The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 appeared to have sounded the death knell for the ideas of Marx and Lenin in Russia, but just over two decades on, a new wave of young and increasingly visible socialist activists are eager to hoist the red flag over the Kremlin once more.
“I became interested in socialism when I was in my late teens,” said Isabel Magkoeva, 21, a rising star of Russia’s left and an activist with the Revolutionary Socialist Movement.
“I was always concerned by economic inequality and started to ask questions about why this should be. Then I got interested in left-wing literature,” added Magkoeva, a former teenage model who bears a striking resemblance to high-profile Chilean student protest leader Camila Vallejo. “That was when I realized I wanted to get involved.”
But although Magkoeva praises Lenin as a “great revolutionary,” she has few illusions about the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist the same year she was born.
“There was no genuine socialism in the Soviet Union,” she said. “And it is inaccurate to portray us all as seeking a return to the past. That simply isn’t true. We are for a new modernized form of socialism.”
This increase in the popularity of socialist ideas has been bolstered, in part, by Russia’s appalling record on wealth inequality, highlighted earlier this month by a report by the Swiss financial services company Credit Suisse.
“We want a modernized form of socialism in which the state controls national industry, but not small businesses,” he stressed. “It would be lunacy to attempt to control the activities of every small café, for example.”
And the movement’s rhetoric seems to have struck a chord with many Russians. A public opinion survey by state-pollster VTsIOM indicated that Udaltsov was the only high-profile protest leader to have seen his popularity ratings increase since Putin’s election to a third term in March.
“Left wing groups in Russia openly sought a return to a socialism system in the 1990s, but they were entirely discredited,” said Left Front co-founder Ilya Ponomaryov. “But people have now again begun to see leftist ideas as a real alternative and it’s a very positive sign that more and more young people are getting involved.”
But he dismissed suggestions that history has proven it is impossible to build a viable society on the principles of socialism and communism.
“They all got Marx and Engels wrong,” he said, referring to previous failed attempts to construct socialist states. “You have to get the economic approach right first, before you can build a socialist country.”
Left Front co-founder Ponomaryov, 37, also admitted to “mixed feelings” about the Soviet Union.
“It was strong state with many social guarantees, but there was far too much bureaucracy,” he said. “But it’s clear things were better in the Soviet Union than they are now.”
“There was no freedom of speech or human rights back then, but there isn’t any now, either,” he said.
And it is the socialist fervor of Magkoeva and her comrades that many analysts see as the biggest threat to Putin’s grip on power.
“A few years ago, it seemed that nationalist groups posed the greatest danger to the authorities,” said Shevtsova, the Carnegie Center analyst. “But now it is clear that it is the new left.”