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The Red East How Russia’s Communist Party achieved unprecedented electoral success in Russia’s Far East — previously a stronghold for the far-right Liberal Democrats
Russia’s Far East has traditionally been considered LDPR country: in the 2016 State Duma election, the party came in second only to United Russia in every region of the Far Eastern Federal District except Yakutia, where it shared second place with KPRF. Five years ago, LDPR won between 20-30 percent of the vote in the Far East, compared to its average 13 percent throughout the country, and won a similar share of the vote in local legislative elections. In 2021, however, the right-wing Liberal Democrats lost their status as the Far East’s main opposition force, winning only half as many votes as in the previous election, and in some places only a third. This year, it was the Communists who embodied the protest vote. While KPRF received 7-18 percent of the vote throughout the Far East in the 2016 State Duma elections, they received 12-35 percent this time around (more than 20 percent in most regions). United Russia still won in districts throughout the region, albeit on shaky ground, but the Communists are confident voters supported them not only as an act of protest but also for ideological reasons — and they’re determined to take their success further.
The Ussuriysk Navy vs. the Red Protesters
In September’s election, LDPR’s representation in the Primorsky Krai Regional Duma shrunk from five deputies to one. What’s more, the party wasn’t able to advance even one candidate in a single-mandate constituency. While the Liberal Democrats were the third most popular party in the regional elections five years ago, leaving the Communists only 0.4 percent of the vote, this year they came in fourth.
In the 2016 Duma elections in Primorye, LDPR came in second, slightly ahead of the Communists. This September, though, they came in third in that race, with their share of the vote falling from 19 to 7.7 percent.
KPRF won 14 seats (as opposed to 8 in 2016), 10 of which were won in single-mandate districts. This is unusual — as a rule, the Communists usually win their seats by party list. Additionally, KPRF won all eight single-mandate constituencies in Primorye’s capital, Vladivostok.
“In 2016, a lot of people voted for LDPR and ‘A Just Russia,’ but people also see that they work for United Russia. People here are capable and competent, they’re not stupid. They realize LDPR is a pro-government party,” KPRF Vladivostok city committee head Artyom Samsonov told Meduza.
At the same time, he believes people support the Communists as a matter of principle — not just as a protest vote, like with LDPR. As evidence, he cited the number of votes won by another communist party, the Communists of Russia. That party’s candidate, Vitaly Libanov, received 15 thousand votes, while Samsonov himself won 45 thousand. “Nobody knows him, but in some precincts, Libanov took up to a third of the votes — he was higher up on the ballot, and people just saw the word “Communist” and voted,” said Samsonov, adding that people currently take into account party above all else.
Samsonov also pointed out that it wasn’t only nameless candidates who were hoping to use KPRF’s name recognition who ran on the party’s ticket; there were locally famous people running, too, including City Duma deputies from Vladivostok and its neighboring Bolshoy Kamen, activists, and journalists. In Samsonov’s opinion, the “party of power” unwittingly helped the Communists out.
“United Russia miscalculated, they created more constituencies and decreased the number of party-list seats, like, ‘Okay, if they don’t vote for us by party list, let’s run our candidates in single-mandate constituencies.’ But Communists don’t have any money, so it’s easier for our candidates to win in small constituencies, where they can work, go door-to-door, talk to voters, whereas a big constituency would take longer,” said Samsonov.
According to him, in the past, opposition parties benefitted from high voter turnout, but even with 2021’s relatively low turnout, KPRF did strikingly well. “You can always count on a certain level of falsification from the government — they’ll pay someone off, bring in state employees to the polls, use government resources. If turnout is relatively high, this all gets diluted and doesn’t have a decisive effect. This time, turnout wasn’t the highest, but the national mood is different after pension reform, and people basically understand that 30 years have passed with nothing changing in our country,” said Samsonov.
Samsonov himself advanced Primorye’s Legislative Assembly by party list, where KPRF came in second, but lost his State Duma campaign in a single-mandate district, losing to United Russia candidate Alexander Shcherbakov by 25 thousand votes. The number three Communist in the assembly was Artavazd Oganesyan, the son of major real estate developer Seiran Oganesyan (Artavazd had already served in the previous regional parliament). A source close to the presidential administration said the Oganesyan family is one of KPRF’s largest sponsors in the region.
Samsonov is confident he would have won if it hadn’t been for extenuating circumstances in Ussuriysk and other rural regions in the constituency. He believes that under normal circumstances, KPRF would have won both the regional parliamentary election and the State Duma election.
“We have regions that we like to call ‘the Chechnya of Primorye’: Dalnerechensk, Chuguyevka. These are small villages with great distances that make it hard to observe the elections for violations,” said Second Secretary of KPRF regional committee Yevgeny Lyashenko, who won the regional parliamentary election in one of Vladivostok’s single-mandate districts.
He recalled the old “Ussuriysk Navy” memes that proliferated on the Internet at the time. During the 2018 Primorsky Krai gubernatorial election, in which Communist candidate Andrey Ishchenko was leading for the first time, ahead of acting head of the region Andrey Tarasenko, during the vote count, constituencies began to appear in Ussuriysk that showed 100 percent of voters voting for Tarasenko. Central Electoral Commission Ella Pamfilova said at the time that there had been no violations at the polling places in question because they were locating on ships — despite the fact that Ussuriysk is located several dozen kilometers from the sea, and therefore has no such floating voting booths.
“At first, Artyom was in the lead, and we joked that the Ussuriysk Navy was going to come and drown us — and that’s exactly what happened,” said Lyashenko.
According to him, the Communists in Ussuriysk “practically managed” to advance one more candidate in a single-mandate constituency — local municipal deputy Oleg Grigoryev. He was leading in the majority of districts, but in electoral commission No. 2812, according to a protocol signed by all members of the Precinct Electoral Commission, United Russia’s candidate won 74 more votes.
But “Elections,” the state automated system for tracking vote totals, shows a different result. According to it, United Russia’s candidate won by 93 votes. Grigoryev’s election monitors were forcibly removed from the election commission’s premises by police, while KPRF lawyer Yana Shestakova sustained injuries. After that, the territorial election commission (TIK) conducted a recount that resolved the difference between the number of ballots and the “Elections” result.
“On September 21, there was no oversight in the TIK building, the seal in the room that contained the ballots was broken. On September 22, the TIK conducted a recount,” Shestakova told Meduza’s correspondent. According to official figures, United Russia’s candidate beat KPRF candidate by a margin of eight votes. KPRF’s Primorsky branch is currently appealing the results in Ussuriysk.
“My color is red”
In Vladivostok, the Communists’ advantage was so great that the kind of “light correction” employed in Ussuriysk wouldn’t be enough. City Deputy Nadezhda Telelyuyeva, for example, beat United Russia’s candidate by an almost two-fold margin (8 thousand vs. 4.3 thousand votes), while journalist and blogger Gennady Shulga received one and a half thousand more votes than his opponent.
KPRF’s candidate also beat out some high-profile candidates. Telelyuyeva beat Far Eastern Federal University (DVFU) rector Alexey Koshel, while Shulga beat United Russia’s main ideologue in the region, Dmitry Novikov. Lyubov Terendina, another KPRF candidate, beat Pacific State Medical University rector Valentina Shumatova.
“For the administration, I’m an extremely toxic figure — the fact that I made it [into the regional parliament] has their eye twitching, I’m surprised they even let me run in the election. I was told there would be a difference of a few dozen, maybe even 200 votes, but they were sure to come up with something to ensure I wouldn’t be allowed in. But a 1300-vote difference is really a lot. The authorities knew that if they start falsifying things, it would be a huge scandal,” Shulga told Meduza’s correspondent.
The newly-minted deputy has little in common with the stereotypical communist, or even with the average KPRF candidate — he wears trendy glasses, tennis shoes, and hoodies, and has an upbeat, cheery way of speaking. His job likely contributes to this: he’s a local journalist, well-known in the area. In February, security officials conducted a search of Shulga and confiscated all his equipment, as well as interrogating him as a witness to a pro-Navalny rally that took place on January 23, which Shulga covered with the outlet newsbox24.tv.
Shulga calls himself a “social democrat,” and currently has no plans to become a communist. “I’m not a member of the party — KPRF, even with its messaging about a dictatorship of the proletariat, is generally democratic, they don’t make anyone join the party. I’m someone with a heightened sense of social justice, I can see there’s something wrong in our country, and I want to change the situation,” he told Meduza. He’s the first to admit that he’s still “in shock” at his victory, and he credits both the national mood and his “personal popularity.” “Beating such a strong United Russia candidate in a protest wave is just unreal,” he said.
Shulga admits that he chose to run on KPRF’s ticket because there was “no other freaking party to join,” and that while they might seem too close to the establishment, they’re currently the only party with a chance of becoming a real opposition force.
“I often hear in meetings, ‘Zyuganov sold everything back in 1996.” My answer is that I was 10 years old back then, and I have no connection to that whatsoever — we don’t. Sure, maybe Zyuganov is making some backroom deals, but KPRF is more than just Zyuganov, and they might have their own game going on at the top, but further down the party hierarchy are a lot of young people — 30-40 years old. It’s not the communist principles they care about, it’s the social democratic ones,” Shulga told Meduza’s correspondent.
Nadezhda Telelyuyeva, a deputy in the Vladivostok City Duma who recently won the regional legislative assembly election, admitted that, even a few years ago, she was hardly even an activist. “Other than going to a protest or two against a ban on importing vehicles with steering wheels on the right side, I’m just a regular person.” She got into politics thanks to former KPRF gubernatorial candidate Andrey Ishchenko, who suggested Telelyuyeva run for State Duma in 2017. The campaign was a success. “I went to meet everyone in the constituency,” she recalled.
Telelyuyeva became a popular city deputy — she goes after negligent company managers, fights to install new benches, and posts about her various successes on Instagram. “I feel comfortable in KPRF, and it’s interesting for me to work on this territory. Sure, you can point to some pressure points in the party, and if my party was dark blue, they would have said, ‘Nadya, stop it!’ a long time ago. But my color is red,” she said, laughing.
United Russia chose quite a high-status opponent for Telelyuyeva: DVFU acting rector Alexey Koshel, who previously had no connection to the constituency. Koshel’s political strategists tried their best to outplay Telelyuyeva, putting up flyers with images of a black horse — for the “dark horse” candidate — Koshel’s last name. Residents weren’t big fans of the campaign; the posters were hung everywhere, including on people’s freshly-painted homes. “It’s not quite that the region was fighting an outside invader,” said Telelyuyeva, “although, on second thought, it was.”
Next, fake flyers with Telelyuyeva’s face began to appear on the same buildings and doors, but even then, she was able to score some points with voters when she began personally tearing them down and washing away the marks they left. Finally, another candidate from that constituency tried to get Telelyuyeva removed from the race: DVFU employee Maxim Beloborodov, who represented “A Just Russia.” Beloborodov formally accused Telelyuyeva of having connections to Alexey Navalny’s organization, citing her participation in a rally supporting Navalny on January 23. Ultimately, though, Beloborodov called off his lawsuit. “Suddenly, there was a wave of support for me, and all the people who hadn’t heard of me previously suddenly knew who I was. It was especially good that commission members heard about me,” she said.
All of KPRF’s candidates Meduza spoke to said that they only managed to win because they sent their own election monitors to the polls themselves, though they said this was easier in Vladivostok and Bolshoy Kamen than in rural areas and in local “electoral sultanates.” Lyashenko threw up his hands: “Our guys tried to go to Nakhodka to monitor, and as soon as it came time to count the votes, these big guys came in and removed them, hiding the whole process.”
Despite the fact that KPRF doesn’t have a majority in the regional assembly (only 14 out of 40 total seats), the communists can now have a meaningful effect on what happens in parliament. “They have to consider us a factor now. We can disrupt sessions, leave the chamber, break quorum. For statutory matters, you need two-thirds of the vote. We might finally have the chance to make public policy. I’m so glad I had a hand in it and will get to participate, I just can’t get over it,” said Gennady Shulga.
Artyom Samsonov believes the Communists may even be able to reach a majority in the Vladivostok City Duma. “After this year’s result, there will be a lot of [strong candidates] who want to run on KPRF’s ticket, and we’ll have all the constituencies covered. If the constituencies are smaller again, they’ll be easier to work in,” he predicted. Yevgeny Lyashenko and Nadezhda Telelyuyeva were more careful with their forecasts. According to Lyashenko, United Russia will take measures to counteract their losses in the city — “at the very least, they’ll be working hard in the constituencies. […] That’s why I’m not making any predictions,” he said.
Russia’s Wild West (in the east)
Primorye is just one of several regions in the Far East where KPRF came out on top and LDPR did poorly. The Communists rose and the Liberal Democrats fell by about the same proportion in every region of the Far Eastern Federal District except Chukotka.
The same trend occurred on both the legislative assembly level and the State Duma level. For instance, in the 2016 State Duma race in Kamchatka Krai, LDPR received 22.98 percent of the vote, while this year they received 11.6 percent (while the Communists received 15.15 and 23.2 percent in those respective years). In the election for the Amur Regional Parliament, LDPR went from earning 30.7 percent of the vote in 2016 to 14.6 percent in 2021, while the Communists went from 17.4 to 26.6 percent.
In places where only State Duma deputies were elected this September, the proportions were similar. In the Sakhalin region, KPRF made progress, going from 15.5 percent of the vote in 2016 to 28.6 percent in 2021 (while LDPR went from 20.35 to 8.9 percent), and in the Magadan region, KPRF went from 14.84 to 20.6 percent, while LDPR fell from 19.15 to 7.5 percent.
“LDPR hasn’t kept its promises: Zhirinovsky promised to step down in favor of [former Khabarovsk Krai governor Sergey] Furgal, and it was great for his approval ratings, but two weeks later, LDPR practically kicked Furgal out. Of course, Zhirinovsky’s words about Furgal had a huge impact — the idea that they serve good food in jail so it’s fine if he’s sent there,” said KPRF member Yevgeny Lyashenko. “In 2018, LDPR called on us not to vote in gubernatorial elections for KPRF’s candidate, and to instead vote for ‘stability,’ plus they voted for pension reform. And so we’ve taken the protest vote.”
Gennady Shulga, Lyashenko’s new factionmate in the Primorsky Krai Legislative Assembly, agreed with him. “We’re neighbors and we keep an eye on them in a neighborly way. Zhirinovsky’s behavior had long been raising questions, especially with respect to Sergey Ivanovich [Furgal]. We saw the party’s specific betrayal, how they’re in bed with the Kremlin, how they sent that clown [to Khabarovsk], who they’ll ensure gets a seat no matter how much time he spends in the banya [Russian bathhouse].
In an interview with Meduza, LDPR press secretary Alexander Dyupin acknowledged that the party’s popularity “really was negatively affected by the situation with Furgal’s arrest.”
“We supported and continue to support him however we legally can, but many Far East residents wanted us to take bolder action — specifically, they wanted us to lead protests in the streets. But we couldn’t go that far, a step like that could set the whole Far East on fire. It would have been a revolt, a step towards the country’s destruction — LDPR will never do anything like that because the preservation of the state is our priority,” said Dyupin.
An LDPR representative added that, after Mikhail Degtyarev’s appointment as Khabarovsk Krai’s acting governor, any protests in the streets led by the party would have automatically become protests against Degtyayev himself. “We would have been shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.
LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said on his Telegram channel that the party could have improved its results in two ways: by calling for street protests or by advocating against vaccinations. “During the last campaigns, we actually forced ourselves not to, because we realized that while we might be losing votes on these topics, we could at least save a few lives. But alas, it’s impossible to serve these achievements to voters on a platter. People are always anti-establishment, they love to punish those in power, and that’s why they supported overthrowing the czar in 1917, then the provisional government, and then they were happy to drive out the communists in 1991,” he wrote.
A source close to the presidential administration described the political situation in the Far East as follows: “The Far Easterners couldn’t forgive Zhirinovsky for betraying Furgal. Everybody realized that LDPR is not the opposition.” At the same time, he’s confident that Far East residents aren’t especially attached to KPRF, either. “It’s not about the increase of the pension age and the Communists’ promise to decrease it, these people aren’t stupid, they completely understand that stuff like that can’t just be undone. The Far Easterners went to the polls to piss off the establishment: Putin doesn’t like KPRF, he barred [Pavel] Grudinin from running — so what will they do? They’ll vote for the reds,” said the source.
“Our Wild West” is what a political strategist who’s long work in the Far East called the region. “These people are bold — they’re not big fans of the authorities, and their temperaments are a little freer. Zhirinovsky’s escapades were a better fit for them than this insufferable policy stuff from the Communists. They saw themselves in LDPR, both in Furgal and in [once popular senator from Amur region Ivan] Abramov.”
The strategist noted that this year, LDPR’s campaign in the Far East was rather weak. In his opinion, this could be due to agreements made to appoint Mikhail Degtyarev, an LDPR State Duma deputy, as Khabarovsk Krai governor.
“But the case with Degtyayev really decimated LDPR’s reputation as the protest leaders all by itself. If they threw Furgal under the bus, they absolutely crushed this guy with arm-twisting and administration resources. It’s pretty hard to portray yourself as the opposition in circumstances like that. And then the Communists just picked up what they’d dropped. All people wanted was to show what kind of mentality they have here,” a source told Meduza.
Political scientist Gleb Kuznetsov also spoke about the “distinct nature of the electorate in the Far East,” describing it in more detail. “There’s a large number of retirees — both security officials and ex-inmates, plus guards, who have their own peculiarities. That’s number one. Number two, a large part of the population is very oriented towards seasonal work — everything from transporting cars to different types of forest stories. They harbor a fundamental distrust not even of Moscow but of the state itself. With the arrival of Degtyarev and the whole story of Furgal, people saw that LDPR is also part of the state, not just a critic of it,” he said. He then added one more factor: “There’s a strong anti-vaccine sentiment among LDPR’s electorate — and Vladimir Zhirinovsky has been a strong proponent of vaccination.”
In addition to that, said Kuznetsov, LDPR doesn’t have any promising leaders in the Far East: “There’s demand here for a kind of oppositional protest figure, young, not prone to compromising, scandalous, local.” It’s under these conditions that LDPR electorate migrated to KPRF, and partially to the New People party, as the region’s “main opposition force.”
“KPRF’s success isn’t really a success for them, it’s just a protest. For now, there’s not a sustainable ‘base’ for the Communists in the Far East,” said Gleb Kuznetsov.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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