On the Russian television programme Hero of the Day last Tuesday, Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov, the Communist challenger to President Boris Yeltsin in tomorrow's election, was asked if he was afraid of losing. He replied: "I am afraid for Russia. Gorbachev's five years destroyed the state and caused unheard-of humiliation, such as humanitarian aid. Under Yeltsin, the economy has fallen apart, impoverishment and crime are rampant. Another two years of such policies and we will lose our country and money."
This is Zyuganov the candidate speaking, a politician fishing for the votes of the poor, elderly and downtrodden, the millions of Russians nostalgic for the drab certainties of Soviet communism. He is thirsty for power, but he accepts that he must win it by attracting popular support in a free election.
Yet there is another, darker side to Mr Zyuganov, a former schoolteacher and apparatchik in the Soviet Communist Party's Propaganda Department. Consider the policy priorities outlined in his books Beyond the Horizon and Russia and the Contemporary World. Third is: "End mockery of the army, state security agents and police."
Nor are his opinions of Western countries reassuring. Here he is on the 1945-1991 years: "During this time, the West tried to use anti-Communist rhetoric about a `free world' and hypocritical concern about `human rights' as an ideological screen to hide its pursuit of its centuries-old geopolitical interests, which require the weakening and, if possible, the annihilation of Russia."
It was probably the regurgitation of such banalities that ensured Mr Zyuganov's progression up the ranks of the Komsomol, the Communist youth league, in his native area of Oryol, south of Moscow. Born on 26 June, 1944, in the village of Mymrino, he worked as a physical education teacher before deciding that the Komsomol - the first stepping-stone to privilege and power in Soviet times - was the place for him.
His wife, Nadezhda, now an engineer at a Moscow watch factory, bore him a son and daughter as he moved up through the district, city and regional committee of the Komsomol, earning a reputation as a dour loyalist who always did the right thing: lay low.
Then, as now, he was a shy, private man. He rarely appears in public with his wife; he answers tricky questions with a nervous chuckle; and during this campaign, he has never looked more awkward than when doing the things expected of Russian politicians running for office, such as folk dancing and smiling at children.
He has few hobbies but is proud that last year he earned a doctorate in philosophy from Moscow University. More embarrassing was a literary award from a pro-Communist writers' group whose previous winners included Fidel Castro and Radovan Karadzic.
After his spell in the Propaganda Department, he shot to prominence in 1990 when he was made a Politburo member of the Russian Communist Party, an organisation dedicated to reversing the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Mr Zyuganov's career becomes interesting. Seeking to unite the conservative Communist and Russian nationalist opposition to Mr Gorbachev, he formed a movement called the Council for Popular-Patriotic Forces. Three weeks before Mr Gorbachev's opponents in the KGB, army and party launched the abortive putsch of August 1991, Mr Zyuganov was among those who signed the infamous open letter, "A Word to the People", which served as a kind of public warning from the hardliners that a coup d'etat was imminent.
The coup failed, Mr Yeltsin banned the Communist Party and the Soviet Union collapsed, but within a year Mr Zyuganov was back as co-leader of the National Salvation Front, a movement with ultra-nationalist, even neo-fascist leanings. The Russian Communist Party was allowed to re-emerge in February 1993 and, largely because of his impeccably inflexible socialist and nationalist credentials, Mr Zyuganov was elected leader almost unanimously.
These days, he goes to great lengths to stress his moderation. No longer does he write for anti-Semitic publications such as Al-Kods, or assert publicly that the CIA planned and carried out the Soviet Union's destruction. Instead, he says: "If you take the 10 commandments of Moses and put them next to our platform, there is no difference."
Indeed, some proposals are modest: state support for the needy, more industrial investment, a bit of tinkering with Russia's privatisation programme but no wholesale attack on the new market economy. However, other elements of the Zyuganov world vision are not so cosy.
He longs to recreate the Soviet Union, or at least to forge a new Russian- led state including all or most former Soviet republics. He swears he would use only peaceful means, but the disturbing thing is that he should be contemplating such a step in the first place. Perhaps the Russian army is too disorganised, and the Russian economy is too dependent on Western assistance, for Mr Zyuganov to fulfil his neo-Soviet ambitions. But one of the Russian parliament's first acts, after the Communists won last December's elections, was to denounce the treaty that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.
Then there is the question of how Mr Zyuganov, as president, would treat his political opponents. Was it an accident that the Russian Communist press recently devoted an unusual amount of space to the imprisonment of two former South Korean presidents? Or was it a message to Mr Yeltsin to watch out?
Few liberal Russians doubt that Mr Zyuganov would seek to consolidate his victory by curtailing media freedoms, curbing opposition activity and rigging future elections. If he tried to jail leading politicians and big businessmen from the Yeltsin era, there could be resistance, even civil conflict.
First of all, Mr Zyuganov has to come first or second tomorrow, and then win the second round in early July. Many people, in Russia and abroad, are praying that he fails.
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