Back in Moscow again, surprised at how happy I am to be so, I sit in my old office and read myself into the ‘story’. For five years I followed its twists and turns, its lumpy, incomprehensible lurches to and fro, its characters creating and re-creating themselves in the space which the great collapse of 1991 had cleared for them. Now, to try to locate myself, I read the press clippings of events I could barely follow from a distance, and catch at what seem to be the signs of the pre-election times.

Since Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, is riding high, I read his file first. Pravda, full of bile and vitality once more, reports on Zyuganov’s speech at the CP Congress on 15 February, accepting the nomination as presidential candidate. He begins: ‘Comrades! It’s not necessary to explain that the post of head of such a huge country as this is not a prize taken by the victor after the election, but a heavy burden of responsibility. Whoever is elected, then, as president of the Russian people, must expect thorns rather than laurels.’ An uncertain, sombre tone for a candidate to strike in his moment of nomination. Going back a little in the file, I read Pavel Voshchanov – once Yeltsin’s press secretary, now Komsomolskaya Pravda’s star commentator – in his column of 31 January: ‘the Communists do not really want to be in power because they would have to take responsibility for all that happens – and if they fail, it would be their second exit from power, this time for a long time, perhaps for ever.’

Not long afterwards, I go to see Alexander Batanov, a smart, self-confident man in his thirties who has turned himself from an academic researcher into a political consultant. He has worked with Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and helped engineer a public reconciliation between this wily former bureaucrat turned Mayor Daley, and Boris Yeltsin. The image is all over Moscow: a photograph of the two grasping each other’s hands and smiling into the camera, with the slogan ‘Muscovites have made their choice’ – an arrogant conflation of the mayor’s political calculations with his citizens’ votes, still to be cast. When the question of Zyuganov’s uncertainty is put to him, Batanov eagerly confirms it. ‘Zyuganov does not really want the job. He is of the generation of the Party who did not put themselves forward: they waited to be asked, and then humbly accepted. He has no psychological readiness for it. He was in the second or third echelon of the Party, far from any prospect of power.’ Batanov, who was called in by the Communists to give advice (which he says got nowhere), was recruited to Yeltsin’s campaign team, and worked the press who travelled with the President. Zyuganov is famously shifty, promising American capitalists to be tough on law and order so that their businesses will be safer than in Yeltsin’s Russia, thundering against the West for plotting to destroy Russia’s greatness in meetings on the stump. In an interview last year, I asked him if he were a Marxist: ‘You know, they say Jesus Christ was the first Marxist.’ Asked if he were a Christian, he replied: ‘You know, they often say that Christianity was the forerunner of socialism.’

Why did the real Zyuganov not stand up before the election? Perhaps because there was no real Zyuganov, any more than there was a real election platform with a real set of promises. I go to see Alexei Podberyezkin, leader of a nationalist group called Spiritual Heritage who, with the extreme nationalist journalist Alexander Prokhanov, is thought to exert the strongest influence on Zyuganov. Podberyezkin stresses that Zyuganov is not the Communist candidate, but the nominee of the National Patriotic Bloc of parties. That may be true; but the Communist Party, after its breakthrough victories in the Duma elections in December, was hugely more influential than any of the others. The second most powerful party was Working Russia, led by Victor Anpilov, another ranting anti-semitic journalist who has consistently called for the restoration of Communism. Thus if the CP is pulled in any direction by its coalition partners, it is to the ‘left’ – or more accurately towards Fascism. Before I leave, an aide to Podberyezkin gives me a thick volume – The White Book of the Russian Special Services. Podberyezkin says it is an effort to redress the wrongs suffered by the KGB in the past seven years. He sees the KGB, its predecessors and post-1991 successors, as fundamental pillars of the state: ‘a strong state means a strong secret service,’ the book says.

Prokhanov himself, in a little booklet put out to impress on patriots the merits of the Communist candidate, recalls in his customary lush prose a visit by Zyuganov in spring 1991 to the offices of his paper Dan (‘Day’ – suppressed after the August coup of the same year, then wittily reissued as ‘Tomorrow’). ‘We sat outside at a table on which were the first flowers of spring. He asked me if I didn’t think it necessary to put out an appeal in which patriots well known to the people alerted them to the threat to come. The misery to come is all but unavoidable: the Party is breaking up, the state is dissolving, Gorbachev is destroying the country and a disaster is certain.’ The appeal that went out – ‘A Word to the People’ – was a call to arms: Prokhanov muses that ‘it rather recalled the “Brothers and Sisters” appeal Stalin made during the war. Zyuganov, still not then called to his future role, acted as a people’s partisan.’

Back at the files, I read the Communist Party’s Programme, adopted in January 1995. The Party ‘is based on Marxist-Leninist science and dialectical materialism’, it reads. ‘The bourgeois form of property has reached the limit of its potential. The capitalist mode of production is failing not just because of its limitations but because of its very nature.’ I go to see Yuri Maslyukov.

Maslyukov was a very big cheese in the last days of the Soviet Union. He was chairman of GosPlan, the state planning agency whose formal powers were boundless: the Latvian nationalists in the late Eighties used to put it about that the recipe for a traditional Latvian cake was specified by GosPlan. It was a good line and cropped up everywhere in Western newspapers, including my own – though a more important thing to know about GosPlan towards the end of the Communist period was the vast archipelago it could not control because so much production and distribution had evolved into a unique and impenetrable economic mutation composed of barter, favour-swapping, bribery and extortion. Jeff Sachs, the US economist, once told me that Maslyukov had called him in to GosPlan in 1991 for a secret consultation on this thing called the market: he took Sachs to the GosPlan council chamber and spent an entire day, together with the largely silent ranks of his senior colleagues, questioning and listening to him. At the end of the day, Sachs said he would send a fax with a few of his thoughts on market principles; there was a period of foot shuffling, after which Maslyukov told Sachs that faxes were not in the plan, nor in GosPlan.

Now he is back in circulation: padded with flesh, courteous, a member of the Duma, chairman of its economic committee, already tipped to become economics minister if not prime minister in a future Communist – excuse me, National Patriotic – cabinet. He has just returned from a visit to the German Social Democrats, who think he has remade himself as a Communist with a human face. He is full of his visit – saying that the Germans had marvelled at how open the Russian economy was, at how little it did to protect its industries, how cavalierly it let enterprises go to the wall. Maslyukov advocates mixed-economy protectionism for a period of some ten years during which Russian industry would modernise behind tariff walls – ‘like the Germans and the Japanese after the war’ – and then emerge in the early years of the next millennium to conquer the markets with the products of the future. The West, he said, wanted for perfectly understandable and self-interested reasons to reconstitute Russia as a raw materials producer, shorn of its industrial base. Of course Western firms would be welcome, would have a guarantee of property rights; of course small and medium-sized enterprises should stay private, and only the large enterprises should be examined to ensure that they had been privatised according to the law – a judgment the courts, not the state, would make; inflation should of course be kept down, though not at the expense of production – he would tolerate a rate of 3-4 per cent a month, as against the current 2 per cent. GosPlan, even with faxes, should not be revived; a strong and professional government with analogous regional authorities was all that was required. How did he square these views with the CP programme? ‘The policy is not the policy of the Communist Party. I am speaking to you as head of the Duma’s economic committee.’

The Party was still riding high at that stage, polls varying as to whether Zyuganov or Yeltsin was ahead. But it foundered in the week or two before the vote on 16 June: the central ambiguities, most of all in its candidate, seemed to grip it, and it could not follow through to crush a man under whose leadership decline has been rapid, an empire has been lost and a murderous war fought. The result of the first round – Yeltsin about 2.5 per cent ahead of Zyuganov – tallied closely with what Yeltsin’s strategists thought would be the optimum outcome: enough to keep their candidate ahead and show he carried the largest share of the country; not enough to allow complacency to seep into the ranks of his supporters.

I spent a little time with some of those strategists. Among the cleverest are a threesome who banded together to form a think-tank called the Centre for Political Technologies, which puts out some of the best and most dispassionate analysis in Moscow. The Centre, which was brought into the commodious Yeltsin entourage to do some poll analysis, is run by Igor Bunin, who never speaks below a rapid shout. He told me that focus groups he had been running since January indicated even then that Yeltsin was ‘ahead’ – though the polls showed him in single figures compared to Zyuganov’s score of over 30 percent. He was ahead in what Bunin thought of as the crucial area – the perception that he was a leader, able to shoulder the responsibilities which so haunted Zyuganov in his acceptance speech. On this perception, Bunin said, one could (and they did) build a campaign – a campaign which stressed the incumbent’s energy. Yeltsin is widely thought of as a man who will return to the bottle when he can: in fact, as he has written of himself and as I have heard it from those in his circle, his real temptation is a numbing melancholy, which renders him immobile and mute for days, even weeks. Vodka is a relief from that: tippled fast in the Russian manner, it goes straight to the misery and anaesthetises it, making life seem if not merry, then at least inconsequential rather than hopeless.

After seeing Bunin, I cannot escape from a feeling that the whole thing is planned: that some hand or brain in the Kremlin has the situation under control and is dictating the results of the election with the same precision as GosPlan prescribed the contents of the Latvian cake. On reading the results of the election that feeling came back. Was it a legacy of five years in Russia, as the Western expectation of reasonable transparency fell victim to Byzantine conspiratorial theorising? Probably: the Communists who set up a parallel counting exercise on the poll reported agreement with the official figures. It seems to have been fair – if you discount the hugely disproportionate media time given to the President, the reckless use of state funds to entice voters, the marshalling of the military to vote for their commander-in-chief and of the regional governors to turn out the payroll and the deference votes.

I find out that some of my old colleagues are lunching with General Alexander Lebed, and I attach myself. I go with Pilar Bonet of EI Pais, with whom I have ducked nervously about Chechnya and who remains, with ten years of Russian service behind her, the most unquenchable and rigorous of correspondents. She thinks highly of Lebed’s chances, and moderately of him: ‘He is not a bad general, though a limited one. He can learn, and I think he is doing so.’ We sit in the restaurant of the Moscow Business Club on either side of a long table; Lebed takes up a position, flanked by aides, at the top. He speaks and eats; we ask questions. I am surprised: the woodenness of the man who led a failing nationalist party during the Duma elections has been replaced by a calm, sardonic manner. He speaks without the magnificent condescension of most people in the higher reaches of Russian public life. Communism is finished, he says, and something new is being built which will not be rolled back. But it needs rules, and a government capable and honest enough to apply those rules. It needs work – work which will be slow to produce rewards. Liberties will not survive without work and rules. His programme is fuzzy: he veers between a faith in control and an affirmation of the market without spotting any contradiction. But he is handsome, nicely dressed, civilised: he does not drink. He is fond of General Pinochet of Chile because – as he explains it – the General restored order after a socialist collapse and ushered in the conditions for the country’s eventual liberalisation. Above all, he was against the Chechnya intervention, and would quickly withdraw the Army.

On TV that night, I see his campaign commercial: Lebed in full dress uniform, medals on both sides of his chest, seated at a table while before him in the darkness a volcano erupts. The camera pulls back, he switches on a light at his desk and addresses the viewer on the need to avoid such an explosion in society. This is the commander turned politician remaking himself as a volcano-stopper: the still vigorous officer of the Soviet period bringing forward its virtues to cope with the new era. It caught on, this time. Lebed took around 15 per cent of the vote, and was rewarded by the President with a job, as a good general should be. Lebed is now head of the Security Council, with a brief to implement the law and order he preached as essential on the stump. That should really show what he’s made of.

If only Luigi Pirandello could be exhumed, and made a Moscow correspondent for Repubblica. His discrimination between the real face and the mask is needed to replace the clumsinesses of journalism, constrained to report the evident. Robert Brustein says that, as against Hamlet’s shout of rage ‘I know not seems,’ Pirandello’s characters know almost nothing else ... they are all devoted to appearances, as defences against the agony of the changing personality.’ Russian politicians, too, can know little else: they remake themselves into whatever forms they can find or construct, not so much to protect against the agony of the changing personality or the passage of time, but against the agony of a featureless space which must somehow be filled. This time round, it was filled by the same old manic-depressive Boris Yeltsin, who did the twist in the Urals and took the salute from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square, whose melancholy impelled him to make contact with those who could help him forget it, and who will lead Russia until he drops.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences