While the ageing leadership remains firmly in the Kremlin’s orbit, the party’s more radical rank-and-file is finding ways to chime with a population hungry for social justice, writes Oliver Carroll in Saratov
UNE portrait of Lenin stares down over a webcam and slick recording studio — the tools for modern-day agitation of the masses. Broadcasting to 1.62 million subscribers might not be quite as effective as his hero’s appropriation of the telegraph, telephone and railway, but Nikolai Bondarenko nonetheless says he’s already causing too much trouble for authorities.
le 36 year old Communist is a new face on an old body. A candidate running for parliament from Saratov, 400 miles southeast of Moscow, Bondarenko boasts many qualities not usually associated with his party: social media fluency; an appreciation of spectacle; his own set of teeth, pearly white as it happens. But it’s thanks to campaigns like his that the Communists are presenting the Kremlin with a challenge of sorts in what will be the most controlled elections of post-Soviet history.
The Russian Communist party, heir to an organisation that once dominated Soviet life, has had a difficult recent run. In the 1990s it was a competitive opposition; now it is largely viewed as a compliant and toothless front. But even while the ageing leadership remains firmly in the Kremlin’s orbit, the party’s more radical rank-and-file is finding ways to chime with a population hungry for social justice — or often simply hungry for food.
From his studios on Pugacheva street, Bondarenko offers some of the sternest criticism of the Kremlin anywhere in Russia. He describes Putin the “centre of discredited government,” and was a prominent supporter of protests in support of Alexei Navalny, the poisoned and jailed opposition leader. He even dared to challenge Duma speaker and Saratov native Vyacheslav Vololdin, Russia’s fourth most powerful politician, to an election duel. À la fin, he did not follow through on the challenge, with party bosses deciding it would be better if he fought number 165, the less controversial constituency next door.
But the girthy politician’s plain talking has earned him national recognition and title of “the red Navalny.” A recent survey by state pollsters VTsIOM even rated him as the seventh most trusted politician nationwide, pulling in just behind collective farm manager Pavel Grudinin, the Communists’ 2018 presidential candidate. The mustachioed Grudinin was barred from these elections. Bondarenko says he avoided the same fate by not being quite as well known — though he emphasises the reprieve could be temporary.
“I understand every action has a reaction,” he tells L'indépendant. “We are up against very rich people who aren’t used to people spitting in their faces. And all the signs are that the screws will be tightened when the elections are over.”
Bondarenko expands on his political philosophy as we drive out to the suburbs for a meeting with voters. He was drawn to Communism, il dit, as a law student studying Marxist theory — yes, they still taught it during the mid 2000s. He is a “traditional” Communist on most things. Natural resources belong to the people. The raising of the pension age is “criminal.” Lenin was his poster boy. Stalin “achieved extraordinary things.” Claims of the NKVD secret police’s “bloodthirstiness” were meanwhile exaggerated “fairy tales.” He sees no contradiction in complaining about his own surveillance — which, il dit, makes him “fear” for his and his family’s safety.
“People today look back at how things were and are rightly appalled at the state of things now,” il dit. “Russia is rich with resources, but we have a situation where parents have to crowdfund vital medical treatment for their children. Every single reform of the last twenty years has ended in catastrophe for ordinary people.”
Leaving Saratov’s town centre, and with shiny cupolas switching to the grey industrial crumble of constituency number 165, it isn’t difficult to imagine how locals might find Bondarenko’s leftist agenda attractive. The area was hit hard by the Soviet collapse. It was once home to one of the largest aerospace companies in Russia, employing tens of thousands and providing rocket components and aeroplanes to every continent, but that factory closed in 2007. Official monthly salaries here are 37000 roubles (£370), barely two thirds the average of Russia. Unofficially, the salaries are even lower.
Polls suggest that in a fair fight, Bondarenko would present a serious challenge to the United Russia ruling party candidate, the local businessman Andrei Vorobyov. His chances were given a boost this week when he became the preferred constituency nomination in Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative, which the jailed opposition leader is using to concentrate protest voting around a single candidate.
The question, bien sûr, is to what extent authorities are prepared to let the contest play out fairly. Our car journey offers several clues that they aren’t. Just as we pass a billboard with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the star faces of United Russia’s faltering campaign, Bondarenko gets an update about his own billboard operation. It’s the ad agency calling to return his money. Instructions from up high, vous comprenez.
“They’ve tried to bribe me so many times into shutting up,” Bondarenko later tells the small group of voters who have turned out to hear his pitch. “They said they could get my family plush jobs, the kind that would keep them comfortable for life. bien, I tell them I don’t trade my conscience!”
The young politician’s energetic performance goes down well with the mostly elderly crowd. But some tell him they are angry with Gennady Zyuganov, the party’s 28-year leader, who they say has become too close to the Kremlin. “Why has he sold out?” asks one man, whose weathered features could place him anywhere between from 45 à 60 ans. Bondarenko pauses before suggesting election fraud was the problem, not Zyuganov. “You aren’t electing Zyuganov, you’re electing me,” il dit. “Take a selfie with me while I’m still free.”
Bondarenko tells L'indépendant there is nothing untoward about his rhetoric differing from the party leadership. The Communist party is designed as a big tent, he says — “built from the bottom up as Lenin intended.” But the politician’s own guarded defence of the leader at his hustings does not appear accidental. The fate of colleagues who found themselves dispatched out of the party after criticising the 28 year leader would certainly not have been far from his mind.
Commentator Ilya Budraitskis, an expert on the Russian left, describes the Communist party as a “strictly hierarchical and well-controlled” organisation. Funding levers ensure loyalty to the leadership at every significant level, il dit. En même temps, the leader does appear to be willing to play around the edges of the Kremlin’s rules — using arm-length radicals to boost Communist appeal. “He is interested in keeping his party influential in society so is willing to use those with more hardline agendas than his own,” Budraitskis says.
The policy appears to have brought soaring success. According to state pollsters YTsIOM, the Communists are now polling at 17.5 pour cent, 25 per cent higher than in 2016, and bearing down on United Russia, which is barely assigned 30 percent of the vote. That poses dangers for the Communist leadership given its reliance on the Kremlin for funding, suggests the independent political expert Konstantin Kalachyov. And the party appears to be cutting back campaigning in response.
“You can tell by the lacklustre campaign videos that Zyuganov is trying to reduce the temperature,” Kalachyov says.
Quoi de plus, the elections expert says the Communists “understand” there is an electoral ceiling beyond which they aren’t allowed to go. Cette, Il suggère, is the level of support currently assigned to it by state pollsters, c'est à dire. entre 17 et 18 pour cent. No one is ready to let it break the 20 percent barrier, il dit, “not least the Communist party’s own leadership.”
But while the message to the Kremlin appears to be that everything is as it always was — loyalty in parliament is certainly assured — this might not be a picture that lasts forever.
“The important thing is that we are dealing with the only living, ideological, mass party in Russia at the moment,” says Kalachyov, “and it’s a party that could change its spots if and when the leadership changes.”