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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Out on the Trail With Communist Zyuganov

SAMARA, Central Russia - With his domed bald head and staring eyes, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov looked like a crazed version of Mikhail Gorbachev as he bumped through the industrial suburbs of Samara.

The day's campaigning for the Russian Communist Party had got off to an inauspicious start. Only 30 pensioners turned up for an impromptu meeting in the city center with Zyuganov and a local Communist candidate, former party secretary Valentin Romanov.

The minibus Zyuganov was traveling in was hardly a match for the limousines he used to ride in either, when he was propaganda chief for the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.

But Zyuganov, 49, said he was enjoying his tour of the Russian provinces and the main event of the day, a meeting of the faithful in the suburbs, was still to come.

Zyuganov shows the world two faces.

He can be down-to-earth and friendly, cracking jokes and reminiscing about his hometown, Oryol, ''where bread costs 50 rubles and everyone is the grandson of a writer".

This jovial pragmatic side was uppermost as he presented his party as one of new model socialists.

"We're against a state monopoly of the economy. Everybody accepts that nowadays", he said. Western investment in Russia was welcome, he said, although Western countries were prescribing "drastic recipes they wouldn't carry out themselves".

So his ideology is not that far from the government's market reformers?

"They are clever people, with well worked out ideas", he conceded. But he said they did not understand the people and had no concept of "social justice".

What about Marxism-Leninism and the "dictatorship of the proletariat"?

Zyuganov sought to explain that the Russian Communists were indeed the heirs of Lenin, but that were he alive today, Lenin too would favor democracy.

The most brilliant discovery of Marx, Zyuganov explained, was the process of dialectic, which shows that everything is subject to historical development.

"The conditions of the 19th and 20th centuries are quite different", he said. "Lenin himself had to reconsider a whole series of Marx's works".

Asked about concerns that if the Communists took power Russia would have had its first and last multiparty elections, Zyuganov said: "That's nonsense".

Zyuganov displayed his other, tougher, face when he arrived at the Kirov Palace of Culture in the industrial northeast suburbs of the city.

The local party machine had done a good job and every place in the 900-seat hall, decorated with revolutionary murals, was taken, by an elderly audience.

Zyuganov's well-aimed barbs at the government, clearly sharpened by 10 days on the campaign trail, were greeted by frequent and loud applause.

"The pharaoh, the tsar and the general secretary put together didn't have such power", warned Zyuganov in doom-laden tones in a sustained attack on the new draft constitution.

Much of his speech played on the economic worries of his working-class listeners. Eighty percent of the industry in Samara, a city of 1. 2 million known as Kuybyshev in the Soviet era, used to be geared to defense.

"The slogan of the present government is 'If you don't steal, you don't eat'", Zyuganov told them. "If the government's economic program is imposed we will have the Caucasus, only 10 times worse".

Most people coming out of the hall said they would vote for Zyuganov.

"If people like him had the chance to speak like this more often, life would be better in this country", said Valery Anikin, an engineer in the nearby Frunze Factory which makes airplane motors.

"Yeltsin is destroying our industry", said a metalworker at the factory, who asked to be identified as Oleg Ivanovich. "But Zyuganov has got an acceptable program".