“The turn to the left is inevitable”: in Lenin’s hometown, Russian communists fight for Soviet revival
ULYANOVSK – When Airat Gibatdinov was born in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika had already put the Soviet Union on the road to oblivion.
But now the local lawmaker and deputy leader of the resurrected Russian Communist Party in Ulyanovsk – the Volga-side hometown of the USSR’s founding father Vladimir Lenin – has dedicated his life to resuscitating a Soviet socialism he remembers in sadness.
“We are the only party fighting for the working class,” Gibatdinov said in an interview at the Russian Communist Party headquarters in Ulyanovsk, an unassuming maze of desks adorned with red flags and portraits of Lenin sandwiched between a high end coffee and a hookah. bar.
“I hope we will see a new Russian socialism in my lifetime.”
Although widely regarded as part of the tame and loyal “systemic” opposition of the Kremlin, the Communist Party (KPRF) – still the second largest political organization in the country – has seen a modest rise in its support before the legislative elections in September.
As United Russia pro-Kremlin bloc polls collapse to historically low levels ahead of the vote for the lower house of the Duma parliament, Communists hope to turn popular discontent over declining living standards into strong performance at the polls, including in cities like Ulyanovsk.
Once the main opposition to Boris Yeltsin’s free market reforms in the 1990s, the KPRF has long been part of the Russian political establishment.
Although the party’s first and only leader, Gennady Zyuganov only narrowly lost to Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, over the past two decades he has taken a more loyalist leadership, offering opposition rhetoric in the Kremlin while remaining largely favorable to the Russian president. Vladimir Poutine.
It is a change which has been accompanied by a constant decline in the national reputation of the party.
Once the largest political force in the country with broad support nationwide, the Communists now rely on an aging and nostalgic 10-15% Soviet electoral base, concentrated in a handful of strongholds.
Ulyanovsk, a city of 600,000 people stretching along a scenic bend of the Volga 400 miles east of Moscow, is one of them.
Formerly known as Simbirsk, Ulyanovsk has been named after her most famous son, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin for nearly a century.
Even if this increasingly prosperous provincial center today bears little resemblance to the quiet swamp where Lenin was born in 1870, and left, never to return, at the age of seventeen, the Bolshevik leader remains an omnipresent presence in Ulyanovsk.
In the city center, a series of sprawling museum complexes commemorate Lenin’s life and achievements, and his steel-eyed face adorns craft beer bars aimed at Ulyanovsk’s student population.
In the main square, the Ulyanovsk State Pedagogical University is named after Lenin’s father, Ilya Ulyanov, a provincial school inspector who died when the future revolutionary leader was sixteen.
For the communists of Ulyanovsk, their city’s connection to the revered Soviet founder is a source of continued pride.
“The only thing everyone knows about Ulyanovsk is that this is where Vladimir Iliych Lenin was born,” Gibatdinov said, using Lenin’s surname as a sign of respect.
“Even though they no longer teach the history of Lenin and the revolution properly, something has stuck in our mentality. The people here have a very strong sense of fairness.
It is a revolutionary legacy that continues even three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last parliamentary elections in 2016, Ulyanovsk was one of the few cities where the KPRF defeated United Russia to win the local Duma district.
But Ulyanovsk is also a microcosm of the larger dilemmas facing modern Communists in Russia, who must reconcile revolutionary ideology with their status as a “systemic” pillar of the political establishment.
City State Duma deputy Alexei Kurinny is a relative radical in the KPRF who has publicly rented jailed the “personal bravery” of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia in January.
In contrast, the region’s Communist governor, Alexei Russkikh – appointed by Putin in April after the dismissal of his unpopular United Russia predecessor – is widely regarded as a Kremlin loyalist, and his appointment is a reward for the continued cooperation of the United Russia. party leadership with the authorities.
“The Communists are a very complex and divided party,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultancy. “Senior executives understand what they have to lose and follow Kremlin rules. “
“But many young leaders in the regions want a more confrontational approach with the authorities.”
Today there are signs that the comfortable coexistence of the Communists with the Kremlin may be coming to an end.
Even though polls show that the KPRF is preparing to almost double His share of the vote in 2016 amid concerns over declining incomes and erosion of the social safety net, authorities refused to register a slew of high-level Communists as candidates.
In July, Pavel Grudinin – an agribusiness mogul who came second behind Putin in the 2018 presidential election – was Rod to stand for parliamentary elections in September.
Although Grudinin was formally banned for failing to properly disclose overseas investments, many Communists, including Grudinin himself, saw it as a politically motivated movement against a popular and independent-minded candidate.
It was a story that repeated itself throughout the run-up to the elections, with potential Communist candidates including Saratov regional deputy and popular video blogger Nikolai Bondarenko and influential Moscow party leader Valery Rashkin threatened with exclusion.
For many party members, the wave of bans is aimed at breaking an atmosphere of defiance in parts of the KPRF increasingly unwilling to follow the Kremlin line.
“The mood within the party is becoming more and more radical,” said Yevgeny Stupin, a Communist Moscow City Duma deputy who has faced efforts to strip him of office after attending demonstrations of support for Navalny in winter.
“United Russia’s ratings are low enough that they have to disqualify us for any chance of winning. “
Although critics say Russia’s elections have rarely been free or fair in recent years, “systemic” opposition parties have at least been able to win every now and then.
But with controversial new electronic voting and advance voting systems that some say will make tampering easier than ever before, opposition-minded Communists are increasingly doubting that victory is possible no matter what. ‘public opinion.
“Considering what is happening at the federal level, with early voting, electronic voting, it becomes more difficult for us,” said Gibatdinov, candidate for the Duma in a district in the Ulyanovsk region.
“Of course, they can just fake it. “
But above all, candidates of all stripes face deep apathy from the Russian electorate.
A recent investigation According to the Kremlin-linked pollster VTsIOM, interest in politics is at its lowest in seventeen years just six weeks before election day.
At Lenin’s various shrines in Ulyanovsk, there is a constant stream of visitors but little evidence of revolutionary zeal before the ballot box.
“We are very far from politics here,” said Olga Shaleva, tour guide at the city’s Lenin House-Museum, the restored mansion in which young Vladimir Ulyanov spent his early years.
“People visit our museum out of interest in history, not out of political beliefs.”
According to some experts, a low turnout in September could work in United Russia’s favor.
Although the polls of the ruling party remains Mired below 30% amid the corruption scandals and fallout from an unpopular pension reform of 2018, it is still much higher than any other party, with the KPRF’s second place attracting just 16%.
If the turnout is as low as expected, United Russia is expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the State Duma, even with a much reduced vote.
“The Kremlin wants the elections to be as boring as possible,” political scientist Stanovaya said.
“It is in their best interests that turnout is low and that opposition voters stay at home.”
But for the city’s loyal Communists, despite voter apathy, fraudulent elections and the tightening of the screws on the Kremlin, the elections are still worth contesting, even in an increasingly undemocratic Russia.
“People have been brainwashed against us for years. Gibatdinov said. “It might be difficult, but we can still win.”
“The turn to the left is inevitable.