Hot Air from a Cold Warrior

updated 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY IS ONE RUSSIAN politician who isn't out celebrating the absence of the Cold War—or, for that matter, any other wars, past or potential. He has called for his country to recover Alaska, for example, and take back Finland. He advocated blowing radioactive waste into Lithuania with giant fans to resolve a dispute. He thinks blacks in the United States should form their own country called the Martin Luther King Republic, headed by Michael Jackson and Angela Davis. He has said he would like to become dictator of Russia and would be willing to kill 100,000 people in the process. "When he first appeared, we thought he was a good joke," says a wary official of neighboring Estonia. "Then we thought he was a bad joke. Now we don't think he's a joke at all."

People stopped laughing on Dec. 12, when Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic party captured a shocking 23 percent of the vote in Russia's parliamentary elections. The results mean that Zhirinovsky's party now controls more seats than reformers who support beleaguered President Boris Yeltsin, who hosts Bill Clinton's first official trip to Moscow this week. Zhirinovsky, who was rebuffed in his efforts to meet with Clinton, condemns Russia's dependence on American aid. "All we gel are cowboy movies, chewing gum, Pepsi-Cola and Marlboros," he says. "We have our own drinks and cigarettes."

Little is known about Zhirinovsky's shadowy past beyond what he reveals in The Last Thrust Southward, a mawkish tract that outlines his plan to expand Russia's world influence. Born in the remote city of Alma-Ata, capital of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, he was one of six children. His father, Volf, died in a car crash when Vladimir was an infant, and his mother, Alexandra, was forced to work as a cleaning lady. Zhirinovsky—an unabashed racist who advocates deporting dark-skinned minorities—says he developed a strong ethnic identity because he was tormented by schoolmates for being Russian in a Muslim-dominated state.

In 1973, while studying for a law degree at Moscow Slate University, he married a fellow student named Ludmilla, and they have one son, Igor, 21. Zhirinovsky later worked as a translator, but others insist his real job was working for the KGB—which he denies, even claiming to have sued over the charge. He never joined the Communist parly because, according to former coworkers, they wouldn't have him. In 1989 he launched his party (which many suspect is bankrolled by-right-wing foreigners) and two years later won more than 6 million votes in the presidential campaign by promising to slash the price of vodka.

Because of his constant anti-Semitic remarks, Zhirinovsky is inevitably compared to Hitler—which offends him. "Adolf was an uneducated corporal," he says, "whereas I'm a graduate of two higher institutes of learning and know four languages." Even so, on a recent trip to Austria he was a guest of Edwin Neuwirth, a businessman who was in the Waffen-SS. Yet Zhirinovsky is dogged by rumors that his father was Jewish. He has dodged the question, but did work briefly for a Jewish organization and tried to emigrate to Israel in 1983. "I've had several blood tests, and there is no Jewish blood in me—not even 5 percent," he proclaims.

For Russia's suffering millions—caught between rampant joblessness and runaway inflation—Zhirinovsky stands for staunch opposition to Russia's harsh economic reforms. He plans to run against Yeltsin in 1996. Western observers hope he will self-destruct by then but acknowledge that the resentments he exploits will not disappear. "He's a sleazy creep fascist," says Paul Coble, a Russia expert at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But in the end, he's much less important than the people who voted for him."

DAVID ELLIS
JOANNE LEVINE in Moscow, ELLIN STEIN in London, STEPHANIE SLEWKA in Washington

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