MOSCOW (Aug. 1)
Whether he’s throwing a punch in the Russian Parliament, spitting at Jewish demonstrators in France or relaxing half-naked in a Slovenian sauna, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has generated a lifetime’s worth of attention since his victory in the legislative elections here six months ago.
But besides the splashy headlines and outlandish antics, how much of a threat does the ultranationalist pose to Russia’s fledgling democracy — and to Russia’s Jewish community?
Not much, say a surprising number of community leaders and others.
“Today, not many people consider him a serious figure,” said Michael Chlenov, the president of the Va’ad, the federation of Jewish institutions in Russia. “I never considered him a threat.”
“He is losing his glamor. We know all his gimmicks already,” added Tankred Golenpolsky, the editor of the Jewish Gazette newspaper. “In perspective, I don’t think Zhirinovsky is an important figure.”
Alia Gerber, a Jewish deputy in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, had this observation of her combative colleague: “People voted for him as a prophet, but now he is too close.” She said his popularity “in the Duma and among the population in general is falling now.”
Still, some of his ideas are taking hold.
As an ultranationalist, Zhirinovsky believes that the former republics of the Soviet Union should return to the welcoming arms of “Mother Russia,” and he defends the honor of his beleaguered homeland by attacking ethnic minorities inside Russia as well as Westerners, Americans and CIA agents.
These views are well-known and extreme, but watered-down versions are now becoming commonplace in a country reeling from economic hardship and longing for the stability and glory of Greater Russia.
‘BRINGS HARMFUL IDEAS’ TO CONSCIOUSNESS
In recent elections, Belarus and Ukraine voted for presidential candidates calling for closer relations with Russia. In addition, President Boris Yeltsin’s rhetoric has taken a decidedly pro-nationalist slant in the last few months.
“Zhirinovsky is an icebreaker,” explained Yevgeni Proshechkin, the head of the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center. “It’s not that he is harmful by himself, but he brings harmful ideas into the national consciousness.”
Yet Zhirinovsky’s ideas about Jews do not seem to have entered mainstream politics. Anti-Semitism has not increased enormously, and immigration to Israel is even dropping slightly.
Regarding Jews, Zhirinovsky is on record with a litany of bizarre statements.
At a news conference in December when his party won a quarter of the seats in the Duma, he blurted out that anti-Semitism is provoked by “those who consider themselves a part of the Jewish nation.”
Yet experts here say far-right extremists such as Alexander Barkoshov, who led violence during last fall’s uprising, are a greater threat.
“Maybe Zhirinovsky makes occasional anti-Semitic statements, but it’s not a part of his doctrine,” said Vladimir Schapiro, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Zhirinovsky’s anti-Semitism is not a phobia; it’s a game he plays consciously to get popularity among some part of the electorate.”
Complicating the issue now is the question of Zhirinovsky’s own lineage.
In April, an Associated Press reporter trekked out to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where Zhirinovsky was born. There he discovered that Zhirinovsky’s mother had been married to a Jewish man, Volf Eidelshtein, and that the ultranationalist had been known as Eidelshtein until he was 18 years old.
Zhirinovsky dismissed the reports as a “fabrication” and a “forgery,” but the allegations stuck, especially since Israeli officials have since stated that he once requested an invitation to immigrate to Israel, and Russian Jewish leaders say he was briefly involved in a Jewish cultural organization called Shalom.
Golenpolsky from the Jewish Gazette said Zhirinovsky recently wrote a letter to him and spoke to him personally. But the damage control effort was pointless, Golenpolsky observed, noting that Zhirinovsky’s attempts to appeal to Russia’s latent anti-Semitism have backfired.
THEY WON’T FORGET HIS FATHER WAS JEWISH
“Even if the time comes for the nation to put up a pro-Nazi leader, they would always remember that Zhirinovsky’s father is Jewish,” he said. “This they will not forget.”
In fact, this ironic twist to the Zhirinovsky story has become legend here, popping up in discussions and winding its way into television comedy shows and the state Duma.
After an especially rabid speech by Zhirinovsky, Yuly Gusman, a Jewish deputy from the reformist Russia’s Choice party, attempted to defuse the tension with a joke: “Vladimir Volfovich,” he said, “I’m talking to you as one Orthodox Christian to another.”
Whether Zhirinovsky and his party cohorts will exert real influence in the Duma remains to be seen. Meanwhile, he barnstorms the country in a continual campaign to become president in 1996.
The headquarters of his Liberal Democratic party are in a dilapidated four-story building in central Moscow. Outside the party office, elderly Russians sell photos of their leader.
The furniture in a waiting room looks like a thrift store bordello: a sagging red velvet settee, cracked linoleum, peeling paint, ancient curtains.
Those who request an interview are told it costs $5,000 for a 30-minute chat, and anyway, he is busy with a banquet at the Iraqi Embassy.
But he can still be nabbed at the Duma, where his strange behavior is on display free. In a recent break in the Duma’s last session, Zhirinovsky stalked the hallway, his stocky body cramped into a speckled gray and white suit and a loud tie decorated with shooting stars and flowers in neon colors.
“There is no anti-Semitism in my party, no anti-Americanism,” he bellowed in response to a question, his ice-blue eyes glistening: “There should be no lies on the part of journalists! No violence, no war! Make peace!”