The division of the Russian left



The war with Ukraine confirmed the divide between those nostalgic for the era of USSR state power and those for whom being on the left means a commitment to a democratic project

In his February 22 speech, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Vladimir Putin laid out his ideological justification for the war. He presented Ukraine, within its current borders, as an artificial entity created by the Bolsheviks, which today can “rightly be called Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.”

Vladimir Putin, upon coming to power 20 years ago, described the disintegration of the USSR as a “major geopolitical disaster”. He now believes that the real tragedy was the creation of the Soviet Union: “The disintegration of the unity of our country was caused by the historical and strategic errors of the Bolshevik leadership,” he said, criticizing Lenin for giving each republic the constitutional right to leave the Soviet Union. By making the war in Ukraine what he calls “true decommunization”, Vladimir Putin wants to finally turn the page in Soviet history and return to the beginnings of the pre-revolutionary Russian empire.

This open anti-communism did not prevent the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPFR), or rather its leadership, from unreservedly supporting Vladimir Putin's “special operation” in Ukraine.

Although the Communist Party of the Russian Federation claims to be a direct descendant of the Bolshevik party, as stated in the introduction to its manifesto, its real history dates back to 1993. Two years earlier, after the demise of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Communist Party Soviet.

This then gave rise to a series of left-wing political groups that were fiercely opposed to the “shock therapy” that Boris Yeltsin had administered to the Russian economy. To marginalize them, the government encouraged a new moderate opposition, which was prepared to play by the rules of the new political game. Therefore, Boris Yeltsin authorized a reformed communist party, having decided not to ban “criminal communist ideology”, as some countries in Eastern Europe did.

In February 1993, the PCFR's founding congress elected Gennady Zyuganov as its leader (a position he still holds). After the forced dissolution of the Supreme Soviet (Russian parliament) in October 1993, which was the prelude to the establishment of an authoritarian presidential system, the PCFR gained a virtual monopoly on the left wing of the new party system. In return, the party submitted to an unspoken rule: no matter how many votes they won, communists must not threaten the country's strategic direction. In particular, this meant abandoning its opposition to further privatization and the construction of a market economy. By channeling grassroots discontent, they contributed for a long time to the country's stability.

A larger activist base

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the PCFR continued to be the party with the largest activist base (500.000 members at its peak) and the only one that managed to mobilize tens of thousands of protesters. The enthusiasm of its members meant that it could run successful election campaigns despite limited finances and virtually no access to television. The party came first in the 1995 and 1996 Duma elections; Gennady Zyuganov reached the second round of the presidential elections, narrowly losing to Boris Yeltsin. Although these elections were marked by significant manipulation,[1] the communists recognized the result.

After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia's political system became progressively harsher. Thus, the Kremlin became increasingly unwilling to tolerate the success and relative autonomy of the PCFR. The presidential administration forced communist leaders to expel all radical elements and exerted greater financial control over them. While in the early 2000s member dues contributed more than half of party revenues, this figure fell to just 6% in 2015. However, state funding accounted for 89%.[2]

The docility with which the PCFR fulfilled its role as a “constructive” opposition led it to lose members (only 160 thousand remained in 2016) and also to lose at the polls. He found himself torn between the obligation to remain loyal to the Kremlin and the need to recruit new supporters. In 2011, although it was the party most affected by electoral fraud, the Communist Party remained away from demonstrations against electoral fraud, leaving the torch of public freedoms to the liberal opposition.

However, in the March 2018 presidential elections, the PCFR took a serious first step in responding to the electoral challenge. He fielded as his candidate Pavel Grudinin, a businessman who was at the head of a former privatized sovkhoz (state farm), whose rhetoric departed from the usual communist tropes. Pavel Grudinin, practically unknown to the general public, focused on current social problems rather than the achievements of the Soviet past.

Despite calls from the main figure of the “non-systemic” opposition, Alexei Navalny, to boycott the elections (for which he was banned from running), Pavel Grudinin came in second in the first round with 11,7% of the vote (8,6 million), an achievement in a presidential election traditionally dominated by Vladimir Putin. This result inspired Alexei Navalny to change course and launch “smart voting” in autumn 2018. Alexei Navalny asked his supporters to vote for the highest placed candidates to defeat the United Russia party (which usually meant voting for the communists).

In fact, this change occurred after demonstrations in the summer of 2018 against the government's decision to raise the retirement age.[3] The measure was so unpopular that it strengthened the opposition, especially the communists. In September 2018, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation won elections in the Irkutsk and Khakassia regions and in some cities in the Ulyanovsk and Samara regions. He maintained this momentum in autumn 2019, winning a third of the seats in the Moscow city parliament (13 out of 45 seats).

Change the electoral map

An obvious paradoxical situation was thus occurring: some members of the liberal urban middle class began to vote against their own principles and ideological tendencies. The electoral map of support for the PCFR was changing. While in the 1990s and 2000s Communist Party voters came mainly from Russia's agricultural south, by the end of the decade they were mainly in industrialized regions and large cities.

In the last parliamentary elections in September 2021, the PCFR obtained large votes in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk and Chelyabinsk, although none of these cities belonged to the “red band” of the 1990s. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, traditionally more liberal than others places, the PCFR won 22% and 17,9% of the vote, respectively, while the liberal opposition party Yabloko suffered a crushing defeat. The Communist Party was clearly outperforming the rest of the opposition: it was more than 10% ahead of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, with whom it had tied in the 2016 parliamentary elections (for around 13%). ).

No ideological changes

Despite its new base of support, the party has not changed significantly in terms of ideology or structure. Its official manifesto still bears the stamp of Stalinism, nationalism and the defense of a paternalistic “welfare state” in the spirit of the last years of the USSR. In it, the party affirms its attachment to the “Marxist-Leninist doctrinal dynamic”, adding that “with the restoration of capitalism, the Russian question has become extremely acute”, condemning the “genocide of a great nation” and affirming the need to protect Russian civilization from the attack of the materialistic and soulless West.

Thus, the communist parliamentary group has even been an active supporter of aggression against Ukraine: on January 19, while Russian troops were carrying out border maneuvers and Western leaders were holding dialogue with Putin, 11 communist parliamentarians, including Zyuganov, presented a resolution in the Duma calling on Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of the “people's republics” of eastern Ukraine and an end to the “genocide” of their people.

This demand amounted to ending negotiations on the Minsk agreements (which recognized Donetsk and Lugansk as part of Ukraine) and immediately starting a military conflict. At first, United Russia, which has the parliamentary majority, did not support him, saying he was too radical. But it was this motion, approved by an absolute majority in parliament a month later, that later served as the basis for the invasion.

On the first day of the war, the Communist Party released an official statement affirming its full support for Vladimir Putin's policy in Ukraine, carefully avoiding the words “war” and “military operations”. This statement echoed official rhetoric about the need to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. He also stated the urgency of countering the plans “of the United States and its NATO satellites to enslave Ukraine”.

In a new statement on April 12, six weeks after the start of the war, the PCFR described Ukraine as the “world center of neo-Nazism” and called for “the mobilization of Russia’s spiritual and economic resources to repel liberal fascism,” establish a state of emergency and strict public regulation of the economy in the face of confrontation with the West.

Even so, the only three Russian parliamentarians with the courage to publicly criticize the invasion of Ukraine also belonged to the communist group. One of them, Oleg Smolin, respected for his long fight against the privatization of education, said at the beginning of the war: “Military force should be used in politics only as a last resort. All military experts say that large-scale military action in Ukraine would not be easy. I feel sadness for all these human lives, ours and those of other people.”

Vyacheslav Markhayev, who represents Buryatia, also spoke out strongly against the war, saying that “the whole campaign for recognition of the DNR [Donesk People's Republic] and the LNR [Luhansk People's Republic] hides a hidden agenda… very different [from that of the original plan put forward by communist parliamentarians] … And here we are in a full-scale war between two states”. More soldiers fromregion”, a state of the Russian Federation, in this case representing Siberia, have been killed in combat than anywhere else in Russia since the beginning of military operations.

Several local CPFR representatives from the regions of Voronezh, Vladivostok, Komi Republic and Yakutia also took a stance against the war. One of the brightest representatives of the party's younger generation, Moscow city councilor Yevgeny Stupin, co-founded a left-wing anti-war coalition that brings together several political groups not represented in the Duma. For these activists, speaking out against the war means challenging the line of the PCFR leadership and being willing to leave its ranks. Several of them were expelled before they even handed in their letters.

Other organizations to the left of the PCFR took an active part in the peace protests. The Russian Socialist Movement (which has links with France's New Anti-Capitalist Party) issued a joint statement with the Ukrainian left Sotsіalniy Rukh (Social Movement), a rare Russian-Ukrainian initiative. The declaration condemns Russia's criminal and imperialist war and supports all measures aimed at ending the conflict, including sanctions against oil and gas and the supply of weapons to Ukraine for its self-defense.

This statement is especially significant given that Ukrainian security services have targeted the Ukrainian left, which they suspect of being unpatriotic. The Russian anarchists of Avtonomnoe Deistvie (Autonomous Action) called on “Russian soldiers to desert, to disobey criminal orders and to leave Ukraine immediately.”

The war with Ukraine only confirmed the divide between those nostalgic for the era of USSR state power and those for whom being on the left means a commitment to a democratic, anti-authoritarian and far-sighted project. Today, when any call for resistance to imperialist aggression by the Russian government risks being suppressed and hostile by the rest of society, the anti-war left appears isolated.

But it is worth remembering that, in 1917, during the First World War, those who asked Russian soldiers to disobey the orders of their officers, against all expectations, came to power. And establishing Ukraine's current internationally recognized borders is yet another reason for Vladimir Putin to hate Lenin.

*Ilya Budraitskis is a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Author, among other books, of Dissidents among dissidents: ideology, politics and the left in post-Soviet Russia (To).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website Sinpermiso.


[1] See Hélène Richard, “When the US swung a Russian election" Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2019.

[2] Partial financial activities à la veille des élections de députés à la Douma d'État', Goals, 4 August 2016,

[3] See Karine Clément, “Russia looks after its rich'" Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2018.

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