Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Russian Communists Rebrand to Attract Young Supporters
As parliamentary elections loom, party reimagines Lenin, Marx in a modern context

Updated Sept. 12, 2016 9:09 p.m. ET

MOSCOW—Vladimir Lenin is getting a makeover.

The Bolshevik leader, clad in jeans and clutching a laptop, is cutting a youthful figure on posters and in campaign pamphlets for the opposition Communist Party of the Russian Federation, ahead of parliamentary elections here Sunday.

It is all part of the party’s latest revolution. For years a shrinking haven for retirees nostalgic for the Soviet past, the party of the proletariat is appealing to young voters by rejuvenating its image. Other campaign literature features Joseph Stalin smoking an e-cigarette and Karl Marx wearing a leather jacket and declaring: “I’ll be back.”

“We need to speak in a language that the modern voter understands, to reflect the times we live in,” said Igor Petrygin-Rodionov, the artist behind the revamped images. “The proletariat is no longer just someone with a hammer; it can also be a computer programmer.”

The Communists’ rebranding reflects a central challenge facing several political parties in Russia’s tightly controlled system: getting people to vote for perennial losers who exist largely to fill out a political landscape dominated by President Vladimir Putin, where the leaders of mainstream opposition parties never really challenge him.

United Russia, led by Mr. Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is the most-popular party, though with the country mired in recession its share of the likely vote in Sunday’s elections had fallen to 50%, according to a poll in late August by the independent Levada-Center, down from 65% in January. The Communists were running second, with a 15% share.

The Communists say they want to pressure Mr. Putin into changing the country’s economic course by increasing state spending and control and nixing any possible overhauls such as privatization.

“With liberal reforms, they were able to fool young people into thinking that if you are young and active, you will work and become a millionaire—but everyone has spat out that chewing gum,” said Alexander Yushchenko, a Communist lawmaker who is a spokesman for the party’s First Secretary Gennady Zyuganov.

Mr. Zyuganov, 72 years old, has led the Communist Party since it was formed in 1993, two years after the Soviet Communist Party was banned. His popularity and that of the party waned in the 2000s as Mr. Putin rose.

“Young people have no chance for work. They’ve been kicked out onto the street and need a way out,” Mr. Yushchenko said.

To help in its makeover, the party is harnessing a bit of star power: Jeff Monson, an American mixed martial artist who is wildly popular here, has also been appearing with them on the campaign trail.

Mr. Monson, an avowed anarchist with a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his leg, shot to fame in Russia in 2011 when he was badly beaten by the country’s most-famous fighter, Fyodor Emelyanenko. Mr. Putin called him the day after that fight and told him he showed “the Russian spirit” for carrying on even after his leg was broken.

Now, he is a familiar face in Russia, where he recently appeared on Russia’s version of “Dancing With the Stars”. He’s applied for Russian citizenship and visits the country frequently to fight and train others. He and the Communist Party are working together on opening fighting schools for under-privileged children across the country.

The 45-year-old grappler from St. Paul, Minn., has appeared at numerous party events alongside Mr. Zyuganov in recent months, including laying flowers at Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square to mark the dead leader’s birthday.

“Today we’re here celebrating Vladimir Lenin: His body’s passed away, but his spirit’s going to live on,” he said in a speech afterward.

Mr. Petrygin-Rodionov, meanwhile, is sprucing up Lenin’s image. The 56-year-old artist has worked for the party since the 1980s, following the tradition of Soviet posters that transmitted propaganda to the masses, exhorting them to greater feats and a healthier lifestyle.

Now the slogans are a bit more sly and ironic. In one new image, Lenin wears a red cap at a jaunty angle as he stands next to a young woman. Another shows him standing in a red scarf in front of the Winter Palace, the seat of czarist power, asking: “Shall we take it?”

Mr. Petrygin-Rodionov said the images are supposed to be humorous and a way to draw the attention of voters bored with humdrum political advertising. He recalled that the Bolsheviks also picked catchy slogans, such as calls for land, peace and bread, to attract people to their cause. “Most of the population was illiterate, so they couldn’t use the works of Marx,” he said.

One rival communist faction, however, calls the makeover of Lenin a dangerous ideological deviation.

“It’s the desecration of the image of Ilyich, which is holy for all workers,” said Sergei Malinkovich, deputy head of Communists of Russia, a rival party that is unlikely to make parliament, referring to Lenin by his patronymic. The party was polling at 2%, according to the Levada-Center survey in late August.

“For Soviet youth, Lenin was never just a guy from the streets,” Mr. Malinkovich added. “Today, the Zyuganovites dressed the leader of the Russian Revolution in American jeans and sneakers—tomorrow for the sake of a deputy’s seat they could agree to the demolition of the Mausoleum.”

Write to James Marson at

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