Protest vote promotes a poser: Zhirinovsky's poll success owes more to Russian disenchantment with reform than to his own wild promises. Nationalism: The trump card

VLADIMIR Kimbarovsky, the architect of perhaps the most spectacular of last weekend's electoral disasters, offers many reasons for what went wrong: the local newspaper cut the best bits from an article he wrote last summer; the council refused office space and a telephone; police did nothing to stop a hypnotist mesmerising voters at the Aurora Cinema.

But does this really explain why Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man widely regarded as a lunatic, won 36 per cent of the vote, nearly three times more than his nearest rival in a six-way contest for Constituency 114?

Mr Kimbarovsky, campaign manager for a reformist candidate who staggered in a distant third, thinks hard, lights a cigarette and spits out what he considers to be the only possible explanation for such a fiasco: 'There are a lot of very stupid, very uneducated people.' The vote was lost, he explains, because of 'lumpen-proletariat and ignorant marginals'.

He does not think it has anything to do with the way he ran the campaign for Russia's Choice, the main pro-reform bloc headed by the economic shock-therapy guru Yegor Gaidar, whose economic message delights Western economists but baffles most Russians. Nor does Mr Kimbarovsky imagine his own background - sacked tax inspector and amateur poet - inspires anything other than absolute confidence.

If aggressive nationalism does take hold of Russia, it will be due as much as anything else to the arrogance and bickering of the would-be reformers, many of whom seriously believe they lost because of the hypnotic power of a television faith healer called Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who was not even in Russia for most of the campaign.

Few places offer such fertile ground for angry and possibly fascist protest as Shchyolkovo Constituency, a string of muddy towns with names like Red Army and Jubilee, secret defence factories, bankrupt space research centres and crumbling military bases hidden in forests 35 miles northeast of Moscow. Security posts still turn back unauthorised cars. A rusty MiG fighter on a concrete stump looms over the main road.

It was here that Mr Zhirinovsky won his greatest personal triumph last Sunday. Opponents are stunned and blame everyone but themselves. Mr Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party won about 24 per cent of the vote nationwide. In Shchyolkovo, though, he went head-to-head in a constituency race, and won hands down. His nearest rival, the head of the local administration, Nikolai Pashin, received only 13 per cent, less even than the 15 per cent who trudged all the way to the polling stations in driving snow to put an X in a box indicating that they that disliked all the candidates. Shchyolkovo is a sour and deeply unhappy place.

Mr Zhirinovsky has no ties to the constituency. He never lived here and spent most of the campaign in Moscow. He claims he chose it by sticking a pin in a map. Like most of what Mr Zhirinovsky says, the story is more fairy tale than fact. He loves playing the buffoon, waving lingerie at his last rally and vowing to keep bra prices down; having his picture taken with grungy rock stars; dancing shirtless at a discotheque.

Little, though, is ever left to chance. Some 40 per cent of voters in the constituency work in defence, either researching weapons, making them or using them. No group has lost quite so much in Russia's stagger towards the market, and no group has been cultivated so assiduously by Mr Zhirinovsky.

He promises an aggressive export drive for Russian arms to spare military factories the shame of making tumble dryers instead of tanks. His vow to restore Russia as a superpower goes down well with disgruntled officers shivering with their families in a single room.

According to national voting figures for party lists, the military gave Mr Zhirinovsky's party stunning support. Among the strategic missile forces, which control Russia's nuclear arsenal, it won 72 per cent of the vote, compared with 6 per cent for Russia's Choice. The Kantemir tank division, which shelled parliament on 4 October for President Yeltsin, gave it 74 per cent.

The military is angry, but not yet crazy. It, too, has doubts about Mr Zhirinovsky. Voters in Shchyolkovo voice little support for his vision - emblazoned on his party's emblem - of a Russia stretching from Alaska to Finland and deep into Asia. They have narrower concerns.

Anatoli Ovsemyov, a worker in an arms factory, worries about his factory closing down. 'If America sells so many weapons, why can't Russia do the same?' At the Officer's Club at the Chkalovskaya air base, despair with Russia's Choice seems far stronger than support for Mr Zhirinovsky. They like his promise of better housing, cars for junior officers and free holidays in Cuba. But few want to see him as president. Or, at least, few are ready to admit it.

Yuri Simonov, 30, a former soldier now in the militia, says he voted for Mr Zhirinovsky because of a pledge to enforce all laws and regulations. This, he hopes, will include a rule that militia staff should be given a flat within six months of joining; he has been waiting for more than a year. He also thinks Russia could do with a firm hand for a while. 'We need someone who can rule. A little more order will do us good.' Is Zhirinovsky the man? 'No. If he gets to the Kremlin, it will be war.'

Workers and pensioners, the 'lumpen proletariat' so despised by Mr Kimbarovsky of Russia's Choice, voted for Mr Zhirinovsky as a protest, not because they want to conquer the world. Yuri Federniko, an unemployed builder ankle- deep in filthy slush as he waits for a bus, says he did it to get his own back on the 'capitalists'. His grudge is specific: a businessman hired him to build a dacha, then fired him when he needed time off to visit his sick mother. 'He is just a speculator, a thief.' A drunk old women, her face smeared with blood and clothes in rags, wobbles in the muck nearby, screaming hysterically and waving an emaciated frozen chicken.

The response of reformers to such confusion and rage is ominously similar to that of the Communists they used to taunt with such glee and defeated so resoundingly in 1990 and 1991. 'We ought to have won,' says Mr Kimbarovsky of Russia's Choice. So out of touch is he that he wants the state prosecutor to have the Shchyolkovo results overturned because the ballot paper described the main pro-reform candidate, Oleg Novikov, as a 'staff member of a government body' instead of giving his full title, 'Head of the Moscow anti-monopoly department, doctor (economics) and professor.'

This, believes Mr Kimbarovsky, made all the difference. 'It would not have changed a thing,' says Alexei Zvyagin, the local official who supervised the campaign. The result was clear all along, he says, ever since candidates started to organise rallies at the Aurora Cinema.

When Mr Zhirinovsky spoke it was standing-room only. When anyone else came, only 20 or so showed up. 'People are not against the idea of reform, but they are normal, they don't like lower living standards. Zhirinovsky promises to stop this. Of course, he can't, but he sounds convincing.'

One candidate who saw the writing on the wall was Igor Klochkov, former head of the country's main trade union. He pulled out of the contest before polling even started. Though no friend of President Yeltsin or the free market, he worries more about Mr Zhirinovsky in the Kremlin. 'Not only can he become president, he will if the collapse of the economy and impoverishment of the people continues. He will be the only one left.'

Mr Zvyagin, who had to attend all of Mr Zhirinovsky's rallies, is less convinced. 'He promised everything. He used to say, if you elect me on 12 December, everything will start getting better on the 13th. People love this. But look. It is now almost a week. Life is not any better yet for anyone. He will find reasons, of course, but everyone has reasons.'

(Photograph omitted)