Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 6

Zhirinovsky: The Great Mystificator

By Nikolai Troitsky

Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has thrown himself into the presidential race. He knows all too well that he does not have the slightest chance of winning the election, but it is not the presidency that he seeks. This is not a question of modesty or lack of ambition. Mr. Zhirinovsky is content with his current place close to power and has enough common sense to be realistic about his position. Nevertheless, the LDPR leader was among the first to join the race and is determined to fight to the end. And his determination is typical of Zhirinovsky — one of the most paradoxical, unpredictable, and mysterious politicians of contemporary Russia.

Zhirinovsky’s Character Traits

The entire world knows that Vladimir Zhirinovsky is an unsurpassed master of the bluff. His words and behavior often resemble those of a madman, but he always achieves his goals. It’s another matter that his actual goals never coincide with those he declares publicly. The last parliamentary elections brought surprising success to the LDPR: the party received 10 percent of the party list vote, second only to the Communists. This result can in no way be considered a defeat. Zhirinovsky’s "silver medal" is worth perhaps even more than a "gold." He not only managed to outperform the "party of power" (the "Russia is Our Home" movement), but his rating remains fairly high today — higher at least than that of Boris Yeltsin.

There is something mysterious, almost mystical in this outcome. One-tenth of what Zhirinovsky has said and done would have been enough to ruin the career of any other politician. Yet Zhirinovsky always emerges unscathed. He has indulged in overt hooliganism, broken into offices, initiated fistfights in the parliament, punched women, shown disrespect to the dead (he once pointedly refused to stand up to pay tribute to those who died in Chechnya), called for war and violence, and advocated wiping entire cities and peoples. More than once, sometimes several times a day, Zhirinovsky contradicts himself by changing his position on a given issue. Yet this has not damaged his reputation. He has been pardoned for all his disreputable acts and has successfully exited all awkward situations just like Ivan the Fool, the famous hero of Russian folk tales. What is the secret of Zhirinovsky’s success? Sincerity, or course, is not to be expected from politicians. All politicians deceive the public in one way or another, especially during election campaigns. However, they usually try to avoid telling blatant lies. Zhirinovsky has no sense of such bounds, nor does he want one. For Zhirinovsky, there are no taboos, no moral limits, no principles, and no convictions. And in this lies his success. Few people in the "establishment" like him personally, but everyone must take into account his position and the position of his party and its faction in the State Duma. Zhirinovsky’s power is rooted in the helplessness of his opponents. Fair play with Zhirinovsky is impossible and so far, not many of his opponents have proven themselves as brilliant at cheating. Zhirinovsky is offhand and over-free. He articulates what other politicians and state officials are probably thinking, but are too shy to express publicly. He has absolutely no inhibitions. Consider Chechnya: none of the "hawks" or patriots who occupy posts in the Russian government — from obscure generals to the defense minister — has dared to publicly express approval of the war. All of them look for justifying circumstances and widely use such euphemisms as "disarming illegal armed formations" or "establishing constitutional order." Contrary to these shy and incomplete statements, Zhirinovsky puts it plainly: "War is good! This war is useful for Russia."

Another graphic example of Zhirinovsky’s ability to say what no one else will can be seen in the painful problem of so-called "persons of Caucasian nationality" in Russia today. Zhirinovsky is not afraid to appear odious in the eyes of the Russian liberal intelligentsia. His opponents have tried to accuse him of a "propaganda of war" and "fomenting ethnic hatred" and these accusations are substantially supported, particularly because the leader of the LDPR has never concealed his intentions. On the contrary, he regularly provides new evidence against himself. Zhirinovsky is a prolific writer; LDPR printed matter is present in abundance in the Duma and throughout all of Moscow. Zhirinovsky’s position is, frankly speaking, overtly immoral, but the leader of the LDPR knows very well that his militant speeches are music to the ears of a certain part of the electorate and thus contribute to his success.

It should be noted that in both of these examples — the war in Chechnya and the persecution of the natives of the Caucasus — the stance of the LDPR completely coincides with the official position of the authorities As for the peoples of the Caucasus, the police in Moscow and in a number of other large cities have long implemented the ideas espoused by Zhirinovsky in his newspapers and brochures. People with a "Caucasian appearance" have certainly experienced more than once the authorities’ unique approach to the principle of national equality. Thus we must conclude that this man, who is referred to as a "fascist" or "Russian nationalist leader" in the west, is far from being a dissident in his homeland. On the contrary, he is a fairly law-abiding and loyal citizen who properly understands his role and place. This is the major paradox of the "Zhirinovsky phenomenon," a phenomenon based on the great bluff.

The Bluff

Zhirinovsky’s image conceals his contradictions. On the one hand, he is regarded as perhaps the most fervent and irreconcilable opponent of crime and corruption. His speeches on the subject have done a great deal to gain him popularity. He has called for wiping out the mafia and for harsh measures, including the execution, without trial, of gangsters and criminals. On the other hand, the LDPR faction in the Duma contains a number of representatives of the criminal world. These are not ordinary gangsters, but ringleaders; many of them have prison records and don’t try to hide their criminal pasts. LDPR Deputy Mikhail Glushchenko is a good example. Well-known to the police of the Leningrad region as the organizer of a number of criminal assaults, Glushchenko has escaped arrest only because of his immunity as a deputy — an immunity which Zhirinovsky helped him to acquire. The list of "godfathers" in the LDPR faction can be continued. The "most distinguished" among them is St. Petersburg businessmen Mikhail Monastyrsky, who prefers financial scams and smuggling to violence.

These people are not pariahs or outcasts in the LDPR Duma faction. While not all faction members have problems with the law (at least, officially), the fact remains that the LDPR faction is unsurpassed in the Duma for the percentage of its members who are small- and medium-sized businessmen. And such people, in Russia, are inevitably connected with the criminal world. Certainly, Zhirinovsky is not providing cover for criminal ringleaders out of charity: These people finance the political activities of the "irreconcilable opponent of crime." The ringleaders do so with pleasure and Zhirinovsky is not very discriminating about the sources of his assistance.

Of course, not every criminal has the opportunity to become a People’s Deputy: that right is granted only to a narrow circle of the chosen. However, less important criminals are not forgotten. A great number of provincial racketeers and petty offenders, for example, are employed as assistants to the deputies from the LDPR faction.

Another central theme of Zhirinovsky’s pre- and post-election programs is the protection of the humiliated and the abused, the poor and the oppressed. It is interesting to note that the "patron of the poor" is a fairly rich man by Moscow standards. Two years ago, Zhirinovsky had a black Volga. He later acquired a Mercedes-600, then a ZIL (a luxurious limousine used in the past by Politburo members and currently only by the president, prime minister, and the richest "new Russians"). In addition, Zhirinovsky has purchased nine luxurious apartments in a prestigious building in the center of Moscow where one square meter of floor space costs $3,000. Not every successful businessman can afford that.

What about the "fight against corruption" proclaimed by Zhirinovsky? The LDPR faction in the Duma is notorious for being the most venal and corrupt: Its leader readily accepts sums of money (in U.S. dollars) for the votes of his faction for or against draft laws on the budget or economy.

In his public speeches, Zhirinovsky likes to stress that he is the only genuine opposition politician. All the rest, including the Communists, are "akin to the authorities." He uses colorful, sometimes even obscene expressions to fervently criticize the regime and especially likes to accuse the government of "betraying Russia’s national interests." Zhirinovsky’s criticism is selective, however. He never touches President Boris Yeltsin, defense minister Pavel Grachev, the interior minister (formerly Viktor Yerin, now Anatoly Kulikov), Senior Vice Premier Oleg Soskovets, or a number of other pillars of the regime. But if Zhirinovsky cracks down on someone with all his rhetorical might, that person is promptly fired. Eighteen months ago a big scandal erupted in the Duma when Zhirinovsky called then director of the Federal Security Service (one of the successor agencies to the KGB) Sergei Stepashin a "CIA agent." Stepashin was fired several months later. The same sequence took place in the case of the dismissals of foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, Vice Premier Anatoly Chubais, and many others. The LDPR has now launched a campaign against finance minister Vladimir Panskov, leading all analysts to predict that he will probably soon be fired. Clearly, the above-mentioned ministers were not fired because of LDPR criticism. The fact is, Zhirinovsky knows whom to attack. Zhirinovsky unmistakably senses a potential political victim — it is not very important whether he hunts on his own or at the order of some "master."

Zhirinovsky is neither an opponent nor a loyal supporter of the current regime. In his political moves, he is guided not by ideology, but by sober financial calculation. The LDPR Duma faction has supported the authorities at all crucial moments, acting as a fire brigade to save the very government that the party leader has more than once accused of treason. Such "rescue" operations always appear carefully rehearsed. There are two major situations in which the government needs Zhirinovsky’s help: when the Duma votes on a "no confidence" motion and when the Duma is planning to reject a draft federal budget. In both cases, Zhirinovsky’s faction votes precisely as the government desires and is suitably recompensed for its votes. (One can’t corner such luxurious real estate with criminal money alone.)

Zhirinovsky, moreover, always tries to extract the highest possible price for his loyalty. To this end, he initially orders his faction (which is very disciplined) to vote two or three times in support of a "no confidence" motion in the government or against a draft budget. Then, at the last minute, he changes his position. The money thus obtained is then divided by Zhirinovsky among his closest associates; other faction members receive only crumbs and some, nothing at all. The latter are perhaps unaware of the machinations of their leader or only suspect him of such behavior. Zhirinovsky uses a similar scheme to solidify his relationship with that part of the public which votes for him during elections.

The Electorate

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is actually one of the Russian politicians most loyal to the regime, relies on the hard core opposition sector of the public. Perhaps only in Russia, with its undeveloped civil society, could such an odd symbiosis have formed. Captivated by Zhirinovsky’s charismatic personality, LDPR fans fail to notice his activities. This behavior on the part of his supporters points to another paradox of Zhirinovsky: He is without a doubt, if one may use the expression, the most "public" politician in modern Russia, yet the truth about his activities and his organization remains hidden from the electorate (which does not really want to know this truth). Zhirinovsky knows how to entertain people and distract them from unnecessary thoughts — his election campaigns are genuine monologue theater, a play by one actor, and he is always inventing new and effective tricks. For example, he began his presidential campaign with a solemn ceremony in the Russian Orthodox Church blessing his marriage while he simultaneously celebrated his "silver wedding." The ceremony was accompanied by public outdoor celebration, fireworks, and the free distribution of vodka. The frenzied people who attended the festivities did not know that the church blessing and silver wedding were only a bluff. The fact is, Zhirinovsky long ago divorced the woman with whom he publicly celebrated these events. She is now simply employed to work as the "leader’s wife" and is well paid for the job, at some $10,000 per month.

Zhirinovsky deftly works the electorate, appealing alternately to different layers and sublayers of the population such as pensioners, war veterans, women, youth, the military, and workers. Every time he speaks, he says precisely what people want to hear. The point is not that he promises too much (the Russian press has made a number of caustic comments about his promises to provide cheap vodka on every corner and a man for every woman). After all, all politicians promise things, but far from all are believed. Strictly speaking, nobody believes Zhirinovsky. People simply find it more pleasant to listen to his speeches than to those of other politicians.

Zhirinovsky tells men: "You come home from work. You are tired and enervated and you have nothing to give to your wife. The woman feels disappointed. She wants attention and warmth, she wants to be caressed…" Later in the speech, Zhirinovsky gives detailed instructions as to what a man should do in bed to satisfy his girlfriend. The instructions are accompanied by calls for: "More touches!" In conclusion, Zhirinovsky promises to help all Russian men become "sexual giants" if he comes to power. Listening to Zhirinovsky, people forget about stark realities and feel that they are in a theater. Zhirinovsky tries not to leave the "stage" even for a second and this has helped him to win many hearts. It is not for nothing that he tirelessly flatters people and panders to their self-esteem.

Zhirinovsky’s heyday was during the fall of 1993. By now, many people have seen his true nature. Zhirinovsky himself has also grown too lazy and self-complacent to spend much energy on attracting additional supporters. He understands that he will not be able to repeat his previous successes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities. Intellectuals do not fall for his promises, while the poor and humiliated have been taken from him by the Communists. Zhirinovsky has therefore changed his image, tactics, and, to a large extent, his social base. Turning his back on the prosperous capitals, he went to the provinces. He succeeded. During the 1995 Duma election campaign, only the LDPR and the Communist party conducted full-fledged campaign work throughout all of Russia, not ignoring a single small town, settlement, or village.

Zhirinovsky did not even try to compete with the Communists. He has always directed his efforts at those who, for one reason or other, have not been embraced by the Communists. Today, the LDPR is a genuine "party of regions," a peculiar and rather strong union of "second-rate" provincial businessmen who have managed to make small fortunes due to the Gaidar reforms, but have not been awarded the "tidbits" of the property "pie" which are the prerogative of Moscow businessmen and those businessmen who are also state officials. Zhirinovsky came to the help of these second-tier businessmen, lured them into his party, and counts on their support. In return, they hope that the LDPR leader will help them to become truly prosperous. Although compared to the average Russian, these businessmen are far from poor, they want more: money calls for more money.

Zhirinovsky calls his provincial supporters "gray wolves" and they live up to the name. These people, like their spiritual leader, are not burdened by ideological or moral principles — they are cool, calculating, and cynical. They are hungry for power and property and they have found a good guide for themselves.

Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky is seeking a different role in Moscow. He now aspires to the role of "chief anti-Communist." Such a role is hardly surprising. The LDPR has never been against a free market economy and if it criticized the reforms, it was only because the property was improperly distributed. Moreover, if the Communists win the upcoming presidential election, Zhirinovsky’s career will end once and for all. Zyuganov will without a doubt crush his rival. The KPRF leader will not enter into negotiations with Zhirinovsky because he does not need him. Finally, Zyuganov is young and full of life and will try to remain on top for as long as possible; in the worst-case scenario, he will cancel democratic election procedures. Zhirinovsky is thus vitally interested in preserving Yeltsin’s regime, a regime with which he can bargain, to which he has grown well adapted, and with which he can always find common ground.

Hence Zhirinovsky’s decision to enter the presidential race. His main task is to squeeze the Communists out of the field, with the ideal variant being a second round that he enters together with Boris Yeltsin. Zhirinovsky is ready to lose to the incumbent president. And, judging by all indications, the president’s entourage is ready to play this game with the LDPR. But games of this sort are too dangerous. The leader of the LDPR has no political or ideological preferences, he serves the one who pays him. If the opposition offers a higher price for his votes tomorrow, he will readily strike a deal with them. (If truth be told, however, the Russian opposition does not and, in all likelihood, will never have financial possibilities equal to those of the ruling regime.) Having accumulated sufficient capital, Zhirinovsky may later decide to play his own game. And no responsible politician or sober-minded analyst could guarantee that, in the latter case, it would be possible to stop him.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky

Nikolai Troitsky is a political correspondent for Obschaya gazeta.