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Stalin's disciple longs to paint the town red

Russian elections: The man behind Yeltsin's main rival still worships Russia's terrible dictator
Anatoly Lukyanov was never a man to accept setbacks lightly. Nearly five years ago, dismayed by the toppling of the Soviet Union, he led a coup against his close colleague, Mikhail Gorbachev. It failed and he ended up in jail.

But fortunes in Russian politics change fast and the veteran Communist has risen anew. These days he is a close adviser to Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader challenging Boris Yeltsin for the presidency in Sunday's election. And again he is in defiant mood.

For months, the analysts have been striving to find out what kind of Communist, or nationalist, Mr Zyuganov is, to assess what would happen were he to end up in the Kremlin.

In his entourage they have found some moderates who bear little resemblance to their Soviet-era predecessors. But these do not include the 66-year- old Mr Lukyanov.

A protege of the hardline Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, he was chairman of the Supreme Soviet. He has long been described by the pro- reform Moscow newspapers with the cliche "diehard"; nothing in his more recent past justifies changing the phrase.

Nor does he brook any suggestion that his leader, Mr Zyuganov, to whom he talks almost daily, is all that different. Mr Zyuganov does not have much in common with European, social-democrat Communists. "He was, and stays, a Communist," Mr Lukyanov said, sitting in his office in the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament), in which he is a leading member of the majority Communist faction .

"He is realistic, rather than orthodox. But even if he wanted to be a social democrat, there is no longer a middle class in Russia, so the social conditions for social democracy do not exist. Instead, we have an abyss between the rich and the poor."

Russian polls have recently indicated that Mr Yeltsin's grandiose campaign, combined with profligate spending on social issues, is paying dividends. A poll by the Moscow Times and CNN this weekend put the President almost 20 points ahead, with 34.5 per cent against Mr Zyuganov's 15.9 per cent.

Rumours are circulating that the Communist-nationalist coalition behind Mr Zyuganov concedes that it has botched its campaign. But Mr Lukyanovpredicts that Communists will take 70 of the 89 regions in the first round. "Our method is completely different. We go from person to person, face to face, door to door," he said.

"Yeltsin has no party of his own. Zyuganov has a party of 500,000 members. And we have a coalition, a bloc of more than 200 organisations who mostly work in the provinces, among the people. The results of this election won't be determined in Moscow or St Petersburg; it will be made in the provinces, where we work."

Mr Lukyanov's faith may not be misplaced. The Communists could yet take the lead in the first round. And, if no one wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, Russia will have to wait for three weeks before the second round. There is plenty of time for a damaging flare-up in Chechnya, or a health scare in the Kremlin, plenty of time for Mr Yeltsin's star to fade .

But if the Communists do founder, it will be partly because they failed to expand their base from their often elderly provincial party loyalists. Too many Russians will have been put off by a fear of a return to the past. Why, then, do the Communists not renounce the past and the terrors of Stalin?

Put that question to Mr Lukyanov and he denies that many millions died under Stalin. He even argues that the bloodshed and suffering under Mr Yeltsin has been far worse than it was under Stalin.

"Stalin was a patriot, no one can deny that," he said. "He wasn't a Western- minded person. No one can say Stalin destroyed our industry - he restored it . . . If someone had told Stalin that he would have been a defender of the rich against the poor [like Mr Yeltsin], he would have shot himself."

Such rhetoric is common in Russia, where Stalin's success in creating a nuclear industrial power is still revered. But, when they come from the lips of a man close to a possible future president, they leave a particularly nasty chill.