to the Communist Party to change that.

“The Communist Party is the only party in the world and perhaps in Russia that takes care of the well-being of ordinary people — not just the well-being of capitalists or bourgeoisie, but of common people living their own small lives,” Kirvonos says.

He is too young to remember the final days of communist rule — when there were severe food shortages across the former Soviet Union and the country was teetering toward collapse. Party Secretary Kononenko says the Communists understand the many mistakes made during the Soviet era.

“The party has evolved pretty much. We are not against private property now. We are just saying we have to nationalize the mineral resources, the oil, gas and big industry,” Kononenko says. “But the small business and medium business have right to exist.”

While young and energetic members like Kononenko want to modernize the Communist Party, it is still led by Gennady Zyuganov, who has headed the party since 1993.

“Some members of our party, they want him to resign, to let somebody who is more young and more flexible and more modern,” says Kononenko. “But as long as he is our leader, we have to support him.”

Analysts say it would take more than just replacing Zyuganov to help the Communists take power. In last month’s parliamentary elections, the party received less than 20 percent of the vote.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.