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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Political Animal and Man of the People

MTZyuganov listening to villagers pour out their troubles in Verkhovye, in the Oryol region. He promised to sort out their problems with the village administration.
VERKHOVYE, Oryol Region -- Gennady Zyuganov looked completely at home as he stood on a dirt road in the village of Verkhovye, listening to a dozen or so middle-aged workmen and elderly women pour out their troubles.

Zyuganov -- tanned and wearing a pink-and-white striped shirt, a red-and-white striped tie and gray slacks -- shook hands with the poorly dressed workmen and patted the women on the shoulders as they complained about high utility prices and idle farmland.

Zyuganov, who grew up in a nearby village, nodded his head sympathetically from time to time. "I will meet with the head of your village's administration now, and we will sort out all your problems," he said.

Zyuganov's former allies -- and he has many after nearly 15 years as head of the Communist Party -- criticize him as an opportunist, plagiarist and coward who forfeited the presidency in 1996 by failing to stage Orange Revolution-style protests.

But detractors and supporters alike agree that Zyuganov genuinely loves his country, knows the ins and outs of bureaucracy better than many politicians and, above all, has the gift of gab with ordinary folks.

Those communication skills were on full display during his recent visit to Verkhovye, a village 380 kilometers southwest of Moscow and smack in the middle of the Red Belt -- the southern agricultural regions that are a traditional stronghold of the Communists. His supporters were impressed.

Zyuganov is doing "the impossible" under "fascist conditions," organizing demonstrations and making decisions aimed at improving lives, said Zoya Sinitsyna, 67, a rank-and-file Communist activist from the city of Oryol.

Sinitsyna said she believed most of the country supported Zyuganov. "The people are voting for the Communist Party alone, but the elections are fraudulent," she said.

Zyuganov, 63, will need Sinitsyna's loyalty to spread beyond the Red Belt if he hopes to mount any sort of challenge in the March presidential election. President Vladimir Putin said last month that five people stood a real chance of succeeding him, and he identified Zyuganov as one of them. (The other people he named were Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.)

Zyuganov, however, is indelibly linked to the Communist Party, and opinion polls give him little chance of winning unless his party manages to pull off a surprise upset in State Duma elections in December.

Zyuganov is one of the few politicians who has withstood shifting political winds to stay in national politics for most of the post-Soviet years. The Duma elections will be his fifth consecutive vote on the Communist ticket, and the presidential race will be his third. Zyuganov's survival appears to be largely connected to his promises of a return of Soviet-era benefits and the devout support of an elderly -- and dwindling -- voter base.

"Any sound person who sees our electoral platform will support it," Zyuganov said at a news conference last month.

"Our task now is to get each household to hear it at least four or five times," he said in a nod to the miniscule coverage he gets on state-controlled television.

Gennady Andreyevich Zyuganov

Born: June 26, 1944

Place of Birth: Mymrino, Oryol region

Education: Oryol State Teachers Institute, degree to teach physics and mathematics; Academy of Social Sciences with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, master's in science; Moscow State University, doctorate in science

Advantages: Close to the people; interpersonal skills; deft bureaucrat able to adapt to all post-Soviet governments.

Disadvantages: His appeal lies mainly with elderly people; hasn't managed to rise in power beyond the position of Communist leader in nearly 15 years.

Notable Quotes: "The Earth is a spaceship that moves with an enormous speed through the universe. This spaceship accommodates more than 6 billion cosmonauts. It's clear that the Earth's resources, as those of any spaceship, are limited. ... The barbarian capitalism and rapacious consumerism imposed by Americans flagrantly contradicts Earth's nature, and the Earth has started to take merciless revenge ... with the savage hurricane that flooded New Orleans and powerful fires. ... If we don't fight capitalism, we will simply destroy the Earth and die on this ship." Interview with The Moscow Times, 2007.

"The great Stalin does not need to be rehabilitated, but we need to point out once again Stalin's achievements of constructing socialism and saving humanity from the brown plague." A 2005 congress of communist parties from the former Soviet Union, cited in Izvestia.

"The ideology, culture and global outlook of the Western world are becoming more and more influenced by the Jews scattered around the world. Jewish influence grows not by the day, but by the hour." In his 1995 book "I Believe in Russia."

But Zyuganov's popularity is sliding. Just 4 percent of voters are ready to vote for him as president, compared with 15 percent in October 2000, according to surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation. In the 2001 election, Zyuganov went on to get 29.21 percent of the vote, losing to Putin, who had 52.52 percent. He skipped the 2004 election after the Communists faired poorly in Duma elections the previous December.

The closest Zyuganov came to winning the presidency was in 1996, when he collected about 32 percent in the first round of voting -- just 3 percent behind incumbent President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin struck a deal with a rival candidate, Alexander Lebed, before the second round and ended up beating Zyuganov by 13.31 percent.

Some former allies believe Zyuganov reached a deal with Yeltsin as well. "I am sure he had some kind of agreement with the administration," said Konstantin Zhukov, a former Moscow campaign manager for Zyuganov who heads a dissident group of the Communist Youth Union, the official youth wing of the Communist Party.

Zhukov said Zyuganov could have contested the 1996 vote if he had organized mass street protests like the Ukrainian opposition did after the fraudulent presidential election in their country in 2004.

Anatoly Baranov, ousted last month after serving for four years as the editor of the Communist Party's web site, was more blunt about Zyuganov. "He is a coward," Baranov said. "He does not fight for power. It's not important for him to be somebody but to produce the impression of being somebody."

Zyuganov did not mention the 1996 election in an interview during his trip to the Oryol region. His spokesman declined a request for a follow-up interview, citing Zyuganov's busy schedule.

Tacit Support of Putin?

The Communists dominated the Duma throughout the 1990s but lost control to pro-Putin factions in 1999. Their popularity has sunk as Putin's power has grown, but they still win seats in national and local elections -- a direct result, critics said, of Zyuganov's tacit support of the Kremlin.

"There is no real opposition here," said Zhukov, who aligned his splinter group of 20,000 youths with A Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin party, in August.

He was echoed by Ilya Ponomaryov, leader of the Communists' Youth Left Front, which dropped Zyuganov for A Just Russia last month. "Zyuganov's political views are rather opportunistic and transitory," Ponomaryov said. "He doesn't have an ideology. ... He loves Russia and loves to talk about it."

Zyuganov said in the interview that the Communists do have an ideology and that it has adapted to changing times. As a result, he said, the party now supports religious freedom and private property, among other things.

Working Russia party leader Viktor Anpilov, who has accused Zyuganov of having a "policy of accommodation" toward the Kremlin since the early 1990s, described Zyuganov's ideology as "Orthodox communism."

"His ideas are closer to Putin's but have nothing to do with the communists," Anpilov said in an interview at a conference by opposition coalition The Other Russia in late September.

Indeed, Zyuganov rarely criticizes Putin's domestic policy over anything but social issues, and in the interview he voiced only one cautious concern. "Putin appoints everyone and is not responsible for anything," he said, in a reference to Putin's power to appoint governors, federal judges, prosecutors, auditors and the Cabinet.

Zyuganov broadly backed Putin's hawkish foreign policy, saying he supported the recent expulsion of British diplomats and tests of new intercontinental missiles. The expulsion was a tit-for-tat response amid a dispute over Moscow's refusal to extradite a suspect in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko last year. The missile tests came after the United States said it planned to deploy elements of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"There are very influential forces in the West that don't like Russia," Zyuganov said. "And they will fight with Russia as long as it is big and strong."

A Disciplined Student

Natalya krainova / MT
Several Zyuganov books on display in a school in his native Mymrino village.
Zyuganov spent his childhood, youth and a large part of his adult life in the Oryol region, where wide expanses of farmland produce wheat, rye and buckwheat. Born in 1944 to parents who were teachers, Zyuganov is remembered by former classmates as both studious and athletic.

Alexander Lavrukhin, who lived next door to Zyuganov's family in the village of Mymrino, said that even in grade school he noticed Zyuganov's ability "to guide the collective" and "set and accomplish tasks."

He said Zyuganov's parents were well respected in the village and that their son studied hard to avoid disappointing them. "I last saw Zyuganov a couple of years ago," Lavrukhin said, speaking outside his house in Mymrino. "He acted the same as before: severe on himself and others."

After graduating with honors from the Mymrino school in 1961, Zyuganov taught mathematics, physical education and military training at the school for a year. In 1969, he graduated from the Oryol State Teachers Institute with a degree to teach physics and mathematics, and he taught at the institute for a year.

Zyuganov immersed himself in academia for the next decade, studying at the Academy of Social Sciences with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and earning a master's degree in science.

Svetlana Polyanskaya, 65, editor of the Iskra newspaper, who worked with Zyuganov in 1975, when he was second secretary of the party's Oryol city committee, described him as a "phenomenal all-around scholar."

"At that very time, he was defending his doctoral dissertation, and he didn't waste a minute," Polyanskaya said. "At every lunch break, he spent just 10 minutes eating and 40 minutes studying."

Later, Zyuganov received a doctorate in science from Moscow State University, and his name appears on more than 150 works on history, politics and philosophy.

Some of Zyuganov's former supporters accuse him of putting his name on works written by other people. "Zyuganov outdid Marx and Lenin by the number of his works, but any linguistic expertise will prove that they were written by different people," said Baranov, the former web editor.

Zyuganov's spokesman Alexander Yushchenko declined to comment on the allegation this week, citing a lack of time.

Zyuganov and his wife, Nadezhda, have a son, Andrei, 39, and daughter, Tatyana, 33, and three grandsons, ages 10, 13, and 17. Andrei Zyuganov, a graduate of Bauman Moscow State Technical University, is a businessman, while his sister studied to be a secretary and is now a housewife.

Foray Into Politics

Zyuganov got into politics while studying at the Oryol institute in 1967, when he was elected head of a union of students and professors and took a leadership post in the institute's Komsomol youth group.

Zyuganov said his love for mathematics sparked his interest in politics. "Politics is a very serious thing. A theorem is never reconsidered, but in politics new variables are sometimes introduced every week, and there is a need to reconsider," he said.

His Komsomol position was followed by promotions to the Party's city and regional committees, where he served until 1983, then to the Party's Central Committee, where he served until 1989.

Finally, in December 1993, Zyuganov was elected to the Duma with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. He had been elected party leader a few months earlier.

Zyuganov's funding comes from a combination of party membership dues, medium-size businesses and the federal budget, which allots money to parties with Duma seats. Zyuganov has denied news reports that Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos helped finance the party's Duma campaign in 2003, although former Yukos executives Sergei Muravlenko and Alexei Kondaurov were included on the party's ticket.

Baranov accused Zyuganov of running the party like his personal fiefdom and forcing potential rivals and dissenters to leave under various pretexts. "The party has turned into Zyuganov's personal office," he said. The party, in dismissing Baranov, accused him of plotting to subvert party policy to reflect "the interests of pro-Western forces."

Oleg Shenin, whose Communist Party of the Soviet Union allied itself with Zyuganov's party from 1993 to 2001, said Zyuganov could come across as "too proud, self-enamored and arrogant." Shenin parted ways with Zyuganov after Zyuganov refused to back his suggestion to create a united Communist party with Belarus.

The list of people who have left the party after disputes with Zyuganov reads like a who's who of Russian politics: Sergei Glazyev, Gennady Semigin, Gennady Seleznyov, Svetlana Goryacheva, Mikhail Lapshin, Aman Tuleyev and Alexander Tkachyov, to name a few.

Many former allies were reluctant to comment for this report.

"Zyuganov and I were close for several years, but then we had a disagreement," said Alexander Prokhanov, editor of the Zavtra newspaper. "I have a very critical attitude to his role [in politics] and don't want to comment on it for that reason. I feel uneasy."

Asked to comment on Zyuganov, National Bolshevik founder Eduard Limonov said, "I just don't want to." He added, however, that Zyuganov and Yavlinsky were "the two people who hinder the unification of opposition."

Limonov and Zyuganov go back to at least 1992, when they helped organize the National Salvation Front, an anti-Yeltsin coalition. Their groups rallied together as recently as last year, but Limonov has since disassociated himself from Zyuganov and joined The Other Russia.

Glazyev, who left the Communist Party in 2003, and Semigin, who left in 2004, declined to comment for this report, and their spokespeople said they never commented on Zyuganov or his party. Seleznyov, who left in 2002, said through an assistant that he did not have time for an interview.

Few people challenge Zyuganov over his interpersonal communication skills. "He knows how to talk to people in their language and not behave arrogantly," said Pyotr Miloserdov, a former senior Communist official who created a democratic movement called The People in late June.

Zyuganov does surprise people. Never widely known for his sense of humor, he unexpectedly published a book of jokes for April Fool's Day this year. Zyuganov has been making up jokes to tell friends and colleagues for years, his spokesman said. Two of his other hobbies are volleyball and beekeeping.

Zyuganov also loves nature. "Gennady Andreyevich likes very much to look in the bright blue sky," said Prokhanov, the Zavtra editor. "When he looks at Russian landscapes, his eyes grow tender and he says, 'Life is so good.'"

With moments like this, Zyuganov defies supporters and opponents who try to narrowly define him.

"I am often asked, 'Who am I pretending to be?'" Zyuganov said of his presidential ambitions. "It's not about me pretending.

"I am perhaps one of the few politicians who has been everywhere in Russia. My knowledge of Russia is good and profound. ... I believe that I have the right background for it."

Editor's note: This is the fifth is a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates. Previous profiles can be read at