A Communist victory in next month's Russian general elections would not herald a return to ideological education in its universities and schools, party leader Gennady Andreivich Zyuganov has pledged.
But a Communist-dominated parliament - an increasingly likely event if the December 17 elections to the State Duma go ahead - would seek to return "open education for all, regardless of wealth", said Mr Zyuganov during an election campaign tour of towns and cities 300 miles south of Moscow. The 51-year-old Communist leader blamed President Yeltsin's administration for the destruction of once-cherished institutions.
Speaking at Kursk State Pedagogical University, he said: "Today the government cannot pay for the defence industry, transport, communication, high technology or education and science. These areas must be controlled by the state."
In a nation with 20 million unemployed, 15 million hungry and 6 million refugees, education must be a priority - from elementary schools to university and beyond, he said. But he emphatically denied that prioritising education would see a return to the ubiquitous ideological curriculum found in schools and colleges during Soviet times.
He told The THES: "First we will try to return to our children everything that has been taken away: the right to work, learn and rest. Our educational programmes must contain the fullness of Russian history, culture and custom. As for the specialist subjects (within universities) these have to be the newest and most up to date and available to everyone, regardless of their wealth."
But this return to "open education for all, regardless of wealth" would not be at the expense of a diet of politically-dominated texts.
"No. No. There will be no return to ideological education," he said. Earlier, during a day of packed meetings and ceremonies to hand out Communist party cards to new members, Mr Zyuganov had defined his sort of Communism after being heckled by hardliners who accused him of being little more than a "social democrat".
"Communism both today and yesterday meant communal. The priority of the general interest versus the interest of the individual. A people's government, where government is able to effect power through its best delegates." It is a message that found favour among the mostly older people in the packed public meetings Mr Zyuganov addressed in workers' clubs, the university and an art college in Kursk.
The Communist leader's realisation that his battle for votes needs more than the enthusiastic support of pensioners and impoverished workers was evident in the more youthful profile of the party's list of 443 election candidates. Their average age is 44 and a rising number of intellectuals and academicians are joining the party. Moscow State University's 600 Communist party members had been instrumental in preventing the closure of the campus branch by university authorities, challenging the notion that political affiliation had anything to do with the quality of their work, he said.
Boris Gorolev, an associate professor of political science at Kursk and deputy secretary of the Kursk Communist party's regional ideology committee, confirmed support among university teachers for Mr Zyuganov was rising.
"Intellectuals believed in Yeltsin in 1991, but now they are starting to realise that there are no reforms going on in the country, that what is happening is the destruction of the country. In the last year many people have recovered their sight; in the Kursk Oblast (region) prices have risen by two and half times in nine months, but university salaries have risen only a third. People are beginning to understand the situation through their stomachs," he said.
In the last general election two years ago the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky polled most votes in the region - 33.5 per cent; the Communists 20 per cent. Many are likely to switch their votes to the Communists, having lost faith in the quick-tempered Mr Zhirinovsky.
But whether the Communist message - a mixture of populist promises to renationalise "questionable" industrial privatisations, stabilise prices and tackle unemployment - is reaching younger voters is more doubtful. Teacher trainees said very few students were Communists; the vast majority tended to a political cynicism, untouched by the Communist party leader's visit - and that of Mr Zhirinovsky. "If Mr Zyuganov and Mr Zhirinovsky came here and played saxophone, guitar and drums, spoke less idiotically and joked more, it would be much more interesting," said 21-year-old student Alexi Sotnikov.