Russian Revolution: Lenin's bewildered heirs contemplate a lost kingdom

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The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, 80 years old this week, produced the world's largest political machine, a sinister apparatus whose tentacles stretched into almost every crevice of the Soviet Empire and beyond. But what does it mean to belong to the Communist Party in today's Russia? Phil Reeves reports from Moscow.

The grandson of Molotov, Stalin's sidekick whose signature sent thousands to their graves, can still remember how the old man would justify his career. "He would say, `Well, when we took over power, the country was wearing lapki - shoes woven from bark. And when I went out of power we had launched Sputnik and had nuclear missiles. Now that's not a bad job, is it?'"

Vyacheslav Nikonov - a 41-year-old political consultant in Moscow, who shares his grandfather's first name but not his politics, says Molotov "regretted many things" about his life. But "in general he thought he was doing the right stuff", having thrust the Soviet Union into the 20th century and saved it from the Nazis. His grandfather does not appear to have been unduly haunted by the fact that, according to one of Stalin's biographers, Robert Conquest, this included countersigning 3,167 death sentences in one day - 12 December 1937 - before going to the cinema.

"He felt that the Terror was a necessary part of the preparation for World War Two. Stalin, expecting a big war, was just preventing society from internal splits. At the same time he thought there were mistakes. Too many people suffered through false allegations." Thus were Lenin's tactics of terror administered, underpinning both Stalin's dictatorship and reinforcing the vast apparatus that supported it.

During Molotov's career - which began as a Bolshevik revolutionary under Tsar Nicholas II and ended in 1986, and included three years as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union - the Communist Party and totalitarianism became one and the same.

Run by a privileged elite, and reinforced by a terrifying security service, it ruthlessly monopolised the Soviet Union's wealth, its political power, its speech, even its history. Then, and until Mikhail Gorbachev unwittingly brought about its collapse, party membership was an essential requirement for the ambitious, be they teachers, industrialists, policemen or bureaucrats. Now that has all changed.

This week, on Tuesday evening, in a packed hall in Moscow, 2,000 bald or greying heads gazed up at the stage, where an orchestra and choir were assembled beneath a 15ft banner of Lenin. The musicians launched into the hymn of the proletariat, "L'Internationale", the opening number in a concert to mark the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution. Soon the audience was singing along to Russian patriotic songs and ancient hits from Soviet films.

There were speeches about Soviet triumphs in space, and other glories from the past. But, above all, this was a gathering of elderly people who - bewildered by the new, dangerous and valueless Russia - wanted to scuttle dewy-eyed back to the golden era of the Second World War. Without the emblems, you could have been in the British Legion. Yet this gathering also represented the foot soldiers of contemporary Russian communism. Banned byBoris Yeltsin after the failed coup of August 1991, they returned to politics several years ago, bereft of many former leaders who deftly reinvented themselves as the new ruling elite and nomenklatura capitalists. But they operate in a nation with little appetite for party membership, where they seem destined to be denied real power.

The statistics are deceptively flattering. There are now nine Communist organisations in Russia, embracing a spectrum of views from social democracy to Slavic nationalism, orthodox Marxism, and Stalinism. By far the largest is the 500,000-strong Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by the uninspiring Gennady Zyuganov. Its powerbase lies in the State Duma (parliament) which, with the help of nationalist and radical left forces, it controls. But the Duma is weak, and so is Mr Zyuganov. Faced with being marginalised, he conducts an unending balancing act between the right and left - trying to retain influence on the Kremlin by quietly working with the Yeltsin administration, while keeping the left from defecting by decrying Yeltsin's rule as criminal. Part-Communist, part-Russian nationalist, he doggedly woos the Orthodox Church - sacrilege for those purists who believe in the atheist state.

The results of these politics are so unconvincing that his Central Committee has split asunder. One committee member, Tatyana Astrakhankina - infuriated by the leadership's recent decision to abandon a motion of "no confidence" in the Yeltsin government - accused them of "only pretending" to be in opposition. And yet, no obvious replacement to Mr Zyuganov is in view.

Nor does he have many options. The Communists have very little chance of taking control of the key institution in the country, the hugely powerful office of presidency.

The Communist electorate is elderly and rural, largely comprising the millions of Russians who have gained nothing from the reforms, but have lost the security of welfare and the guaranteed (if meaningless) jobs for life provided by the Soviet Union. This core electorate is showing every symptom of being frozen around or below the 30 million mark. In the second round of the presidential election last year, it hit the top of its range, with just over 40 per cent of the vote, some 13 per cent less than Boris Yeltsin. Under Russia's electoral system, the president is elected in a second round from the top two candidates from the first. As they appear incapable of ever mustering half the electorate (unless turnout collapses), the Communists stand no chance of winning.

Tomorrow, the Communists and their allies will unfurl their red flags and parade in honour of the Revolution. There will be plenty of sound and fury, plenty of wishful thinking about forcing through real political change. But it will signify, if not nothing, then very little.