Young Communists in Putin's Russia

Alison Swain (Politics: University of Glasgow)


When the ban on the Communist Party in Russia was lifted at the end of 1992, the party reformed as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in February 1993 and, capitalising on the impoverishment of Russian society since privatization, grew to the point where it was the largest political party in Russia. The Party's youth movement, the Union of Communist Youth - Russian Federation, better known by the abbreviation of its Soviet-era predecessor, the Komsomol, is a comparatively small but active organization that aims to continue many of that predecessor's traditions. Communism for many in Russia represents the past and a failed economic experiment that has little relevance in the twenty-first century. The young people who are drawn to the Communist Party, mostly new recruits who had never been members of the Soviet-era Komsomol, as opposed to the older members of the CPRF, nostalgic for the economic security of the past, are joining what has been derided as a 'party of pensioners', against the prevailing trend amongst the young either to support President Putin or to abstain from voting and interest in politics altogether. This paper examines the extent to which young Communists in Russia are trailblazers, their motivation in supporting an ideology that has been rejected by the majority and the challenges they face.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) came to an end when it was banned by President Yeltsin in 1991 and the Soviet Union ceased to exist by the end of the same year. The Komsomol had been an important institution throughout the Soviet Union, most young people were members, they undertook voluntary work, took part in marches and rallies and encouraged others to participate in officially sanctioned political activities. Those who were ambitious went on to join the CPSU where they could expect better career prospects and benefits not available to those outside the Party. Along with the CPSU, the Komsomol vanished in 1991 not to re-appear until around 1994. The organization has also been re-established in the majority of the other former Soviet republics but with varying degrees of success.
Neither the reformation of the Komsomol nor its realignment with the CPRF have been uniform as some regions are still aiming to reform a Komsomol in order to create a youth movement for their branch of the Party. It was reformed around 1994 in St Petersburg, according to interviews conducted by the author with two of the people involved.[1] One interviewee stressed that she was one of the refounders of the Komsomol, suggesting that it is seen by at least some of those involved as a continuation of the Soviet era organization. However, the movement was initially aligned with the more radical Russian Communist Workers' Party (one of several groups that claimed to be successors to the CPSU) and only later 'realigned' with the CPRF and 'returned' to a role as the youth movement of the main Communist party. In St Petersburg, the Komsomol was reorganized 'from below' by young people who wanted to be active in politics, however, in some regions it is being re-organized 'from above' by members of the CPRF with the aim of giving young people something to do instead of engaging in criminal activities.[2] 
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, by far the largest of the successor parties to the CPSU, is a very different organization from its predecessor. Although the leader, Gennadii Zyuganov, makes occasional undemocratic announcements (he called, for example, for the abolition of direct elections for the Presidency in 1999),[3] the Party is officially committed to democracy and, despite initial reservations in 1993, participates in all elections. There has been no move in the CPRF towards social-democracy as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe among former Communist Parties, most of which have changed their names, dropping the word 'Communist'. The only exception is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia which, like the CPRF still claims to be Communist. There has, however, been a substantial change in the CPRF's ideology. The focus on internationalism has gone to be replaced with nationalism and calls for the restoration of Russia's status in the world, perceived by the Communists and others to have diminished with the end of the Cold War. Despite calls for democracy in 1991, Russia's phase of rapid privatization, high inflation and increasing unemployment and poverty in the early- and mid-1990s soon increased support for the Communists who claim they would restore the living standards of those who have fared the worst during the transition.
The fact that there has been such a noticeable move by the CPRF away from internationalism and revolution raises the question of to what extent it is Communism that young people are really signing up to. According to March, "... all CPRF members could be justifiably called 'communist' in their adherence to a 'conservative' form of communism which retain[s] revolutionary elements alongside a strong conservative commitment to the institutions, symbols and traditions of Soviet power."[4] Whilst this appears distinctly backward-looking, Zyuganov has declared that it is the Party's aim to move "not backward to socialism, but forward to socialism."[5] Communism is now seen by both the CPRF and the Komsomol as a very distant prospect but, true to Marxism-Leninism, an inevitable one nevertheless.
So what inspires young people to join the CPRF when the ideological battle has been declared lost and a market economy has been embraced throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? When young Communists were interviewed in St. Petersburg in June and July 2003, typical answers to the question "why did you join the party?" were "it is the only party which really reflects the interests of the people"[6] and "I joined in the interests of Russia."[7] Although some had only been small children at the end of the CPSU's time in power, young party members spoke of the wonders of the Soviet past: the educational and career possibilities enjoyed, they believed, by all; the lack of any economic elite in society, as far as they could see (although there were benefits for Party members which were not generally enjoyed by others); and the aim of constructing a just society as they felt the lack of any laudable communal aims in the post-Soviet era.[8] Some also spoke of personal experience such as parents being unemployed due to factories having closed and the injustice of the growing gap between rich and poor.[9] Most of those interviewed did, however, at least partially acknowledge that the former political regime had made mistakes.
There has been a change in membership since the Soviet era from a combination of the truly committed and a large number of careerists to just the truly committed in the Party's present incarnation. The membership of the CPSU was close to 19.5 million in 1989[10] whereas the CPRF claimed in 1993, after its reformation, to have 450,000 members. By 1996, that claim had risen to 600,000 members[11] but had decreased by 2003 to 500,000 members. Although effectively a separate organization, the Komsomol membership is counted as part of the total of CPRF members in order to boost the number of young members. This can be seen in the statistics the Party quotes of 18 to 24 year olds that it claims are Party members.[11] However, there seems to be little consistency in the age at which Komsomol members can join the CPRF with some interviewees claiming they joined the Party when they were 18 and others saying that they could not join the Party at that age.
The social composition of the Party has also changed over the years since the end of the Soviet Union. The author's research revealed that few members are considered working class in the original sense of the term but the industrial working class is now estimated to be only around 13 percent of the workforce[13] anyway. Members of the Komsomol who were interviewed also tended not to be working class in the traditional sense. Many were students or were employed in professions such as publishing and journalism. Zyuganov now defines the working class broadly to include such people as pilots and computer operators as well as people working in heavy industries and he claims that "scientific-technical progress long ago united the work of the [industrial] worker with intellectual work".[14] It is clear the party needs to redefine the 'working class' for the 21st century as the working class, and therefore its traditional support base, is shrinking as patterns of employment change.
As with all political parties, there is a need for younger members as the Party's membership is ageing. This is particularly acute with the CPRF. Although it has been suggested that the CPRF has probably reached the limits of its electoral support[15] and therefore expansion of membership, a study published in 2002 found that rather than increasing numbers of pensioners, it was workers and the unemployed who were approaching retirement age who were more likely to be joining the Party.[16] This mirrors what young Communists told the author in St. Petersburg: that young members were not joining the organization in large numbers but that people joining in their forties and fifties were noticeably more numerous in recent years.[17]
10 Although it has been written that "... the CPRF is largely made up of non-enterprising and unimaginative people who remained in the Communist Party after their more daring and pragmatic comrades had gone. ... To all intents and purposes, today's CPRF is a party not of revolutionaries but of unemployed has-been apparatchiks," [18] this is not the whole story. While those over 50 far outnumber younger members, the younger members interviewed in 2003 were enthusiastic campaigners for a more just society.
11  While young supporters do exist, the CPRF is probably exaggerating their numbers. At the 2003 conference celebrating the tenth anniversary of the CPRF, Zyuganov denied that the Party's members were mostly pensioners. The Moscow City branch of the Party reported an increase of 1,000 new members including between 700 and 800 students and an overall lowering of the average age of members as older Communists died[19] but these figures have not been independently confirmed. As a rough indication of the numbers of activists: at the III congress of the Russian Komsomol, it was claimed that 266 delegates had been elected to attend the event from 79 of Russia's 89 regions and a total of 251 actually attended[20] and in terms of total numbers of members of the Komsomol, it was claimed in 1997 that there were 21,000.[21] 
12  Aside from the shortage of younger and more active members, the manipulation of election results is one of the considerable challenges the Communists now face. The Moscow Times reported in September 2000 that enough falsification of the vote in the Presidential election had occurred to put the legitimacy of the vote in doubt. The worst allegations included the theft of 88,000 votes in Dagestan from other candidates which were subsequently given to President Putin and the addition of 1.3 million voters to the electoral role nationwide, the majority of whom, the paper claimed, were fictitious.[22] While the Communists' frequent complaints of electoral foul play may be exaggerated, they are not unfounded. International election monitors criticised the biased campaigning of both the December 2003 Duma (parliamentary) elections[23] and the Presidential election in March 2004 as well as irregularities in the counting of the vote in one quarter of all counts that were monitored in the Presidential election.[24]
13  An even greater challenge, however, is media manipulation and, what the Communists see as President Putin having taken over much of their political space through the adoption of 'patriotism' and calls for the restoration of Russia's Cold War era levels of influence.[25] Putin has also gradually reduced the opposition's opportunities to communicate with the public through the state take-over of independent television stations. These stations now broadcast the government line on most issues. Zyuganov must surely regret his declaration in 2002 that state television "must serve executive power."[26] Now that all national television stations are controlled by the state, this has become a serious problem for the CPRF as the majority of references to the party on television tend to be negative, such as the regular claims that the CPRF is a party of pensioners[27] and, in common with other opposition parties, they can not get a balanced view of their policies across to the electorate. The Communists now find themselves in the kind of situation their opponents were in for the duration of their seventy year rule.
14  As a result of the move towards what has been described as 'authoritarian democracy' and "the dominance of the ruling elite on the political scene and in traditional media,"[28] Russian political parties are having to use the internet as it is free and, as yet, not controlled by the state. The Komsomol and the CPRF are becoming adept at circumventing the problem of state controlled media through their central website,, and various branch websites, for example, the St Petersburg website,, with links to uncensored, left-wing, online newspapers. The St Petersburg website includes a 'guestbook' in which members of the Komsomol attempt to counteract the state-sponsored propaganda in other media by debating political matters with supporters and opponents of Communism alike. Despite the limited access to the internet outside Moscow and St Petersburg, this form of communication is vital for the Party as it is uncensored (even by the Party, in the case of apparently not censoring the content of the 'guestbook' during 2003). An indication of how seriously this form of communication is taken by the CPRF can be seen in the results of a study of political parties' websites in Russia and Ukraine which found that the Communist Party websites in both countries were the highest quality party websites in terms of user friendliness, updatedness and accessibility.[29]  
15  Along with more modern methods of communication, the Komsomol engages in more traditional campaign methods: on-street campaigning; handing out 'agitation-literature'; door-to-door campaigning and putting up posters for local Communist candidates.[30] This was one area where, until recently, the CPRF had an advantage in terms of the numbers of activists the Party could mobilize to undertake these tasks. Since the advent of the pro-Putin party, Unified Russia, and the accusations of abuse of administrative resources by that party, in terms of the employment of people to distribute election materials on their behalf,[31] this advantage has diminished. The Komsomol in St Petersburg also engages in youth outreach work in an attempt to inform young people about the aims of the CPRF and counteract what Komsomol leaders see as propaganda directed by Putin's supporters against the Communists.[32]
16  The Komsomol has tried to broaden its appeal to young people with the adoption of anti-globalization as an aspect of Communist beliefs. The Komsomol participated along with other groups in the "Anti-Capitalism 2002" campaign in Russia[33] which enabled them to campaign on an issue that is generally popular with young people regardless of which political party they support or whether they support any political party at all. Like the CPRF, the Komsomol can be pragmatic and is prepared to work with other 'left' and 'patriotic' groups where they share aims. They see their mission now as saving Russia, rather than immediate world-wide proletarian revolution.
17  Another challenge facing the Komsomol is the organization Walking Together, a youth movement set up to support President Putin. ORT (television) news on Tuesday 25th February, 2003 showed members of Walking Together starting a volunteers group in the form of the Komsomol with red, white and blue patterned neck scarves in imitation of the Soviet Komsomol's red scarves and undertaking work to help the elderly. The organization led a march of reportedly 10,000 young people in support of President Putin and "its participants committed themselves to 'no swearing, respect for the elderly and love for the President.'"[34] Komsomol members in St. Petersburg complained that supporting Putin was currently very 'fashionable' amongst the young and Walking Together has clearly been set up to provide an alternative 'patriotic' youth organization to the Komsomol.
18  Despite more modern concerns such as internet campaigning and criticism of globalization, the Komsomol, like the CPRF, to some extent also lives in the past, celebrating anniversaries of organizations that either no longer exist and holding congresses of organizations that have not changed their names to reflect political changes that have taken place. Celebrations were held for the 85th anniversary of the Soviet Komsomol in 2003 and a 26th Congress of the All-Union Lenin Komsomol (the Soviet era organization - the Union referred to in the title is the Soviet Union) was held in Kiev on 28th and 29th April of either 2001 or 2002 (the year is not clear from the report). Delegates attended from Azerbaidjan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.[35]
19  Although most have grown up during the post-Soviet era, young Komsomol members have taken on the traditional attitudes of the older members of the CPRF and committed former CPSU members. When asked about divisions within the Party most of those interviewed stressed the need for unity and none were willing to criticise the leader directly. March refers to the 'cult of unity' within the Party[36] which results from the adherence to 'democratic centralism' - the understanding that after debate has taken place on any policy, all will abide by the final decision, even those who disagree with that decision. This has clearly taken hold within the Komsomol.
20  Despite the discouragement of manipulated media and election results and the 'unfashionable' image of the CPRF, the members of the Komsomol are enthusiastically engaging in modern methods of communication and agitation to keep political debate alive, from the Communist perspective, on the internet and on the streets when other forms of communication are censored. Whilst small in comparison with its predecessor and conservative in its adherence to the old Communist beliefs and practices, the organization plays an important part in election campaigns, recruitment, raising awareness and encouraging youth participation in politics, although its degree of success is difficult to judge. In St Petersburg and elsewhere, where the Komsomol was organized 'from below' as an organization of young people rather than 'from above' as an organization for young people (as a mechanism of control), it can be described as a small but dynamic group fighting against the 'fashion' of President Putin and for what its members see as a more just society.


[1] Interview, St. Petersburg, 26/06/03.

[2] See for example 'Bid to Revive Komsomol in Chally', Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL),

[3] 'Communists Call for Revising Constitution', RFE/RL,

[4] March, L. (2002) The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p122.

[5] Zyuganov, G. Derzhava, Informpechat', Moscow, 1994, p.27

[6] Interview, St Petersburg, 29/06/03.

[7] Interview, St Petersburg, 11/07/03.

[8] Interviews, St Petersburg, 29/06/03 and 11/07/03.

[9] Interviews, St Petersburg, 26/06/03, 29/06/03 and 11/07/03.

[10] Hill. R. (1992), 'The Communist Party and After' in Developments in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics, eds. White, S., Pravda, A. and Gitelman, Z., Second edition.

[11] Barth-Urban, J. and Solovei, V. (1997) Russia's Communists at the Crossroads, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

[12] '???? - ?????? ????????' presentation to Vybory 2003 pre-electoral exhibition, Moscow, September 2003.

[13] Sakwa, R. (1998) 'Left or Right? The CPRF and the Problem of Democratic Consolidation in Russia', Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol.14, No.1&2, p.145.

[14] Zyuganov, G. (1996), Znat' i deistvovat': otvety na voprosy, Paleya, Moscow, p.32

[15] Vujacic, V. (1996) "Gennadii Zyuganov and the 'Third Road'", in Post-Soviet Affairs, vol.12, no 2, p.151.

[16] Kiewiet, R. and Myagkov, M. (2002) 'Are the Communists Dying Out in Russia?' Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Vol. 35, No. 1, p.48.

[17] Interview, St. Petersburg, 26/06/03.

[18] Wishnevsky, J. (1999) The Evolution of the Russian Communist Party: The Regional Focus, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, p.4.

[19] 'Communists Say They're Getting Younger', RFE/RL,

[20] '?????????????? ????????? ? III ?????? ??? ??'

[21] 'Communists to Launch Anti-Yeltsin Petition Drive,' RFE/RL,

[22] Moscow-Based Newspaper Challenges Presidential Election Results, RFE/RL,

[23] 'OSCE Criticizes State TV for Biased Campaign Coverage', RFE/RL,

[24] 'OSCE Calls Elections Well Managed But Not Genuinely Democratic', RFE/RL,

[25] Interview, St. Petersburg, 26/06/03.

[26] Anchorman Considering 'New' Career in Politics, RFE/RL,

[27] 'Zyuganov Says Media Tried To Hide Growing Support For Communists', RFE/RL,

[28] Semetko, H. and Krasnoboka, N. (2003) "The Political Role of the Internet in Societies in Transition", Party Politics, Vol.9, No.1, p.93.

[29] Op cit., p.83.

[30] '???????? - ?? ????!'

[31] Interview, St Petersburg, 26/06/03.

[32] '??????? ??? ?? ? ???????? ?????????, ?????????? ????',

[33] '??????? ??? ?? ? ???????? ???????????? ? ?????????? ??????'

[34] '10,000 Putin Youth Demonstrate For President', RFE/RL,

[35] '????????????? ???????????? ??? ??'

[36] March, L. (2002) The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p.58.

eSharp issue: spring 2004. © Alison Swain 2004. ISSN 1742-4542.