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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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."

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