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A Farce to Be Reckoned With

7 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

Several days before he shocked the world by becoming the most potent opposition figure in Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky stood in Moscow’s largest department store to ballyhoo his candidacy for his nation’s first freely elected parliament. In the midst of denouncing Boris Yeltsin’s reform program, Zhirinovsky, 47, abruptly turned away from his audience, marched to a lingerie counter and seized an expensive brassiere. Twirling it on his fingers, he proclaimed that if he were voted into office, he would provide cheap underwear for his constituents.

That audacious act neatly summarizes the burlesque appeal of one of the most astute political grandstanders Russia has ever seen. The extended striptease by which Zhirinovsky both reveals and conceals his lust for power is at once vulgar and, at least by Russian standards, wildly entertaining. It is also a routine that has enabled him, in just three years, to become one of the most formidable — many would say farcical — forces in Russian politics. He has done so largely by trawling the darker emotional currents of humiliation, impotence and abandonment coursing through Russia’s muddy provincial towns and overcrowded apartment blocks. His incessant hammering at the resentment generated by the country’s plunge from great power to global beggar has made him a touchstone for the nation’s deepest pathologies.

Part of the secret of Zhirinovsky’s appeal is his ability to combine populist rhetoric with a crude yearning for ease and glory. Proclaiming slogans like “I’m just the same as you,” he careens through Moscow in a motorcade of limousines, accompanied by a cadre of thuggish bodyguards that has included at least one member of the infamous Black Berets, the regiment of ^ Soviet commandos that once terrorized the Baltic states. Even now, notes Oberlin College’s Frederick Starr, he adopts “the full trappings of a tin- horn dictator.”

The chubby-faced demagogue rose from obscurity in June 1991, placing third out of six candidates in Russia’s first direct presidential elections. Despite losing his bid for Yeltsin’s chair, he seized upon the 6 million votes he received as license to launch a never ending campaign for the presidency. His platform lurches from the draconian to the absurd, from calls for summary executions to a proposal to turn the Kremlin into a round-the-clock entertainment center, with museums, restaurants and bars. One theme, however, has remained firm ever since he first sounded it in 1991: “I say it quite plainly — when I come to power, there will be a dictatorship.” More recently he has added, “You cannot rule by waving a chocolate bar in front of those you’re trying to rule. Or brandish only a whip.”

But last Sunday evening, when he moved a big step closer to his dream, he was holding up neither chocolate bars nor whips but a glass of champagne at the Kremlin party staged by reformers, which collapsed when the polls turned against them. Early the next morning, still pulsing with energy after a sleepless night, a euphoric Zhirinovsky attended a press conference at his party’s command post in a dilapidated Moscow building near the KGB’s former headquarters. He had not bothered to change his clothes.

Perched in the carved wooden throne that serves as his office chair, he toyed with a flag bearing the Czars’ double-headed imperial eagle and dismissed reports that he harbors totalitarian aspirations. Displayed on his office wall was a portrait of the French ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. By the window sat a teddy bear. “I am no fascist,” he snarled, bounding from his chair to stand before a large map demarcating the portions of Finland, Poland and Afghanistan that he hopes to annex. “I have not allowed myself to make a single extremist escapade in my life.”

On Tuesday morning he appeared before a packed news conference at Moscow’s posh Slavyanskaya Hotel, clad in black tuxedo, paisley cummerbund and bow tie. Asked about how his much publicized anti-Semitic remarks square with reports that his father was Jewish, he said he envies Jews because they are “the richest nation in the world.” Then he reaffirmed one of his pet projects: replacing Moscow’s Jewish television announcers with blue-eyed Russians.

! By the next day, he was vacationing at an unknown location somewhere outside Moscow. Left behind at the Liberal Democrats’ headquarters were several dozen staff members — mostly bullish young men not unlike the 10 “soldiers” whom Zhirinovsky, clad in fatigues, had sent off from the Moscow airport last January to “fight American imperialism” in Iraq. Two floors below, a store called the Rock Shop hawked copies of his newspapers (Zhirinovsky’s Falcon and Zhirinovsky’s Truth), as well as cassettes by heavy-metal groups like Anthrax and Pestilence. Visitors could also purchase copies of his autobiography, Last Thrust to the South.

The book, which historian James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, calls “in some respects psychologically an even more unstable work than Mein Kampf,” recounts in minute detail the slights — both real and imagined — that made Zhirinovsky’s Kazakhstan childhood an unrelenting horror. In addition to revisiting the many injustices of poverty (“in school one girl had a ball-point pen and I didn’t”) and listing the names of boys who beat him up, the author bitterly recalls the misery of life in a communal apartment (“I slept on a trunk”), the lines to the toilet (“it smelled bad”) and his first attempt at sexual intercourse. Its consummation was thwarted, he explains, by his failure to successfully remove the bathing suit of one of his female classmates (“the experience impoverished my soul”).

It was this last remark that has reportedly provoked speculation in Moscow that despite a longstanding marriage, Zhirinovsky may be a homosexual. Recently, however, his staff has labored to discredit the slander by passing out photos depicting Vladimir Volfovich wolfishly admiring the ample decolletage of a female dinner companion who does not appear to be his wife. Beneath the photo, a caption reads: “They say Zhirinovsky is indifferent to women. Is that so?”

Antics such as this make it difficult not to treat Zhirinovsky as a cartoon — a man more deserving of ridicule than fear. That may be a mistake. Whether he believes what he says or not, he is clever, complex, and he keenly understands how to use publicity with devastating effectiveness. Says the Hudson Institute’s Richard Judy: “He is a master of the bombastic and shocking statement — and politically it works.”

More than anything else, it is the image of a deeply resentful human being, as reflected in his writings and speeches, that inspires critics to compare Zhirinovsky to tyrants like Hitler, whose self-pitying laments Zhirinovsky echoes when he writes: “Life itself forced me to suffer from the very day, the moment, the instant of my birth. Society could give me nothing.” Having portrayed his life, and especially his childhood, as plagued by deprivation and rejection, Zhirinovsky has learned to project these sentiments from the personal to the national scale, elevating them to a world view that has resonated in this impoverished country.

No matter what his new colleagues in parliament may think of him, Zhirinovsky’s success in vote gathering will almost certainly allow him to treat Russia’s national legislature as a personal soapbox from which to promote ideas that are making the rest of the world shudder. In the end, those ideas, and the resounding response they have elicited, say as much about Russia as they do about Zhirinovsky.

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