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‘The Great Russia Will Live Again’

SAY WHAT YOU WILL about Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but the man knows how to throw a party. For his 48th birthday, "probably the last before I return this nation to its historic greatness, " as he put it that night, Russia's most compelling–and notorious– politician invited everybody from President Boris Yeltsin to a czarist honor guard in full battle dress to celebrate with him at Moscow's grandly decaying Budapest Restaurant.

President Yeltsin declined to attend. But the czarists were out in force, and so were a pride of sleek blondes who called themselves the Zhirinovsky Girls. Hundreds of shady "businessmen" clutching bottles of "Zhirinovsky-brand" vodka wandered happily among the eye-high stacks of blini, occasionally bumping into a Serbian diplomat, a retired Russian Army general or an acne-scarred skinhead with fresh jail tattoos on his fingers.

Outside, Petrovsky Street looked like the parking lot at any good Connecticut country club: Cadillacs, Mercedeses and Lincoln Town Cars all clogged the narrow alley, along with the gaudiest symbol of the Slavic jet set– the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Special Russian Army forces patrolled the area, virtually closing traffic on one of the city's main arteries and making the Bolshoi Theater, the Metropol Hotel, even Red Square and the Kremlin practically inaccessible. "It is a sign of respect," said Grigory Serbrenikov, Zhirinovsky's glib, energetic press secretary, when asked why the Government felt the need to send paratroopers to a birthday party. "He is the most popular man in Russia. Even this Government has to respect that."

The police assembled on the nearby streets gave a slightly different reason for their presence. "These guys are dangerous drunks," said one trooper, who wore a camouflage flak jacket with night-vision goggles tucked into his breast pocket. "You don't want to be around when this party is over."

But inside, it was all smiles and Champagne. Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, recently appointed by his colleagues in Russia's extravagantly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party to a 10-year term as "dictator," kissed every woman who walked by, posed for hundreds of pictures like a longshot liberal in the snows of New Hampshire, stood on the worn parquet floor next to his wife for more than an hour and received some unusual presents for a birthday boy: a high-powered Russian Army assault rifle (which he aimed gleefully at the few journalists present); a 15-gallon bottle of vodka bearing his profile (in the trademark wool cap he claimed was stolen from him by European Parliament deputies in France) and a large oil painting of Russian tanks strafing a shore dotted with palm trees– a not-so-subtle reference to his imperialistic promise that Russian soldiers would one day "wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean."

Opera singers, comedians, native folk dancers and blatant whores all made the scene. Russia's most famous hypnotist and faith healer, Anatoly Kashpirovsky– whose television appearances still weaken the knees of tens of thousands of elderly women– turned up to say that someday the anniversary of Zhirinovsky's birth would be celebrated with the same joy as Lenin's once was. "He is the brightest, cleanest, most courageous man we have," said the wiry Kashpirovsky, himself a member of Parliament who only months ago had bitterly split from Zhirinovsky's party and denounced its leader. "He is the only man who can lead this country out of the darkness and into the light."

Under hooded eyebrows dripping with sweat, Zhirinovsky took it all in like the amiable president of a local Rotary Club. Conservatively dressed in a hunter-green double-breasted jacket, with rep tie and black slacks, he stood quietly under a wooden crown with the word "Rossiya" painted in gold leaf. For once he fought back his natural scowl and spoke softly. "I love this country," he said when it came time to cut the cake. "I love it more than anything on earth. When I am done, it will be great again. I promise you all that. The great Russia will live again."

CAN RUSSIA– REELING FROM THE loss of empire, impoverished, desperate and tumbling rapidly into the deepest reaches of the third world, ever be "great" again?

Can a man who has promised to reclaim Finland and Alaska, and warned the Germans and Japanese that he would "destroy" them with his "atomic pistol" if they got out of line, become its President?

How can a nation that has been tortured ceaselessly by dictators and murderers throughout this century reject democracy yet again and embrace the leadership of a racist tyrant who promises to establish special courts for summary executions of criminals and kill 100,000 of them as soon as he comes to power? Is there something fundamental in the Russian soul that invites barbarism and recoils from peace?

Are people here so bitter about the dismal state of their lives that they would prefer to hear simple falsehoods about the past than hard truths about the future?

Or are Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and his many strident and nationalistic competitors for power, simply bad jokes, posturing buffoons who will fade away as the economy blossoms?

"Zhirinovsky must be seen as a symbol of something very real, very powerful," says Yegor Gaidar, a man who ought to know. "We have already seen what it means to ignore this threat."

As perhaps the most reform-minded politician in Russia, a close ally of President Yeltsin and the head of Russia's Choice, the most visibly pro-Western bloc in last December's parliamentary elections, Gaidar and his slate were humiliated when Zhirinovsky drew nearly 25 percent of the vote– more than anyone else, and far more than anyone in the West ever thought possible.

Like most of the country's leaders, Gaidar is well aware that if the economy darkens further, nationalists like Zhirinovsky, joined by a loose grouping of Communists (led by their slick party boss Gennadi Zyuganov, who has appeared on "Larry King Live" and has promised to "to unite the entire opposition– left, right and center") could provide an unbeatable alternative to the way things are. Even the former Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, the renegade whom Yeltsin had to blast out of office with tanks last October, hasn't been shy about stating his intention to assume the Presidency.

Fresh from five months at Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, released along with hundreds of thugs, bandits and extremist politicians who make Zhirinovsky look like a 12-term Congressman from Indianapolis, Rutskoi has an appeal based almost wholly on the fact that he is President Yeltsin's enemy. For it has come to this in Russia: these days a politician can't go wrong by denouncing the man who brought democracy to the Soviet Union and then saved it once again when armed despots tried to take it back.

"People are scared," says Gaidar, who admitted he ran a terrible campaign, delivering long, droning speeches about inflation, and was among the many liberals jettisoned from the Yeltsin Administration in the aftermath of the crushing defeat. "I really don't blame them. Whether Zhirinovsky ends up leading them or it is somebody else, the danger of radical nationalism in this country is absolute. Our only hope is to get the economy working fast."

For the average citizen, however, that is a hope built on the thinnest of reeds. Many of them have never been poorer, not even under Communism. A public that only three years ago viewed the West as the Land of Oz has come decidedly to believe that foreigners have too much influence here. Industrial production has fallen 25 percent in each of the last two quarters compared with the previous year– a drop far greater than anything America experienced during the Great Depression. Where the vast majority once yearned for a market economy, most of the population now would be thrilled to see it wither away. Two-thirds of the people polled by the Russian Academy of Sciences last month agreed that "privatization is legalized theft," and that it was undertaken "for the benefit of criminals." Burning desires for freedom have rapidly given way to urgent calls for law and order, for real jobs at decent wages, for putting things back together again.

It won't be easy. Russians are humiliated by their failures, angry at the West for showing so clearly what they can't have and eager to do something about it. Three years ago, Moscow residents were throwing rose petals in the path of Americans. Now they have taken to painting "Yankee Go Home" on the no-parking signs outside the bleak, forbidding American Embassy and screaming that the national obsession with Snickers bars is some kind of American plot.

"It is natural to feel bitter about America now because America is being shoved down our throat at all times," says Igor Shafarevich, the well-known right-wing intellectual and mathematician whose four-year-old book, "Russophobia," is considered a sacred text of aggressive nationalism. "If you look at television today, only American products are advertised there. Ice cream, gum, toothbrushes, whatever. All is American. If in an ad you need to portray something as attractive, they speak English. Air time on our Russian television is all bought by Western preachers– Baptists, for instance– while the Russian Orthodox Church does not have this opportunity. Naturally, people resent it because it reminds them how desperately unhappy they are."

NOT EVERYONE IN RUSSIA IS miserable, of course. These are heady times for the mob, for the new bankers who operate out of seedy apartments and earn millions of dollars each month. A horrible hybrid has emerged: the crassness of capitalism has been grafted onto the fierce Russian soul. For those crafty enough to have a part in the fire sale of an enormous country, where literally everything– from the buildings that stand on the earth to the precious metals buried within it– has its price, times couldn't be better. For the lucky few who operate on the high side of the dollar apartheid, life in the new Russia is grand: cellular phones, Maine lobsters, Versace clothing, four-story dachas with heated pools; $1,000-a-night hookers, illegal drugs of any kind. They're all here now.

But the chasm between rich and poor grows wider every day. Last year, there were more Mercedeses sold in Moscow than in any other European city– most of them for cash. In a city where the average industrial wage is slightly higher than $70 a month, you can rent a car at good hotels for $50 an hour– with a four-hour minimum. Moscow may have already outstripped Las Vegas, Monte Carlo and Hong Kong to become the casino capital of the world. There is one on almost every street, and, fortunately for the high rollers who are everywhere, new clubs open every day. Some currency-exchange bureaus now even refuse to accept bills smaller than $100– but that's no problem because hundreds are ubiquitous. At the end of every working day, men brandishing automatic weapons form human tunnels outside the entrances of major banks– the better to guarantee their huge take will make it safely to storage in central vaults.

For the vast, silent majority, though, the new Russia is a grim place. Last year, agricultural production plummeted to a 30-year low– and the Government has already conceded that this year will be worse. With its stone-age factories producing almost nothing of use, the former superpower has lapsed into a coma. In a single year, the price of a decent meal has risen by a factor of 10. Ravaged by inflation that has turned fistfuls of rubles into worthless tissue, the meager life savings of millions have vanished. Faith healers and vodka factories are working overtime. The most stolid people on earth– who have lost tens of millions of their brothers and sisters to war, terror and genocide– are sick of waiting for tomorrow.

Fear has taken control of the country: fear of poverty, of crime and, above all, fear of the future. Women feel they can no longer walk the streets alone at night. Police officers, unable– and often unwilling– to respond to the crushing swell of violence that has taken hold in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities, now suggest that people carry guns. That probably wouldn't have helped Andrei Aizderdzis, the 35-year-old publishing entrepreneur and member of Parliament who was blown away on his doorstep early last month– almost certainly by criminals outraged that he had printed the names of Mafia gang members in a provincial newspaper. The following week, possibly emboldened by the tragedy, another member of Parliament, Sergei Skorochkin, pulled out a Kalashnikov and killed a gun-toting Georgian racketeer, who he says was demanding protection money from him.

"We will stop this all," Zhirinovsky howled at a rally last month, to a crowd of 1,000. "I know you're sick of it. You're frightened, you're angry. They call me an extremist. That's O.K. If that's what we need to prevent vandals from stealing our country, then let us be extreme." It was the biggest applause line of the day. (Though his suggestion that President Yeltsin and his entire administration retire to their dachas where they could "stuff themselves with Snickers bars" came a close second.)

Early this year, the Government released a report concluding that at least 70 percent of private enterprises were being forced to pay tribute to gangsters. Newspapers called the estimate laughably low. The rich promise of perestroika and glasnost has turned into the reality of a society governed by the Mafia, official corruption and despair.

"Everything that happens here is happening against the backdrop of a dying, collapsing society," says Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of the right-wing newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) and a sort of unofficial propaganda minister of the opposition. "The economy is dying, social links are breaking apart. At some point soon society will become ungovernable. Earlier the Soviet Union threatened the West with nuclear weapons. It was the possible source of World War III. But now its something different–one-sixth of the globe has become a breeding ground for the deadliest Mafia in the world. Compared with Russia, Colombia is a grain of sand."

He is not alone in thinking this way. Declaring that organized crime in Russia presented "a grave threat" to the safety of the United States, and that he feared the Russian Mafia has "already attained or will soon attain the capacity to steal nuclear weapons," the F.B.I. Director, Louis Freeh, announced last month that the bureau would soon open its first Moscow office. Russian politicians and law-enforcement officials expressed gratitude and relief. Crime, particularly the organized groups that control almost every aspect of commercial life from newspaper kiosks to international banking, has made the desire for a strong, incorruptible nationalism– not free markets or better health care or even jobs– the driving force in Russian politics today. Even the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, which was continually brutalized and humiliated under Communism, is led in part by hard-liners who seek to provide a powerful nationalist identity for the new Russian state.

While never publicly acknowledging it, President Yeltsin has moved continuously to the right, hoping to placate the nationalist fervor. His single election triumph– a new Constitution that grants nearly absolute powers to the President– passed only because Zhirinovsky supported it and told his voters to follow suit. By the end of January, Yeltsin had dumped every reform-minded liberal in his Government, including Gaidar, Boris Fyodorov, his aggressive young Finance Minister, and many of their colleagues. From his woozy stance as an uncritical supporter of the West, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has moved furthest to the right of anyone in the Yeltsin Government, recently writing that "Russia is predestined to be a great power." His pronouncements on Serbia, NATO and the West sometimes seem as if they were written by Zhirinovksy himself.

Suddenly, the West is the all-purpose villain. Not long ago, there were only reformers here; now there are only patriots– men who wish to return the country to what they perceive to be its Slavic glory. There are essentially two historical ways of looking at life in Russia: things are horrible now, let's go back to the past; and things are horrible now, what can we find to wipe away the present? It is a dangerous mentality, but one that has nearly eternal roots in the national psyche. Remorse, anger and frustration are all deeply imbedded in the Russian character. The naive notion that a brief period of shock therapy would turn Russia into a second United States has given way to a far more brittle reality: Russia never has been– and never will be– a Western country.

"Liberals, deniers, skeptics as well as preachers of social ideas, they all– the majority of them at least– have suddenly turned out to be ardent Russian patriots," wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his often wildly nationalistic "Diary of a Writer." The book, published as a serial between 1873 and 1881, helped make him famous. Its popularity rivaled Dickens's at his height– readers couldn't wait for each new issue to be released. With its blind anti-Semitism, its acute insights into the social hungers of the Russian people and its overbearing belief that the idea of Russia is the only idea, the book could have been written last fall– as a campaign treatise for Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

"This is what I think," Dostoyevsky wrote, in one of the many passages that presage Russia's current, troubling choices: "Is there not revealed something in the protesting Russian soul, to which European culture in its many manifestations has always, ever since Peter, been hateful? I do think so."

Today the move inward rivals anything envisioned by Russia's greatest, and most nationalistic, writer. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the competent, frank statist who almost single-handedly runs the country's economy, made his views clear this winter by announcing bluntly that "the period of market romanticism is over." Not long after, he issued a decree calling a halt to competition in the all-important alcohol industry and turning it back into a state-run monopoly. "The Government of reforms is dead," declared the newspaper Izvestia.

THE REAL QUESTION SEEMS to be, what will come next?

Presidential elections are not scheduled until 1996– although Yeltsin could call them this year if he chose– but already nearly a dozen mainly fringe characters, including Nazi commandos like Aleksandr Barkashov, and Viktor Anpilov, the Communist Workers Party leader, have declared their intention to replace him. Last year, Anpilov led crowds that clashed bitterly with police in the streets, and was imprisoned for it. But these days, he has taken to wearing blue polyester suits and carrying Samsonite briefcases around town while talking serenely about "the loving motherland."

The increasingly remote and detested Yeltsin acknowledged in his recently published memoirs that "Russia is not immune to fascism." Bending to the openly anti-American atmosphere in Parliament and throughout the country, he theatrically questioned whether Russia would be ready to let American soldiers (200 troops and a couple of dozen trucks) enter its sovereign turf this summer– and late last month he finally called them off. Few ideas seem more odious to those who yearn for a stronger national identity than the United States-sponsored plan for joint military exercises on Russian soil. These days, when Yeltsin delivers one of his rare speeches, it is not usually about market reform or the lessons of democracy, but about crime, corruption and the overriding need for law and order to return.

"These are the conditions for extremism," said Gaidar glumly, reviewing the events of the eight months that began when Yeltsin sent the army to storm the Parliament and lock up its leaders. "You have a stagnating economy. You have real poverty. You have enormous increases in inequality. You have rising expectations. You have a general sense of disorder and you have shocking crime everywhere you look. I think this is an ideal platform for the enemies of democracy."

Not long after making those comments, Gaidar went further– drawing a dark parallel between Zhirinovsky and Hitler. "During the election campaign last year, I said that Zhirinovsky reminded me of Hitler in 1929," he wrote in a long commentary in Izvestia. "Unfortunately, I was mistaken. Zhirinovsky with his 25 percent of the votes has already surpassed Hitler in 1929 and has achieved the result that the Nazis got in the Reichstag elections of 1930.

"The person whom I write about today," he continued, "is the most popular fascist leader in Russia. This means that he is the biggest threat to my motherland and my people."

Coming from the soft-spoken Gaidar– the apostle of the shock-therapy approach to Russian economic reform– words like this land with a jolt. A liberal who believes completely in the magic of the marketplace, he is one of his country's most eloquent optimists.

There aren't many left though. Hundreds of thousands of people go to work each day, sign in and get drunk. Bad vodka, at about $1 a bottle, is still cheap enough for almost anybody to afford. Although it makes no economic sense, the Government continues to hand out tax breaks to factories based largely on the number of people they employ. The bigger the enterprise the lower the taxes. So from the giant fish plants that line the waterfront of Murmansk, to the oil fields of Siberia, to the colossal automotive factories in the capital, like Zil and Moskvich, workers have little to do most days but drink and worry– the beer halls around factories and in neighborhoods where industrial employees live are doing a bang-up business.

"I voted for Boris Yeltsin," said Yuri Vysonov, a 55-year-old laborer from Yeltsin's home turf, Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. "I worked for him 30 years ago when he ran a factory. But I've given up. He has issued a hundred edicts and not one has changed a thing. I thought he was a Democrat and then he bombed the Parliament. I never thought it could get worse than it was. But I was wrong. Give me something different. I don't know what and I don't know who. But there has got to be something out there better than what we have now."

SERGEI IS A TOWHEADED 8-year-old, a charming fourth-grader who chain-smokes Marlboros and earns more than 1.5 million rubles a month (nearly $1,000) robbing trains in a town called Zabaikalsk on the Chinese border, near Mongolia. The way he describes his job, he's an apprentice really– a clever little tipster who tells older thieves what merchandise they can find in the boxcars constantly inching their way across the wide open country.

The telegenic youngster is the unwitting star of a searching new movie, "The Criminal Revolution," by the well-known director Stanislav Govorukhin. His two other recent films, "We Can't Live This Way" and "The Russia We Lost," portrayed a country in steady decline: first under Communism and then under Yeltsin. He also made a popular documentary about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and arranged one of the first welcome events for Solzhenitsyn's return to Moscow. The arrival of Russia's most famous living writer, after a 20-year exile, has already added intensity to the nation's search for a new nationalism. Within a day of landing in Magadan– the Siberian center of the Gulags–he had already begun to breathe fire. Solzhenitsyn denounced Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, called Gaidar's reforms "brainless" and said that Zhirinovsky was a "caricature of a Russian patriot." He said it was time to stop worrying about the West and develop the soul of Russia.

Govorukhin agreed. His new documentary, a guided tour of the rape of Russia, is the most graphic of his films. From frank, on-camera interviews with Mafia racketeers to detailed descriptions of how to make shovels and axes out of rare metals like platinum and titanium– in order to smuggle the loot out of the country– the new film is Exhibit A in Govorukhin's holy war against the wholesaling of a nation.

The director, a dandy who smokes Dunhills with ivory tips, is a sort of cinematic Paul Revere– beaming from town to town his warning of the death of a culture invaded by beasts from across the ocean. A member of Parliament, he is the most forceful and eloquent spokesman for a generation of cynics who argue that Russian attempts at democracy have done little but pave the way for the coming of fascism.

"Today an unthinkable order has taken shape in this country," Govorukhin said recently, a couple of days before the first showing of his film in Moscow. "It has become disadvantageous to work and absolutely safe to steal. Show me at least one person who would labor honestly and live well in this country. There is no such person. In this country, he who lives well either steals, works for foreigners or is at the Government's corrupt feeding trough."

His message may be a bit hyperbolic– he is a moody Cassandra in Italian loafers and British woolens– but it never falls on indifferent ears. During an interview in his office– a flashy hideaway not far from the Russian White House, where he can sip espresso, lament the past and plot the future with an increasingly influential group dedicated to bringing down the Government– Govorukhin insists that the country is starved for talent, particularly the most ruthless type.

"Stalin was a tyrant," he said. "A criminal. But a very talented man, a true statesman. Look at what an enormous and powerful country he managed to build on the misery and blood of the people."

And Zhirinovsky? What of him?

"He is super-talented," Govorukhin replies instantly."Super." In fact, Govorukhin insists that he would ban the Liberal Democratic Party from the next elections if it were up to him, because Zhirinovsky is such a great orator, and so "scary," that any race in which he runs would be unfair. "Of course, his is a talent from the ranks of Stalin and Lenin," Govorukhin continues, clearly ambivalent about his own feelings. "He will make of this country– oh what can I say?– Russia will once again be a great power."

A great power again. It is the central rallying cry of all who despair of the present and look for another way. It is the prayer that unites centrists like Nikolai Travkin, Communists like Zyuganov, extremists like Zhirinovsky and open fascists like Barkashov, who spends his free time staging military maneuvers on the outskirts of Moscow, peddles Nazi literature in the corridors of the Parliament and recently told the weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty that he had a simple plan for "washing the disgrace away from Russia: Everything for the nation, nothing against the nation. The nation is above all. We will do everything to implement our views."

It is a frightening thought in a country of 150 million lost souls– made far worse because he is hardly the only one who voices it. From Sergei Shakrai, the former close Yeltsin ally, to Travkin, recently named to the cabinet in yet another step to the right, from Andrei Kozyrev to Aleksandr Rutskoi, the call to renewed national dignity– often at the expense of whatever is not "Russian"– has become a sort of spiritual glue.

"All national patriotic forces must join together," Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, said recently. "People always ask me what, as a Communist, I am for. I am for a Russia that is great and indivisible. I am for the Russian people individually and together. In the United States, you can support Russia's Choice all you like. Forever if you like. But it won't bring them to power. They will disappear. And Russia will emerge again."

Rutskoi, the Afghan-war hero who briefly became the Jefferson Davis of Russia before Yeltsin had him locked away, says essentially the same thing. "We must unite in a single people's movement," he told 10,000 protesters on the May 9 anniversary of the victory over Germany, a solemn day in a nation where the siege of Leningrad is mentioned constantly– even 50 years later– on the television news. It was Rutskoi's first major public address since Oct. 3, when he called on hostile anti-Yeltsin crowds outside the White House to storm the Mayor's office and the television center Ostankino, setting off two days of violence that ended with more than 150 dead and a nation shaking with rage. "We must replace the regime of swindlers," he told the cheering Victory Day crowd. "We must take our country back.

No one can argue that Russia today is without free speech. On May Day, a smiling man selling magazines in front of Moscow's last great Lenin statue, across the street from the Octoberskaya Metro, acted as if he were hustling hot dogs at Yankee Stadium. "Get your first authentic Russian Nazi magazine here," he called amiably. "I've got it at a great price.

"Hey, are you Jewish?" he asked a potential buyer as a small crowd gathered, his voice gaining speed and intensity. "Are you American, or Jewish, or what?"

It is easy to see nuts like the magazine dealer as sad sacks clinging to a lost way of life in a world that has passed them by– or hopeless fools searching for new ashes in the old ashes. Just as it is easy to see Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a clown. In the West, the popular conclusion is so simple: Zhirinovsky and these others are idiots. The Russians will settle down eventually. Just give them some time to sort things out.

Maybe reason will prevail. Time may be all that Russia needs to complete its difficult journey toward economic and political reform. After all, almost nothing could be more complicated than taking the world's most cumbersome and dictatorial command economy and turning it into a free market. Yet there is a scenario for success that is based on individual entrepreneurs' starting small businesses, which, if they grow and prosper, will help bring the nation along with them.

Despite dire predictions that Russia was about to plunge into anarchy or civil war– that hunger would be widespread and violence even more pervasive than it is– the worst has not yet come to pass. Inflation, while unacceptably high at nearly 10 percent, is far lower than it was a year ago. Russia has enormous natural resources, and if the mammoth industrial dinosaurs that make nothing worth buying are allowed finally to die– a big if in a country petrified by the possibility of high unemployment– the economy could begin to focus on manufacturing products somebody might want. At the end of May, Yeltsin finally sent a signal that he understood how desperately the economy needed to catch fire. He issued a series of decrees– reducing taxes on businesses, cutting export quotas, promising aid to companies with foreign investment– all aimed at rescuing the economy and, in the process, himself.

If free enterprise has met with ambivalence elsewhere in Russia, it is certainly booming in the Duma Building, where any legislator can walk out of his office after writing an anti-American speech and buy a canister of Chicken Flavored Ultra Slim-Fast in the store on the first floor. Or some instant noodles or panty hose. Or books. There are always books for sale in the halls of the new Congress at the lunchtime break: Mickey Spillane thrillers, badly translated into Russian, primers on accounting, on computers, on car repair and even modern-art catalogues. And at a folding table in the center of the hall most days, you can buy any of Zhirinovsky's speeches, his autobiography "The Last Thrust for the South," which does more to illustrate the lonely-man school of history than almost anything published in Russian since Peter the Great died. You can also purchase copies of his newspaper, The Liberal, and his magazine, The Falcon. Next to that are stacks of Goebbels's diaries and "Mein Kampf," in striking black-and-white covers, both recently translated into new Russian editions and priced quite reasonably.

"Buy them," the salesman, Viktor Antilovich, suggested one day. "You might learn something."

About what? he was asked. What did Hitler, who wiped out 20 million Russians, not to mention six million Jews– and loathed them all– have to teach?

"He understood the need for a motherland," came the reply. "He knew that a nation needs a heritage."

For Russians who see their heritage slipping away– more than 25 million of them became instant ethnic minorities in new countries when the Soviet Union died– it is a compelling theme. The Soviet state was the place where most Russians– ethnically at least– felt at home. When the British and French empires faded away, those countries withdrew to their clearly defined national borders. A Frenchman could always feel at home in France.

The situation in Russia today is far more complicated. You don't have to be a Nazi to feel anger when a cousin or uncle who has lived his whole life in Estonia can't get a job because he is Russian, when his children can't study Russian in school anymore or play with their neighbors who aren't Russian. For a people used to the idea of greatness– even if it was never a reality– and to an empire stretching from the Bay of Pigs to Ho Chi Minh City, the notion that Russians now have to apply for a visa to visit Latvia, or fight for scarce jobs with refugees from Uzbekistan, or wait in line for apartments with immigrants from Azerbaijan is nearly impossible to take.

It was just that perilous loss of heritage that Govorukhin was discussing at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, one of the tonier spots in Moscow, where a couple of drinks cost $25, a Filofax is $200 and an Apple Newton computer goes for $1,000.

"We have become slaves to money," he said, speaking in the Tolstoy Room of the hotel after showing his film to a group of Russian journalists. "We work for the Chinese as laborers or we work as thieves and mobsters. We have no values anymore– no clear place in the world."

On the Sony television monitor behind him, a series of bleak images flickered by as he spoke: trucks full of Russian goods and valuable equipment flooding into China– and coming back without a thing. Villages were shown. On the Russian side of the border, all were in decay, sliding into anarchy. The Chinese towns only a few miles away were gleaming and modern, filled with new buildings, fine roads and fancy parks– all constructed with Russian granite.

"We have become lackeys to Germany, to the West, especially to the U.S.," Govorukhin concluded, assuring himself that the largely sympathetic audience of journalists got the chilling message. "We have to start doing it for ourselves again."

As he finished his speech, the doors to the Tolstoy Room swung open onto the corridors of the hotel. An enormous party had begun down the hall in the hotel's grand ballroom. Women in long black dresses and men in dinner wear congregated under an archway of red, white and blue balloons, then passed by a two-story inflatable polar bear doll, 6-foot stacks of plastic Sprite, Coke and Fanta bottles and finally a 10-foot circular Russian language version of the Coca-Cola slogan Vsegda Coca-Cola (Always Coca-Cola).

It was Cokefest 94. The first Russian Coca Cola bottling plant had opened on the outskirts of Moscow, and it seemed like the entire city of Atlanta had flown in for the party.

"It's a big day for us and a big day for Russia," said a local employee of the company. "Everyone in town is going to be here."

Not everyone. Stanislav Govorukhin took one look around, lit another cigarette and fled in horror.

There are at least two words that every Westerner who cares about Russia ought to know: rodina and dusha– motherland and the soul. When Russians talk about the dusha, they are not just talking about the soul, though; they are talking about the soul on fire.

And when they talk about the motherland, they might as well be talking about Lake Baikal. Few places stir the spirits of ordinary Russians like the vast, crystalline beauty of the world's deepest, clearest and oldest lake. By comparison, Lake Superior, with less than half the water, is a puddle.

Statistics, breathtaking as they are, can only tell a little about Baikal: it is 395 miles long and 30 miles wide; it holds a fifth of the world's fresh water. In the dead of the Siberian winter, its ice grows more than three feet thick, and almost 2,000 types of life are to be found there– fish, crabs, plants, flowers– that can be found nowhere else on earth.

But statistics don't explain the impact of the blue waters, and the necklace of white mountains that ring them, on the senses. The scale, the textures, the contrast to the drab Siberian cities not far away are all remarkable. Far more than a body of water, though, Baikal is an idea– like Wordsworth's Lake District or Melville's whale. Lake Baikal is as big as it is, according to an old Russian proverb, because it contains a piece of every Slavic soul.

"The entire Russian ecology movement was founded on these shores," says Vladimir Fialkov, a geographer and director of the Baikal Museum in Listvyanka, speaking about the strong connection between the movement and Russian nationalism. "The whole idea of Russia as a nation, Russia apart from the Soviet Union, originated here. The idea that bureaucrats in Moscow were deciding what to do with a lake that has been here for millions of years. It was too much for the people to bear."

More than 3,000 miles from Moscow, Siberia is Russia's heartland, a place of endless resources and even more misery. People here are independent, wild. They didn't want to belong to a Soviet Union that tried to turn their barren wonderland into an industrial showcase. And they don't want to hear what Moscow has to tell them now. In the age-old war between Slavophiles and Westernizers– between Russians who believe that the West is evil, that in the land lies the answer and that the Russian soul harbors a special spirit that cannot be contaminated by material things or money, and those who dream of commerce, progress, a modern nation– Baikal is the Slavic home court.

Not surprisingly, there isn't much support for Yeltsin or his reforms here. Like many regions of the country, Irkutsk oblast, which includes Baikal, has increasingly decided to go its own way. Despite the Communist-era street signs in Irkutsk (and the huge banner nobody could miss on the way to the airport: For Lenin, Live Work Fight), people here would rather live and work for themselves.

"I don't want to be a part of a criminal Russia," says Vasily Zelenyuk, a 34-year-old unemployed gold miner from Irkutsk. Zelenyuk used to rake it in– making up to 500,000 rubles ($350) a month. That was when he was working. The mines are not producing much these days, but neither is the military factory that makes fighter jets. Irkutsk Heavy Metals, the largest regional employer, closed for the Victory Day celebration at the beginning of May and, like many other major factories in the country, stayed closed long after it ended. Once again, the big industrial success story is the local vodka factory. People there are working overtime.

"I watch the television and I am sick of what I see," says Zelenyuk, who wears a holstered pistol on his left hip even during recreational strolls on the shores of Baikal. "People here are angry. I am. Russia was great and now we aren't. Now we have to protect ourselves because nobody else will do it for us. I want my job back. I want to be able to walk safely on the streets. If somebody can promise me that, I'm for them." SOMEBODY DOES PROMISE that– and much more, too. Somebody does promise national unity, and he stands to reap the rewards of a profound wave of revulsion against the condescension and arrogance of the West and, above all, the idea that the empire can never be restored.

"I know you're sick of politicians," Vladimir Zhirinovksy says on the stump. In performance, he is a strange Russian mixture of George Wallace and Ross Perot. "I know you are tired of the promises and the lies. Many of you didn't bother to vote. Why would you? Well, I'm not going to make you wait 10 or 20 years to buy a decent chicken. You support me and you will get results. They will be fast, they will be direct and they will be yours."

It is an appeal, however simplistic, that is hard to resist. Zhirinovsky may be short of answers to complicated questions. (His basic foreign policy statement: "War is the natural state of man. Either they get us or we get them.") But in front of an audience, he is a genuine spellbinder. Few politicians have his verbal chemistry, and fewer still are campaigning now, two years before the next election. Zhirinovsky– who was not interviewed for this article because he charges journalists $5,000 an hour for his time– knows the power of the camera as well as any Kennedy ever did.

To some critics, he is the Russian Hotspur– a fiery flameout who will soon be a historical footnote. To others, he doesn't even matter. If he himself does not lead the pack into the next election, they say, somebody with similar views will soon emerge to replace him. Even on the right, few believe that Zhirinovsky is the only person who can carry their message.

"Zhirinovsky is not the point," says the right-wing intellectual Shafarevich. "He is simply a vehicle to express our anger. For Russia right now the most important thing is to find a feeling of national unity to overcome this crisis. Today the main factor is a total decline of national sentiments. We must have a leader who can unite Russia and Russians again. Zhirinovsky may disappear, but these ideas will not."

He may well be right. Russians can recognize a fool when they see one. But redemption and weakness, madness and folly all play a central role in the Russian psyche and in its literature. Dostoyevsky's novel "The Devils," for instance, is filled with febrile revolutionaries, lunatics who perfectly embodied the fanatic quality of the early Bolsheviks. One of the nation's most celebrated literary heroes– the delirious, brooding Raskolnikov in "Crime and Punishment"– is Russia's warped Hamlet, a murderer riddled not by indecision but by action. Even now, in the post-Soviet period, the grotesque is a dominant theme. In short stories by young writers like Vladimir Sorokin, author of the "The Queue," there is a deliberate twisting of socialist realism into a modern literature of the perverse.

This reverence for the drunken fool, the loner, the maniac carries over from fiction to life, and has clearly helped Zhirinovsky gain popularity when earnest reformers with five-point plans have slunk into the ooze. It is sometimes now forgotten how proud Russians were when Nikita Khrushchev slammed that shoe on the table, or that when Mikhail Gorbachev ran Russia, American diplomats quite rightly considered the avatar of democracy, Boris Yeltsin, a drunken lout and a hopeless bore. Russians know that Yeltsin drinks too much, and they love him for it.

"I tend to think Zhirinovsky's a fool," says Yuri Pronin, a political columnist for Pravda based in Irkutsk. "It is very hard for us to take him seriously. But I have to admit that before the last elections we went around town looking for his supporters and we couldn't find one. We looked hard, too. He had no office here. He had no party. No spokesman. But he won an overwhelming victory in this area. It could only have been television, and everyone's disgust with all other choices. It stunned me. It still stuns me."

It is a beautiful, sunny Saturday in May. As he does at least once every month, Zhirinovsky is speaking at the Sokolniki Metro stop in central Moscow, a grim stretch of bland Brezhnev-era housing not far from where he lives. Hundreds of his regular supporters are there, and many others stop as they wander by, with children in hand. A curiosity, even to those who are appalled by what he stands for, he and his heartfelt speech are hard to ignore.

"You probably got some fresh fish on your way home today, like always," he says as a bitter laugh rises from the crowd. Fresh fish is not within the budget of the Sokolniki crowd. "You just pick it up at the market every day with your eggs and your cheese, don't you?

"But why not?" he continues. "You live in Russia. All around you are the riches and the cars and the fancy homes and the imported chocolates– the Snickers bars…." People are clapping now like congregants in a Baptist Church. "You can't even afford the cheapest Russian candy." He drags out the word Russian for about a minute. "One million wealthy and 150 million in chains. That is what Boris has brought you.

"They tried to apply Marx to us and that failed," he says. There is silence under the brilliant skies. "Now they are applying Boris. How is that making you feel?"

You could have heard the screams in Warsaw.

"O.K. We have tried it their way," he says, once the shrieking dies away. "Now try it mine. Give me a chance. That is all I ask. Can I do it worse than they have? Can you honestly believe that I would do it worse?"

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