'Patriot' with a penchant for past glories: Despite his party's name, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is neither liberal nor democratic, writes Andrew Higgins in Moscow

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JUST DON'T mention The Map. So long as you avoid the great splash of Soviet pink on the office wall, Vladimir Zhirinovsky sounds entirely sane. He ruminates on Boris Yeltsin's constitution (unlike most opponents, he loves it); discusses the optimal balance between state and private enteprise (60-40 but negotiable) and remarks, quite correctly, that unlike Mr Yeltsin and Russia's most vociferous free-marketeers Mr Zhirinovsky himself never joined the Communist Party ('Underneath, they are all red. They just painted themselves over with a different colour'.)

But then The Map. He bounds from his mock medieval chair, snatches a silver pointer from a huge wooden desk and starts stabbing at the countries along Russia's southern flank - not just the former republics of the Soviet Union but a vast swathe running from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Turkey: 'No future. Kurds will tear it apart.' Afghanistan: 'Not a state only bandits.' Iran, India, the whole of Central Asia: 'Eternal war.' Only Iraq, whose leader, Saddam Hussein, he admires greatly and has supported with 'armed volunteers' (misfits in military fatigues), gets off lightly.

The terrifying tour d'horizon ends with a theatrical grimace. Mr Zhirinovsky moves his pointer north to tap Russia: 'Only Russia can save them.'

How is explained in Mr Zhirinovsky's new book, The Final Thrust South. Every visitor gets a free copy, along with other souvenirs of Mr Zhirinovsky's small but prolific personality cult: back copies of its principal organs, Zhirinovsky's Falcon and Zhirinovsky's Truth, and colour posters with the slogan 'Never shall anyone humiliate the Russians.'

In the hallway, a small stand provides pamphlets and collects donations. A queue of people wait to be admitted to Mr Zhirinovsky's office, adorned with pictures of Russian generals, a portrait of Pushkin, an old black, yellow and white tsarist flag and a teddy bear. On the top floor of an old mansion-turned-slum in the middle of Moscow, the place is swarming with people, nearly all men - old campaigners and new converts come to pay a modest 100 roubles (half a pence) membership fee.

Two floors down, the Zhirinovsky Rock Shop sells black leather jackets and new tapes by Anthrax, Pestilence and Cursed, and a range of skull accessories: key-chains, ash-trays and badges. Mr Zhirinovsky's attempt to woo the youth vote sometimes backfires. He was beaten up at a pop concert on Monday night when he tried to present a bouquet of flowers to the star, Sofia Rotaru.

Voters, he predicts, will be more understanding: 'People are fed up. They are tired of everything. The Communists cheated them. The democrats cheated them. We are the only party, in or out of government, not headed by old Communists.' Their only refuge, he says, is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the oddly-named vehicle for ambitions neither liberal nor convincingly democratic. 'We are Russia's third force.'

So long as elections this Sunday are fair, he says, the LDP, one of 13 blocs fielding lists of candidates under a complex proportional system, will receive some 30 per cent of the vote. Opinion polls, unreliable but probably more realistic, put its share between 5 and 10 per cent. But even lower estimates mean that Mr Zhirinovsky, 47, convinced greatness awaits him, may well get more than the 5 per cent threshold needed for seats. Standing as a virtual unknown in presidential elections in 1991 he got more than 7 per cent of the vote.

Mr Zhirinovsky's problem now is that he may be too well known. Unlike other 'national-patriot' leaders he has not had his party disqualified and appears regularly on television. In-house polls by the main pro-Yeltsin bloc, Russia's Choice, suggest the more voters see of Mr Zhirinovsky the less likely they are to vote for him. His support slipped from 6 to 3 per cent after the start of party political broadcasts.

His pet themes do not interest many voters. They want Russia to be strong but have little time for his geopolitical gobbledegook or his frequent use of gang-rape as a metaphor. And Mr Zhirinovsky, for all his crude populism, is far from being a simple muzhik (peasant). 'I am one of you. I'm just the same as you,' boasts a campaign slogan. He is not. He was born in Kazakhstan, did Oriental Studies at university, likes to hob-nob with artists and musicians and knows his history.

He gets upset when reminded of his election pledge in 1991 to cut the price of vodka ('This was just an example, not a real promise. I was talking about the economy in general.'). He also denies having a falcon tatooed on his chest or wanting to revive the Soviet Union. But he does look forward to the day when former republics 'will beg us to take them back'. And when this happens, Russia will be bigger and more powerful than anything the Communist Party constructed. But this, he admits sadly, does not win elections.

After explaining his theory of a world divided, much like that in 1984, into three rival super-empires, he says: 'Voters don't understand this too well. All they understand is throwing out the Caucasians. They don't want Russia to get involved in preserving peace. They say, 'Get them out of Russia.' ' Mr Zhirinovsky is willing to say the same if it wins votes. But he has bigger, more dangerous visions of imperial glory: 'This is not fantasy. It is already happening.'