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Putin’s plebiscite, Russia’s “Left” & Russia’s Left

In the run-up to the upcoming presidential election in Russia, the Western media have focused on the capitalist contenders such as Vladimir Putin and the more West-friendly Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova while unsurprisingly failing to acknowledge the absence of a genuine left candidate from the picture. After touching briefly upon the thwarted liberal contenders, I am going to discuss the inane nature of the nominally “communist” candidate Nikolay Kharitonov and of Russia’s “systemic” (parliamentary) opposition as a whole, first and foremost the so-called “Communist Party of the Russian Federation” but also its awkward clone “Communists of Russia”. I will then go back in history (albeit not as far as Putin does) to show how the systematic destruction of the Left in post-Soviet Russia led to the current state of affairs. In the final section, I get to the more positive development of recent years – the emergence of new leftists, facilitated by the affordances of YouTube and other social media.

CPRF candidate Nikolay Kharitonov in a campaign video. A disgruntled pensioner shaking his fists.
Candidates on the Right

There is no denying that Nadezhdin and Duntsova, who were subsequently barred from running in the election, ran on a platform that differed from that of Putin on a number of aspects such as a peaceful resolution in Ukraine and release of the political prisoners, as well as broader democratic reforms related to political decentralisation and social liberalisation (e.g., LGBT rights). At the same time, at a more systemic level, as liberal democrats Nadezhdin and Duntsova offered nothing more than a partial regime and elite change. Their vision for the Russian society appeared to be a combination of relative socio-political egalitarianism and economic inequality of capitalist relations, as exemplified by most Western regimes. Considering the nature of liberal democracy, as well as a strong presence of Yeltsinite Westernisers in the supporter base (certainly in the case of Nadezhdin), these candidates most likely envisioned a neo-liberal acceleration and return of Russia to the position of a junior partner in the US-led bloc, both of ambiguous benefit to the Russian citizens and to the world. Thus, Nadezhdin’s and Duntsova’s long-term programmes, much like those of Putin and of the other two right-wing candidates, offered no prospect of a progressive, egalitarian society in the broader, Marxist sense.

“Systemic” “communist” “opposition”

While a more democratic system may indeed have produced at least one leftist candidate, the Russian regime draws the line at the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation”. On the one hand, the CPRF’s program may well be centred around the idea of socialist revival (nationalisation of the natural resources, progressive taxation, etc.), and they have at times shown support for the working class. On the other hand, neither the occasional opposition to the ruling United Russia nor the Sovietesque cosplay can mask the CPRF’s habitual flirting with nationalism, religion and Putin. Furthermore, their siding with the capitalist elite on the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine leaves a big question mark on their proclaimed commitment to socialism because a socialist always stands in opposition to any elite-perpetrated use of force that is not defensive. This is not to say that there are no socialists and communists in the CPRF. There are a few, but they have been silenced and suppressed. Those who do not cave in to pressure, like Yevgeniy Stupin, for instance, are banned from the parliamentary faction and expelled from the party.  Therefore, at this stage, the presence of the word “Communist” in the name of the party is somewhat misleading to say the least.

CPRF candidate Nikolay Kharitonov, who has backed the party line on the war in Ukraine, very much embodies the contradiction that is at the heart of Russia’s main systemic opposition party. It is therefore rather hard to not only consider him a leftist candidate, but also to take his presidential bid seriously. First of all, he has refused to criticise Putin in the run-up to the election. Secondly, he has been something of an afterthought on the CPRF website’s home page. Thirdly, his personal campaign website is still “under construction” less than a week before the election. His recent campaign video does not do him justice either. It features Kharitonov as a disgruntled pensioner who clenches his fists when hearing the news anchors mention “inflation” and “dollars” and tells his wife he is going “to work”. He then finds himself outside of the Kremlin, looking somewhat lost and clenching his fists once again, this time for no apparent reason, which makes the viewer think the presidential hopeful may be suffering from a medical condition of some sort. This belief is further amplified when the candidate appears to fall into a trance-like state, during which he experiences a series of flashbacks from the Soviet era (the only emotional, inspirational part of the video).

The overall impression one is left with is that of Kharitonov being not so much a serious presidential candidate but rather a confused elderly man, something of a Russian Joe Biden, which seems to be the role the CPRF candidate has been given in this spectacle. This makes perfect sense, considering that Putin is no spring chicken himself. In fact, the younger non-systemic opposition crowd have increasingly been calling the president “grandpa” in recent years. Therefore, 75-year-old Kharitonov is the perfect candidate for making 70-year-old Putin look like a young buck who has “still got it”.

Finally, Kharitonov’s trip ends with him uttering a clichéd slogan “That’s it, enough playing about with capitalism” in the best traditions of campaign videos from twenty odd years ago. This not only suggests the lack of serious intent to win, but it also reflects the reality of Kharitonov’s potential. He may have been able to come in the second place in 2004, but a significant part of those 13.7% were already pensioners then, and they are unlikely to have made it to 2024. So, it feels almost as if the only relatively left candidate’s campaign is targeting the small percentage of the electorate that is the aging CPRF loyalists. Therefore, they are merely aiming for the second place at best, which is something Kharitonov has hinted himself.

Having understood the redundancy of the CPRF candidate, it may be reasonable to search for other candidate hopefuls from the Left, who may have tried to register but did not make it through the sieve of Putin’s regime. There was indeed Sergei Malinkovich of a minor party called the “Communists of Russia”, who got as far as submitting the signatures to the Central Electoral Committee before facing the “faulty signatures” roadblock. However, while this splinter of the CPRF had initially formed as a result of a protest against the CPRF’s increasingly pliable position vis-à-vis Putin, it has been accused of being a Kremlin project aimed at weaking the only relatively oppositional force in Russia’s systemic politics. Furthermore, it has recently undergone another internal split, with the two factions accusing each other of collaborating with the ruling United Russia. This is all while sharing United Russia’s CPRF’s loyalist position on the war in Ukraine, which has served as the apple of discord for many leftist organisations in Russia since 2014, and even more so, since 2022. 

A screenshot of the CPRF’s website. The presidential campaign appears as an afterthought.

In fact, Malinkovich, heading one of the factions, has recently proposed to introduce a law according to which those who labelled “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice “should be given shovels by the police constables to clean the streets under convoy, just as the Bolsheviks used to do with the former aristocracy in the [19]20’s”. Thus, instead of criticising the authorities and the political economic system for failing to keep the streets clear of snow, Malinkovich chose the safer option of attacking the weak, scapegoating those stigmatised by the regime he was meant to oppose. Needless to say, his metaphor is anything but problematic.

First of all, Russia’s current political elite is as capitalist they come and diametrically opposite to the Bolsheviks in that regard. Secondly, most of those branded a “foreign agent” had never been part of the ruling class and include not only liberal activists and celebrities but also prominent figures from Russia’s non-systemic Left such as Mikhail Lobanov and Boris Kagarlitsky. The former is a unionist activist, professor and socialist politician who had such a strong potential to win the 2021 parliamentary election in his local district that the ruling party had to bring in a celebrity candidate, a famous TV show host Yevgeniy Popov, to beat him (by a landslide). If there could have been a genuine presidential candidate from the Left in Russia, it would have been Lobanov. Kagarlitsky is a socialist, Marxist intellectual, professor and the person behind Rabkor, a moderately successful media project that has been broadcasting progressive ideas in Russia ever since the 2008 Global Economic Crisis. Imprisoned in the late Soviet period, incarcerated, beaten and threatened under Yeltsin’s regime, 65-year-old socialist dissident Kagarlitsky has recently been sentenced to five years in a penal labour colony. Considering that these are the sort of people the “Communists of Russia” leader Malinkovich attacks, there is little credibility to his proclaimed commitment to communist ideals.

Destruction of the Left in post-Soviet Russia

How did Russia go from having the building of communism promoted at the level of state ideology for most of the Soviet era to having to make do with the scarcely socialist, pliable CPRF?

Of course, the degree to which the Soviet Union was socialist is subject to many a debate in the leftist circles all of the world. Nevertheless, most would agree that the most full-scale assault on socialism and on the society as a whole took place under Boris Yeltsin. His efforts to dissolve and dismember the USSR precipitated in the events of the “Black October” 1993. After having been dismissed by the extant parliament and the Supreme Court due to his breach of the Constitution, Yeltsin took power by force, shelling the parliament building and causing multiple deaths and injuries among the civilians. The opposition to Yeltsin, spearheaded by a group of left-leaning state capitalist officials and flanked by communist, socialist as well as some nationalist formations, was brutally suppressed. The leaders were arrested. Most of the parties and organisations were banned along with their newspapers. Many activists, like Kagarlitsky, were also subject to physical assault and death threats by Yeltsin loyalists. Yeltsin’s head of security, currently a member of Putin’s United Russia, Aleksandr Korzhakov, would later brag proudly how they were able to scare the communists “so that they would not try to stick [their heads] out” again.

Apart from being a major blow to the Left in post-Soviet Russia, the tragic events of the Black October also served as a launchpad for Zyuganov, allowing him to demonstrate his ability “not to stick his head out” on demand. At the most critical moment, he left his comrades at the Supreme Council and went on national television to call on the public opposed to Yeltsin to stay at home. Hence, he emerged as the pliable moderate leftist leader who would pacify the large socialist-minded segment of the society by representing them on the political arena all while keeping any particularly contentious politics challenging Yeltsin’s regime to a minimum. This was in part what allowed him to have a successful political career while those who defended the Supreme Council until the end in 1993, such as Viktor Anpilov, would gradually become outresourced and marginalised. This is not to take away from the former’s Stalinist “Labour Russia”, other small leftist organisations such as the Russian Communist Workers’ Party and the Russian Party of Communists, the trade unions and various grassroots initiatives. However, most of them were gradually weakened and decreased in numbers throughout the post-Soviet era.

As for Zyuganov, his party came first in the 1995 parliamentary election, winning 40% of the seats in the GosDuma. Considering that together, with the other, minor leftist parties Zyuganov’s CPRF controlled over a half of the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, they could have led a popular political revolution against the ruling ultra-capitalist oligarchic regime despite Yeltsin’s super-presidential constitution. However, the events of the following year killed off any hope of socialist revival in Russia.

Kharitonov’s recent hints at aiming for the second place are actually reminiscent of Zyuganov’s acquiescence to the role of the “Number Two” in 1996. The official results of the dirtiest and most fraudulent presidential election in post-Soviet Russia assigned a landslide victory to extremely unpopular Yeltsin. However, numerous accounts suggest Zyuganov had won but was either unprepared for a potentially dangerous struggle against the regime or was pressured behind the scenes to admit defeat. Years later, the leader of the opposition would stand silently with an embarrassed look on his face while being praised by the power elite’s TV propagandist-in-chief, Vladimir Solovyov, for accepting the official results and not fighting back. While there were some manifestations of Zyuganov’s opposition to Yeltsin, the most extreme being an attempt to impeach him in 1999, they always came up short.

By the time Vladimir Putin arrived on the scene, the conditions had already been ripe to neutralise the only major political force on the Left. Almost a decade of Yeltsin’s super-presidential, ultra-capitalist and increasingly oligarchic regime, defined by skyrocketing economic inequality and lawlessness, took a significant toll on the working class and on all of the CPRF’s potential electorate. Many of them were hit badly by the post-Soviet collapse and never recovered. Some adopted to capitalism and turned into petit bourgeois or nouveaux riches. The extant “red directors” (of the formerly state-owned Soviet enterprises), who had long comprised the CPRF’s support base, were either pushed out or coopted by the regime. Zyuganov failed to capitalise on the trust the progressive-minded public had invested in him, and the momentum was lost.

Younger and fresher, straight-talking Putin, with little apparent association to the previous power elite, had a strong public appeal at the time. With the initial backing of Yeltsin’s oligarchs, first and foremost late media mogul Boris Berezovsky, Putin was able to win the 2000 election and emerge as in the eyes of many as the revanchist leader that Zyuganov ought to be. However, after bringing the oligarchs under his control, restoring order, and sharing some spoils from the high oil prices with the masses, Putin was in no hurry to establish an egalitarian democratic society. Instead, he continued what was started under Yeltsin – dismantling the extant socialist elements of the system and further marginalising the Left in the best traditions of those he called his “Western partners”. His new Labour Code significantly curbed the ability of the existing trade unions to exercise their democratic right to strike and for the new unions to be formed. Some of the key members of the Federation of the Independent Unions of Russia were coopted. There are still some active unionists today, but many of them, like Kirill Ukraintsev for instance, have been subject to legal persecution.

Furthermore, following Putin’s return to presidency in 2012, a series of federal laws, which appeared to contradict the Constitution, made protesting against the regime extremely problematic, whereby organising or participating in protests would result in a fine, administrative arrest, or even a criminal persecution and imprisonment. Since March 2022, in an attempt to curb the anti-war protests, the Russian lawmakers have passed another strand of legislation, which bodes criminal prosecution for challenging the officially approved narrative about the Russian military in the public domain.

With this severe limitation on their capacity to engage in both instrumental and symbolic action, such as strikes and demos, respectively, Russian leftist activists have been forced to choose between toeing the line like Zyuganov or engaging in non-systemic politics (e.g., street protests). The latter carried a risk of persecution by the regime or meant a life on the margins of politics at best. As a result, their electoral potential decreased significantly. Moreover, since the hardening of authoritarianism in Russia over the past two years, the few leftist politicians such as Lobanov and Stupin who had had some electoral success faced repression and had to flee the country. Even CPRF-adjacent Left Front’s Sergei Udaltsov found himself arrested and added to the list of “extremists” and “terrorists”.

YouTube & Russia’s non-systemic Left

However, not everything is lost for the Left in Russia. In recent years, the Russian segment of YouTube has turned into an anti-Putin counter-public sphere, an alternative to Russia’s elite-aligned television.  While it has been dominated by neoliberal celebrity personalities, a number of leftist YouTubers have also emerged from this technological phenomenon. Kagarlitsky is unlikely to be released any time soon, but his comrades at RabKor (127k+ subscribers) continue to release new videos, which attract thousands of viewers. Notwithstanding his relatively moderate position vis-à-vis the current regime, leftist journalist Konstantin Syomin (772k+ subscribers) continues to produce news bulletins that provide an alternative to the mainstream capitalist variants. There is also Yevgeniy Bazhenov, better known as BadComedian (5.98m+ subscribers), who should also be mentioned despite not being a socialist activist as such. In his satirical film reviews, which have repeatedly got him into trouble with the authorities, Yevgeniy never fails to ridicule the anti-communist and anti-Soviet capitalist propaganda prevalent in the film industry in Russia and around the world.

Another YouTuber that stands out is former history teacher Andrey Rudoy and his channel Vestnik Buri (321k+ subscribers), which can rival those of the most popular neoliberal figures when it comes to producing regular high-quality content that generates high views (sometimes over a million). Being in his early 30’s, like Bazhenov, and having taught at school for several years, Rudoy is able to communicate the Marxist perspective to the younger audiences. In his videos he covers a wide range of interesting topics – from the current developments in Russia, China, the US, Palestine, Cuba and beyond, to feminism, African national liberation movements and the Black Panthers, to climate change, “Squid Game” and Russian leftist rap music.

Against the backdrop of gradual rise in popularity of leftist content on YouTube, there has been a mushrooming of Marxist youth groups around the country. While the current power elite may have paralysed the Russian Left politically, they are unable to stop the ideological proliferation of progressive ideas on platforms such as YouTube and Telegram. Provided that the likes of Rudoy are able to capitalise on the current leadership vacuum in the neoliberal camp, they may be able to steer the younger and open-minded Russians to the left and cultivate critical and progressive thinking, which will find its practical outlet in one way or another and eventually lead to a brighter future.

Meanwhile, Rudoy’s Vestnik Buri, Russian Socialist Movement, Lobanov, Stupin and a number of other progressive organisations and activists, including Mariya Menshikova, and Marxist media influencer and political refugee Irina Shumilova, have united under the “Just World” initiative. While the neoliberal influencers have called on their followers to vote for “anyone but Putin”, the activists behind the “Just World” initiative draw their audience’s attention to the absence of a single progressive candidate on the ballot and call on everyone to cross out all the four presidential candidates and write progressive slogans over them. The idea is that those ballots would still have to be counted and would therefore reduce the share of the regime candidates’ votes – a high share of invalid ballots would represent the extant opposition to the current regime to both the power elite and to the public, potentially empowering the silent dissenters. It is more of a symbolic action, but it is the best one can do at this stage, and it exemplifies the defiance of Russia’s non-systemic Left.


At the system level, the post-Soviet capitalist regime, set up by Yeltsin and continued by Putin, has been central to the gradual destruction of Russia’s Left over the past three decades. The systemic CPRF and their mini-clones present no threat to the system and arguably never have. No one expects any surprises from the upcoming presidential election. Nevertheless, the emerging new cohort of leftists, guided by the likes of Kagarlitsky, offers hope for the future. They have been able to instrumentalise the Russian-speaking segment of YouTube and other social media to engage in a long-haul “war of position”. Many of them refuse to keep their heads in the sand even in a seemingly hopeless situation and stay politically active against all odds. This means that the revolutionary flames have not been fully extinguished and may yet burn brightly.

Ernest A Reid is a PhD Candidate at Aston University, Birmingham, UK