‘Defending the Donbas is one thing. Bombing Kyiv is another’ Russia’s Communist Party officially supports the war against Ukraine. But its younger members are speaking out.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine provoked a wave of backlash among members of the Communist Party (KPRF). Communist legislators from regional parliaments and members of the party’s youth organization have publicly spoken out against the war, condemning it as “imperialist” and contrary to Marxist-Leninist principles. While some have quit the KPRF in protest, others have been expelled for breaching “party discipline.” Meduza looked into what’s happening inside the KPRF’s regional branches and learned why some of Russia’s Communists oppose the war against Ukraine.
Anti-war Communist Youth
All of the parties in the State Duma backed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Communist Party was one of the last to express its support — the KPRF didn’t release an official statement until the evening of February 24, and it was edited several times.
At first, there was nothing stopping individual Communist Party members from speaking out against the war. This wasn’t prohibited by any internal decrees, a source close to the leadership of a regional party branch told Meduza. So a few days into the invasion, on February 27, KPRF members and activists from across the country launched an anti-war initiative aimed at their fellow party members; setting up groups on Telegram and VKontakte called “KPRF/LKSM Members Against the War.” (LKSM is the Russian abbreviation for the party’s youth organization, Leninist Communist Youth Union.)
Then, the party began expelling members for speaking out. As one of the anti-war initiative’s creators told Meduza (on condition of anonymity), its establishment coincided with the release of an internal decree that instructed KPRF members “not to publish” their personal stance and to “wait for the presidium’s decision” on the party’s position on the war.
Communist Party members in the regions were subsequently banned from joining the anti-war initiative’s social media groups or even liking posts on its page, one of the organizers told Meduza (other sources in the party confirmed this, as well). In the end, the initiative deleted its public page on VKontakte so as “not to expose [their] comrades.” Those who still joined the closed group were summoned by the party’s regional leadership and asked to leave it, several Communists told Meduza on condition of anonymity.
One source in the party said that “as a concession,” Communist Party members were supposedly allowed to speak out on their personal social media accounts. However, as the source pointed out, members of the KPRF are obliged to comply with the party line — publicly contradicting it can lead to disciplinary action or even expulsion.
‘That would be like shooting yourself in the foot’
After the start of the full-scale invasion, two camps took shape within the Communist Party. The first camp — which party members interviewed by Meduza called the “statists” — call it a war of “liberation.” The other camp, which is mainly made up of younger legislators and members of the party’s youth wing, consider it an “imperialist” war. In interviews with Meduza, no less than ten Communist Party members from various regions of Russia (including ones close to the leadership of regional party branches) brought up this divide.
One KPRF deputy from a regional parliament in Siberia told Meduza that members of the party’s youth organization make up its “anti-war” core. But it’s not just the younger generation that opposes the invasion. “Part of the faction was enthusiastic [at the beginning of the war], saying ‘hooray-hooray.’ But some branches sent requests to the Central Committee [asking the party to soften its pro-war stance] even before [party leader Gennady Zyuganov’s] final statement,” said the deputy, who asked to remain anonymous.
The deputy recalled an atmosphere of bewilderment at subsequent executive committee meetings. The KPRF had voted to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” as independent states, he said, but an all-out war was “out of character” for the party’s leadership: “Defending the Donbas is one thing. Bombing Kyiv is another,” he explained.
As the deputy noted, several regional branches of the Communist Party’s youth organization released anti-war statements on social media, including the branches in Penza, Novosibirsk, Moscow, and Saratov. But, according to multiple sources, all of these posts were deleted within a few hours.
When speaking to Meduza, regional deputy called Russia’s war against Ukraine “imperialist.” But he didn’t see the sense in releasing public statements: “That would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Half an hour later, they would call and ask [you] to delete the anti-war statement. Nothing would have changed.”
The deputy was not aware of any expulsions, but he did know of individuals who left the party and others who “handed over their membership cards.” According to media reports, the KPRF’s Surgut branch saw 57 people quit the party at once, leaving the local cell with just six members.
“For Russia, this is definitely an imperialist [war]. We don’t take the DNR and LNR into account at all, since any self-organization and the people’s will is sent to hell with the arrival of Russian pencil-pushers and security officials,” said another source close to the leadership of a KPRF regional branch.
This person admitted that he “held out hope” that the Communist Party’s Central Committee would adopt a “proper, Marxist” stance on the war — even though he “understood deep down” that this wouldn’t be the case.
On May 31, the KPRF held an all-Russian meeting for active party members. According to an event recording obtained by Meduza, the Central Committee’s First Deputy Chairman Yuri Afonin assured attendees that “99 percent of our party members and supporters” supported the presidium’s position on the invasion of Ukraine.
Legislators from the KPRF have spoken out against the war in a number of Russian regions. However, as party members noted in interviews with Meduza, their protests took different forms.
During a meeting of the Primorsky Krai Legislative Assembly, for example, a “group of deputies” made a statement demanding an end to the war against Ukraine and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the country’s territory. The regional governor, Oleg Kozhemayko from United Russia, condemned the legislators who spoke out as traitors. In turn, the party’s faction head promised to take the “toughest measures” against them, claiming that they had “disgraced the honor of the KPRF.” Speaking at the Communist Party’s all-Russian meeting on May 31, Afonin condemned the deputies’ stance as “anti-Russian,” “anti-party,” and “anti-human.” In the end, two members of the assembly’s KPRF faction were expelled for breaching party discipline.
In the Lipetsk region, Communist Party legislators refused to back several pro-war initiatives, including a declaration of support for the war put forward by members of the ruling party, United Russia. A source close to the KPRF legislators on the Lipetsk Regional Council claimed that the ideas contained in the statement “diverged from the party’s position on the special military operation.”
After the KPRF faction refused to sign United Russia’s declaration, the council’s only deputy from the LDPR, Anatoly Emelyanov, submitted a second pro-war statement — and called for it to be put to a roll-call vote. Meduza’s source close to KPRF deputies called Emelyanov a “orthodox anti-communist.” And insisted that the roll-call vote was intended to publicly single out and “discredit” those with “alternative positions” on the war.
In the end, the Lipetsk Regional Council adopted the second declaration “unanimously” — albeit without KPRF deputies Alexander Ushakov and Anatoly Shkatov, who walked out ahead of the vote. They returned to the assembly hall afterwards.
Shocked and numb
“At first, we reacted to [the declaration of war against Ukraine] like ordinary people — we were shocked and numb. Then, we reacted as Communist Youth members — we waited for the party’s position on this issue,” recalls a source close to the LKSM leadership in one of Russia’s regions.
Meduza’s source maintained that the party’s position could theoretically be changed to account for the opinion of the “lower strata.” However, he worried that someone inside or outside the party may seek to “stir up” the ongoing ideological disputes surrounding the “nature” of the war.
The source referred to those who quit the KPRF over its support for the invasion as “factionalists” and underscored that when it comes to discussions within the KPRF, observing party discipline is given priority. At the same time, the source assured that no one “has ever been expelled” over their position and that all public statements should be “worked out together.”
Another Meduza source, who belongs to the LKSM leadership in one of Russia’s regions, believed that talk of internal ideological differences could lead to “murmurs” throughout the KPRF. “I’m glad I had a hand in this,” the source added.
The Putin administration is “pleased” with the emergence of disputes within the KPRF. According to a Meduza source close to the Kremlin, the hope is that a public fight against anti-war politicians will alienate young people and the urban electorate. Meduza sent a request for comment to the leadership of Communist Party’s State Duma faction, but did not receive a response.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart