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Return of the Pink menace

A very broad church indeed is backing Zyuganov's bid for the Kremlin
For those of us inclined to stereotype - and who isn't? - Vladimir Semago comes as a genuine surprise. The proprietor of an exclusive Moscow club, he drives a Cadillac, and sends his son to England for tuition. He is a millionaire. He is also an ardent Communist.

These days he is particularly busy. While the party faithful around the country plod the streets trying to persuade their countrymen to oust Boris Yeltsin, Mr Semago is pursuing his mission to present the party's "kinder, gentler" face to the outside world.

It was his "duty" to talk to me, he said, as we entered into his large, modern office where he works as a member of parliament. It was his duty to explain that the party was not about to lead Russia back to the nightmare of fixed prices, food shortages, censorship, and central planning - or, for that matter, black-shirted nationalism.

The Communist Party is a broad church, but there can be few more unorthodox members than this dapper 49-year-old businessman. His club, a discreet complex of bars and restaurants, is modelled, he says, on "gentlemen's clubs" in London. Almost none of the manicured Muscovites who gather there to power-dine and gamble share his views.

It would be surprising, too, if there were many kindred spirits on the boards of the handful of banks on which he sits - or among his colleagues in his half-dozen business ventures, which include exporting solar panels to Cyprus. Even his dreams have a distinctly un-Communist flavour; his next ambition is to start staging polo matches in Russia.

"I am not sure that rich people cannot be Communists," he explained, smoothing his yellow silk tie. "It really doesn't matter how much money or property you have got. What counts is whether you are making money just to get rich, or whether you are using it as an instrument to do something more."

Mr Semago, owner of an estimated $6m fortune, is part of the "social democrat" wing of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is heading a coalition of "national-patriotic" groups in the hope of placing the party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, in the Kremlin.

He insists that Mr Zyuganov is a "patriot", and not - as increasingly he seems to be - an anti-Western nationalist bent on restoring Russia to great power status. "Many people in the party are closer to social democratic ideals than to communism," he said. "Ninety per cent have never read Marx, Lenin or Engels. They have joined the party as a form of protest." He is, in short, a moderate.

The same cannot be said for another senior party member in an office a few corridors away. Valentin Varennikov, a retired army general, served 18 months in prison after plotting the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and refusing a legal amnesty. He cautiously negotiated questions about the party's economic programme, with its provisions for a mixed economy, investment in domestic industries, better wages and social welfare. But then we got on to Stalin.

"You are as naive as a schoolboy," he cried, when asked about the millions of Soviet citizens Stalin slaughtered. "You were not even born in his time. You have been listening to propaganda. Only 640,000 people died in the prisons. Only 640,000!"

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of the Soviet "gulag" system, was the author of "fairy tales", he said. Mr Yeltsin and Mr Gorbachev were criminals for having played a central role in the break-up of the Soviet Union, an institution in which the general still passionately believes. And, yes, if Stalin was alive and running for president this year, he would advise Russians to vote for him. "We need a strong, wise, capable, very experienced figure. I would only have one condition - that he takes into account today's situation in society."

Two men, two Communist MPs, two very different points of view. There are others. While the 19-member praesidium, the party's brain's trust behind Mr Zyuganov, generally shares itsleader's wish to see a strengthened Russia, not dependent on Western credit, it embraces a wide diversity of views.

So do his advisers. There is, for example, his close confidant Vladimir Bondarenko, deputy editor of the nationalist Zaftra newspaper. Mr Zyuganov is on the editorial board. Like many, Mr Bondarenko believes Russia should move in the direction of China, evolving away from its Marxist-Leninist legacy. Like Mr Zyuganov, he also claims that history has given Stalin a bad rap.

Then there is Alexei Podberyozkin, a non-party member in charge of "Spiritual Heritage", a think-tank which played a key role in formulating Mr Zyuganov's economic policy. Mr Podberyozkin is an advocate of high technology and of striking a balance between protecting domestic industry with import controls, yet keeping it competitive. "Let the rich buy their Mercedes," he told me. "What we have to do is create some barriers to protect our Ladas from light foreign cars."

With two weeks to go to the election, Mr Zyuganov should not be underestimated, even though Mr Yeltsin appears to be pulling ahead. After seizing control of the party from Vladimir Kuptsov in 1994, he held it together and helped it rise as a powerful national force, with more than 500,000 members. He has also knitted together an election alliance of national-patriotic parties, hoping that this will help broaden his appeal.

The question is, can a party that embraces moderate millionaires and tub-thumping Stalinists be stopped from splitting if he ever becomes president?