Russia basks in return to its red flag glory flagflag era

May Day celebrations: Resurgent Communists lead opposition to Yeltsin as Castro enjoys display of strength
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He had given the entire country the rest of the week off. He had restored their right to fly their beloved red Soviet-era victory flag. He had promised them extra welfare, bigger pensions, quicker pay. Yet had the vote-hungry Boris Yeltsin peeped over the parapets of the Kremlin at 11am yesterday he would wondered if all this had achieved anything at all.

Sweeping across the river Moskva towards his fortified seat of power was a tide of Red flags carried by thousands of his opponents. It was May Day and, with the election season well under way, the Communists were not going to miss the chance to parade their foot soldiers.

In the thick of the crowd, striding along purposefully through the drizzle, was the stocky figure of Gennady Zyuganov, his chief rival and, as leader of the resurgent Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the personification of fears - both here and abroad - that Russia is poised to reverse her reforms.

Mr Zyuganov has long argued - at least in the West - that he is a moderate, more social democratic than hardline socialist. The same cannot be said of his army. "Power must belong to the people! Workers must have the right to work! Zyuganov for president!" blared the loudspeaker mounted on a truck at the head of the procession, before savaging the "Traitor Gorbachev". Behind it came a line of men, carrying a huge banner: "For Honest Work Against Parasites."

The three-mile march was dotted with landmarks of the triumphs and failure of post-Communist Russia - the glimmering but hugely expensive golden dome of the newly rebuilt Church of Christ the Saviour; a building site where the authorities are planning to erect a vast statue of Peter the Great; and hundreds of armed police in a back street, just in case of trouble from the Chechens.

The livery-clad doormen of Maxim's restaurant, where a meal costs three times the average monthly salary. The grubby Metro stations, now populated with beggars, homeless tramps and hawkers trying to raise a bob or two by selling animals, knick-knacks, even themselves.

Across one thoroughfare the city authorities - whose mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is a Yeltsin supporter - had hung out a sign, evidently intended to mollify those who have lost out under capitalism: "Good brotherhood is better than wealth."

On May Day during Soviet times the authorities used to hang out huge portraits of the Politburo. Starved of information, the population would study the position and size of each picture for clues as to who was going up, and who down. Yesterday, as an estimated 3.5 million Russians took to the streets across the country, the signs were easier to read.

Some 10,000 people turned out to listen to Mr Zyuganov, standing beneath a statue of Karl Marx opposite the Bolshoi theatre. On the other side of the city, about half that number appeared to listen to Mr Yeltsin call for a "radical change for Russia" - borrowing a leaf out his opponents' book. Ignoring his heart problems, the 65-year-old president then danced a jig with a woman in traditional peasant's dress.

Mr Zyuganov was on his best behaviour, confining himself to some routine railing against Mr Yeltsin's control of the media and a warning that the elections could be rigged.

Those who say Communists are going to turn back the clock should look at Mr Yeltsin's record, he argued. "Russia's territory has shrunk to the level of three or four hundred years ago. Our living standards have slumped to those of the 1950s." Crime is as bad as it was in the civil war; production has come to a standstill. The crowd cheered, though not with much gusto.

One suspected they wanted redder meat. For that, they had to turn to the hardliner Victor Anpilov, head of Working Russia, a smaller neo-Stalinist group which Mr Zyuganov has wooed, anxious to net the 5 million votes it won in last year's parliamentary elections. Yeltsin was a "drunk", he bellowed; his aides were all "scoundrels".

But even he was a kitten, compared to some in the crowd. An elderly woman turned to a knot of western journalists, her face full of contempt. "Did you know that Yeltsin is a Jew? Yup, he's half-Jewish. So is his wife." In the distance an anti-semitic poster bobbed above the crowd's head, not far from a picture of old Joe himself.

t Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev met reporters yesterday to dismiss claims by the pro-Russian Chechen government that he had been killed in fighting, Reuter reports.