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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Younger Voters Are Seeing Red

Waiving a yellow scarf with red letters reading "Soviet Union," Andrei Melnik, 23, joined the crowd of mainly graying men and women listening to Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov speak at a recent political fair.

Melnik, who is writing his Ph.D. thesis at Moscow State University in the biology faculty, said he joined the Communist Party a few months ago because it is "the only party able to change things in Russia."

Despite a common perception that the Communist Party is a party of pensioners and that it will one day die out along with its members, thousands of young people like Melnik are filling its ranks, and the average age of party members is actually declining.

If in 1993 the average age of party members was 60, in 2003 it was down to 55, according to the Communists' data. Of the 18,000 people who joined the party in 2002, 50 percent were aged 30 to 40, and 30 percent were under 30. Thus 80 percent of new members last year were under 40.

The number of new members also increased last year, up from 17,000 in 2001. The party claims to have more than 500,000 members nationwide.

Ahead of this year's parliamentary elections, the Communists have brought in a young former Yukos executive to help them attract even more young members and voters.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, who heads the Panorama think tank, said it is perfectly logical that most of the party's new members are relatively young.

"Most members of the old KPSS [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] re-registered in 1993 with the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation]. Those who are joining now are doing so for the first time and they are younger than those who joined in 1993," he said.

The new members do not necessarily share the Communist ideology, Pribylovsky and other analysts and sociologists said. For most of them, joining the party is a way of expressing their opposition to the current social and political system, and a desire for a normal life.

Andrei Ryabov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the party appeals to people who are frustrated by their inability to get ahead in today's Russia. Back in the early and mid-1990s, there was much more social mobility, he said.

"People then with nothing in their pockets could make a brilliant career," he said, "Now the old possibilities are over. You have political clans that control all these possibilities. Now you need family ties and money to make a career."

For many people who were then finishing school or starting to build a career, the financial crash of 1998 was a devastating blow to their hopes for a better life. "This [the 1998 collapse] is one of the things that influenced young people's political orientation," Pribylovsky said.

Earlier in the 1990s, young people tended to vote for liberal parties, but after 1998 they started to look for opposition forces they believed capable of changing the situation in the country.

"Unfortunately, you have very few opposition forces -- the KPRF and in part Yabloko. The KPRF is tougher in opposition, and this is why young people choose it," Ryabov said.

"What young people want is very simple -- to find a job and earn money -- but since this is difficult to achieve, they join the KPRF. If there was another strong opposition force, I think they would go there," he said.

Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, said when young people who vote for the Communists are polled, many say they do not like the party.

"So the question is: Why do they vote for the Communist Party if they don't like it? The answer is very simple -- they hate the current regime, the leadership and the other parties more than the Communist Party," he said.

Furthermore, dislike of the current regime is leading some people to have an idealized view of the Soviet Union.

"Young people think that during Soviet times everyone had a job, social guarantees and now they don't have anything. The KPRF has monopolized this niche," Ryabov said.

Melnik, the Ph.D. student, said he came to the party fair at the Manezh exhibition hall in late August not because he wants a return to the Soviet Union. He came because he wants to "support a party that calls for press freedom and for social justice and promises to help develop small businesses."

As for his scarf, Melnik said he thinks the past should not be forgotten.

Ilya Ponomaryov, 28, who worked for the Yukos oil major from 1998 to 2002, left his job to go work for the Communists in January of this year. "The reason I joined the party is that it is the real opposition force in Russia and it is capable of influencing political life," he said in a telephone interview. "The country is going nowhere and the only way to change that is to join the KPRF."

Ponomaryov, who said he has supported the Communists since April 2002, said he became a member and went to work for the party at his own initiative.

At a party congress Saturday, two men connected to Yukos were chosen to run on the party's electoral list.

Ponomaryov, who managed information technology projects at Yukos, is the party's chief information officer and has been charged with helping the party attract more young people. With a group of political analysts he has put together, he said he is organizing a series of events.

"For May 1, we organized a rock concert on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, in the center of Moscow, which gathered more than 10,000 young people. We organize forums and conferences to discuss the right strategy for the left opposition to adopt. We are also trying to revive the good Soviet traditions," he said.

As an example of a good Soviet tradition, Ponomaryov said they want to revive the Timurovsky movement, which in Soviet times was a way for teenagers to help people in need.

After the election, Ponomaryov said he will not return to business but will opt for a political career in the party.

He was first vice president of Sibintek, a Yukos subsidiary that developed IT projects, from 1999 until 2002. He then became president of Internet Management Corp., which was co-founded by Yukos. It was sold later that year to Information Business System, one of Russia's biggest IT companies.