The CPRF was founded on 14 February 1993 at the Second Extraordinary Congress of Russian Communists, where it declared itself to be the successor of the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (CPRSFSR). It formed through the merger of a variety of successor groups to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), including Roy Medvedev's Socialist Party of the Working People (of left-socialist orientation), Alexei Prigarin's Union of Communists; and much of the membership of the Stalinist Russian Communist Workers Party (although party leader Viktor Anpilov rejected the new party). The CPRF quickly became the largest party in Russia, with 500,000 members soon after its founding, more than double all the other parties membership combined.
Gennady Zyuganov, a co-founder of the party along with senior former Soviet politicians Yegor Ligachev and Anatoly Lukyanov among others, was elected to be party leader at the Second Extraordinary Congress. Zyuganov had been a harsh critic of Alexander Yakovlev, the so-called "godfather of glasnost", on the CPSU Central Committee. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he became active in the Russian "national-patriotic" movement, being the chairman of the National Salvation Front (some authors call him a nationalist).
Following the CPRF's success in the 1995 legislative election, it emerged as the primary opposition to incumbent President Boris Yeltsin for the 1996 presidential election, whose approval rating was in single digits. In order to oppose Yeltsin, Zyuganov organized a "popular-patriotic bloc" of nationalist organizations to support his candidacy. After the election, on 7 August 1996 the coalition supporting him was transformed into an official organization, the People's Patriotic Union of Russia (NPSR), consisting of more than 30 left-wing and nationalist organizations, including the Russian All-People's Union, led by Sergey Baburin. Zyuganov was its chairman. It went on to support Zyuganov in the 2000 presidential election. The NPSR was meant to form the basis of a two-party system, with the NPSR opposing the ruling "party of power".
The party suffered a sharp decline in the 2003 legislative election, going from 113 seats to 52. Zyuganov called the 2003 elections a "revolting spectacle" and accused the Kremlin of setting up a "Potemkin party", Rodina, to steal its votes. The CPRF was endorsed by Sergey Baburin's People's Union for the 2007 Russian parliamentary elections.
In the 2012 presidential election, Zyuganov denounced election irregularities in the 2011 legislative election, but he also expressed his opposition to the organizers of the mass demonstrations of December 2011, which he views as orchestrated by ultra liberals who are exploiting unrest. The party played only a minor role as a catalyst in the protests. Party rallies on 18 December 2011 in protest of election irregularities in Moscow and Saint Petersburg were attended by only a few thousand, mostly elderly, party supporters. The party has also recently called for Russia to formally recognize Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic.