Putin’s War Is Exposing the Cracks in Russia’s Communist Party

For two decades, the Communist Party has been part of Vladimir Putin’s power system, while also integrating many protest movements from within Russian society. But since the invasion of Ukraine, the party’s balancing act has become ever more precarious.

Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) addresses the crowd on International Workers' Day in Moscow on May 1, 2022. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

With the death of the populist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky this April, seventy-eight-year-old Gennady Zyuganov became Russia’s longest-serving party leader — and also its oldest. Zyuganov has held a near unshakeable grip on the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) since its foundation in 1993. The KPRF itself is a mainstay of post-Soviet Russian politics, indeed in a manner entirely unanticipated upon the collapse of state socialism; it has held first or second place in every Russian parliament (Duma) since 1995, and been runner-up in every presidential election since the first in 1996.

It is true that the party’s zenith is long behind it. From 1995 to 1999, the KPRF (with allies) had a near parliamentary majority, could claim up to half of Russia’s eighty-nine governors as its own (it now has just three), and briefly entered a left-wing government, which tried to impeach then president Boris Yeltsin. Most notably, Zyuganov pushed Yeltsin to a second round in the (significantly fraudulent) 1996 presidential elections, the only time the incumbent hasn’t sealed victory in the first round. However, since 1999, the party has run an ever more distant second to Vladimir Putin and his United Russia “Party of Power.”

Nevertheless, the KPRF is far from irrelevant. In the last (September 2021) Duma elections, it took 18.9 percent of the vote and fifty-seven of four hundred fifty seats. Although United Russia maintained its “supermajority” (over three hundred seats, enough to make constitutional changes) and de facto the election changed little, the KPRF’s “real” performance was perhaps as high as 30 percent, not so far behind the Party of Power.

What, then, explains Zyuganov and the KPRF’s apparent longevity and viability? Is there any possibility of the party representing a real challenge to the Kremlin?

The short answer to the latter question is no. The KPRF’s stability is rooted in its ability to exploit fluctuating extraparliamentary protest trends in an ambiguous way that doesn’t fundamentally threaten Kremlin power structures. Since its foundation, it has moved from an anti-system, “irreconcilable” opposition to an entirely “systemic” force, but nevertheless one that strives to maintain the image of extraparliamentary radicalism. It has been rightly dubbed a centaur — with one head facing the streets, the other the regime. This makes it a highly contradictory political force.

“Anti-Reform” Image, Complex Reality

The KPRF is heir to the once-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but comes via the short-lived Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (CP RSFSR), formed in 1990 as part of the search for national sovereignty that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. CPSU conservatives formed a (previously lacking) party for the USSR’s Russian republic in order to contest Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”). However, the CP RSFSR was hamstrung by internal divisions and the general leakage of authority from party structures, and was suspended by then-banned Yeltsin immediately after the August 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup. The party tacitly supported this three-day takeover but — symptomatic of its declining influence — wasn’t represented on the State Committee on the State of Emergency, comprised of eight leading Soviet officials who temporarily usurped power.

The KPRF was (re)founded in February 1993, after its leadership successfully contested the ban in the Constitutional Court. Its new chair was Zyuganov, formerly the CPSU’s deputy ideology secretary, mostly known for cultivating Party links with pro-Soviet nationalists. The KPRF’s overall profile has remained consistent from this date — an opponent of Westernization and liberalism, and a staunch defender of the Soviet heritage (the USSR is, it insists, to be “voluntarily” reconstructed). The current resonance of this “anti-reform” image is clear from Zyuganov’s castigation of the late Gorbachev as the greatest “traitor” in Russia’s thousand-year history. Zyuganov has successfully popularized several “nationalist” ideas, such as taking the USSR for an expression of Russian statehood, destroyed not through internal problems but by the machinations of pro-Western “fifth columnists.”

Beneath this staunch image, however, the KPRF has several other aspects that have been decisive for its long-term survival. First is an orientation to incrementalism and institutionalism, reflecting its leaders’ origins in the Soviet bureaucratic elite (nomenklatura): these are no Leninist revolutionaries. The KPRF stood out the October 1993 armed skirmishes between president and parliament, and, unlike many of its opposition rivals, participated in the December 1993 elections held under the new constitution, even as it decried the document’s illegitimacy.

Second, beneath its “anti-reform” umbrella, the KPRF encompassed a wide range of ideological tendencies from would-be social democrats and Brezhnevite conservatives to outright Stalinists and “national Bolsheviks,” who justify Soviet power from a nationalist, not Marxist-Leninist, point of view. Even more notable was a cleavage around attitudes to the post-Soviet power system between a moderate leadership inclined toward compromise with the authorities, and more radical regional cadres that preferred “irreconcilable” extraparliamentary opposition and were deeply suspicious of their own leadership. However, most party trends have been profoundly socially conservative — the KPRF opposes LGBTQ rights and second-wave feminism.

Third, Zyuganov established the dominance of the national Bolshevik trend, trying to rehabilitate communism and the KPRF by demonstrating that they were an authentic representation of Russia’s nationalist traditions and not some foreign ideological implant. This led to the party’s rapprochement with national capital and state institutions such as the Church, and Zyuganov’s often-repeated claims such as “Russia has had enough of revolutions” and “Jesus was the first communist.” Such claims were made more controversial by his later assertions that the rebirth of the Church owed much to Stalin personally.

The orientation toward bourgeois state structures was particularly noxious for Marxists inside and outside the party, many of whom accused the KPRF leadership of parliamentary cretinism, reneging on class struggle and internationalism, failing to maximize links with trade unions and the working class, and ultimately becoming of the nationalist right rather than Leninist left.

Indeed, activists from newer groupuscules such as the Russian Socialist Movement see the KPRF’s ideology as a “moderate version of . . . popular Stalinism” fused with “Orthodox imperial nationalism.” However, aided by hierarchical democratic centralism and Zyuganov’s bureaucratic intrigues, effective intraparty opposition has rarely materialized. Indeed, having lost the 1996 election, the KPRF seemed to be maneuvering itself into a stable position in elite structures as part of a formal “two-party system,” and hesitantly contemplated some social democratization.

Putin’s Challenge

Such efforts went by the wayside with Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the presidency in 2000. With his illiberalism, Orthodox imperialism, and appeal across the political spectrum, Putin stole the KPRF’s arguments and support. What’s more (and this has become ever more evident), Putinism brought an “imposed consensus” in Vladimir Gelman’s words — i.e., the forcible elimination or co-optation of all independent power centers.

Compared with Yeltsin, who was a lackadaisical party builder, Putin invested in United Russia as his Party of Power and marginalized all challengers. By the late 2000s, the party system was directly managed by presidential administration “overseers” (currently led by Sergei Kiriyenko), who vetted the parties’ candidates and conduct. In response, opposition forces had to respect informal “rules of the game” (such as vocally supporting Russian foreign policy, avoiding direct criticism of Putin and rejecting ties with the extraparliamentary opposition).

The KPRF’s remaining “anti-system” impetus was effectively squashed in 2004, when the Kremlin engineered a major split that saw its membership slump from half a million to just 160,000. Indeed, the Kremlin often indicated its preference to replace the KPRF with a more modern left. However, it has pulled its punches, since a more dynamic left could pose greater challenges given the Russian electorate’s broad pro-welfare and state-paternalist sympathies. Indicatively, it refused to register the 2004 splinter party and to fully marginalize the KPRF. Instead, the KPRF was able to reclaim a permanent second place in the party system.

Zyuganov’s leadership has since helped stabilize both the KPRF and the Kremlin by operating within the “rules of the game” and expelling both rivals and excessively radical comrades. It is allowed greater discretion to criticize the regime than other parties, especially at local level. However, the limits remain strict, and are periodically tightened. In particular, the Kremlin uses a range of “spoiler parties” to the KPRF’s right and left (e.g., the Communists of Russia, which sometimes runs doppelgänger candidates against it) to salami-slice its vote if necessary.

Moreover, since Putin’s arrival, the party has moved from Stalinoid (supportive of state socialism but reticent about directly supporting the vozhd [great leader]) to openly Stalinist positions praising the “immortal” leader (even promoting Russia’s re-Stalinization), and has downplayed its proto–social democratic elements. This has helped it define itself against Putin. Despite being a product of the post-Stalinist security state and indebted to the cult of the Great Patriotic War, Putin is more “white” than “red,” i.e., more supportive of Orthodox imperialism than Soviet ideology. This re-Stalinization has helped the KPRF preserve core support but is repellent to many new constituencies, generally limiting its support to 10-15 percent of the national electorate.

The party’s 2021 manifesto showed this. It emphasized left-wing populism and welfare promises — reversing Putin’s 2018 pension reform, raising the minimum wage, increasing the availability of free education and health care — but otherwise repeated slogans from the 1990s, even decrying the privatizations of that bygone time. The focus on welfare and fair elections might appeal to protest voters, but the preponderance of old slogans and faces indicated obsolescence. Not for nothing has the KPRF been seen as Russia’s most boring party.

Generational Change?

The KPRF remains functionally divided between three main groups, albeit these divisions are generally less febrile than in the 1990s: the core of red patriots who nostalgically support the party and its Soviet symbols as a living fragment of the lost USSR; the bureaucratic pragmatists who comprise the central leadership cadres and maneuver within elite circles; and the radical oppositionists — a broad range of leftist positions such as the populist street protester Sergei Udaltsov, the Moscow democratic socialist Mikhail Lobanov (unsuccessfully supported by both KPRF and Russian Socialist Movement in 2021), and Nikolai Bondarenko, a Saratov regional deputy assembly member and popular video blogger, all of whom support a more confrontational line than the leadership is capable of.

It is possible to observe a limited rejuvenation of the party electorate, despite its aging core vote. The KPRF’s electorate has become more urban and educated since the early 2000s, especially given United Russia’s capture of rural constituencies. The KPRF has attracted younger, more radical opposition-minded voters and members because of its status as the principal opposition force and its (relatively) radical rhetoric. However, the more openly oppositionist electorate has created further pressure on the party hierarchy to follow suit. However, more radical supporters regularly leave, disappointed with the party’s hierarchical structure and conformism. A central party dynamic is periodic radicalization, especially before elections, followed by moderation.

However, generational change at the leadership level has become increasingly vital. In the 2018 presidential elections, Zyuganov stood aside in favor of Pavel Grudinin, director of the “Lenin State Farm.” Although Grudinin’s 11.8 percent score was the KPRF’s worst presidential performance yet, he still came second, which Zyuganov’s declining personal rating might not have ensured. The KPRF has a collective leadership, so it can survive leadership change more than most Russian parties. The probable successor is party deputy leader Yury Afonin, although he has a conservative reputation and may struggle to gain Zyuganov’s national profile, which was forged in more pluralist times.

2021 Elections

The recent election round repeated the radicalization-moderation dynamic. The KPRF radicalized again by abstaining against Putin’s 2020 constitutional reforms and opposing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. Some regional leaders (principally Moscow city party boss Valery Rashkin, long a fierce critic of government corruption) expressed sympathies for opposition protests and for imprisoned leader Alexei Navalny. Officially, the party denigrates Navalny, but does not criticize his Smart Vote initiative (which helps voters to identify the candidates best placed to beat United Russia). The KPRF, as second-placed party in many districts, was the main beneficiary of Smart Vote. However, in 2022, Smart Vote refused to support candidates supporting the Russo-Ukrainian War, including the KPRF.

The party became embroiled in a brief conflict with the Kremlin over Grudinin. For reasons unknown and unknowable, Grudinin became persona non grata for the Kremlin. Perhaps his 2018 presidential performance, though underwhelming, made him a national politician with a platform for the next election in 2024. Consequently, his business was pressurized, he was deprived of his town council seat, and, in 2019, the Central Election Commission refused to transfer a vacant Duma seat to him.

Zyuganov’s decision to place Grudinin third on the KPRF’s 2021 candidate list was thus provocative for the Kremlin. Grudinin was swiftly barred by the Central Election Commission, officially for owning foreign property (an apparently unfounded claim). Zyuganov may have felt he must protest or else appear supine, and fulminated against Russia’s “fascistization.”

Nevertheless, Grudinin’s victimization enhanced the KPRF’s opposition credentials and the party used him heavily in campaigning. In other respects, it bowed to the overseers’ directives with a Kremlin-friendly election list, e.g., by removing prominent troublemakers such as Rashkin in Moscow and former Irkutsk governor Sergey Levchenko from the central to the regional list. After the election, the leadership briefly protested vote falsification, but acquiesced in the removal of Rashkin from the parliament and party leadership on another trumped-up charge (of illegal poaching).

Ukraine and After

The outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War offered a new quandary for the party. The KPRF does not dissent from the Kremlin consensus on foreign policy. Quite the reverse; since 2014, it has been one of the most assiduous supporters of the Russian proxy states in the Donbas, even being the instigator of the Duma law on their recognition in February 2022. Nevertheless, there were strong indications of disquiet with the war among some Duma deputies, regional leaders, and youth activists — it was one thing to “protect” the Donbas, quite another to bomb Kiev.

However, true to form, the party soon reinforced its “patriotic” credentials by silencing or expelling the dissidents and vocalizing gung-ho support for the so-called “special operation,” even calling for full-scale mobilization in September 2022. The Communists sought to capitalize on patriotic sentiment by emphasizing their record of humanitarian support to the Donbas and state planning’s utility in supporting the sanctioned economy. Nevertheless, the party struggled in an environment where Putin’s support rebounded in a “rally round the flag” effect and the room for any substantive opposition was minimal. In September 2022 elections at the gubernatorial, regional, and local level, the party lost ground.

The KPRF’s longevity is rooted in its ability to exploit growing protest trends, but curtailed by a deeply conformist leadership, structure, and ideology. The Kremlin also possesses the formal and informal levers it needs to limit the party’s influence to a distant second place (or worse) in national elections.

Dramatic short-term changes to this reality appear unlikely. As has been evident for over two decades now, the KPRF needs a thorough leadership and image overhaul to emerge as a stronger left-wing challenger. However, its Moscow leadership is so integrated in Putin’s managed party system that the leadership and Kremlin have common interests in opposing substantive change.

Nevertheless, the aftermath of the Russo-Ukrainian War will tell heavily on the party’s fortunes. So long as the Kremlin retains control of the domestic political agenda, the KPRF will find the niche for opposition politics heavily constrained. Should the war’s consequences eventually begin to undermine the post-Stalinist police-state mechanisms on which Putinism thrives, Zyuganovism, which is intrinsically dependent on Putinism, will also struggle for survival. Whether a more genuinely progressive and oppositional party can emerge from the KPRF’s vestiges is doubtful, but remains to be seen.