Zhirinovsky finds a soul-mate in Le Pen

The publicity-addicted Vladimir Zhirinovsky has never made many bones about the merits of polygamy, so it should be no surprise that he has two courtships on the boil. The first is with his wife, Galina, who squeezed into a backless wedding dress yesterday before proceeding through the snow-bound streets of Moscow for a silver wedding blessing which had more to do with votes than vows.

The second is with his latest political bedfellow, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's far right, who was the only guest of honour. A day earlier the two pledged to form a European union of ultra-nationalists with the self-proclaimed aim of defying historical precedent and using their ideology to "prevent war in Europe".

First things first. When Mr Zhirinovsky said he would provide Moscow's homeless with a "sea of vodka" for his anniversary festivities, we thought cunning old Vladimir was trying to upstage Boris Yeltsin's announcement - expected this week - of his candidacy in June's presidential elections.

But the event was not one of the finer moments in Mr Zhirinovsky's long repertoire of political theatre. Hundreds rather than thousands pitched up in sub-zero temperatures to watch him and his wife draw up in a carriage drawn by three white horses and disappear into the 300-year-old church of St Michael the Archangel. The onlookers found not a sea of vodka, but a puddle.

Mr Zhirinovsky, whose burly frame had been coerced into a tuxedo and bow tie, and his wife renewed their vows in a Russian Orthodox ceremony in which they kissed icons, held candles and paraded under crowns. "They seemed to have no idea how to behave," said one witness, "They spent most of the time muttering to each other, and waving to their friends."

Outside, a long queue of hopeful elderly Russians formed outside a bus dispensing drink, rolls and meat pies. Many got nothing at all, and had to make do with Mr Zhirinovsky and his aides throwing 500 rouble notes (value: 7p) into the crowd, like a tsar dispensing favours to serfs.

Some relished the event and spoke admiringly of their host; others did not. "I can't stand Zhirinovsky," said one woman, as she left an earlier church service. "I am afraid he could come to power. I am ashamed he has come to our church. We love this church, and we don't want him here."

In the end it was all about television publicity, an art in which Mr Zhirinovsky outstrips all his competitors - last December his Liberal Democratic party came second in Russia's parliamentary elections to the Communists.

The same motive almost certainly inspired Mr Zhirinovsky's sick answer to a question about how he and Mr Le Pen would react if their two countries went to war. "We will send in the Chechens. France will send her African negroes. Jean-Marie will be in Paris drinking French wine and I will be in Moscow drinking vodka. From time to time, we'll phone each other to tot up how many Chechens and negroes have been killed."

None of this sheds much light on the larger and more disturbing questions raised by the Zhirinovsky phenomenon. What if he means even half of what he says? What if he makes it to the Kremlin in June?

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