I distinctly remember when Vladimir Zhirinovsky appeared in my parents’ living room 20 years ago. We were watching the evening news when the leader of the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia flickered across the TV screen.
There was nothing soft and cuddly about this liberal democrat. Dressed in black and fluent in English, Zhirinovsky laid out a vision for a neo-imperial Russia that would rise from the rubble of the Soviet Union and reunite ethnic Russians caught outside the country’s new borders. Zhirinovsky relished the effect his words had on his American interviewer. Nobody could tell where Russia was going, and a fascist takeover seemed like a genuine possibility.
Today Zhirinovsky is 65 years old. He has since become a permanent fixture in Russian politics, and the LDPR has won seats in every Duma. Zhirinovsky’s candidacy in the March 4 election is his fifth bid for the Russian presidency. An opinion poll published by the state-owned VTsIOM research company this week shows Zhirinovsky coming in third place with 9.4 percent of the vote, behind Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, 14.8 percent, and Vladimir Putin, 58.6 percent.
Zhirinovsky is more of a provocateur than a Russian nationalist. He enjoys the immunity of the court jester, allowing himself pointed critiques of the Russian polity on the Duma floor and state television. Zhirinovsky has so far served the function of channeling the far-right protest vote. But a new generation of Russian nationalists is looking for a political home of its own.
Last week Zhirinovsky made several campaign stops at Moscow universities. If you don’t have any intention of winning an election in the first place, the advantage of speaking to students is obvious: you have a captive audience; you’re indoors in the Russian winter; and you don’t have to go through the trouble of mobilizing any supporters.
On Monday, Zhirinovsky was at an agricultural college, holding forth on goats. On Wednesday, he visited the Open University, a state technical college where he supposedly holds a professorship. The school is located in a five-story brick building in a grim working-class neighborhood in northern Moscow. The university’s long corridors are lined with padded doors and ancient nameplates. Next to the rector’s office, portraits of Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin hang next to Czar Nicholas II under the words “Professional Education in Russia, the USSR.”
There was a metal detector and three cops at the door to the auditorium, a spare, drafty hall with rows of worn red seats. As I walked in, I heard one of the student organizers say: “Who let in the girl with the green hair?” Sure enough, there was a young woman with a fluorescent green bob taking a seat. When I looked back later, I couldn’t see her anymore.
There were no other journalists besides a couple of TV cameramen and myself. Zhirinovsky’s job isn’t to make news but to provide footage for the evening news to show that a presidential race is on.
Zhirinovsky entered the auditorium and walked up to the stage accompanied by the stone-faced rector. The two men sat down at a table covered with a velvety cloth. Zhirinovsky was wearing a suit with his tie loosened and the collar of his shirt unbuttoned.
Not only does Zhirinovsky look like the eccentric uncle who’s had too much to drink at a family reunion, he acts the part as well. He’s funny and embarrassing, provocative but harmless. He undermines the perfectly reasonable things he says with the patently absurd.
Zhirinovsky had no prepared remarks and no central message. He just started talking.
Parliamentarism as practiced in most European countries is the highest form of democracy, he explained, sounding like a political science professor. “One shouldn’t put the fate of the country in the hands of one man,” he said. Russia must abandon its presidential system and adopt parliamentary rule.
Zhirinovsky poked mild fun at Putin. What does it say about him that the highly unpopular President Boris Yeltsin was the one who paved Putin’s way to the Kremlin? And can someone from Putin’s Europhile hometown of St. Petersburg really rule Russia? Of course not, Zhirinovsky said. “St. Petersburg is a violin, but Russia needs a drum!”
He mocked the other candidates more fearlessly: Zyuganov did little more than clean potatoes during his military service and his work experience in a defunct organization – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – is as good as useless. Sergei Mironov, the candidate of the social democratic Fair Russia party, served as a paratrooper, meaning he must have bumped his head a lot. His work experience as a geologist included a stint in Mongolia. “Do we need that?” Zhirinovsky asked. Billionaire candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets, is obsessed with basketball, he continued. “A monkey can throw a ball through a hoop.” Prokhorov made his billions through dubious schemes, then took his money abroad and spent it there, Zhirinovsky complained.
That leaves only Zhirinovsky, Zhirinovsky said. Born in Kazakhstan and a Turkish specialist by education, he has the knowledge and experience to deal with Russia’s Asian neighbors. The LDPR was the Soviet Union’s first opposition party. The choice is obvious.
Zhirinovsky didn’t speak in a straight line. He dodged, weaved and doubled back. He revealed a conspiracy that involved Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveling to Syria to urge Bashar al-Assad to step down earlier this month. In return, the U.S. will close its eyes to the upcoming presidential election in Russia, Zhirinovsky said. He predicted wars in Syria, then Iran.
Zhirinovsky announced from the start that he’d only take written questions to save time. An assistant kept delivering them to him. Zhirinovsky held the little slips of paper in both hands, squinting to read them. The questions were serious, but the answers were cavalier.
Q: How can interethnic conflicts be resolved?
A: You can’t. It’s the same as trying to solve the “disharmony” between men and women. The problem is that every ethnic group wants to be better than all the others.
Q: What are your chances at the elections?
Q: What will you do as president?
A: Russia needs a new electromagnetic weapon that will be able to cause tsunamis, heat waves and earthquakes; the budget will be doubled after a capital amnesty and the introduction of a new excise tax; Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and other former Soviet republics will be reincorporated into a new Russian empire, while Iran will be carved in half between Russia and the U.S.
Zhirinovsky made a final appeal to get out the vote. Even in the Soviet era, he went to vote, if only to deface his ballot with insults about the Communist Party. Voters should do the same today if they’re dissatisfied with the choice of candidates, he said.
“If you don’t go on a date, you’re not going to get anything. Are you going to masturbate?” The students guffawed and applauded. “A voter who doesn’t go to the polls on March 4 is a political masturbator!”
For someone who has spent 20 years in politics but never consummated his presidential ambitions, the choice of metaphor sounded particularly unfortunate.
Zhirinovsky marched out of the auditorium with his entourage.
Yevgeny Sergeyev, a lanky 23-year-old mechanical engineering student, wasn’t impressed.
“He’s more of an entertainer than a politician,” he said. “I think Putin is the only real option. Everybody talks a lot, but he’s the only one doing anything. I know we live better today than my parents used to.”
Later on the evening news, state-run Channel One showed Zhirinovsky in the Duma, lambasting TV coverage of his campaign.
“It’s lawlessness. Profanation. Comedy. Farce. Anything but elections,” Zhirinovsky proclaimed. “And the main organizer is the Central Anti-Election Commission.”
Next came a five-minute segment on Putin’s visit of a children’s cancer hospital in Moscow, followed by a report on Putin’s meeting with the defense minister and the head of a tank factory.