The Communist Party’s candidate for president would seem to be an odd choice: He’s a millionaire and proud of it. He also openly rejects the basic tenets of Communism.
Pavel Grudinin is the Russian party’s first new nominee in 14 years as it hopes to rejuvenate itself and broaden its appeal from its traditional base of aging voters who are nostalgic for the old Soviet Union.
Not that Grudinin – or any other candidate – has much of a chance of unseating President Vladimir Putin when Russia votes on March 18. The presence of Grudinin and other official candidates are largely viewed as a Kremlin ploy to boost voter participation in an election that has a foregone conclusion.
A low presidential vote turnout would be seen as an embarrassment for the Kremlin. That’s why opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was leading a grassroots campaign for nearly a year before being formally barred from running, has been urging his supporters to boycott the presidential election and dent its legitimacy.
In contrast, Grudinin is urging voters to come to polls and bring change through the political process.
The 57-year-old agricultural college graduate runs what is still known as the Lenin State Farm, a sprawling collective farm south of Moscow, the capital.
With his bushy mustache and salt-and-pepper hair, Grudinin’s looks are often compared to those of a young Josef Stalin. Grudinin worked on the farm in the mid-1980s and was appointed its director a decade later.
While most of the collective plots outside Moscow were sold off years ago to property developers, the Lenin State Farm evolved into a successful private business, growing vegetables and raising livestock. Its signature product is strawberries, accounting for a third of all of them produced in Russia.
While metal or wooden strawberries adorn lampposts, fences and farm buildings in the town, Grudinin’s self-promoted image of a farmer is not the whole story. He admits that his company over the years has made only a third to half of its income from agricultural production, which he blames on a lack of government subsidies and low wages for consumers who cannot afford his organic produce.
In fact, the Lenin State Farm makes most of its money from property deals, leasing and selling land for shopping centers.
Corruption is rampant in the Moscow region, home to some of Russia’s most expensive real estate. Yet many international corporations doing business here refuse to pay officials under the table.
Grudinin views his deals with companies like the Swedish furniture giant IKEA as a badge of honor, citing it as proof that he does not pay bribes.
Grudinin owns 44 percent of the farm and runs it with 33 other shareholders. The Communist-capitalist prides himself on reinvesting the profits back into the business or creating housing, education and other benefits for the community.
The small town that bears the same name as the farm is dominated by two Disneyland-like castles with spires and a futuristic building that looks like a sports arena but is actually a high-tech, 1.7 billion-ruble ($30 million) school that the farm built for residents.
“We spend this money in line with socialist principles: We spend it on people,” he says.
Grudinin boasts that he is fighting corruption just like opposition leader Navalny – but “not only with words but also with deeds, by not paying bribes.”
While Grudinin refuses to recognize Navalny as the only viable alternative to Putin, he is willing to appropriate some of the opposition leader’s agenda.
“We have too many bureaucrats and no one is responsible,” Grudinin said on state television. “If I tell the rich ‘instead of buying yachts, you should pay a higher income tax here, just like they do abroad,’ then maybe we will replenish the budget and we will modernize education and health care.”
Grudinin, who has declared 157 million rubles ($2.8 million) in income in the past six years, is no political novice. He sat on the local council in the early 2000s and was a member of the ruling United Russia Party until 2010.
In Putin’s first presidential election in 2000, Grudinin was one of 100 proxies for him, representing or speaking on his behalf in the campaign.
Asked if it feels strange now to run against Putin, Grudinin replies: “I wouldn’t say I’m running against Putin. I stand for a different path for the country’s development.”
Coopted by the Kremlin
Although openly critical of the current political order – saying that “people don’t trust the authorities” and that “corruption has taken the upper hand” – Grudinin is careful not to blame it all on the man who has been leading Russia for the past 18 years. Putin is just part of the system, he says.
That line echoes the rhetoric of his predecessor, long-time Communist Party chairman Gennady Zyuganov, who has run in four presidential elections since 1996.
Once a searing critic of President Boris Yeltsin, the 73-year-old Zyuganov and the Communists have been coopted by the Kremlin. These days, the Communists support all crucial Kremlin directives, such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea, while dissenting on minor issues, which allows Putin to maintain a facade of democracy.
While running against Yeltsin in 1996, Zyuganov spooked Russia’s oligarchs and foreign investors by promising to re-nationalize the strategic sectors of the economy while still allowing private property. Grudinin rejects calls to ban private ownership of land – once a key tenet of Communism.
Unlike Russia’s oligarchs who make headlines by buying foreign sports teams or giant yachts, Grudinin’s investments like those in the town of 5,000 people have made him a popular figure.
Pavel Samoilov, who works in a car repair shop, says he would love to work for Grudinin but the jobs on the farm are hard to get.
“People in the regions are much worse off than what they say on television,” says Samoilov, 33. He says he admires Putin’s foreign policy but says he has “allowed the country to come to ruin.”
Putin enjoys national approval ratings of over 80 percent. While Grudinin once was polling second to Putin, he has since fallen to a tie with perennial candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has run for president six times.
Many of those who admire Grudinin still do not see him as a leader.
Maria, a 40-year-old mother of two who wouldn’t give her last name, sounded ecstatic about the well-equipped local school and kindergarten and likes Grudinin. But she won’t vote for him.
“We need to vote for Putin because he is a strong leader,” she said. “This is Putin’s place.”