THE ZYUGANOV TWO-STEP
MAY 24, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the politics of Gennady Zyuganov and his Communist Party with Russian expert David Remnick.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now some perspective on Zyuganov. It comes from David Remnick, a staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine. He was the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post from 1988 to '91. He is the author of the book Lenin's Tomb. He has written about Zyuganov for the New Yorker and most recently and extensively in the New York Review of Books. Welcome, David Remnick.
DAVID REMNICK: Good afternoon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before we analyze Zyuganov's message, give us a bit of background. Where did he come from?
MR. REMNICK: Well, Zyuganov comes from provincial Russia outside a small city named Oriole, and he, his background is that he rose up through the Communist Party ranks. He was not a particularly distinguished figure in the style of Gorbachev, but he did go up through the ranks and came to Moscow in the early 80's in the ideological department and was considered quite a conservative figure when he did come to Moscow, and remained that way to the very end of the Soviet Union.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: His Communist Party is not the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, right? This is the Communist Party of Russia. How different is it?
MR. REMNICK: Well, I think there are two factors here that are especially important. One has to do with personnel. The best and the brightest of the Communist Party, that is the people that Mikhail Gorbachev represented and to some extent many of the reformers of the late 80's, are all gone. None of them are in the Communist Party anymore. And what remains behind are quite frankly in most cases the dregs of the Communist Party, which is quite a dismal scene. The other aspect is ideological. The Communist Party today is not the Communist Party of the late 80's which was reformist but, rather, it is subsumed, it has taken on the trappings of nationalism. Russian nationalism is something quite different from ordinary patriotism. It has the trappings of anti-semitism. It believes Russia has a special mission in history quite apart from the rest of the world. It's innately xenophobic and quite dangerous. And Zyuganov quite smartly realized that Communism, in the old sense, no longer was a winning ticket. He could certainly not win--he couldn't win an election just on Marxism, Leninism of the old variety, and realized that he had to play on the anxieties of the Russian people, their feelings of humiliation, their sense that a great power had been brought to its knees. He had to lasso these resentments and make it part of his politics, and he's done this very, very successfully.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You saw Simon Marks' interview, and you heard what Zyuganov said, and you've also read and studied and reviewed his three books. Are the messages quite different?
MR. REMNICK: Well, Simon Marks tried valiantly to get Gennady Zyuganov to talk in a way that he hasn't in the West, but I'm afraid Mr. Zyuganov is quite clever. As he has in Switzerland or the United States, Mr. Zyuganov has tried to reassure the West, show a human face, if you will, make sure nobody gets the wrong idea that he has anything to do with the history of the Communist Party as it played out in the Soviet Union.
But if you read the books of Zyuganov, if you go to hear his speeches in Russia, if you go to the provinces, or to Moscow, or St. Petersburg, the speeches he gives and the interviews he gives are extremely different. They're much more hard-lined. They're much more anti-Western. They're much more filled with hatred and spite. And so while I in no way overlook the faults and even the brutalities of the Yeltsin regime in recent years, one has to look at Mr. Zyuganov as Russians look at him in order to get a true picture of who is being voted for on June 16th, and possibly the second round in July.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe his views about the past, the way he describes what happened to the Communist Party before, and how he looks at the past.
MR. REMNICK: Well, if you were to go to Russia and ask Mr. Zyuganov about Stalin and Stalinism, he would skirt the issue entirely. He would say that only 600,000 people were ever killed under Stalin, and many of these people had betrayed the motherland when, in fact, millions and even tens of millions of people were killed in collectivization in the purges, and all of this history that we know very well and that is now printed quite widely in Russia, as well as in the West.
He does this for a very good political reason. He knows that he has a core constituency, especially of older people, who are nostalgic about Stalin and Stalinism, and he can't afford to alienate these people. So, in fact, the man who seemed very sincere on camera just a few moments ago is deeply cynical about the Soviet past.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me about his, what, what gap he's filling, his nationalism, his writing about the past is filling some kind of a gap that's been left by the people around Yeltsin, is it not?
MR. REMNICK: Well, I think you could roughly divide the Russian electorate into three ideological camps. The first and the smallest camp is people who are pro-Western and democratic in our sense of the word, people who are very up to date about their thinking about modern democracies and so on. This is a small constituency. It's mainly in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and some other big cities. Then you have people who are nostalgic Communists, so people who believe that some form of Marxism is the way for Russia even now. That's a second camp, and I would say maybe it's the second biggest or equally smallest as the democrats. And then there is this broad swath of people who are attracted to some kind of nationalist candidate, some kind of nationalism, whether it's a kind of humanitarian nationalism represented by say Alexander Solzhenitsyn or some sort of far-out, xenophobic nationalism represented by a range of politicians in Russia. That's the third camp. I don't think any candidate can afford to not go after this nationalist vote, and Boris Yeltsin certainly has also tried to go after the nationalists. The war in Chechnya is the result of that. Much of his rhetoric, his replacement of various people in his cabinet is another.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote in the New York Review of Books, David, that "by looking closely at the ideology that Zyuganov has shaped, one can see the potential for untold peril." What did you mean?
MR. REMNICK: Well, I think when we think about Zyuganov, we have to--we can only guess about what he would do if he wins, and his chances of winning are quite good, maybe 50/50 or better. It's quite possible that the rise of new politics and the rise of new economic interests in Russia will hamstring him greatly, that, indeed, maybe he won't be able to begin to re-nationalize previous Soviet industries. It's quite possible that the price of empire is too high and that he won't make a play for the former Soviet republics or dalliances abroad.
On the other hand, anything is possible in Russia. Anything is possible, I think, with Gennady Zyuganov. And I think the West could well find itself in a position of a situation where we are no longer partners with, or even remotely friendly with, Russia should Mr. Zyuganov be elected. Again, I think there's great element of uncertainty to this. There's nothing definite. The predictions about Zyuganov range from that he could become sort of some Hitlerian figure--I don't believe that's really so--but there are also some very naive analyses that believe that well, Zyuganov will be a social democrat, he'll be the kind of man he's portraying himself as in the West and in the interview we just saw. I also don't think that's the case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, David Remnick, thanks for being with us.
MR. REMNICK: Thank you.