But this year a word has risen from the dead to haunt them all, to remind them that things can still go wrong, that history may not, in fact, be over. The word is "Communist" and its embodiment is a thick-set, 51-year- old Phil Collins lookalike called Gennady Zyuganov.
Zyuganov is the leader of the Russian Communist Party and currently the man most likely to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president in the June elections. He polls around 14 per cent, against 11 per cent for the reformist democrat Grigory Yavlinsky (also at Davos), 7 per cent for the fascist Zhirinovsky and 5 per cent for Yeltsin. Already the Communists have swept back into the Russian parliament; now they are threatening to take the presidency. Brazenly, bewilderingly, the Russian people seem to have chosen to forget 70 years of the most murderous oppression in history.
But of course the whole point of Zyuganov being among the bankers and belongers at Davos is to show that he is not Stalin, not Brezhnev, not even Gorbachev. Talking to the suits he exudes a cool, though also tough air of social-democratic bonhomie. This is cuddly Communism. OK, he implies, you might not quite get it in the West, but trust me, we're just another party.
Yavlinsky is trying his best to wreck his own image. He is a Russian out of central casting: suspicious, soulful eyes, a gruff manner and a marked tendency to overdo it at parties, grabbing girls and whirling them on to the dance floor. In politically correct Davos this activity does not go down well. Neither, come to that, did Zyuganov's remark at a press conference: "Trust the prettiest girl to ask the most difficult question."
They are like two bears who have been hibernating for 40 years and are now, sleepy-eyed and muttering, lumbering towards each other for a punch- up. In slick Davos the weird antique quality of the confrontation comes as a shock. One's first reaction is to giggle. And then to be overawed. For this isn't about budgets, stakeholding or cones hotlines, this is about systems and history. These guys are fighting a real big battle for the soul of Mother Russia.
What the Davos suits are really worried about is how come Communism is back on the agenda all of a sudden? Anxiously they press Zyuganov on every occasion, but he never quite gives the answers they want to hear. "It's a natural thing, a market," he says with a shrug. Yes, he wants a large private sector. How large exactly? Well ... Yes, he wants to bring some of the republics back into Russia. How? Well ... Yes, he does worry about Nato spreading to the Russian borders. How much? Well ...
And so on. In an ordinary western politician his evasions and imprecisions would be seen as no more than pre-election hedging. But in a Communist they sound like doublespeak. Plus, Yavlinsky and others have been going round saying that Zyuganov wouldn't last a week if he won: the comrades would rise at once from their blood-soaked graves to cast Russia back into the dark ages.
Of course, things have changed. The Communists can now claim to be just another party. However atavistic their ambitions, the reality is that the old power monopoly has gone. Zyuganov is not just trying to be cuddly, he's trying to relativise himself. He's a contender like any other. If he gets it wrong, he can be voted out.
But what the suits don't get - what I don't get - is that word "Communist". What's it doing there? Personally, I can see no moral distinction in the late-20th century between calling yourself a Nazi and calling yourself a Communist. And if we were to start counting bodies, we would have to say that "Communist" was a good 10 to 20 times worse. The word seems irrational to the point of insanity. There lies economic Russia, all the evidence you need, a country that managed to sidestep 20th-century growth, a vast land whose total economy is smaller than that of London, a business desert of poverty, crime, lassitude and corruption. That's what Communism does for you. And, let's get this right, you want more of it?
At Davos the point was driven home by a big session on doing business in Russia. The list of warnings was grim. Don't expect stability, we may not see it in our lifetime. Sack the local managers, get the brighter young ones out, train them in the West and send them back. And then a whole long list of nightmarish Gogolian problems that might arise. But, on the other hand, you can't afford not to be there. What if these millions really did get the hang of capitalism? The - favourite Davos phrase this - "growth potential" would be enormous.
Perhaps it crossed a few minds that the voting Russians were right. In the chaos following the Yeltsin reforms millions are longing for the stabilities of Communism. "Communist" in the present chaos has the ring of certainty. Russians know what and who the Communists are. Who is to say they are wrong? And what Zyuganov is saying may not be so scary. There could still be "growth potential".
I suspect that such reasoning is, in fact, the road back to hell. Personally, having seen the man, I would not trust Zyuganov as far as I could throw him - and that's not very far. If, I kept wondering, his party is so transformed, if it wants to charm the bankers, why not just drop "Communist" altogether?
The fact that the word "Communism" still wins big electoral support in Russia suggest to me that there is unfinished business here. The memory hasn't yet become as bad as it should. The voices of the murdered aren't speaking loudly enough to the Russian people. That they might wish to elect Zyuganov is nothing in itself; that they might still wish to elect Communists is everything.
There is, inevitably, a grim Russian political joke about all this. A joke made perfectly unfunny by the suggestion that it's not only Zyuganov we should be worried about. "The Communist will win the election," it goes, "but nobody knows his name."Reuse content