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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Election Fears Put Expats in Limbo

As a Communist Party that has never repudiated its Leninist -- or indeed, its Stalinist -- past bids fair to regain state power under Gennady Zyuganov in the June 16 presidential election, Moscow's expatriate community seems suspended in limbo. No one wants to overreact to what may prove to be nothing more than a ripple in the status quo; at the same time, the potential for imminent, massive change has afflicted many with a curious passivity -- a natural reaction to change, said expatriate psychologist Chana Winer, and one exacerbated by immersion in the particular patterns of Russian life.


The same sort of passivity afflicted expats and natives alike the last time communists came to power. Less than two months after the Bolshevik coup, big business interests were in friendly negotiations with the new government on increasing state control of key industries. The stock market was doing a brisk trade. Among the general public, exhausted by years of chaos and a stalemated war, there was a sense of relief: Someone "strong" was finally in control. Western powers dismissed the party's more extremist rhetoric as window dressing for the hardcore faithful; the new leaders were surely pragmatists at heart, willing to strike a profitable deal.


Although this could be Moscow in the first autumn of the Zyuganov era, it was in fact the reality of Petrograd in January 1918. By the end of that year, businesses had been nationalized, workers subjected to compulsory labor; government had repudiated its foreign debt; and the population found itself besieged by famine, civil war, and state terror.


Could it happen again? No one knows, of course, and the differences in the two situations are perhaps as great as the striking similarities. But even the possibility seems more than many expatriates are willing to deal with.


"We tend to deal with change by denial, that's our first reaction," Winer said. "We deny that something we don't want to happen is going to happen, rather than take active, practical steps to see that it doesn't. This is especially true in Russian society, with its long history of passive reaction to the environment, of being slapped down if you were active or took initiative. By and large, Russians have learned to deal reactively, not actively. And a lot of foreigners here find themselves going into the same pattern."


Winer said she has not observed panic among expatriates, but ambivalence. "A lot of people think a communist return is a real threat, but they want to wish it away," she said.


That ambivalence seems deeply rooted, as a cursory survey of expatriates, chosen at random, reveals. Many believe that Yeltsin will win the election, and life here will go on largely as before. Others see a win for the Communists; many of these go on to speculate about the prospects for a civil war. But regardless of their opinion, few people wished to be fully identified while giving it.


"Yeltsin will win by 2 percent," said B. Brown, 26, an American who has been doing business in Moscow for several years. "I have a lot of Russian friends, and those between [the ages of] 25 and 35, who weren't interested in politics, are going to vote now. They realize the older people are going to vote for the Communists."


Jessica Rothman, 20, said the prospect of a communist return has affected the Western charity organizations she works for. "No one is making any future plans, they're not opening new places, not spreading themselves too thin," said the Swedish native. "A lot of humanitarian workers and missionaries fear they'll probably have to leave."


Gesturing toward the heavily Westernized facades on Tverskaya Ulitsa, Leslie D., 25, an American graduate student who has lived and worked in Russia since 1991, said, "It's hard to believe that all this can just be swept away. At times, it seems that the reforms have gone too far, there's too much interaction, too many connections for it all to disappear. But I remember 1991," she added. "I got here in August, to go to school in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union. By the end of the year I was living in St. Petersburg, in a country called Russia. The Soviet Union, this huge, monolithic historical entity, just melted away."


Kerry Morganfield, a consultant who has worked in Moscow since 1994, said he has heard acquaintances talk openly about the possibilities of a civil war.


"Some of the pro-Communist Russians say there will be civil war if their side wins. The New Russians won't give up their money and power, they say, and then there'll be a war between the rich and the poor," said Morganfield."I think if the Communists win, there will be accommodations for Western business but more repression for Russians."


From Winer's office window, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior is visible, along with temporary buildings for construction crews working there. Recently, a Russian house-cleaner looked out and saw a red flag atop one of the buildings.


"I don't know if it was a communist flag or not, but her reaction was amazing," said Winer. "She looked, then gasped: 'Oh my God! Are they back?'"