Out of Russia: Master of revels in a political motley

MOSCOW - Ever since his punch-up in the MPs' canteen, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has taken to eating in the State Duma snack- bar. He sends aides to queue up, orders hired gorrillas to secure a table, and stands growling and gesticulating until food arrives. There is always an audience. I watched spellbound the other day as Mr Zhirinovsky scoffed five sausages, and shouted at an acolyte with a shaved head he wants put in charge of a new KGB.

To be honest, all Mr Zhirinovsky really did was eat. But I doubt whether Nureyev ever secured such attentive spectators.

There have been many explanations of what makes Mr Zhirinovsky so mesmerising. Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, has blamed his election triumph on the press - oxygen of publicity and all that. Others cite deep and disturbing historical currents: Holy Russia, Slavic fascism, anti-Semitism. Then, of course, come inflation, the rouble and other misery indices we can cross- reference with Weimar Germany.

I like a more arcane but perhaps more sane explanation advanced recently in the columns of the Russian newspaper Sevodnya. To fathom the 'Z Factor', argues Ilya Raskin, read Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian literary theorist, philosopher and chronicler of farts, bottoms and other Rabelaisian naughty bits known among scholars as the 'material bodily lower stratum'.

Bakhtin died in 1975 and never had much interest in politics. His only link with Mr Zhirinovsky is Kazakhstan, where they both lived. And both built careers on the same theme: 'All acts in the drama of world history take place in front of a laughing popular chorus,' wrote Bakhtin.

'What distinguishes the people is an ability and right to laugh. It is impossible to understand the whole drama if this chorus is not heard.' Mr Zhirinovsky put theory into practice.

Bakhtin wrote volumes about carnivals, harlequins, farce, jesters, masquerade, mockery - all the ways in which people debunk convention and reverse hierarchy. Every European village had its 'feast of fools'; every clown could become king for a day. It was the same in Russia, only a lot harder to delineate carnival fantasy from fact. 'The jingling of jesters' bells almost entirely drowned the sound of church bells,' observed Bakhtin, describing how Russia's two great reformers, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, both used farce and travesty to wrong- foot foes.

Peter lopped off beards, told courtiers to act like Englishmen and imported the 'feast of fools'. Everything was topsy-turvy. Politics melded with masquerade.

A flare for farce continues. Communism tried to smother it in grey but could never extinguish it. Consider Alexander Rutskoi declaring himself president and holding court by candle-light in the darkened White House. And what should we make of Mr Yeltsin calling in tanks to shell the building, hiring Turkish workers to refurbish it and then ordering an Orthodox priest in full robes to bless it. Or the ex-(probably) finance minister, Boris Fyodorov, telling the world over 10 days last month that he had resigned/not resigned/ thought of resigning but not actually sent a letter/sent a letter but received no reply.

Russians did not vote for Mr Zhirinovsky as a protest against 'shock therapy' or because they want to take back Alaska. The protest vote went to the Communists and Agrarians. Those who voted for Mr Zhirinovsky were pulling their trousers down at a carnival: 'People played the game according to the set rules, strictly by the rules,' argues Sevodnya. 'They do not want to be taken for idiots by acting serious and responsible at a feast of fools where the jester is elected king.' Mr Zhirinovsky did not organise the feast, he just jangled his bells the loudest.

And so the carnival rolls on. Mr Zhirinovsky wants to host his own rock'n'roll chat-show on the radio. He should not get too cocky. Even fans cannot keep up.

He should perhaps worry more about the literary observations of Bakhtin: 'In such a system, the king is the clown. He is elected by all the people and is mocked by all the people. He is abused and beaten when his reign ends, just as the carnival dummy of winter, or of the dying year is mocked, beaten, torn to pieces, burned or drowned. Abuse reveals the other, true face of the abused, it tears off his disguise and mask. It is the uncrowning of the king.'