The Communists were in trouble, and party leader Gennady Zyuganov knew it. Last December, in the days before the party's worst election defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zyuganov accused the Kremlin of embarking on a "war of extermination" against Russia's Communist Party.

Today, as the party absorbs the full meaning of resounding parliamentary and presidential campaign losses and the disappearance of more than half of its electorate over the past four years, many leading members and outside analysts say the only question is whether the Communist Party has already been destroyed or is merely on the verge of destruction.

Zyuganov insisted in an interview that he will do what is necessary to reinvent the party of Vladimir Lenin for the era of President Vladimir Putin, from backing a "young, energetic team" for the party leadership to creating a more aggressive opposition to the Kremlin. But increasingly, vocal rivals are demanding his ouster at the party's upcoming congress. If Zyuganov remains in charge, it will be "death for us," one of them said.

The internal power struggle suggests the magnitude of the crisis for a party that has gone from the most powerful organized political force in Russia during the first decade after the Soviet collapse to the brink of political irrelevance.

The Communists survived Boris Yeltsin's presidency by grudgingly accepting private property and capturing the vast protest electorate that was unhappy with the sweeping changes in Russia. Putin hasn't openly clashed with them as Yeltsin did, but his Kremlin has worked methodically to destroy the party and appropriate its most potent issues.

"I'm not sure whether the party will manage to transform itself in time," said Ilya Ponomaryov, the activist leader of the party's youth wing. Ponomaryov said the election disaster could turn positive if it forced the party to change. But he said he feared that Zyuganov was unlikely to agree to the major strategic shift necessary to save the party.

"Zyuganov is slowly, slowly with a lot of compromises coming to the same conclusion as us," Ponomaryov said, "but he's very afraid of drastic action."

Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, called the Communist Party "a traditionalist, ideological party that it is not possible to renew" after the blows of the last few months. "This is a deep crisis that the Communist Party cannot escape," he said.

Just a year ago, the Communists routinely commanded a die-hard 20 percent or more of the Russian electorate in polls and the party had the largest faction in the parliament, giving it a blocking stake in Kremlin policy proposals. Many assumed the party would gradually lose power as its Soviet-era loyalists died off, but few predicted the Communists' collapse would happen in a matter of months.

The party is down to just 10 percent support in polls, and Zyuganov commands backing from just 2 percent of voters surveyed. The parliamentary faction was reduced from 113 a year ago to 51, and the party's little-known standard-bearer, Nikolai Kharitonov, secured just 13 percent in March against Putin after a campaign whose most notable act was its talking-dog commercial.

"The voters just walked out on their preference for Communists," said pollster Alexander Oslon, who advises the Kremlin.

The resulting struggle for control of the party has brought the most serious challenge to Zyuganov's leadership in his 11 years as head of the reborn Communist Party, which emerged from the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991 and is known by its Russian initials KPRF. Many party veterans and political analysts expect Zyuganov to beat back the challenge when the party congress meets here July 3, but they see the dispute as emblematic of the party's inability to reinvent itself.

Zyuganov's longtime deputy, Valentin Kuptsov, recently announced plans to quit, complaining of "miscalculations and mistakes" and saying Zyuganov had to go. "The time has come to introduce new men into positions of power," he said at the regional party meeting where he quit.

The week before that, six party members released a manifesto attacking Zyuganov and claimed backing from 40 of 100 Central Committee members, blaming the party leader for strategic mistakes in the campaign and failure to stand up to Putin. Zyuganov's team has fought back, with the party leadership calling the six "dissidents" tools of the Kremlin and claiming they want to reorganize the Communist Party "into a petit bourgeois party."

Purges and public feuds over the last few years have left the party without several of its best-known figures, including, since last month, its major financier, Gennady Semigin, who is called the red millionaire. Semigin was formally kicked out of the party in May after trying to organize a challenge to Zyuganov. Others who have split with him are Gennady Seleznev, who was speaker of the lower house of parliament until December, and Sergei Glazyev, a young economist whom many saw as a future party leader.

All of them have accused Zyuganov of running the party as a personal fiefdom and bringing it to the brink of political extinction. They say Zyuganov, a strict Marxist of the old Soviet school, refuses to modernize the party in the mold of European social democrats and clings instead to visions of past Soviet greatness. If Zyuganov remains as leader, Seleznev said in an interview, "he will bury the party. . . . It will fall apart."

The latest group of renegades claims it is trying to save the party from Zyuganov while there is still a party, though their main complaint is about Zyuganov's political effectiveness, not his ideological course.

"The KPRF will never die completely," said Lyubov Oleinik, one of the six signatories and a member of the party's Central Committee. "Russia is a left country, and the idea of social fairness will always be popular in Russia. But if the KPRF does not modernize its activity, other left parties might come and occupy the niche. That's the danger."

Boris Tyukov, a Communist leader in the northwest region of Karelia who also signed the document, argued that Zyuganov's strategy of focusing the party on the national parliament rather than the grass roots no longer made sense in the Putin era, when parliament is under the strict dominance of the president's United Russia party. "Zyuganov's way of parliamentarianism is death for us," Tyukov said.

In interviews, both Zyuganov and his close ally Ivan Melnikov said the party's current troubles were the result of the Kremlin's strategy. "All operations against our party in the last several years were sanctioned by the Kremlin and organized and paid for by the Kremlin," Zyuganov said. "All of these Kremlin projects have the goal of pushing the KPRF out of the political field or severely weakening it," Melnikov added.

Pro-Kremlin analysts such as Sergei Markov acknowledge this is the plan of Putin aides, who "want to destroy the Communist Party." In part, the Kremlin has pursued the goal by sponsoring what Bunin called Trojan horses -- new political groups, such as the Motherland party, that siphoned off Communist votes in December's parliamentary elections by sounding similar populist and patriotic themes.

In part, Putin has stolen Zyuganov's thunder, openly expressing nostalgia for the Soviet Union, for example, and launching a popular legal attack on Russia's richest man.

"It's not the failure of the Communist Party," Markov argued. "It's the victory of the Kremlin."

Zyuganov and his allies claim that today's internal fight is another Kremlin-sponsored attack. They point out that thousands of copies of the anti-Zyuganov manifesto were sent to party members across Russia the day after it appeared -- "a Kremlin puppet show," according to Zyuganov.

Russia's two market-oriented democratic parties have been in similar disarray since the elections, which knocked them both out of parliament when they fell below the 5 percent threshold in national voting. But the Communists' plight is more striking because the vast majority of Russians sympathize with their point of view in polls while refusing to vote for the now-discredited party.

Zyuganov, an avowed admirer of Joseph Stalin who preaches the virtues of democracy as his party has come under assault by what he calls Putin's "police state," argues that the electorate will start returning to the party fold now that the president has called for reducing benefits remaining from the Soviet social safety net. "It will push many toward us," he said. "We will convince them once again."

But even self-proclaimed supporters of Zyuganov are uncertain he will be the one to carry the Communist banner forward. "Now it's the time for the KPRF when one generation obviously has to leave," said Viktor Peshkov, a Communist member of parliament, "and a new generation needs to replace it."

Rivals of party leader Gennady Zyuganov charge that he is too bogged down in Soviet-era thinking to lead the Communists' revival in the face of the growing dominance of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.