The collapse of the USSR in 1991 appeared to have sounded the death knell for the ideas of Marx and Lenin in Russia, but just over two decades on, a new wave of young and increasingly visible socialist activists are eager to hoist the red flag over the Kremlin once more. Isabel Magkoeva, 21, a rising star of Russia’s left, a former teenage model that bears a striking resemblance to high-profile Chilean student protest leader Camila Vallejo, and an activist with the Revolutionary Socialist Movement, said, “I became interested in socialism when I was in my late teens. I was always concerned by economic inequality; I started to ask questions about why this should be. Then, I got interested in left-wing literature. That was when I realised I wanted to get involved”. However, although Magkoeva praises Lenin as a “great revolutionary,” she has few illusions about the USSR, which ceased to exist the same year she was born, saying, “There was no genuine socialism in the USSR. It’s inaccurate to portray us all as seeking a return to the past. That simply isn’t true. We’re for a new modernised form of socialism”.
In part, Russia’s appalling record on wealth inequality bolstered this increase in the popularity of socialist ideas. This was highlighted earlier this month by a report by the Swiss financial services company Credit Suisse, which noted, “Excluding small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires, wealth inequality in Russia is the highest in the world. Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for less than 2% of total household wealth; in Russia today, around 100 billionaires own 30 percent of all personal assets”. Activists say that figures like this attracted young Russians to socialist groups. Young left-wingers have been among the main movers in the unprecedented protests against the almost 13-year-rule of President Vladimir Putin, bucking an over-two-decade long trend that saw unreformed elderly Soviet-era communists as almost the sole champions of socialist causes.
Activist Sergei Fomchenkov, 38, a leading member of the Other Russia movement, said, “Young people have almost no chance to buy affordable housing and bring up a family normally. There’s almost no opportunity for people to climb the social ladder, especially for those who aren’t from Moscow. So, when people see all this, and, then, see a small group of incredibly wealthy billionaires building themselves luxury villas and so on, of course, they start to see leftist ideas as a real alternative”. However, like Magkoeva, Fomchenkov has no desire to see Russia return to its Soviet past, saying, “We want a modernised form of socialism in which the state controls national industry, but not small businesses. It’d be lunacy to attempt to control the activities of every small café, for example”.
Analysts tie this rise in socialist ideas in Russia into a similar trend in a crisis-hit Europe, where leftist parties have made dramatic gains in an increasingly-polarised political atmosphere. Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think-tank said, “Like everywhere in Europe, vulnerable young people hit by the global economic crisis are rediscovering the ideas of socialism. These ideas were discredited in Russia in the period after the collapse of the USSR, but young people are today moving toward the New Left”.
The most high-profile of this new generation of leftists, Sergei Udaltsov, made international headlines last week when he faced charges of planning mass disorder across Russia on the basis of grainy footage broadcast by a pro-Kremlin channel. Left Front leader Udaltsov, 36, a fiery, shaven-head activist who has been one of the main players in ongoing anti-Kremlin street protests, could face up to ten years behind bars if convicted on the charges, which he denies. Investigators released Udaltsov after he pledged not to leave Moscow, but two other Left Front activists remain in custody awaiting trial. Activist Alexei Sakhnin told journalists after Udaltsov’s conditional release, “It’s no coincidence that the Left Front movement was targeted. The Left Front is the only group to have addressed social issues such as rising utility costs, which is something that millions of Russians suffer from every day”.
The movement’s rhetoric seems to have struck a chord with many Russians. A public opinion survey by state-pollster VTsIOM indicated that Udaltsov was the only high-profile protest leader to have seen his popularity ratings increase since Putin’s election to a third term in March. Left Front co-founder Ilya Ponomaryov said, “Left-wing groups in Russia openly sought a return to a socialism system in the 1990s, but they were entirely discredited. Nevertheless, now, people have again begun to see leftist ideas as a real alternative, and it’s a very positive sign that more and more young people are getting involved”. However, he dismissed suggestions that history has proven it is impossible to build a viable society on the principles of socialism and communism, saying in reference to previous failed attempts to construct socialist states, “They all got Marx and Engels wrong. You have to get the economic approach right first, before you can build a socialist country”.
Putin once famously called the collapse of the USSR, “the greatest geo-political catastrophe” of the 20th century, tapping into a pervasive nostalgia for the Soviet era among the older generation. Avowed Putin foe Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer turned Kremlin critic, told RIA-Novosti earlier this year that he shared the president’s views, saying, “We could have kept the country together”. Left Front co-founder Ponomaryov, 37, also admitted to “mixed feelings” about the USSR, saying, “It was strong state with many social guarantees, but there was far too much bureaucracy. Nevertheless, its clear things were better in the USSR than they are now. There was no freedom of speech or human rights back then, but there isn’t any now, either”.
This widespread respect for the Soviet past has translated into voter support for the Communist Party, the second largest political party in parliament, but activists like Magkoeva, who spent the weekend collecting money for “political prisoners” at a two-day opposition rally in central Moscow, have little time for the party, whose veteran leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has lost four presidential elections since the break-up of the USSR. She said, “Today’s Communist Party may praise the USSR, but it has little in common with left-wing ideas. It’s an opposition for show only, which does not shy away from using populist ideas, from small business to Orthodox Christianity, to attract supporters”.
Many analysts see the socialist fervour of Magkoeva and her comrades as the biggest threat to Putin’s grip on power. Shevtsova, the Carnegie Center analyst, said, “A few years ago, it seemed that nationalist groups posed the greatest danger to the authorities. Now, it’s clear that the New Left has taken over that role”.
23 October 2012