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Book Review: Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator

Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator
by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova

Reviewed by Michael Specter

THE Russian word bespredel is a slang term that basically means "anything goes." It is often used these days to describe the lawlessness raging in Russia, the sense that life is out of control and that while freedom is great, a little order wouldn't do any harm either. Bespredel is a word one needs to have at hand when contemplating the career of Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the theatrically extremist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party who has so powerfully influenced the course of Russian politics over the past few years.

It is hard to read either of these biographies of Mr. Zhirinovsky– one written by an emigre husband-and-wife team living in New York, the other by his former boss at Moscow's best-known publishing house — without drawing two conclusions. The first is that Mr. Zhirinovsky is a pathetic human being. The second is that understanding his success is essential to understanding Russia today.

"Zhirinovsky sprang on the Russian political scene as suddenly as a genie from a bottle," Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova write in "Zhirinovsky: Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator." "No amount of cursing will push him back in." They are right, but with his continual public outbursts (he recently threw a glass of orange juice in the face of a political opponent on national television) he may yet manage to self-destruct before he can succeed in destroying Russian reform and replacing it with an aggressively imperialist program.

In any case, Mr. Zhirinovsky is not really the point of their book. The Russian people's willingness to listen to him is. Mr. Solovyov and Ms. Klepikova, who detest the man, say they are convinced that "the restoration of the Russian empire — in its previous or near-previous borders — is only a matter of time, sooner rather than later, regardless of who will be head of state." Theirs is a volume for people who believe Russia to be simply between empires right now. They add that Mr. Zhirinovsky has had a powerful role in making the Kremlin more nationalistic and hawkish, and that he has enabled President Boris N. Yeltsin to pay less attention to democratic reforms and more to proving his might — most notably in Chechnya.

Mr. Zhirinovsky has certainly mined a large vein of despair. And he has certainly compelled Mr. Yeltsin (and just about every other politician in the country) to shore up his right flank. When he talks, many Russians find themselves nodding in agreement, almost without meaning to. For example, in one speech Mr. Zhirinovsky stated: "We have mutilated our country, we have made her backward. We have forced the Russian nation, the most advanced, to sink down. We have done it with force. Materially, through laws, and psychologically, through pressure. And now we are being told that we can't get along without foreigners, that we cannot rely on ourselves, on the Russian people. That's terrible." He had a point that most Russians instinctively recognize.

And, as Mr. Solovyov and Ms. Klepikova reveal, he manages to condemn the past while also calling for its resurrection. Mr. Zhirinovsky is the most eloquent spokesman for the way things used to be. He reminds Russians in every speech of what they have lost, how low they have fallen and how he is the man to bring it all back.

Most of what Mr. Zhirinovsky says is nonsense, but the problem with this book is its failure to indicate that the Russians are capable of seeing through the nonsense. They are not idiots. Their country is racked with pain at present. The shift from totalitarian superpower to huge, ambitious third world country is not pleasant. Yet every day a few more individuals do a little better, and they realize that Mr. Zhirinovsky's feel-good remedies — his promises to shoot criminals at the scenes of their crimes, to supply cheap vodka and to find everyone a spouse — are not going to work.

Mr. Zhirinovsky rose to prominence as the third-place finisher in the 1991 presidential election, when people were eager to protest against the horrible lives they were living. Mr. Solovyov and Ms. Klepikova never completely acknowledge that discontent. The voters who supported Mr. Zhirinovsky then, and again in the 1993 parliamentary elections, hadn't made an ideological decision to back a partly Jewish admirer of Adolf Hitler. Anger got Mr. Zhirinovsky where he is today, but while anger remains a powerful political force, it is unlikely ever to make him president of Russia.

Still, if you want a bunch of facts about Russia's best-known extremist, the Solovyov and Klepikova book, ably translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick in collaboration with the authors, is the place to turn. It has no insights of importance, but everything you need to know is here, in impressive detail: the horrid youth (which wasn't so horrid), the (denied) Jewish father and the remarkably undistinguished academic and legal careers. Mr. Solovyov and Ms. Klepikova devote considerable space to the question of whether Mr. Zhirinovsky is a total, or only a partial, creation of the K.G.B. — but at this late date that seems to be like asking whether Frankenstein's monster was created by Dr. Frankenstein or by some other guy.

THE second book is another thing entirely. Written by Vladimir Kartsev, the former director of Mir Publishing House, with Todd Bludeau, a former editor at Mir, "!Zhirinovsky!" paints a picture of a society so evil, so tortured and so misguided that only a man like Mr. Zhirinovsky could possibly fit the bill as the kind of leader who could clean things up. "In order to become a millionaire in Russia, one need not be terribly smart, educated or resourceful," Mr. Kartsev writes. "Nor does one have to sweat over creating products, goods and services." All one has to do, he says, is be in with the people who run the country.

Of course there is truth to this assertion, and to most of the other cliches that fill the pages of this book. But one doesn't diminish the imposing problems of crime and cronyism by admitting that decent, hard-working people exist in Russia — and that many are doing rather well.

Mr. Kartsev traces the career of his former underling in painful detail. We are reminded that Mr. Zhirinovsky was a poor student, a bad lawyer and the type of political leader who wins council races simply because nobody else runs for the office. Mr. Kartsev also suggests that Mr. Zhirinovsky is an opportunist who doesn't believe most of the things he says.

Again, some of this is true. What Mr. Kartsev neglects to say, however, is that Mr. Zhirinovsky has a sense for people. He knows how to make promises and occasionally even how to keep them.

"I am reminded of the Weimar Republic and the sequence of events that led to the rise of Hitler as a national hero," Mr. Kartsev declares, expressing an oft-repeated view. "And there are a lot of candidates besides Zhirinovsky vying for the post of Russia's Hitler." True enough. But if the Russian people clearly have a desire for order, it is much less clear that they also have a desire to be ruled by a man with an iron hand.

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