Left in a Corner

Politically isolated and facing repression, the Russian left is pondering its future.

Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov addresses his supporters as he is released after a fifteen-day detention, May 24, 2012. Mitya Aleshkovskiy / Wikimedia

“Many see nonsystemic leftists as rejects and losers who secretly jerk off somewhere and have nothing serious to offer,” said Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, as he concluded his plea for Russian leftists to support the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin. “Let’s abandon the [Eduard] Bernstein approach that’s about process and not results. Enough masturbating in the corner, let’s embrace this system to the death!”

Udaltsov’s speech, delivered at an early February forum on the Russian presidential election, pointed to a dilemma that leftists have debated throughout history — to what extent should a left-wing movement participate in the system it ultimately seeks to destroy? The issue before Udaltsov and others was whether to support Grudinin or join the liberal opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s call to boycott the election. Challenge the system from within or from without. It’s an old question.

What to do about the Russian presidential election is just one of many questions that have plagued Russia’s small and fractured left. In a country where Lenin’s body still lies mummified on Red Square, Communist iconography adorns the facades of many buildings, and polls suggest that a majority of the Russian population would welcome a return to socialism, the Russian left’s battle for political relevance nevertheless looks Sisyphean.

What is Left?

Like the Left elsewhere, the Russian left is struggling with its identity. What is the Left and what does it mean to be left today? The question is even more pressing in Russia given the Communist Party’s seventy-year hegemony over “the Left” and the collapse of its political and economic model. Though proponents of alternative politics existed within Soviet socialism, especially after Stalin’s death, these groups were a small and fractious part of Soviet intellectual culture, and their unorthodoxy was routinely persecuted.

The dismantling of Communist Party orthodoxy in the late 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 opened space for articulating a different socialism. Russian left groups simply lacked the capacity to fill the vacuum. Support for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) waned following Gennady Zyuganov’s electoral defeat in 1996, and in the 2000s the KPRF became a mere political facade. Since then, left groups have bobbed aimlessly along, receding further into a small corner within Russia’s already small political opposition.

Even as the organized Russian left remained adrift, the intellectual left remained vibrant. Translations of Western Marxist and poststructuralist texts found a Russian audience, injecting new perspectives and intellectual innovations. Left-leaning intellectuals forged networks with Western academics, writers, artists, and activists. The first decade of Putinism had paradoxical consequences: it provided left-wing intellectuals the means to reflect on the Soviet system and reconfigure socialist politics, just as Putin’s oil boom was robbing it of a potential constituency.

The 2011–2012 mass protests against electoral fraud, in which Russian leftists were key participants, offered a brief resurgence. But the state struck back with manifold forms of repression: harassment, detention, blacklisting, surveillance, and manufactured crimes targeting nationalists, liberals, and leftists alike. But it was Russian leftists who received the brunt of the state’s assault following clashes between protesters and police at Bolotnaya Square in May 2012. The Left Front’s Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev were eventually convicted of organizing the violence at the Bolotnaya (many say on trumped-up charges) and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The Left Front virtually ceased to exist as a result. Moreover, among the protest participants convicted for the violence were anarchists, antifascists, and members of the Left Front and Russian Socialist Movement.

Today, besides scores of unaffiliated sympathizers, academics, artists, intellectuals, politicians labor unions, websites, media, and others who might identify with the Russian left, left-wing organizations outside the KPRF include tendencies ranging from anarchists to neo-Stalinists. Groups include the Anarchist Black Cross, the Left Front, the Left Bloc, the Russian Socialist Movement, the Revolutionary Workers’ Party, Socialist Alternative, the United Communist Party, the Communist of Russia, and the Russian Communist Workers’ PartyROT Front, to name a few.

These organizations’ memberships range from a few hundred to a few thousand and are mostly centered in Moscow or St Petersburg, though some have branches in the provinces. Most try to highlight social and political struggles, particularly labor issues, and some are more active than others, mostly in staging protests and rallies. In fact, the Russian left is mostly an activist-centered movement that tries to connect local struggles to larger issues of corruption, labor rights, ecology, political rights and freedom of speech, poverty, and income inequality.

Few groups seek to participate in Russia’s restrictive electoral system. Almost none are officially allowed — except, like the Communists of Russia in the recent presidential election, as clownish foils. Some trace their lineage to one or another aspect of the Soviet system, a practice with a clear generational divide. Those who identify with the Soviet Union tend to be older, even elderly. A few are “communist” in name only and represent more a mixture of Soviet nostalgia and patriotism taken to the point of parody. Those groups that don’t directly hearken back to Soviet symbolism are younger, with members in their late teens and twenties. As in the West, this new generation of young leftists will be crucial for reinvigorating Russia’s left politics. Some groups are more Western oriented — emphasizing issues of race, gender, and sexuality, for example — and are social democratic in tone. Most engage in media, and a handful are little more than online communities.

What unites all of these under the banner of the Russian left? Though far from programmatically or institutionally united and representing a broad spectrum of opinions, methods, and activities, all identify with some left-wing tendency—anarchism, antifascism, Marxism, socialism, Leninism, Trotskyism, communism, or anything in between. There is a general consensus on the capitalist, and even neoliberal, character of the Putin system; the gluttony of the Russian elite and its dependency on corruption; the use of repression and lack of democracy; and a narrowing of political and cultural pluralism in Russia’s political system. Virtually all reject the privatization and liberal reforms of the 1990s, advocating nationalization of Russia’s commanding economic heights, with the surpluses steered to society’s benefit.

They Must be Represented

Media represents one of the bright spots of the Russian left. Online projects by young left journalists and activists, like The Mirror, Rasplata, Worker Platform, and September, and think tanks like the Center for Economic and Political Reform and Center for Social and Labor Rights, report on provincial life, labor rights and struggles, social protest, and help to situate the Russian left within a wider international left movement and culture. These initiatives, along with sites like Mediazona, Forum.msk, Rabkor, OpenLeft, the Free Press, and a long list of Telegram channels, Facebook, Vkontakte, and LiveJournal pages, and websites, are part of a burgeoning online community of left-oriented resources, social media, journalism, and commentary.

More importantly, Russian left media seeks to represent the majority of the Russian population: those whom the government neglects or cynically panders to, and who are ignored by the media and the liberal opposition. As the Mirror’s mission states, the representation of social issues in Russia tend “to be obscured and its comprehension is reduced to the reproduction of myths, social racism and the mutual rejection of people.… Our heroes are not only those who are below the poverty line — that is one in seven Russians — but also those middle-class people whose economic security is assumed guaranteed.”

Most of this activity, however, remains cut off from those whom left media seeks to represent. But the problem is more a lack of resources than of will. Leftists have tried to connect with the many local labor, ecological, social, and economic struggles that dot the Russian Federation. Investigative journalism giving voice to local struggles inevitably connects the Left with those communities. But beyond the problems of parachuting into such communities to join their struggles, many left organizations lack the institutional capacity or capital to do even that. Segments of the Russian left are intellectually rich, but resource poor.

In sum, though the Russian left might occupy only a corner of Russia’s political culture, it’s a cramped one in which individual groups are trying to find a way to break out. Generational turnover might provide the energy and idealism the Left needs. If that’s the case, younger groups like the Anarchist Black Cross, the Left Front, the Left Bloc, the Russian Socialist Movement, Socialist Alternative, and the Revolutionary Workers’ Party have a potential future. The United Communist Party, the Communists of Russia, and the Russian Communist Workers’ Party-ROT Front do not.

Fifty Shades of Red

There is no denying that state repression has routed the Left. Anarchists, antifa, Left Front, and Left Bloc activists are routinely arrested and tortured. The Interior Ministry’s Center E and telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor actively monitor leftist and other so-called “extremist” activity. A Russian court has ordered the liquidation of the left-leaning Workers’ Association Interregional Labor Union (MPRA) — one of Russia’s few independent labor unions, representing about 3,000 workers across sixteen factories — for accepting foreign funding. (The Russian Supreme Court recently rescinded the court-ordered closing; the union’s Kaluga branch responded to the news by announcing its intent to strike at the Volkswagen Group’s Rus plant if management doesn’t meet their demand for a 20 percent pay hike. The average assembly line salary is $585 a month and hasn’t risen since 2015).

Political divisions have finished the work repression couldn’t. Disagreements over the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the war in the Donbas have compounded existing splits among leftists. Some groups, which oppose the Maidan as a fascist coup, support the Crimea annexation and view the Donbas as a proletarian struggle. These views place them closer to Russian nationalists and the Putin regime than to their potential comrades, who see the Maidan as a popular uprising and the Russian government’s actions as imperialism. The polarization around Ukraine has made it difficult to maintain a middle position. “We have tried to articulate the centrist position from the very beginning,” Kirill Medvedev of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSM) and a singer in the band Arkady Kots recently told Novaya gazeta. (The RSM argues that Ukrainians in the Donbas have a right to contest the outcome of the 2014 Maidan revolution, but view Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in the Donbas as imperialism. While upholding Maidan’s legitimacy as a protest against a corrupt government, it’s under no illusions about how the war has empowered Ukrainian nationalists. “For us, Russian and Ukrainian nationalism are equally unacceptable,” the movement said in a resolution.) Added Kots, “As a result, we are, on the one hand, accused of being friends of Putin for not supporting the progressive Maidan, and on the other, that we are Banderaites [followers of the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist Stephan Bandera]. It still seems to me that we have chosen the only normal position, but very few have accepted it.”

While Putin’s third term saw the Left crippled by repression and fractured by the Ukrainian question, its situation in his fourth term is already coming to be defined by two issues: whether and how to unify; and the relationship with the liberal opposition, and Alexei Navalny in particular. How Russian leftists resolve these issues will be crucial to their future over the next six years.

“We waited five years for Udaltsov to be freed and lead a broad left movement. But instead, he’s going around carrying a briefcase for someone else,” Daria Mitina, a member of the Central Committee of the United Communist Party, told Novaya gazeta. The “someone else” she refers to is Pavel Grudinin, the “strawberry oligarch” who runs the Lenin State Farm, a so-called “socialist oasis” outside of Moscow. Grudinin became the Communist Party candidate after he won the Left Front’s online primaries. This put pressure on Zyuganov, the KPRF’s electoral dinosaur, to stand aside in the hope of injecting the Communist Party with new vigor.

Udaltsov’s call to back Grudinin made sense — yet, in other ways, it didn’t. At a moment when most alternative political avenues are blocked, the KPRF is the only force on the Left with a constituency, resources, and the capacity to participate in electoral politics at the federal level. The problem is that the KPRF lacks the political will to oppose the Putin system, and Grudinin’s candidacy wasn’t going to change that.

Many Russian leftists reject the idea that their political future lies with the Communist Party. Not only are the KPRF’s politics odious to radicals, its place within Putinism is something of a Faustian bargain: access to the political system in exchange for loyalty and faint opposition. If there is a place for left electoral politics in Russia, it’s at the municipal level. The KPRF isn’t where the Left can be revived, critics say, but where it goes to die. This was made clear with Grudinin’s candidacy. He was merely a capitalist in socialist clothing. “It’s possible that he genuinely feels some kind of social responsibility for people, but his “sovkhoz,” his Soviet mustache, Soviet manner of speech, and Soviet style of dress is for show,” the Marxist critic Alexei Tsvetkov told Novaya gazeta.

In the end, Grudinin received only 11 percent of the vote. Exactly what tangible benefit the factions of the nonsystemic left that backed Grudinin got out of it remains a mystery.

Grudinin’s candidacy widened the divide within the Left as many joined Navalny’s call to boycott the election. For these radicals, the Putin system cannot be changed from within. Creating a left popular movement connected to or in alliance with Russia’s social movements is the only potentially viable strategy. Unlike in the West, where building legitimacy is possible through elections, in Russia’s “managed democracy” alternative power can only be built from the outside. The Russian left, therefore, must participate in Navalny’s movement; his ability to mobilize thousands of people around corruption should be seen as opening a vital space for left participation. Standing on the sidelines will only prevent leftists from having any input, leaving the largest opposition movement in Russia in the hands of another savior on a white horse.

Udaltsov doesn’t rule out cooperation with Navalny. The problem is, Navalny and other liberals don’t seem to want to cooperate with him. In a interview in the Daily Storm, Udaltsov called for a return to the alliance between the Left, liberals, and nationalists of 2012; but when he reached out to Ilya Yashin, the liberal activist responded: “You supported the annexation of Crimea, you are on Putin’s side and how can I work with you if you are such bad people?” Udaltsov agrees that Navalny was able to mobilize 7,000–8,000 people, but “again, this is not the masses! We remember [the 2012 protests against electoral fraud at] Bolotnaya and Sakharov when 50, 60, 70,000, and upwards to 100,000 and more people came out. And the authorities withstood it.” But Udaltsov’s repeated appeals to liberals to join his May 6 action marking six years since Bolotnaya were ignored. Only a few hundred Left Front sympathizers attended his rally. Meanwhile, members of the Left Bloc and RSM were among the thousands that went to Navalny’s unsanctioned action in the center of Moscow on May 5. Udaltsov was left alone in the corner once again.

In his speech at last February’s forum on the election, Udaltsov said the Russian left needed to become a third force between Putin and Navalny. That may be true, but it’s easier said than done. Though segments of the Russian left show promise, particularly its younger cohorts, the ability to emerge as a third force is still far off. The unfortunate truth is that at the current conjecture, the leftist opposition needs the liberals more than the other way around. Groups like the Left Bloc and the RSM seem to begrudgingly understand this. For now, standing alongside Navalny appears as one of the few viable paths out of the corner.