Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator

By Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova

Addison-Wesley 256pp $25


By Vladimir Kartsev

Columbia University Press 198pp $24.95

On Apr. 25, when Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky turned 49, more than 600 of his fans gathered in front of Moscow's Rossiya Hotel to celebrate. The style was part Nazi rally, part Sicilian wedding--with Zhirinovsky in the center ring. Flanked by security men, a troupe of women in brightly colored dresses belted out folk songs. Next came a brass band whose drum major carried a pole with a Third Reich-style eagle. The only thing missing were the elephants that Zhirinovsky's press aides had promised.

It was pure Zhirinovsky: outrageous, crude, fascinating--and dangerous. A loser most of his life, he came out of the blue, promising to slice up Poland, take back Alaska, get rid of criminals and Jews, and elevate Mother Russia to a proud new status. In 1993, his ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), exploiting the discontent arising from post-communist hardships, captured a stunning 23% of the vote in parliamentary elections. Now, after years of economic depression and with Yeltsin veering toward authoritarianism and waging an unpopular war in Chechnya, the question arises: Could Zhirinovsky win the 1996 presidential election?

So it's important to figure out who this guy really is. Two new books attempt to. Neither fully satisfies. One, by Vladimir Kartsev, Zhirinovsky's former boss at publishing company Mir, is partially an apologia cluttered up with silly ideas about economics and socialist morality. The other, by journalists Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, is more straightforward, but since its authors left Russia in the late 1970s, they rely too much on secondary sources.

What makes both efforts worth reading, however, is the perspective they bring to the phenomenon behind Zhirinovsky. Democracy has unleashed some ugly Russian proclivities: strains of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and a substantial inferiority complex. The West would do well to start taking what Zhirinovsky represents seriously.

Kartsev's book gives a better explanation of the conditions that produced Zhirinovsky. A keen observer of the Russian psyche, Zhirinovsky exploits the ordinary Russian's apathy, cynicism, and disgust at the rise of crime and loss of personal wealth caused by economic reform. New Russia is wracked by a condition described as bespredel, meaning "without limits." Kartsev defines it as a "kind of laissez-faire gone mad that has arisen from cynicism bred under totalitarian conditions.... It connotes total permissiveness--the abrogation of tradition, the rules of the game, the rules of conduct, and, at times, even fundamental decency and common sense."

Zhirinovsky's best allies are inflation and crime. Both got a huge boost from reform policies hatched in the West and implemented by Russian academics with little practical experience. In early 1992, "shock therapy" decontrolled prices but left production monopolies in place. Inflation soared to 2,000% a year, while the ruble's value plummeted. Savings once worth $10,000 were suddenly reduced to a few dollars. Many Russians still regard such policies as a Western plot. And in a nation suddenly plagued by violent street crime, Zhirinovsky's promise of swift execution for gangsters is, Kartsev points out, a sure vote-getter.

Solovyov and Klepikova explain the amazing career of Zhirinovsky by probing his psyche. In their analysis of his endlessly self-revelatory writings and speeches, he's driven by alienation and feelings of sexual inadequacy. A Russian born to poverty in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, Zhirinovsky says he was bullied by Kazakh children. His father may or may not have been Jewish--a critical point in a place so openly anti-Semitic. (The rumor persists, but Zhirinovsky denies it.) He was unlucky with girls. At a Moscow institute where he studied law and Asian languages, he felt the other students regarded him as a country bumpkin.

Today, Zhirinovsky tries to be more Russian than anyone else--which Solovyov and Klepikova attribute to his anxiety about Jewish roots. They offer evidence that Israel in 1983 offered him an invitation to emigrate. In 1988, he helped found Shalom, an anti-Zionist Jewish group linked to the KGB. Later, Zhirinovsky attended meetings of Pamyat, a rabidly anti-Jewish group.

Neither book is able to get to the bottom of Zhirinovsky's alleged association with the KGB. Kartsev dismisses it, noting that Zhirinovsky was never considered material for the Communist Party--a key requirement for KGB membership--and stumbled from one second-rate legal job to the next.

Kartsev also shows that, as recently as the late 1980s when they worked together, Zhirinovsky was nothing like today's rabid ultranationalist. But once he got involved in electoral politics, Zhirinovsky quickly showed a talent for dramatics, populism, and outrageous remarks. With each win, his statements became more extreme. They also got weirder. Upon winning the 1993 election, he proclaimed: "Political impotence is over! Today is the beginning of orgasm. The whole nation, I promise you, will have an orgasm next year."

Can this man really win the Russian presidency? Today, Zhirinovsky doesn't score so well in the polls, trailing Yeltsin, whose ratings are at all-time lows. The danger, though, is voter apathy: Polls show that more than half of the electorate sees no need to participate in politics. So, depending on how a low voter turnout breaks, it's possible that Zhirinovsky, or someone even worse, could wind up with his finger on the trigger of a nuclear force that can still make toast of the U.S. in 30 minutes.

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