A Communist Comeback in Russia

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — The leaflets were meant to scare. “Stock up,” they warned, on matches, soap and other daily necessities. The shortages would soon be back if Gennady Khodyrev, the last Communist boss of this big city on the Volga River, returned to power.

Another attack recalled the city as it was until 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union and of Khodyrev’s rule, a place closed off to foreigners, named Gorky after a Communist-favored author, and famous mostly as the place of exile for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Said the leaflet: “The color: gray. The city: Gorky. Do we want it again?”

Apparently the answer was yes. Khodyrev, reinvented now as a kinder, gentler Communist — “a totally modern person,” as he put it in an interview — was elected in July as governor of the region he used to lead. What made his victory all the more remarkable was that it came in a heavily industrial area of Russia once considered the capital of Western-style economic reforms, a place about 250 miles east of Moscow where Communists until recently couldn’t even hope to win back power.

A growing number of regions across Russia that decisively rebuffed Communist candidates in the early years after the fall of the Soviet Union have come to embrace them again, part of what political analysts call an increasing protest against the failure of Russian capitalism to bring better living conditions to the regions outside of Moscow. With the Nizhny Novgorod election, “red governors” now control executive power in 35 of Russia’s 89 regions.

“My opponents were saying the gulags will return and investment will stop coming if he is elected governor,” Khodyrev said with a knowing chuckle, sitting in the same office in this city’s Kremlin that he was kicked out of 10 years ago. But, he added: “There’s nothing frightening here. It’s not going backward; it’s just a difficult step ahead.”

Four years ago, Khodyrev ran for governor against the same opponent and received just 42 percent of the vote. This time, he beat him with 60 percent of the vote. He carried not just the countryside but even the regional capital, which in 10 years of democracy had never voted for a Communist.

“The meaning of this victory for the Communist Party cannot be overestimated. The results here show a change in Russia over the last few years; Communists are beginning to win in those regions where in the past they couldn’t even dream of winning,” said Vladislav Yegorov, a secretary of the Nizhny Novgorod regional branch of the party.

This Communist regional restoration comes at a moment when the party’s power has waned significantly at the national level. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, Communists were able to effectively control the parliament and block his initiatives. But now, President Vladimir Putin routinely prevails in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, with little more than ritual protest from the Communists, who remain the largest single voting bloc with 24 percent of the seats but who seem content with a power-sharing deal that has given them the speakership and some committee chairs.

Outside of Moscow, however, the return of Soviet-era party bosses like Khodyrev shows that the party still plays a significant role in Putin-era politics, at a time when limited choices and negative campaigns can produce seemingly implausible results. Even a president with a 70 percent approval rating can be powerless to sway the outcome of local elections. In Nizhny Novgorod, the incumbent governor defeated by Khodyrev was from Putin’s party and the president’s handpicked envoy in the region openly campaigned for him.

“In Russia, we have a saying: ‘good czar, bad subjects.’ This explains why the attitude toward Putin remains high at the same time that the protest vote against his policies is growing in the regions,” said Lev Gudkov, director of political polling at the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion.

These successes come at a time when the Communist Party is still in the throes of a 10-year identity crisis, trying to find a future for a party whose main adherents are older, poorer and less educated than Russia’s electorate as a whole. In response, the party is marketing itself with a decidedly non-ideological appeal. Today’s winning candidates cast themselves as pragmatists who say they are the only politicians with the experience to run the regions.

“Over the last year in Nizhny Novgorod and other places with gubernatorial elections, Communists did well not only with their usual electorate of older voters but also with middle-aged people and those with a higher level of education,” Gudkov said. “They were supporting these candidates not because they are Communists but because they are perceived to be pragmatists.”

The numbers, too, suggest that the Communists are doing slightly better than just holding on to their base. Last month, they came within two percentage points of ousting an incumbent governor in the Siberian region of Irkutsk, another perceived bastion of economic reforms. In the Ivanov region, northeast of Moscow, a Communist elected eight months ago brags about higher wages and paying off energy debts. Oleg Kulikov, the national party’s number two leader, said new enrollments are up 10 percent this year and that the party has 550,000 members.

“We want to be known as a party of the future and not as a party of the past,” said Kulikov. “They are always trying to pull us back to the past. But we are a democratic party now that represents a broad spectrum of the population; we understand that it’s not possible to go back.” At the same time, Kulikov expressed his support for restoring Volgograd’s Soviet-era name, Stalingrad, after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, a pet project of Communists at the moment, and praised Putin for restoring “our traditional close ties” with communist Cuba and North Korea.

And while Kulikov expended much time explaining the party’s commitment to freedom of speech and other democratic rights — “We are more democratic today than the so-called democrats,” he said — the political issue that tops the Communists’ fall agenda is fighting a Putin-backed land code that will allow the sale of non-agricultural land for the first time in seven decades.

“We Communists have learned from our past defeats,” Kulikov argued.

That is certainly the case in Nizhny Novgorod, where Khodyrev’s political career appeared as dead as the Soviet system when Yeltsin sacked him in 1991 and installed a then-unknown young reformer, Boris Nemtsov, in his place. Today, Nemtsov is one of Russia’s best-known politicians, having vaulted to national prominence as Nizhny’s whiz-kid governor.

But while Nemtsov’s career has prospered, the region he left behind has not. Once third in the country in foreign investment behind Moscow and St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod is now 13th. Wages here are now below the national average, putting the region 51st out of Russia’s 89. Although it was a laboratory for early experiments in small-business privatization and individual land ownership, the heavily populated region of more than 4 million people never really took on the problem of how to convert its many defense factories to civilian use. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost and not replaced.

“Everyone is perfectly aware that we have failed to become the third capital of Russia, that there’s a contrast between the reality of the living standards here and our dreams,” said Alexei Likhachev, a regional leader of Nemtsov’s reformist political party, the Union of Right Forces. “In the last few years, we have lost ground.”

Others put it more starkly. “Nizhny Novgorod was really hyped as a capital of reform, while things remained here as they had been before,” said local columnist Vladimir Yunov. “That’s why Khodyrev won — dissatisfaction with the standard of living here.”

But even when his opportunity for a comeback came, it was still a surprise when Khodyrev seized it. A Communist member of parliament, Khodyrev was dismissed as an also-ran when the gubernatorial campaign began this year. But during a nasty race that focused alternately on a popular businessman’s two criminal convictions and incumbent governor Ivan Sklyarov’s shortcomings, Khodyrev managed to emerge untainted. In a first round marked by a low turnout, he came in first with 24 percent. And despite efforts to scare voters in the second round with the specter of a Soviet restoration, Khodyrev took 60 percent to Sklyarov’s 28 percent.

Right after the election, Khodyrev “suspended” his membership in the party, saying he wanted to serve as a “uniting governor,” but didn’t disavow the Communist platform or his own adherence to the party’s program. As he put it, “What a person has in his heart doesn’t change.” At various points in an interview, he referred to himself as “a rank-and-file member of the party” and talked about “our party.”

But he was also at pains to represent himself as a different kind of Communist. “Perhaps you are not familiar with the platform of our party — we are cognizant of market relations, we accept all forms of ownership,” he said. He also swore allegiance to Putin, saying that the president’s emphasis on “stability” was as important as specifics of his economic program and praising him for “slowly correcting Yeltsin’s mistakes.”

But for those looking for early hints about what kind of governor Khodyrev will be, the appointment of another former Communist leader as his top aide gave a significant hint. Vladimir Kiriyenko, who was in charge of the regional economy when the Soviet Union collapsed, ran Khodyrev’s comeback campaign and said he won because of “ill-considered policies of the last ten years that impoverished the population.” But neither of them was willing to spell out in any detail what their new administration would entail, beyond pledges of “social justice,” generic support for Putin’s program and an insistence that they will not impose the state-run economy of the Soviet past.

Today’s Communists, Kiriyenko said, are the only politicians with the experience to fix those problems. “I haven’t changed my political convictions, and I’m not ashamed of this,” said Kiriyenko, who unlike his boss has not suspended his party membership.

“Don’t be afraid of Communists,” he said at the close of an interview in his newly claimed office. “We’re normal people.”