MOSCOW » If there was ever a moment for a Communist comeback, it would seem to be now.
The Communists were big winners in recent parliamentary elections, capturing nearly 20 percent of the popular vote and cementing their place as the most formidable opposition bloc, as voters began to express their exhaustion with United Russia, the governing party of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.
Meantime, the world financial crisis, which has toppled governments and spawned social unrest in the eurozone, has provided reams of material for railing against the excesses and evils of capitalism — with warnings of "debt bondage," ”fictitious capital" and "financial imperialism."
But rather than starring in the Great Red Revival, the longtime party leader, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, has instead found himself walking a political high-wire.
In recent days, he has sharply criticized the elections as marred by fraud, while simultaneously maneuvering to claim the spoils of victory in those same elections, including some important committee chairmanships in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament.
He has joined in popular protests against Putin’s government, while seeking to block the rise of the liberal reformers leading those rallies by denouncing them as a subversive threat to Russia’s future.
"Their only chance is a revolt," Zyuganov said in a speech on Saturday as he accepted his party’s nomination for president. "The gist of the situation is that both the authorities blatantly tramping upon the people’s rights and the ultraliberals eager to take advantage of the people’s anger are doing the same dirty business."
Perhaps his trickiest political pirouette, however, will be trying to convince Russian voters that the Communists have a real plan for moving the country forward and do not simply want to rewind the clock to the Soviet Union. It will be no small feat, given that the party’s platform is largely built on nostalgia for the past, and that many Russians, no matter how unhappy they are with the current government, seem to have concluded that life is better in a market economy.
This was clear at the rally Dec. 11 that drew upward of 50,000 people to protest the election results.
On the way to the demonstration, Communists carrying the red hammer-and-sickle flag marched passed Bentley and Ferrari car dealerships and a Zegna boutique selling Italian fashions, and along a street lined with billboards inviting Russians to visit Cancun, Mexico — a reminder that Moscow is now one of the gaudiest cities on earth.
When Yevgeny Kopyshev, the leader of the Union of Soviet Officers, ended a speech by calling for the return of Soviet power, the crowd booed him off the stage.
Given such sentiments, a big effort is under way to rebrand the Communist Party for members of a new generation, some of whom were not yet born when the Soviet Union fell.
"Return the Stolen Homeland!" is a core slogan, and party leaders are promising to renationalize critical industries, including oil, minerals, railroads and utilities, and to create a new network of state-owned banks.
But party officials also say they learned from the Soviet collapse and much of the economy would remain in private hands. They say democratic institutions would be promoted, including free elections.
The party’s delicate balancing act is reflected on its website, which is heavy on Soviet-era imagery — clenched fists and red flags — but also includes the Central Committee’s bank account information so that supporters can send in donations.
Some political analysts say they doubt that the party’s modernization effort can succeed.
"I think Communists are now having their brightest hour," said Konstantin V. Kiselyov, a political scientist at the Institute of Philosophy and Law in Yekaterinburg. "But it’s not the traditional Communist ideas that will be spread, but the desire to vote for this party as an opposition one."
In appealing to young voters, Zyuganov, 67, may be his own biggest obstacle.
He very much looks the part of an old-school, bull-faced Communist Party boss. He was among the hard-liners in the Communist leadership who opposed Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s, became the party’s first secretary in 1993 and ran unsuccessfully in presidential elections in 1996, 2000 and 2008.
The party’s weaknesses were on full display this week, when the Communists held a rally near the Kremlin.
Although they had a permit for 10,000 participants, fewer than 3,000 turned out. Many who attended not only represented old-style Communism, but also were just plain old: hunched-over men in their 70s and 80s, handing out pamphlets with titles like "Communist of Leningrad."
Still, there were some young people who said they hoped for a Communist resurgence.
"Many mistakes were made during the Soviet period which had to be corrected, but that did not mean that the great country had to be destroyed," said Aleksandr Golikov, 34, a teacher from Zelenograd, outside Moscow.
"There are other, more attractive slogans, like ‘Nationalization of Natural Resources,’" Golikov said. "There is no other country where the natural resources belong to a handful of oligarchs. People in the richest country of the world live in poverty. This is something we should not tolerate."
Irina Turkhan, 30, who attended the rally with her boyfriend, Mikhail Turov, 28, said that many young people were supporting the Communists because of economic hardships.
"Pensioners are forgotten," Turkhan said. "Students, at least many of them, have to pay for their education — same with medical services."
The couple moved to Moscow to find work as programming engineers but even with a job, the cost of living is too high.
"I have a good salary but I pay half of it as mortgage," she said. "We cannot afford to have children."
More emblematic of the crowd was Iosif Abramson, 84, of St. Petersburg, who conceded that the party had dwindled in recent years.
"The leadership have stepped away from Marxism, and they exist thanks to the brand name," Abramson said. But he also said there was hope for a revival. "Putin’s administration is pushing young people toward leftist organizations," he said.
Leonid N. Dobrokhotov, an adviser to Zyuganov, said that the Communists were positioned to gain support even before the elections incited public anger, because of United Russia’s steadily declining popularity.
Dobrokhotov said that many aspects of the past — a stronger education system, free housing — now seemed appealing to young Russians.
"Maybe there were some problems in the Soviet Union but it was a superpower and the people had a real foundation to be proud," he said.
Dobrokhotov likened the current situation to 1917 when disparate opposition groups — Liberals, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks — joined forces in the Russian Revolution.
"Everybody wanted to live without the czar but they had a completely different idea about the future," he said. "Nobody likes Putin, but the liberals and the Communists have absolutely different ideas about the future."