MOSCOW Just 20 years ago, they seemed consigned to the dustbin of history. At Sunday's parliamentary polls, Russia's communists drew students, intellectuals, even some businessmen in forging an opposition to Vladimir Putin's wounded United Russia party.
The Communist Party (CPRF) for most Russians evokes images of bemedalled war veterans and the elderly poor deprived of pensions and left behind in a "New Russia" of glitzy indulgence. Large swathes of society have appeared beyond the reach of the red flag and hammer and sickle.
Not that the Communist Party's doubling of its vote to about 20 percent presages any imminent assault on power. The memories of repression in the old communist Soviet Union, the labor camps and the regimentation are still too fresh for many. But vote for the Party they did, if perhaps with gritted teeth.
"With sadness I remember how I passionately vowed to my grandfather I would never vote for the Communists," Yulia Serpikova, 27, a freelance location manager in the film industry, told Reuters. "It's sad that with the ballot in hand I had to tick the box for them to vote against it all."
For many Russians disillusioned by rampant corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor, the communists represented the only credible opposition to Putin's United Russia.
Through all the turmoil of the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, the party kept a strong national organization based on regions and workplace. With access to official media limited for the opposition, this has been a huge advantage.
Also the communists, ironically, benefited from the votes of some pro-Western liberals who saw little or no hope of kindred parties such as economist Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko clearing the seven percent threshold to enter parliament. Yabloko doubled their vote to 3.3 percent.
The vote for the communists, commanding a support base that guaranteed seats, would reliably count against United Russia. Votes cast for Yabloko, failing at the threshold, would be redistributed to the successful parties, most gallingly United Russia.
"Many people (40 percent) didn't vote, simply saying there's no-one to vote for and it's all decided ahead of time," said veteran commentator Vladimir Pozner said. "That's a shame because if more had voted, Yabloko might have got in."
In the end though Yabloko is too closely associated in the minds of many with the economic and social chaos of the 1990s.
"The Communists are the only real party out there," said one Western banker in Moscow. "United Russia is a joke, Just Russia is a joke and the LDPR is a joke and many people know it. So they vote communist because they realize it is a real vote for the opposition and against United Russia.
"This is as ironic as you get."
ANGER AT THE RULING PARTY
United Russia was founded largely as a vehicle for Putin, whose authority suffered a blow with the party's fall in support from 64 percent in 2007 to 49.5 percent, according to exit polls and early official results.
The nationalist LDPR is built around one man, the colorful and somewhat eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Other parties lack national structure.
"United Russia has angered everybody, so people are looking for an alternative," said Alexander Kurov, 19, one of a long line of students in slippers and T-shirts queuing to vote inside the marble halls of Moscow's mammoth Soviet-built state university dormitory.
"I don't particularly like the communists but there is no one else (to vote for) and I don't want my vote to be stolen," Kurov, a student of physics, told Reuters.
At the Communist Party headquarters hung with portraits of Lenin and heavy gold-on-red velvet hammer-and-sickle banners, party leader Gennady Zyuganov complained of fraud and described the election as "theft on an especially grand scale".
"Despite their efforts to break public opinion, the country has refused to support United Russia," he said.
He said police had barred Communist monitors from several polling stations across the country, adding that "some ended up in hospital with broken bones". Some ballot boxes, he said, had been stuffed with ballots before voting began.
In a bizarre flip, today's communists have benefited from satire on Russia's vibrant blogosphere comparing Putin's party to the all powerful Communist Party of Soviet times.
One popular image shows Putin's face aged and superimposed on a portrait of doddering Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, mocking the prime minister's plan to return to the presidency in March for two possible terms until 2024.
Voters wary of United Russia said their decision was purely a matter of cold electoral arithmetic, backing the party most likely to cross a seven percent threshold and win enough seats to act as a counterweight to Putin's party.
"I am voting against Putin, to weaken his party, so it makes sense to vote for a party that will make it in," Sergei Yemilianov, 46, a mathematics professor, said.
Analyst Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center described votes gained by the Communist Party as "similar to writing a four letter word on the ballot."
"It's a sign of defiance," she told Reuters. "The government has turned this election into a farce and in response people are turning their electoral choice into a travesty."
A NEW REALITY
Perceptions among some Russians that the nationalist LDPR party and Just Russia are in the Kremlin's pocket and will vote with United Russia in parliament also helped the communists.
"We are losing votes to the Communist Party, who people think of as more of an opposition party because it doesn't have a history of cooperation with the authorities like we sadly do," Gennady Gudkov, a senior lawmaker with Just Russia, said.
Russia's lower house is largely considered a rubber stamp body for the Kremlin, but if United Russia loses its majority experts say the new balance of power may see the return of some real political debate.
One communist lawmaker hailed the victory as "a new political reality" on Sunday evening.
"They are a different party than in Soviet times," Anna, 21, a student of mechanics at the Moscow State University, said. "I have a lot of friends who are activists for the Communists Party. It's become popular."
Young Communist Party deputy Yuri Afonov, 34, told Reuters by telephone from Tambov that people were upset with the political order and many saw the Internet as the only place in which real opinions were voiced.
The Communist Party may be a long way from fundamentally changing its image. Its success may reflect disenchantment with Putin and his party far more than a new yen for communist order.
But one contributor to the Communist Party's chat forum offered a new genre of 'communist cool' with a rap composition.
"Want to get back what they took from me
Free schooling ain't no free lunch
Free medicine is my right, you see
What matters to you? Whose side you on?
Want to help your country
So it's our choice and it's our rap
So we go vote for the CPRF"
(Additional reporting by Alexei Kalmykov, Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Ralph Boultion, Editing by Timothy Heritage/Janet McBride)