MOSCOW — Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideas of Marx and Lenin are making a comeback in Russia with a wave of young leftists whose potential for mass appeal seems to have rattled the Kremlin.
The most high-profile of this new generation of leftists, Sergei Udaltsov, made international headlines last month when he and two others from his Left Front political movement were charged with planning mass disorder across Russia based on accusations in a TV documentary aired by a pro-Kremlin station.
All three face up to 10 years behind bars on the charges, which they deny.
"The Kremlin's persecution of leftist activists makes it very clear that the authorities are wary of socialist groups," Alexei Sakhnin, 30, a leading Left Front member, told The Washington Times. "Russia has always been a leftist country, and the vast majority of the population would support a moderate socialist program."
The leftists form a key part of a loose-knit coalition of pro-democracy, economic justice and anti-corruption activists who have opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule – opposition that Mr. Putin has attributed in part to Western interference.
Widespread nostalgia for the Soviet era among older Russians has allowed the Communist Party to enjoy a significant place in parliament, behind Mr. Putin's ruling United Russia party.
But the new vanguard of young leftists excoriates the Communists, who continue to sing the praises of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
"The Communist Party has no real desire to attempt to take power and is a corrupted, compromised opposition," said Mr. Sakhnin. "And their respect for Stalin greatly limits their appeal. We condemn Stalin. That's what makes us so threatening. There is a real hunger for genuine leftist groups."
'Modernized form of socialism'
Russia's Left Front calls for a socialist economic system, a democratic political system and greater political and economic cooperation with other nations – and the group's rhetoric seems to have struck a chord among many Russians.
A public opinion survey by the state-run polling firm VTsIOM this year indicated that Mr. Udaltsov was the only high-profile protest leader whose popularity ratings increased since Mr. Putin's election to a third presidential term in March.
A former KGB officer, Mr. Putin himself has flirted with leftist ideals throughout his 13 years in power. In 2006, he famously called the breakup of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.
Mr. Putin's campaign ahead of the presidential election this year was based in part on leftist ideas, such as a much-trumpeted alliance with labor unions and promises of social spending.
"Putin's pre-election campaign was centered on leftist populism," said Isabelle Magkoeva, 21, a rising star of Russia's left and an activist with the Revolutionary Socialist Movement. "But the new leftist groups are so dangerous for the authorities because they can expose these fictitious alliances."
Although Ms. Magkoeva praised former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin as a "great revolutionary," she offered a negative assessment of the Soviet Union itself, which ceased to exist the same year she was born.
"There was no genuine socialism in the Soviet Union," she said. "And it is inaccurate to portray us all as seeking a return to the past. That simply isn't true. We are for a new, modernized form of socialism."
The rising popularity of socialist ideas among young Russians has been bolstered by the country's appalling record on wealth inequality, highlighted this month in a report by the Swiss financial services company Credit Suisse Group AG.
"Excluding small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires, wealth inequality in Russia is the highest in the world," the report said. "Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for less than 2 percent of total household wealth; in Russia today, around 100 billionaires own 30 percent of all personal assets."
'Miss Russia' speaks out
Analysts say such statistics represent a time bomb for the Kremlin.
"Socialist ideas were discredited in Russia in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but young people are today rediscovering them," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think tank.
"A few years ago, it seemed that nationalist groups posed the greatest danger to the authorities," Ms. Shevtsova said. "But now it is clear that it is the new left."
A growing dissatisfaction with wealth inequality was highlighted this week by stinging criticism of Russia's rulers from an unlikely source – a "Miss Russia" beauty queen.
"My poor, long-suffering country [is being] mercilessly torn to pieces by greedy, dishonest, unbelieving people," said Natalia Pereverzeva, 23, when asked to describe her homeland for the annual Miss Earth beauty pageant. "My Russia is a beggar. My Russia cannot help her elderly and orphans. From it, bleeding, like from a sinking ship, engineers, doctors, teachers are fleeing, because they have nothing to live on."
Ilya Ponomaryov, 37, an opposition lawmaker with the A Just Russia party and a founding member of the Left Front coalition, welcomes the increased popularity of socialist ideas among Russian youths.
"Left-wing groups in Russia openly sought a return to a socialism system in the 1990s, but they were entirely discredited," said Mr. Ponomaryov. "But people have now again begun to see leftist ideas as a real alternative, and it's a very positive sign that more and more young people are getting involved."
He dismissed suggestions that history has proved that it is impossible to build a viable society on the principles of socialism and communism.
"They all got [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels wrong," he said of failed socialist states, referring to the authors of "The Communist Manifesto." "You have to get the economic approach right first before you can build a socialist country."
But Mr. Ponomaryov acknowledged having "mixed feelings" about the Soviet Union.
"It was a strong state with many social guarantees, but there was far too much bureaucracy," he said. "But it's clear things were better in the Soviet Union than they are now. There was no freedom of speech or human rights back then, but there isn't any now, either."