Russia’s youth are turning to the Communists, not Putin
Young Communist Party supporters, both from the Russian town of Lipetsk, Vadim Putintsev, 21, and Olga Bykovskikh, 23, speak to each other during a rally protesting the alleged vote rigging in Russia's elections. | Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

For those watching abroad, Russia’s presidential election last weekend was unexciting. Vladimir Putin, who has ruled the country for 18 years, won easily, just as he was predicted to.

His 76 percent vote share—up 13 points on 2012’s—is evidence of either his enduring popularity as the leader of a resurgent Russia or the crooked nature of the election itself, depending on who you talk to.

I talked to Dr. Vyacheslav Tetekin. The chief political adviser to Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennady Zyuganov, who met me on election morning, is a veteran of multiple elections and played a key role in the party’s campaign this time around.

We spoke before voting was over and were unaware of how the communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, would do (he ended up coming second, with 11.77 percent, or 8.7 million votes). Such a result will please him, even if it’s less than Zyuganov managed in 2012.

Tetekin is well aware that the system is stacked against them. “The Russian electoral system is based on fraud basically,” he says. “There is strong manipulation. First by the electoral commission.”

Tetekin lists a number of the ways local authority figures act to influence the vote: poorly paid public servants being offered 10,000 ruble sums for the trouble of sitting on the electoral commissions, sums they know they won’t see again if they notice anything untoward; social service workers being deployed to visit patients and offer to help them to “come and vote for our dear president;” management in private firms telling their employees to take photos of their ballot papers and bring them in the next morning to prove they voted the right way.

A media establishment in Putin’s pocket adds to the obstacles anyone running against the president faces. This is why Tetekin states frankly that he is “not very interested in the results,” a seemingly odd comment from a top adviser to the leader of the main opposition party on election day.

He even suspected that a desire to demonstrate the communists are in decline might lead to the books being cooked so they would come in third, behind Liberal Democrat leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose ferocious nationalist rhetoric has never stopped him voting quietly with the government “once the shouting has subsided,” as the Oxford University Russianologist Edmund Griffiths has observed.

In the event, the communist vote proved too strong for that, and Grudinin came home with more than double Zhirinovsky’s tally.

What interests Tetekin is more the story of the election campaign itself. The Communist Party, he says, has been “surprised by the level of support at the grassroots. The campaign spread like wildfire.

“People say it’s only the older generation who support the communists—the nostalgic Soviet generation who are dying out. Actually it’s the opposite. The elderly are the main bulwark of support for Putin.”

By contrast, the younger people are the communist base, and the more active they are online, the likelier they seemed to back Grudinin; many online-only polls had him with a comfortable lead over Putin, often by as much as 45 percent to 25 percent.

“Living standards are in decline. People try to explain the length of Putin’s dominance: he’s so cunning, so shrewd. Rubbish.

“The only Marxist explanation for Putin is oil prices. When he took over from [Boris] Yeltsin on January 1, 2000 it was $18 a barrel. While he was in office it rose to $120 a barrel. Much went into the pockets of his cronies, but some drops fell into the hands of ordinary people.

“When oil dropped to $40 a barrel there was panic among the ruling elite. Now it’s risen again, but not enough. Real wages have been going down for four years. People feel the decline in their pockets. Education and medical care are getting more and more expensive. There’s no end to it.”

This may be why young people are more inclined to vote for change: “The country is tired of the reign of Putin.”

This, too, influenced the Communist Party’s choice of candidate. I ask why Zyuganov didn’t stand again—he’s still the party leader, after all.

“Comrade Zyuganov has been on the political scene for 25 years,” says Tetekin. “I’m not saying he’s tired. But for five, six presidential elections, we’ve had the same faces: Putin, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, [Grigory] Yavlinsky. The country needs change—it needs new faces.

“Grudinin is not a member of the Communist Party” (nor is Putin a member of his own electoral vehicle, United Russia, incidentally). “But he is a committed socialist. He is younger. He has been very successful as the head of the collective farm, the Lenin Sovkhoz.”

Grudinin was Zyuganov’s preference as the candidate of the party—from two options presented to the central committee, neither of whom was a party member.

This doesn’t worry Tetekin: “Grudinin is a socialist, there is no question about that. Socialism is the first stage of communism.” He talks of the need for the communists to reach out and build a broad alliance of progressives.

“One of the base areas of support for us is actually small business,” he says. “Small businesses have been systematically destroyed in the interests of oligarchs. These are people who have learned the hard way that there is no such thing as the free market—because big monopoly capital destroys the free market.”

Listening to the anger with which Tetekin describes the impact of the Putin regime on the poor, it seems ironic that much foreign media coverage claims the Communist Party is a “fake opposition,” broadly supportive of the government (often citing its support for some of Putin’s foreign policy choices.

“Russia has played a positive role in Syria,” Tetekin says when I raise this. “No question—we have helped save that country from the savagery of Islamic State. But something should have been done a long time ago.

“We shouldn’t have allowed the destruction of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya. Not socialist countries, but independent countries. It was only when it came round to Syria that Putin realized: ‘They are depriving us of allies.’ Only after a long list of foreign policy failures did Putin finally act.

“Then there’s Crimea. But Crimea has always been part of Russia.”

The current geographical Ukraine, he notes wryly, is actually a product of the Soviet Union.

Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Lenin took the decision to reinforce the base for Bolshevism in agrarian Ukraine by adding highly industrialized areas such as the Donbass, Dnepropetrovsk, and Kharkov, which speak Russian to this day.

In 1939, Stalin added the far western edge that had previously been part of the Austrian empire and then Poland and which has been the most receptive to fascist ideas; and Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine by Khrushchev in the 1950s.

Tetekin says the communists are actually “more resolute” in pressing for stronger support for the anti-fascist resistance in Ukraine and describes the Kremlin as “timid” on the matter.

He is unconvinced that Putin is behind the recent poisoning in Britain of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, either. “I’m a strong opponent of the current regime, but I’m convinced that Russia has nothing to do with it. Whose interests does it serve? Not Russia’s.

“After the doping scandal, the furor over interference in the U.S. elections, with the World Cup coming up, this is the last thing Putin wants.”

In contrast, the poisoning could be seen to serve the interests of the British establishment, he feels: A renewed fear of Russia could foster greater solidarity among EU governments, easing Brexit negotiations, while the scandal has also allowed the British press to claim Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is in Moscow’s pocket for asking subversive questions such as what the results of the police investigation are.

Russian Communist Party political advisor Vyacheslav Tetekin. | Karl Weiss / Morning Star

Double agents like Skripal, he reminds me, are always being watched by British as well as Russian intelligence.

As for the rest, he has no time for the government. When I mention that some on the left in Western countries regard Putin as an improvement on Yeltsin, he is exasperated.

“It’s the same thing as Yeltsin,” he exclaims. “The Yeltsin team is still in power. The same ideology, the same approach, often enough the same people.

“Manufacturing has been destroyed. Putin talks of new missiles. But the electronics are foreign. The machine tools are foreign. The country needs reindustrialization. It needs change,” he repeats again.

How will that change come? “People can feel there is something fundamentally wrong,” he says. “Change will come from below. We hope it will come via the ballot box.

“But if the current downward economic trend continues, the question of power will be solved in the streets.”

This article originally appeared in Morning Star.


Ben Chacko
Ben Chacko

Ben Chacko is Editor of Morning Star, the socialist daily newspaper published in Great Britain.