MOSCOW (Reuters) - Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Gennady Zyuganov still has a small white bust of Lenin in his office and still says he wants to restore communist rule to Russia.
Opinion polls show the veteran communist leader and his party have almost no chance of winning elections in a country where capitalism is now rampant and Vladimir Putin is dominant.
But at 67, Zyuganov is undeterred and leading the Russian Communist Party into a parliamentary campaign for the sixth time and gearing up for his fourth bid to become president.
The burly former physics teacher is back on the campaign trail, booming out criticism of Putin’s United Russia party and lambasting capitalism in his by now familiar bass voice to crowds of often elderly supporters waving red flags.
“No one believed in 1917 that the October Revolution would happen. Don’t rush to conclusions (about the elections),” Zyuganov told Reuters in an interview at the party’s central committee headquarters in Moscow.
Lamenting the state of the economy, he said: “We’re last among the Group of 20 countries, last among the BRIC countries (of emerging economies) and last among the oil producers. The path chosen by the country’s leaders is totally bankrupt.”
But for all Zyuganov’s fighting talk, victory over United Russia in an election on December 4 would be as unexpected as the Bolshevik Revolution that swept the communists to power in 1917.
Polls indicate United Russia will remain dominant in the State Duma (lower house) with the Communists far behind on about 13 percent of votes. The same surveys also predict a comfortable victory for Putin in a presidential election in March.
But second place in the Duma election could be enough to satisfy the Communists, ensuring they remain Russia’s main parliamentary opposition party.
“In reality they don’t hold out hope of victory. They have different goals which involve just keeping their position in the State Duma,” political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said, describing the Communists as part of a “systemic opposition.”
Zyuganov dismissed suggestions his party was part of a pliant opposition with the other groups in the Duma -- maverick Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats and the Just Russia party, until recently a firm ally of United Russia.
But in a sign that winning is not everything for the Communists, Zyuganov said he wanted voters to back his party “because we need a counterweight in the Duma” to United Russia.
PUTIN‘S RATINGS FALL
The Communists’ best hope of winning new votes comes from signs that voters may be tired of Putin, who was greeted by boos at a recent appearance, and are disillusioned with United Russia, the main parliamentary force since 2003.
An opinion poll this month showed 61 percent of respondents approved of Putin’s work as premier, his lowest rating since 2000, and 51 percent said they would vote for United Russia -- down from 60 percent the previous week.
The drop in support reflects public frustration with economic problems in the world’s largest energy-producing state and a decision by Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev to swap roles in their ruling “tandem” next year without consulting voters.
After eight years as president, and four as prime minister, Putin could rule until 2024 if he wins two more terms.
“For four years the tandem fooled people by saying both of them would run in the election, but it turns out they agreed everything long ago,” Zyuganov said, saying the Russian people should not be treated in such a way.
The Communists say they fear foul play in the Duma election and complain that they and other opposition parties do not have as much air time on television as United Russia because coverage is dominated by Putin and Medvedev.
But they still bank on winning votes from elderly Russians who preferred the relative stability of the communist past.
“My pension is tiny, while under Soviet laws it was quite decent. Back then we didn’t lose our satellites, and look at what’s happening now,” said Galina Sergeyevna, 73, who gave only her name and patronymic, referring to space program setbacks.
Zyuganov also hopes the Communists have something to offer younger people. This is vital if the party is to survive because the number of older supporters is dwindling with each year.
“Thirty thousand young people have joined the party. Our voters are people who read, think and work, people in small and medium business, people who are inventors, people who understand that the country is being dragged up a dead-end street and kicked from all sides,” he said.
Zyuganov may be able to pick up votes from some young people with no memory of the Soviet era.
But for many other people, the Communists are anathema after seven decades of Soviet rule which included the execution of opponents, the exile of many more to prison camps in Siberia, shortages of many goods, and severe travel restrictions.
“When Putin came to power at least something started to change in this life,” said Artyom, 26, a travel agency operator.
Zyuganov also faces a challenge to convince the many Russians addicted to consumerism that communism has a place in modern Russia, where cities are awash with flashy cars, expensive shopping malls and luxury restaurants.
“I wouldn’t vote communist. I wouldn’t want the long queues back,” said a young Muscovite who gave her name as Lyudmila.
The party has tried to update the communist platform for the modern day. Zyuganov talks of spending more to protect the environment and is careful to underline that his party respects democracy, human rights and freedom of speech.
He no longer talks of rebuilding the Soviet Union although the communists want to forge closer ties again with Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- as does the Kremlin.
But his language is still peppered with phrases from the Soviet era, with criticism of “speculative liberal capitalism,” mockery of the West’s “beloved America” and condemnation of the “corruption, theft and banditry” of capitalist society.
The Communists’ program is presented under the slogan “Politics of the majority - the way to victory!” in a simple pamphlet featuring cartoons of a muscular laborer in red overalls bearing the party’s hammer-and-sickle symbol.
Policies include nationalizing natural resources and key branches of industry and promising social guarantees, or state handouts. Financial policy would be based on a group of state banks and fiscal policy would involve introducing a progressive tax. Russia now has a flat 13 percent personal income tax.
After a poor showing in 1993, the Communists won the 1995 Duma election, but Zyuganov narrowly lost out on the big prize when Boris Yeltsin held on to the main seat of power in a presidential election a few months later in 1996.
Although the Communists remained the biggest single party in parliament in an election in 1999, they have since lost ground and United Russia has held sway in the Duma since 2003. After his defeat by Yeltsin, Zyuganov was also beaten to the presidency by Putin in 2000 and by Medvedev in 2008.
Editing by Mark Heinrich