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Russia's Aging Communist Party Looks to Attract New Generation

  • Daniel Schearf

Russia's aging Communist Party is attempting to attract new, young members by using pop culture and addressing their growing concerns over alleged corruption and income inequality.

Russia's Communist Party, a successor from the Soviet Union's, is celebrating 95 years in May since the founding of its youth Pioneers movement.

On Moscow's Red Square Sunday, young Communist Party members wearing red hats and bandannas waved flags, while others danced to traditional songs; some were indoctrinated into the Leninist Young Communist League of Russia, known as the Komsomol.

Aging leaders of the party laid flowers at the tomb of their founder, Vladimir Lenin. But they insist the Communist Party is far from dying.

"An entire group has today joined the Komsomol," said Chairman of Russia's Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov. "These are guys who we made Pioneers some time ago. And recently 60,000 people of the younger generation have become party members. The organization lives and progresses."

FILE - A woman carries a portrait of Lenin as she walks with the Communist Party members and supporters to place flowers at the Tomb of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, at Moscow's Red Square, Nov. 6, 2014.
FILE - A woman carries a portrait of Lenin as she walks with the Communist Party members and supporters to place flowers at the Tomb of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, at Moscow's Red Square, Nov. 6, 2014.

But the Communist Party, like its 73-year-old chairman, is getting old.

"The statement that the Communist Party is a 'party of pensioners' is quite correct, but just partly," said Communist Party member and artist Igor Petrygin-Rodionov. "Because a change of generations is going on, and the older generation is leaving — though struggling and quite reluctantly."

Looking for youth

Petrygin-Rodionov was enlisted by the party to try to attract younger members by using images from popular and Western culture. At his Saint Petersburg studio, a promotional poster depicts Lenin using a Communist Party laptop with the slogan "The Second Century is Online."

At a weekend exhibit at Saint Petersburg's University of Technology Management and Economics, Petrygin-Rodionov displays some of his most well-known posters. One revamps the famous image of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin smoking a pipe by replacing it with an electronic cigarette. Another shows communism's founding father, Karl Marx, wearing a leather jacket and jeans with the Arnold Schwarzenegger slogan, from the film Terminator, "I'll Be Back."

But selling communism to Russia's modern youth is no small challenge.

"One can't say that communism was either bad or good," said a student attending the exhibit who gave only his first name, Gena. "It is impossible to go back to communism, like it is impossible to go back in time or to push the toothpaste back into the tube."

Concerns about corruption and growing inequality are rallying some young Russians, but not necessarily to their grandparent's communist party.

New idea of communism

"There is no communism yet," said the leader of the Moscow Duma faction of the Communist Party, Andrey Klychkov. "There is no communism in China either. When we ask what Chinese socialism is and why private property rights, enrichment opportunities are present there, the Chinese say, 'That it is a least-evil measure for the construction of communism, when we reach it, we won't have it.' That's why we are talking today about a different approach."

Klychkov was speaking at a protest rally against a plan by Russian authorities to demolish up to 8,000 Soviet-era buildings in Moscow and relocate more than a million residents. The plan has raised suspicions of corruption and sparked demonstrations, including by the Communist Party.

"Today the main strategy is in giving the young people an opportunity to implement their ideas," said Klychkov. "Not everybody accepts the reproduction of the Soviet past. But the ideas of socialism and social justice, as well as positive attitudes to the Soviet past, start prevailing among many young people, as social studies show."

New leadership

To re-energize the party, Russia's communists may for the first time in 24 years elect a new leader at the party's congress this week. Zyuganov has led the party since it was allowed to be reconstituted in 1993, after being banned with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Klychkov, the party's candidate for the 2018 Moscow mayor election, is one possibility.

"... it's not a question of me replacing him," said Klychkov. "The question of electing the party leader is for the party congress. And the congress will take a decision in the near future on May 26 or 27."

Regardless of any next generation leadership, few expect the once revolutionary party of Vladimir Lenin to pose a real challenge to Russia's ruling elite.

Although its leaders deny being part of a so-called "systemic opposition," the Communist Party has supported the Kremlin on most domestic policies and almost all foreign ones.

VOA’s Ricardo Marquina Montanana and Olga Pavlova contributed to this report.

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