A Farce to Be Reckoned With

Vladimir Zhirinovsky taps into the dark side of a Russia feeling humiliation and loss of self-esteem

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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.

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