Profile: Sad Vlad, a Hitler with a degree: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia's would-be saviour

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BY HIS own account, Vladimir Zhirinovsky came into the world with the help of a kitchen knife. The ambulance was late, Russia's saviour could not wait, and an uncle hacked his umbilical cord with the first sharp instrument he could find. The episode, related in his own slim but rage-filled autobiography and political testament, The Last Thrust to the South, is more than a personal detail. It has all the elements of what, 47 years later, would be the Zhirinovsky Phenomenon: grievance, impatience, a brutal solution.

The person of Mr Zhirinovsky and the politics of his absurdly-named Liberal Democratic Party are inseparable. He is the party. Both share the same treacherous foundation of anger and self-pity. Both revel in the details of real or imagined humiliation. Every setback, every slight is remembered, nurtured, exaggerated and, he tells supporters, ultimately avenged.

'Life itself made me suffer from the very day, the moment, the instant I was born. Society could give me nothing,' he writes in his autobiography, a work of such remorseless misery it veers towards comic parody. He describes growing up in a communal apartment: cooking in the corridor; stealing fruit to relieve hunger; queuing for the lavatory; gagging on the stench; being pestered by a drunken stepfather. 'Bad food, bad conditions and almost no education. No toys, children's books, no newspapers, no telephone. Nothing, I lived in a cave.' The last of six children, he was bullied constantly. However, in person he seems a comedian rather than a character from Dostoevsky.

Mr Zhirinovsky's autobiography was recently published by his party and, until elections turned him into an international celebrity, handed out free to every visitor to a grungy set of offices in Moscow's Rybnikov Alley. Today they sell it. And Mr Zhirinovsky, dressed in a tuxedo, cummerbund and black bow tie for a triumphal appearance on Wednesday in a luxury hotel, boasted that his readers include Boris Yeltsin. The book, he told assembled journalists, should be 'bedside reading' for anyone trying to understand Russia and its place in the world.

He may be right. Like Mein Kampf, it should not be ignored. He rejects any comparisons with Hitler, though he is flattered by the parallel, first drawn when he stood for president against Mr Yeltsin in 1991. ('Adolf was an uneducated corporal, whereas I'm a graduate of two higher institutes and know four languages,' he sniffed.)

Much of his book makes little sense. The first half is devoted to the poverty of his early years, the second to odd theories about how world peace is possible only when Russian soldiers wash their boots in the Indian Ocean. This tract, Mr Zhirinovsky states in the opening paragraph, represents 'the essence of my views of the world, the juice of my brain'.

The core of his appeal is the claim that, unlike either the Communist Party elite or today's free market nomenklatura, he knows what it is to suffer. Champion of the underdog, he forever juxtaposes the courage and strength of ordinary people against what he portrays as the snivelling cowardice of those at the top.

'Gorbachev lived a sweet life. Why did he ruin the country and could do nothing good? He was weak because he had everything. He was the son of director of collective farm, so he lived well . . . He received everything at once and enjoyed life. He had no real potential as a political leader. He was just a career official.'

Mr Zhirinovsky delights in the career of an outsider. While President Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov battled for the Russian White House this autumn, he stood quietly on the sidelines. He escaped the shame that fell on all sides after the bloodshed of 3 and 4 October. His instincts sometimes falter. He miscalculated badly in August 1991 when he supported the hardline coup.

The campaign for last Sunday's elections played to all his strengths. While Russia's Choice printed thousands of posters with a pensive, pudgy and far too well groomed Yegor Gaidar looking like an investment banker, Mr Zhirinovsky wore a scowl, a scruffy suit and a skewed tie. 'I'll get Russia off its knees,' promised one slogan. His most basic message, though, was: 'I am one of you. I am the same, just like you.'

Just one problem. It is not true. He is not a Russian Everyman. For someone who hopes to get into the Kremlin on a wave of nationalist, 'Russia for Russians' fervour, he has two handicaps. He is very sensitive about both, and confronts them head on at the start of his autobiography.

The first is his place of birth. He was born not in Russia but in Alma Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, on 25 April, 1946. He explains: 'Russian Cossacks founded the city, so I can say that I was born in Russia among Russians.' His patriotism has a raw, insecure edge. Again there are parallels with Hitler, born in Austria. Perhaps closer, though, are the pieds noirs of Algeria, left behind in the wreckage of France's retreat from empire.

The second obstacle is his name: Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky. To Russian ears, particularly those hyper-sensitive to the nuances of race, as many of his followers are, this sounds disturbingly alien. His father, a lawyer with the railway administration, was called Volf, which as Mr Zhirinovsky admits, is 'not so familiar to a Russian ear'.

Charges of anti-Semitism have dogged him since the 1991 presidential campaign. They grew louder with his outspoken support for Saddam Hussein. In January he dressed in combat fatigues to see off a group of uniformed volunteers at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. He now insists they were on a 'youth tourism programme'.

He denies anti-Semitism - and other racial intolerance - but, in the same breath, demands more Slav faces on television, tells Jews they are to blame for bringing prejudice upon themselves and suggests that a popular Jewish comedian, Gennady Khazanov, should move to Israel if he cannot stop making jokes about Russians.

Such comments play well in his core constituency, but there is more to them than just opportunism. A childhood and youth spent in Kazakhstan not only left him feeling sorry for himself in general, but also implanted a deep, specific racial grievance. He tells how the largely uneducated father of a Kazakh girl at school became a minister: 'I felt this national oppression since childhood. Flats were given to Kazakhs, Russians could not get into institutes of higher education, even if they did better.'

But, far from being discriminated against, Mr Zhirinovsky seems to have been singled out for special favours. Supported by the Communist Youth League, he won a place at the Oriental Studies faculty of Moscow State University. He was 18. He likes to recall how he arrived from Alma Ata with only a suitcase and a basket of strawberries and tomatoes.

Whatever the hardship, he secured the most sought-after of all privileges: a trip abroad. In 1966, only two years after arriving in Moscow, he visited Hungary as part of a student group. During the trip he says he fell in love with a Hungarian girl called Anike, kissed her on the side of Lake Balaton and then wrote love letters for a few months after he got back.

His next trip abroad, and his first to the West, was in 1969. He went to Turkey as an interpreter for an official Soviet delegation. This trip ended not with a love affair but with a brush with Turkish police.

What happened exactly is murky. Mr Zhirinovsky says he gave out Soviet badges as presents and was accused of spreading Communist propaganda. There have been whispers, so far unsubstantiated, of involvement in espionage.

He regards the episode as yet another terrible misfortune: 'Again no luck. Constant blows of fate, every month, every year. When my mother said she could not remember a single happy day in all her life, I thought about myself: I also lived through a big part of my life and had not a happy day either.'

University ended on a typically morose note: unable to find anyone to drink champagne with, he took his diploma back to his hostel and spent the evening alone. As he tells it, though, it was unhappiness that drove him to politics. After university he was sent to Georgia to do military service. He also picked up a whole new set of grudges. 'All Russia's troubles come from the south.' He claims to have detested the corrupt party organisation, headed at the time by Vasili Mzhavanadze. His political credo was beginning to form: 'Dissatisfaction was a permanent incentive.'

It hardened further when he got back to Moscow in 1973. Newly married and with a baby son, he started a second degree in law, also at Moscow University. Money was tight and he spent months lobbying for a new flat. A series of shadowy jobs followed, including a stint on the Committee for the Defence of Peace, a Soviet front organisation probably linked to the KGB.

His last and longest job before taking up politics full time in 1990 was at the Mir publishing house. He worked for seven years in the legal department. Former colleagues remember a rambunctious bully, an angry loner increasingly drawn towards far right politics. Mr Zhirinovsky gives pretty much the same account. He was not good company: 'Maybe it is destiny that I had no good friends or a girl to love and no good relations with relatives. This is why all my energy was concentrated on one thing.'

On 12 April 1991, he secured a small place in Russian political history. He registered his Liberal Democratic Party at the Justice Ministry in Moscow. Only one other group had done so, the Soviet Communist Party; it registered the day before. Mr Zhirinovsky's presumptuousness was breathtaking. No one took him seriously. Mr Zhirinovsky, though, has always taken himself seriously. He clowns about, sounds off like a bar buffoon and makes promises to everyone he meets. But he is not joking. 'Since birth I have always gone by myself, alone, breaking through. I always had a feeling of frustration, bitterness because I never had a single moment of joy.'

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