Son of Soviet era eyes Kremlin

Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists is riding high in the presidential stakes.
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The Independent Online
It is a fantasy that he must have been tempted to indulge in a thousand times. The telephone rings at campaign headquarters. It is the Kremlin, which has just heard the results of the second round of the 1996 elections. "Gennady Andreivich, I congratulate you on your victory," rumbles an exhausted, but gracious, Boris Yeltsin.

A cheer erupts around the Communist Party aides, young and old, and they surge forward, each one anxious to be the first to shake the hand of the second elected president of the Russian Federation, Gennady Zyuganov.

Surrounded by TV lights, they hold a vodka toast: to the party, which has regained power after being reviled and banned following the failed coup of 1991; to Russia, and the return of her national pride; to the Soviet Union, and its restoration.

Fantasy may well be the apposite word, for it is littered with more "ifs" than a UFO conference. If Boris Yeltsin loses the election, there is no guarantee that the result will not be tampered with, just as it appears to have been in the 1993 vote on the Russian constitution.

Nor is it certain that Mr Yeltsin and his entourage will leave quietly. If it becomes clear that he cannot win, his inner circle may try and postpone the elections - a course floated by the influential head of his presidential guard, General Alexander Korzhakov, although the president himself has denounced it.

Yet most polls show that Mr Zyuganov, head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, is roughly neck and neck with Mr Yeltsin; the survey with the largest sample places him well ahead. He is certain to come in the top two - probably first - of the 11 candidates in the first round of the election on 16 June, winning a place in a two-man run-off later.

Expanding his core support, estimated at 25 million, enough to win will be a tall order, especially as Mr Yeltsin controls many of the national media and is using his power of office to shower ever more lavish promises - bigger grants, better pensions, an end to military conscription - on the electorate.

But in seven weeks' time, to the distinct discomfort of the West, Mr Zyuganov just might be Russia's new leader, with a huge nation and a massive nuclear arsenal at his disposal.

For months now, diplomats and analysts have been struggling to unravel Mr Zyuganov. They have long grown used to his strategy of portraying himself as a moderate before Western power-brokers - most recently John Major and Bill Clinton - but as a tub-thumping anti-Western nationalist on the campaign trail. What they want to know is what really lies in the complicated depths beneath.

Mimrino, the village where he was born and brought up, lies in the rich, flat "black earth" country of southern Russia. Amid the clutter of cottages littered with the rotting detritus of collectivisation - broken-down harvesters and tractors without wheels - there are plenty of people who remember him.

They speak of a promising student, who went on to the teacher- training college in the nearby city of Oryol, taught in a secondary school, joined the Soviet Army and was dispatched to East Germany. But no one was able to recall a single defining trait that marked him out from the crowd.

"He was ordinary like the rest of us," said Alexander Lavrukhin, a history teacher, as he sat in the village school. "He displayed a lot of interest in things, but he was basically a straightforward student, a good sportsman, and an activist in the Komsomol [the Communist youth organisation]."

"He was a good organiser," said Alexander Borodionkov, 53, a farmer and old school friend, as he poured himself a vodka. "He used to organise football, sports competitions and hiking trips in the holidays." He danced, like all the other youths - and met his wife that way. He joined the party. The Communists were thieves, the farmer said - but not Gennady. "He's a democratic type. We'll see if in three years he's not killed."

Perhaps they were being careful. As in much of rural Russia, "reform" is still a mere word in Mimrino, although the place is no monument to the achievements of Communism. It has only one working telephone, an intermittent electricity supply, unpaved roads, and a well outside the dilapidated three-room wooden house where Mr Zyuganov, now 51, spent his childhood.

Above all - and this is probably the only certainty about Mr Zyuganov - the villagers depicted an apparatchik. Stanislav Savonchik, the Communist rector at the Oryol State Teacher-Training Institute, remembers picking him out as party material. "I once said to him, 'before you awaits a big career'. He just smiled."

The prediction was right. Mr Zyuganov rose steadily through the party ranks in Oryol, and was eventually drawn into its core in Moscow. By 1990, he was deputy head of the Central Committee's ideological department, a master propagandist with a doctorate in philosophy.

The question now is: where does the line lie between Mr Zyuganov's philosophy and his propaganda? He is campaigning on a platform of renationalising strategic industries, rebuilding the welfare state, encouraging the restoration of the Soviet Union. There is little Marxism-Leninism, and no dictatorship of the proletariat.

The word "Communist" is mentioned but once in the party programme. He supports a "multi-structure" economy, which includes encouraging "honest" private enterprises. He says he will not confiscate private holdings (at least not immediately).

It all sounds fairly tame. But there is another, potentially more sinister force at work: Mr Zyuganov owes more toRussian neo-nationalism than Communism, a view that what matters most is the restoration of Russia as a great power. Occasionally, this expresses itself in an unsavoury way - including a claim, in a pamphlet, that the "influence of Jews is growing not by days but by hours".

In his first TV campaign broadcast last week, he staked out his desired turf. "They always say that Zyuganov represents the Communist Party at elections. I represent a huge block: veterans, students, officers and women, parties of state and patriotic orientation."

To this should be added a willingness to embrace the Orthodox Church and a strong appeal to throw off the shackles of the economically and culturally colonising, consumer-mad West.

"The Russian Communist Party sees Russia as a semi-independent country and itself as a national liberation movement," says Sergei Markov, a leading political researcher, who compares the Communist leader with Argentina's Juan Peron.

"Zyuganov's traditionalism and nationalism stem from this. The party's main goal is to free itself from the influence of Western countries, appealing to feelings of nationalism and a sense of a country's uniqueness, and promising to follow their own, infamous 'third path'."

But even then, the party is split into several factions. At present they are broadly united; whether that survives an election victory remains to be seen.

It was in his nationalist mood that Mr Zyuganov unveiled his latest theory about the true cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union, at Perm in the Ural mountains last week.

The USSR was destroyed by a plan launched by John Kennedy years ago to wage a "secret new war" in which the Americans had seized control of the mass media. He even claimed to have a blueprint. "The Cold War against Russia continues," he warned.

In Nizhny Novgorod, Mr Zyuganov revealed that two months ago the State Duma in Moscow had been occupied by special forces as part of a plan by Mr Yeltsin to declare a military dictatorship. Such theories are not always laughed off the stage in provincial Russia, which is flooded with resentment and anger over market reforms, with corruption, falling living standards and rising unemployment.

Russians want someone to blame. Who better than Yeltsin, the International Monetary Fund, Nato, Jack Kennedy, America ... or Bugs Bunny?

Those who know Mr Zyuganov say he is sharp-witted, cunning and fond of control. Villagers of Mimrino did recall one thing: Gennady was the only boy there to own a football.