Russia- One step forward, two steps back?

It was on December 25,1991 that the red banner of the Soviet Union was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. A nation and a system that posed the only credible challenge to the capitalist dream on global domination was slipping into history. The Soviet Union, protected by its massive Red Army, aided by its ruthless KGB security apparatus, abetted by its propaganda-fed labour unions, inhabited by a pension assured citizenry, guided by a largely geriatric leadership, imploded due to the inherent internal contradictions of Stalinism. The capitalist camp rejoiced and announced the commencement of a new era in global politics. Almost 20 years to the date, history seems to have come a full circle. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has now emerged as a serious contender to Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Along with the Liberal Democrats and the Just Russia party, the CPRF has garnered 212 seats in the 450 seat Russian Duma. There is jubilation in leftist quarters around the world and a hope amongst many that this may signal a decisive change in Russian politics. But is it time to rejoice?

There is one man whose name is inescapable in the midst of these developments – Yuri Vladimorovich Andropov. The bespectacled, white haired Andropov is the missing piece in the puzzle that is Putin's Russia. Andropov was Leonid Brezhnev's successor; the man chosen by the Politburo to clean up the mess that the stagnation of the Brezhnev era had gifted the USSR. What made him fundamentally different from all of his predecessors was his background- Andropov was also the former head of the KGB. His elevation to power was supported by both the aging Communist Party and the relatively younger KGB. It is no co-incidence that almost all of Putin's inner circle are former KGB men. All of them were invariably handpicked by Andropov's aides to implement his grand plan for the USSR-one that envisioned a series of controlled reforms. A lot of the decision makers in todays Russia look back at Yuri Andropov as the man who could have salvaged the Soviet system. There seems to be a widespread belief that, had he lived long enough, Andropov could have been the Soviet Union's Deng Xiaoping- initiating a Chinese style controlled 'free-market' experiment. However, sadly for all this planning, Andropov's ailing kidneys had other plans. When they stopped functioning on the evening of February 9, 1984, the Soviet Union's last prospective big brother was done for. He was succeeded by Konstantin Cherenko whose heart would betray him in less than a year. In a country that had known only four leaders in six decades, losing two in nearly two years was a catastrophe that the Soviet psyche could not withstand. The onus was thus on finding a younger and preferably more long-lasting leader. And the buck thus passed to Mikhail Gorbachev, whose credibility rested on the fact that he was one of Andropov's handpicked few. And the rest is history.

Andropov's official portrait from the begining 80's, produced by the Soviet government. Image Credits:

Putin's frequent nostalgia of the Soviet past, the renaming of Volgograd back to Stalingrad on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, resurrecting the music of the of the Soviet national anthem, restoring the Soviet red star as the official symbol of the Russian military are all logical if one understands the Andropov connection in all of these events. Andropov understood the flaws of the Soviet system. But he was prepared to go to any lengths to protect it. As Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he witnessed the fragility of Stalinism. When sections of the Hungarian armed forces and members of the Hungarian Communist Party joined forces with the protesters who were demanding more freedom for Hungary, an immediate collapse of the Stalinist system seemed inevitable. Only a swift and decisive crackdown by the Soviet Red Army prevented this scenario. And in his position as the Soviet ambassador, Andropov co-ordinated this crackdown. Andropov had witnessed in Budapest what was to happen in Moscow roughly three decades later. It is this realisation that drove him to be a reformist within the system. He was never really interested in fundamentally altering the nature of the Soviet state, but merely to enhance its shelf-life through cosmetic changes. When in 1964,the Czechoslovaks tried to reenact the Hungarian adventure, Andropov would aid Brezhnev in crushing the movement in a more sophisticated manner. As head of the KGB, he helped co-ordinate a pan-Warsaw Pact invasion, complete with an invitation from sections of the Czechoslavakian Communist Party, calling for 'fraternal intervention' from the Soviets. Putin, it seems, wants to be what Andropov never got the time to be: the iron-fisted authoritarian leader ushering in a state controlled 'free-market'. And it is the state-control aspect of the Soviet era that Putin and Co. are so nostalgic about.

The Andropov influence is not limited to the symbolic acts of restoring memories of Soviet rule. The handling of the Dubrovka and the Beslan hostage situations, the assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in 2004 and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 are all testaments to this fact. Radioactive poisoning of dissidents was perfected almost to the level of an art by the KGB. But as of today, there is nothing illegal in any of these eliminations as a law passed in 2006 permits the killing of 'extremists' abroad. And as the Russian state's approach to oligarchs has conclusively proved, in Putin's Russia, standing against the state is not an option, even if you are a billionaire businessman. It is this feature of Russian capitalism which brings it in direct conflict with its western cousin and thus pits Putin's Russia against the west. Even the falsified portrayal of Putin as a Europeanised leader by the Kremlin propaganda machine bears an eerie resemblance to the then portrayal of Andropov as a Western-oriented man.

Portrait of Joseph Stalin.

In the absence of any other commendable political force that can be termed an opposition, saying no to Putin and his charade of a democracy effectively means saying yes to the CPRF. To view this as a electoral victory of the CPRF due to its political programme is naivety. What is disturbing is the fact that the CPRF has had to make quite a few compromises to garner this victory. The Party has made a truce with the Russian Orthodox Church and constantly calls for a unity amongst 'patriotic' forces. There is criticism from some quarters that very often party statements sound more fascist than communist. It must be remembered here that the CPRF was not the only successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in Russia. Other factions and formations were snuffed out by the Kremlin in favour of Gennadi Zyuganov and his faction which went on to become the CPRF. And then there is the issue of the party's actual political programme. A 2008 poll conducted by a television station to find out the greatest Russian of all time led to some interesting outcomes. The most popular spot went to Aleksander Nevsky, who in 1242, defended what was then Rus against Swedish and German invasions. He was followed by the Tsarist era minister Pyotr Stolypin who initiated agrarian reforms and constituted fast-track courts to try his political opponents. Joseph Stalin was voted the third most popular Russian of all time. His supporters argue that the technicality that he was a Georgian was what cost Stalin the first place. After all, Stalin was Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin combined. Stalin defended the USSR against a Nazi onslaught, initiated agrarian reforms, had his enemies tried by 'special courts' and converted the horse-cart riding peasant state he inherited into a formidable industrial superpower. However, the price that the Soviet population paid for this transformation was humongous and tragic. The rigid and monolithic system that Stalin created contradicted that fundamental tenet of Marxism - of change being the only constant. Yet, this is the man whose portrait, in Red Army fatigues, is omnipresent in almost all of the CPRF rallies and protests. Stalin has emerged as the poster-boy for the CPRF. The party leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, in an open letter to the Russian President, asked for the re-Stalinisation of Russia.

Stalin reminds the pensioners of the 'good old times' when life was more certain and the future more promising. To the younger generation of Russians, he is a reminder of their country's superpower past, when Russia stood up firmly against the west. To the CPRF, he represents a popular convergence point for their electorate. The electoral victory of the CPRF can also be attributed to the party's success in wooing the younger generation of Russians using everything from rap to Stalin, while maintaining its traditional pensioner vote-bank.

In light of their experiences, the belief that even a flawed version of socialism is better than an efficient version of capitalism seems to be finding more acceptance amongst the Russian population. The promises of capitalism that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union have been proven hollow. The Russian population has come to realise that its bargain with capitalism has been a Faustian one. One of the greatest achievements that Soviet communism claimed was its capability to place the Russian woman in orbit around the earth; the stellar achievement of Russian capitalism seems to be its capability to place her on pornographic magazines around the world. The disenchantment with capitalism, the rising corruption and the collapse of social services has led to an undeniable market for Soviet nostalgia. This nostalgia for the Soviet era explains why the red star is still atop the Spasskaya tower of the Kremlin and why Lenin still sleeps, undisturbed, in his tomb aside the Red Square. It also explains the CPRF's love for Stalin and Putin's admiration of Andropov. The increase in the CPRF must be understood as a discontent for Putin's regime and a nostalgia for the Soviet empire. Had this been a truly leftward swing in the Russian electorate, the CPRF campaigns should have seen placards of Lenin and other early Bolsheviks, not Stalin the empire builder. Moreover the CPRF has seen surges in its vote-share in the past, but at no instance could it be interpreted as a leftward swing in Russian politics. The only choice that the Russian people have today seems to be to opt for one of the two versions of Stalinism. Perhaps if a more credible and more left-leaning political formation is to emerge, upholding a new plan to build socialism in the 21st century, accepting the errors of the past, the scenario might have been a welcome one. As of now, the CPRF is well entrenched into the system that Putin has built up and thus does not possess a serious threat to Putin or his political setup. Thus the time for rejoicing is still afar.