The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is recognized by the Russian Ministry of Justice as the legal successor of the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The CPRF was founded in 1993 by former members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which had been banned two years earlier by Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia.
Return of the Communists
The CPSU was abolished by Yeltsin after the failure of the August Putsch against Soviet President Gorbachev. The “hardline” communists who backed the coup attempt were discredited and the party itself was attacked by the authorities. Yeltsin issued presidential decrees which nationalized the property of the CPSU, dissolved its political organs, restricted its activities, and finally banned the organization outright on 6 November 1991. Just over a month later, on 8 December, Yeltsin would sign the Belovezh Accords with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, officially dissolving the Soviet Union.
The communists were thrown into disarray after the ban on the CPSU. The former factions of the party formed into new parties but these were only remnants of the original structure, unable to retake state power.
The party itself had been banned but the deputies elected under its banner were not removed from office. The communists in the Supreme Soviet petitioned Russia’s Constitutional Court to review the Presidential decree. In 1992 the Court allowed the CPSU to deliver its defense; it ultimately ruled the ban on “primary organizations” to be unconstitutional. This meant that the Communist Party was allowed to rebuild its basic structure of local cells.
After the court rendered its verdict the communists were able to hold the “2nd Extraordinary Restorative Congress of the Communist Party of Russia“. This was organized by former leaders of the Communist Party of the RSFSR and by members of the remnant parties. The Congress adopted a Political Statement against the further advance of capital; it resolved to constitute a new Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and it elected a Central Executive Committee for that party.
The first Congress of the CPRF was held from 13-14 February 1993. News of the party’s re-founding had inspired grassroots organizers across the country to establish local branches. The party soon had hundreds of thousands of members and was the largest in Russia. At this first congress the party’s constitution and leadership were determined, with former CPRSFSR Secretary Gennady Zyuganov elected Chairman of the Presidium of the CEC.
Zyuganov had previously been the Deputy Head of the Ideological Department of the CPSU under Alexander Yakovlev, the “Godfather of Glasnost.” Zyuganov publicly criticized Yakovlev and Gorbachev over their reforms which had restored capitalism, weakened the country, and ultimately destroyed the USSR.
Zyuganov vs Yeltsin
The Communist Party was restored during the buildup to the 1993 constitutional crisis. The crisis was triggered when the President decreed the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet on 21 September 1993. The Soviet impeached Yeltsin and called on the people to take up arms in defense of soviet democracy. The crisis ended on 4 October when the arny answered Yeltsin’s order and shelled the parliament building.
During the crisis the President imposed bans on opposition parties and publications, including the CPRF. However, the ban was short lived: the party had not officially participated in the events of “Black October” and Zyuganov had used the radio to urge demonstrators to remain peaceful. When Yeltsin installed his new constitution and called for elections to the new State Duma, the CPRF was the only communist party allowed to participate. It would limp into third place behind the ultranationalist LDPR and the Yeltsinite liberal-conservative party, Choice of Russia.
The second Duma was elected in 1995, when the 5 year term of the Supreme Soviet had been scheduled to end. In less than two years the CPRF had built a strong enough base to form the largest parliamentary faction. Earlier that year the party’s third Congress nominated Zyuganov for the upcoming Presidential election and formed a “Bloc of National-Patriotic Forces” to support his bid.
Opinion polls consistently placed Zyuganov in the lead from July 1995 to April 1996. Yeltsin had been the clear favorite from 1992 to 1993 but in 1994 only kept a small lead over his liberal opponent, Grigory Yavlinsky. He climbed back into second place in March 1996, lead some polling in April, and was the clear frontrunner down to the election on 16 June. Despite Yeltsin’s miserably low 6% approval rating in January he managed to win 35% on the first round of voting and 54% on the second.
Yeltsin’s miraculous recovery at the polls is a well-known example of election interference. His political allies controlled the news media and he monopolized the airwaves. As Zyuganov took the lead in the polls he was increasingly targeted by an attack campaign warning of a “Red Revenge.” Yeltsin also appealed to his international allies, directly asking US President Clinton to provide foreign policy wins such as entry to the G-7 and postponing NATO expansion. Clinton that he could not be seen to help Yeltsin directly but would help any way he could:
As the summer election approached, Yeltsin urged Clinton “not to embrace” his communist opponent.Washington Post, quoting Clinton Presidential Library, “Declassified Documents Concerning Russian President Boris Yeltsin“
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Clinton replied. “We spent fifty years working for the other result.”
After the election was over American political operatives would boast that their efforts had helped Yeltsin to win.
The contest between the CPRF and the President was not limited to the election. On 14 March 1996 the CPRF faction led the Duma in denouncing the Belovezh Accords and accused Yeltsin of treason.
By 21 May 1998 the CPRF had gathered enough support to file 12 pages of impeachment charges against the President. The five charges were: the illegal dissolution of the USSR; the 1993 coup d’etat against the Supreme Soviet; the President’s war against Chechnya; the deliberate awakening and destruction of Russian military power; genocide of the Russian people through economic means.
Ultimately the CPRF was unable to secure the necessary supermajority in the Duma and the impeachment was defeated on 16 May 1999. Nevertheless Yeltsin was politically and physically spent, suffering heart problems and poor health that ultimately led him to resign the Presidency on 31 December 1999.
The CPRF’s fortunes peaked in the 1999 Duma elections. Though the communists again scored the highest share of votes they were less than 2% ahead of a new party, Unity. The CPRF lost almost 1/3 of its seats and Unity made a surprise second-place finish.
Unity had formed earlier that year as a merger of center-right forces. It was headed by General Sergei Shoigu, who had been Minister of Emergency Situations since 17 April 1991. Unity had a significant advantage over its rivals in that it was supported by the popular new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.
Two years later Unity would merge with the third party in the Duma, the center-left Fatherland – All-Russia. This new party, United Russia, went on to form majorities in every Duma election from 2003 to 2021. Having thus become the “party of power” United Russia relegated the other parties to a consultative role. The CPRF has been unable to match UR and has placed a distant second in every election since 2003.
Splitters and Spoilers
Though it has always been the most left-wing party in the Duma the CPRF has faced serious criticism from other left wing parties and forces. The party has endured several split since United Russia came to power, with the new parties accusing the CPRF of right-wing deviations. The CPRF, for its part, has accused the splitters of acting as electoral spoilers, dividing communist support in key districts.
2004 Hostile Takeover Attempt
The December 2003 Duma election was a landslide victory for United Russia. The presidential election followed soon afterward and on 14 March 2004 Putin was re-elected in his own landslide. The CPRF’s defeat in these elections prompted internal criticism and animosity in the party. Critics of Zyuganov’s leadership organized around Gennady Semigin, the chairman of the Executive Committee of the NPSR.
The tensions between Zyuganov and Semigin had started before these elections. Allegations of conspiracy were made against Semigin in an article published 7 January 2003 by A. Prokhanov, editor-in-chief of Zavtra (“Tomorrow”). In “Operation Mole” Prokhanov describes a government plan to create an “opposition within the opposition,” a secondary center of power which would displace the genuine leaders of the national-patriotic movement. The basis of this sabotage group would be NPSR members who belong to the capitalist class and are close to the governing elites, but express superficial criticisms of the government. Using their considerable financial and political resources these members would flood the NPSR with unprincipled new members and advance themselves to positions of power in the coalition.
According to Prokhanov, Semigin is this exact type of infiltrator:
A successful businessman who made a fortune during the period of “predatory initial accumulation of capital”, close at that fateful time to Gaidar, Chubais and other “reformers”, he, according to him, became disillusioned with the “reforms” that were detrimental to the country, felt in himself “left” sentiments and became close to the NPSR. Thanks to an agreement that was beneficial to the patriots for financial reasons, Semigin entered the people’s patriotic movement.
Prokhanov’s warning of an imminent explosion in the opposition was validated on 3 July 2004. On that date the two centers of power held two rival sessions of the X Congress of the CPRF. Each elected their own Central Committees and Chairman: Zyuganov and Semigin.
In a 12 July 2004 interview with Echo of Moscow Zyuganov said that he had received a call from Putin about the duelling Congresses. Putin told the Communist leader that he had heard of the conflict through radio broadcasts instead of his intelligence officers; according to Zyuganov “He said – they will sort it out. Indignation, too, a normal person cannot but be indignant. Today I sent a letter to the Ministry of Justice, officially with notification.” Taken at face value Zyuganov’s account implies that Putin was kept out of the loop about this particular splitting operation (Zyuganov refers to it as a спецоперации, “special operation”).
Subsequent events show that the President did not obstruct the CPRF’s efforts to stop the party takeover: the dispute was taken to court and the Ministry of Justice ruled that Semigin’s group had not met quorum. Semigin’s X Congress was invalidated and its participants expelled from the CPRF.
The alternative X Congress had elected the governor of Ivanovo region, Vladimir Tikhonov, as Chairman of the CPRF. Tikhonov‘s group started organizing their own party after their failure to remove Zyuganov. They held the founding Congress of the All-Russian Communist Party of the Future on 11 December 2004. The new party adopted a Marxist-Leninist program and again elected Tikhonov to lead them.
As head of his own party Tikhonov criticized the CPRF from the left:
The governor of the Ivanovo region believes that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has moved away from the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, replacing it with “Zyuganovism” – “the rejection of the class struggle and the approval of false theses like state patriotism and flirting with the church.” “The current situation in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation does not allow it to be reformed from within,” Tikhonov believes.newsru.com, quoting V. Tikhonov
Semigin managed to keep control of the NPSR after the split. He had begun preparations for this “operation” on 20 March 2004, only 6 days after Putin’s re-election. On that date he called a Congress of Patriots of Russia which brought together 16 parties and 60 NGOs. This Congress agreed on the steps they would take towards becoming a new party and on 9 April Semigin announced that the “Patriots of Russia” coalition had been formed. They were supported by member groups including the VKPB and right-wing Narodnaya Volya and were registered as a party in April 2005.
The VKPB lost its registration a few months later in July 2005. The Ministry of Justice ruled that the party hadn’t provided sufficient documentation of its regional branches, but the VKPB told Grani.Ru that their documents had been delayed and obstructed by local officials.
Patriots of Russia participated in the 2007, 2011, and 2016 elections. It never won more than 1% of the party list vote and never sent any deputies to the Duma.
Spoilers on the Left
In 2009 a new left-wing communist party was formed, the Communists of Russia (short form “Komross”). This party united small communist groups and made appeals to the CPRF’s rank-and-file. The new party accused Zyuganov of turning the CPRF into a managed opposition party, “a servant of the Kremlin.” It claimed that reforming the CPRF was impossible, citing the example of the 2004 split. After the party’s founding Tikhanov and other Marxist-Leninists from the defunct VKPB joined the Komross.
The CPRF made its own accusations that the Komross were poaching members and policies to undermine the larger party.
Kommersant reported that the CPRF had accused Komross of being funded by a rival party, A Just Russia (Russian acronym “SR”). A Duma deputy from the CPRF accused SR of funding spoilers because they were unable to face the CPRF head-on; an SR deputy said that the Komross were principled comrades alienated by the right-wing CPRF leadership.
The party had criticisms of itself as well. Founding chairman Konstantin Zhukov left the Komross in 2020. Zhukov said that the Komross movement had started in earnest but that “Comrade Maxim” turned it into a spoiler after becoming chairman in 2011. He accused chairman Maxim Suraykin of taking tens of millions of rubles in bribes from the authorities and letting them nominate candidates on the Komross list.
If it is true that the Komross is a spoiler party then it is certainly a more effective one than the Patriots of Russia. The movement officially became a political party in 2012, winning 2.27% of the party list vote in 2016. Even after the party’s split it secured over 700,000 votes and 1.27% of the total: much greater than Semigin’s group has ever accomplished.
The Semigin-Tikhanov group may not have taken many votes away from the CPRF but they did take away something irreplaceable. In Russian Election Monitor’s analysis of the party the VKPB removed much of the old Soviet nomenklatura from the CPRF. The offices they vacated were taken up by younger communists who had never been trained or educated according to old Soviet doctrines:
As a result, the CPRF performance at regional elections improved, and the party reached one of its electoral peaks of the ’00s and ’10s in the years 2010 and 2011.Russian Election Monitor
It seems that the new generation of leaders and members of the CRF are much more dedicated and radical and dangerous than the old guard have been. The CPRF officially participated in some (limited) protests of the 2011 election fraud. The party did not join the “Snow Revolution” protests which erupted in Moscow and propelled new opposition figures to national prominence.
According to REM the CPRF and its radical members started to be harassed more aggressively after the 2011-2013 protests. They report that the government “started its clampdown on systemic opposition.” Spoiler parties such as Komross and the Communist Party of Social Justice were registered after 2011, which “led to poorer performance of CPRF at almost all regional elections between 2012 and 2017. These pressures culminated in the 2014 “Crimea Consensus,” by which all Duma parties agreed to recognize the annexation of Crimea.
Despite these obstacles the CPRF’s electoral results have improved since the government’s attempt to raise the retirement age in 2018. The communists were prominent in the 2018 pension reform protests and gained support in the 2021 election: 3 million more votes, 5% more of the party list, and 15 more deputies in the Duma.
The party’s performance is improving, its new generation is rising up and energizing the public, and old man Zyuganov will not lead forever. When he leaves his post, will the new chairman be as friendly to the president? What will the CPRF look like after he is gone?