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  • A Communist Setback
  • Stephen Sestanovich (bio)

For a long time it seemed that there was nothing new to be said about the relationship between fascism and communism. Now, unfortunately, the subject is fresh again. It is no longer confined to such remote questions as whether Stalin or Hitler was the purer totalitarian (and who [End Page 23] learned which repressive technique from whom). The strengths and weaknesses of these twin ideological enemies of democracy have become central to any analysis of what is happening in Russian politics, and of what lies ahead.

Before the December 1993 election, everyone knew that there would be a substantial protest vote; this is not what needs explaining. Both fascists and communists expected to draw strength from an increasingly negative popular mood. They aimed to exploit the failures of the government's economic program, the weakness of Russian political institutions (especially the party system), the psychological disorientation created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on. In the end, what was surprising about the returns was not that the protest vote was so much larger than anticipated—it was not—but that so much of it went to what just a few weeks earlier would still have been considered the lunatic fringe.

Almost all analyses of the December results treat Zhirinovsky's success as a victory over the democratic parties. Too little has been made of the fact that it was also a setback for the Communists and their partners, the Agrarians (the voice of collectivized agriculture). Leaders of these two parties could hardly have hoped for an outright victory, but they clearly wanted to establish themselves as the only credible alternative to the market reformers who had been in charge of Russia's economic policies since the fall of 1991. On the eve of the election in Moscow it was common to hear the forecast that this de facto bloc might pull in close to a third of the vote. Yet its election-day totals, like those of the reformist parties themselves, fell well short of expectations. In the voting for party lists, Zhirinovsky got a higher percentage than the Communist and Agrarian vote combined.

In this round of voting, then, it was better to be crazy than communist. Protest voters were more likely to support those who represented something new than those so closely associated with the previous regime. Here Zhirinovsky displayed one of fascism's special strengths: it can play on nostalgia for the old order without being tainted by it. We have seen this pattern before, of course: those who rejected liberalism in Germany and Italy in the 1920s did not ordinarily find their political home in the House of Hohenzollern or the House of Savoy. They did not want a failed political formula, but a promising new one.

Russia's communists—themselves deposed monarchs of a sort—face similar problems in capitalizing on discontent with the new regime. That they can compete at all is due to considerable efforts at "modernizing" themselves. Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party of the Russian Federation, unlike other descendants of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, did not join the defense of the Russian White House in October 1993, and it recognizes that Marx and Lenin have little popular [End Page 24] appeal. Asked by a reporter what principles of Marxism-Leninism the Party still embraces, Zyuganov's deputy could come up with no better answer than "Justice." (Wall Street Journal, 27 January 1994). Yet the Communists remain burdened by the past, and the mere fact that the elections gave them (with the Agrarians) enough seats to be a potent force in parliament does not mean that they will easily throw off this burden in future elections. Whether they can increase their vote will almost surely depend on whether they continue to refashion their program and give themselves a more democratic look.

When it comes to the Communists, the December elections, far from blocking the consolidation of democracy, may be said to have shown that it is still underway. The fact that parties with an antidemocratic past are under pressure to repudiate it means that over time they are likely to pose...


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