Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of President Yeltsin’s most formidable opponents, is not well known in the West. In the former Soviet Union, though, he is despised and feared by both political camps: the reformers and the “patriots.” Even Leonid Kravchuk, president of the Ukraine and a former communist, considers Zhirinovsky extremely dangerous. “Do you want to deal with Zhirinovsky’s Russia instead of Yeltsin’s?” he once warned his feisty parliamentarians. Zhirinovsky appeared out of nowhere on Russia’s political map: the classic emergence of an outsider in troubled times. At first these men are not taken seriously, but sometimes they get lucky. In Germany, in 1933, a frustrated painter from Linz, Austria, became lucky indeed.

In the 1991 Russian presidential elections the previously unknown Zhirinovsky, founder of the miniscule Liberal Democratic Party, came in third, after the popular Yeltsin and former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. He was far ahead of all the other opposition leaders. In fact, Zhirinovsky garnered six million votes—no joke for a candidate who materialized only yesterday, especially if one remembers that in the middle of another civilizational collapse in Russia, in 1917, Lenin came to power with nowhere near as many votes.

What are Zhirinovsky’s positions and who are his followers? While campaigning for president in 1991, he promised that he would feed the country within 72 hours. How? “Very simply. I’ll move the troops, about 1.5 million strong, into the former GDR; rattle my nuclear sabers; and they’ll give me everything.” By “them” he naturally meant the West. To be sure, this would be a gross violation of international law, but this is precisely Zhirinovsky’s trump card. He is ready and willing to break all accepted international rules, and this is the nature of his appeal in postcommunist Russia. “What price Paris?” he would ask. “How about London? Washington? Los Angeles? How much are you willing to pay so I don’t wipe them from the face of the earth with my SS-18’s? You doubt me? Want to take a chance? Let’s get started.”

Western politicians may assure their constituents that the nuclear nightmare which has been hanging over everyone’s head for half a century is over, but Zhirinovsky knows that until at least 2003 Soviet SS-18’s will still be aimed at the West. He hopes to become Russia’s president long before then, and from that moment on all agreements will be null and void. True, Yeltsin has promised to take the missiles off alert status, but Zhirinovsky will not fulfill Yeltsin’s promise if and when he becomes president. By the same token, he has no intention of adhering to any international agreements based on nuclear parity or mutual assured destruction. In contrast to conventional politicians, Zhirinovsky is perfectly ready to risk mutual destruction. He feels there is nothing wrong with perpetrating a vast hijack, using any weapons, including nuclear. He has no notion of legitimacy, property, or law. For him the main thing is Russia’s nuclear fist: the readiness to blackmail prosperous neighbors, the conviction that when push comes to shove they will not dare take the chance of mutual destruction. And that is enough for him. Those who might think that this is just an elementary form of pillage fail to realize that Zhirinovsky, like Hitler, is creating a new political universe in which naked force and the willingness to risk not just one’s own fate, but the fate of the world, are prime factors. This new reality perfectly reflects the situation of his country—a situation of total collapse —and he wants to project this collapse onto the entire world.

I spoke with Zhirinovsky. I have no doubt that such would be the order that he will try to impose upon the unsuspecting world, if at some point he indeed moves into the Kremlin as Russia’s president. And he will be absolutely convinced that he is right.

Zhirinovsky’s constituency is growing rapidly. Who are these people who vote for him? In a strange and paradoxical way, they represent the success of communism. They are the populace that the communist regime succeeded in producing. Like most people in the West, I don’t believe in Homo Sovieticus, that in only three generations the Soviet regime could create a new breed of humanity: people without conscience, without honor, without decency. It didn’t. Still, a considerable part of the former Soviet Union’s population has been morally corrupted. This degradation of their society, intensified by catastrophic economic deterioration and social polarization, matters. In present-day Russia there are millions of people who think, speak, and feel as Zhirinovsky does. It is they who voted for him in 1991. They, too, reject all conventions of the civilized world and are ready to do anything to humiliate their enemies and leap into well-being at somebody else’s expense. These are the people whom Zhirinovsky represents. The ongoing economic calamity keeps generating more and more of their kind, and they might one day pave his way to success.

I interviewed Zhirinovsky in June 1992 in Moscow, in the office of his Liberal Democratic Party. The office itself is quite pathetic, a converted apartment in a shabby building, but it is located in the very center of Moscow. We spoke for over an hour. I knew about Zhirinovsky’s philosophy; still, to actually hear him stating his positions was a shock. He openly admitted that his support comes from the lumpenproletariat and that he hopes for further “lumpenisation” of his people. His goals and plans as to how to deal with the country’s problems are simple, and therefore appealing to his barely literate supporters.

What to do about strikes? “Strikers to jail; racketeers we’ll send abroad to defend our national reputation; and we’ll get cheap labor from Asia. . . . We’ll force them to take 100 rubles a month and be glad of it.” What to do with the breakaway republics? Stop selling them fuel and blockade them from the outside. He is sure they will come crawling back, voluntarily: “Take Georgia, for example. Georgia will crumble, will rejoin Russia, retaining only the rights of a province. That is all you’d need for Central Asia to return of its own accord to Russia; again, as a province.” Moreover, Zhirinovsky believes that Afghanistan, and even Iran and Turkey, will join. And then: “We ought to make use of the conflicts between the Turks and Armenians, on the one hand, and the Kurds and Iranians on the other. If we play on these conflicts, we’ll be able to establish our rule over this entire region.”

AY: “So you approve a colonial policy?”

VZ: “Yes, of course.”

Here is a passage from Zhirinovsky’s interview with the Lithuanian newspaper The Republic: “The Baltics are Russian territory. I will destroy you. In the border zone of the Smolensk region, I’m going to dig out nuclear waste [and] you Litvaks are going to die of radiation sickness. First, I’ll get the Russians and Poles out. I’ll be the overlord; I’ll be the tyrant! I’ll play it as Hitler did.”

One may say that this sounds not just stupid and irresponsible, but plainly insane. Yet this is precisely the impression Zhirinovsky wants to convey. He is no conventional politician and has only contempt for the eggheads. His audiences love him—his impetuousness, his simple solutions, his magnificent disdain for common sense. As to theatrics, Zhirinovsky is the best in contemporary Russian politics.

One example will illustrate the distinction between him and other opposition leaders. All of them are against giving the Kuril Islands back to Japan. Zhirinovsky is, of course, against it also. The difference is that they are arguing with the Russian president while he speaks directly to the Japanese. His argument runs along these lines: “All right. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not enough for you. You want another one? No? So, forget about the Islands.” Russian audiences swallow this enthusiastically. Such statements give people who have lost all hope precisely what they need: a sense of power.

By comparison with this kind of drive and energy, the other opposition leaders look like ineffectual babblers. Thus, Zhirinovsky’s intellectual weakness turns out to be his main asset. Furthermore, he is a strong speaker with Hitler-style charisma. And like Hitler, he is proud that intellectuals despise him. “How many votes do they have?” he asks. “Yes, the Moscow intelligentsia is against me. But that’s a hundred thousand, that’s a million, or three million, or ten. But voters—you need 55 million.”

AY: “Yet not the entire population of the country is ‘lumpenised.’ There are still people who are in their right minds.”

VZ: “There are. They’ll vote against me, but they’ll be a minority.”

AY: “But so far, they are a majority. So you hope for further corruption, for degradation of the masses?”

VZ: “Yes.”

AY: “That’s your credo?”

VZ: “Yes, yes, yes!”

AY: “Well, you’ll certainly get a monstrous country, which will swallow you. You promise to change everything within 72 hours. But at the 73rd hour, your lumpens will eat you alive! Because actually you won’t be able to do what you promise—not within 72 hours, 72 days, nor 72 weeks.”

VZ: “History will tell.”

Zhirinovsky’s game plan is very simple. His army of mental cripples is already huge, and its ranks multiply every day of Russia’s unbearably hopeless existence. Jobless, homeless demobilized soldiers, refugees from the republics who have suddenly found themselves foreigners in their own countries—this continuous displacement brings millions of potential recruits. The goal, as he says, is to unite them under his banner and bring them to the ballot boxes.

Zhirinovsky is perhaps the only Russian politician whose election campaign is already in full swing. He has traveled through all of Russia with election speeches and has set up campaign headquarters in dozens of the country’s regions. “I just came back from Vologda,” he told me. “If you asked people to vote today in Vologda, I’d get 60 percent of the vote. Within a year or two I’ll get the same percentage in the other 82 regions I’m now the only one who’s traveling around the country, the only one whose name is known. You ask ten people—eight will name me, and two will name Yeltsin. They’ll say: ‘Yes, there’s Zhirinovsky and Yeltsin,’ and that’s it. And they’ll say ‘We don’t want Yeltsin.’ ‘Who do you want?’ ‘Zhirinovsky.'”

Of course, he exaggerates. A poll of potential voters taken in 13 cities at the end of June 1992, subsequent to our conversation, showed that Yeltsin would still get 33 percent of the vote and Zhirinovsky only 5 percent. However, one cannot deny that his campaign brings results. As in 1991, he is again ahead of all his opponents, including Nikolai Ryzhkov (3 percent) and Speaker of the Parliament Ruslan Hasbulatov (3 percent), not to mention such favorites of the Russian right-wing press as General Albert Makashov (2 percent) and the most influential of the M.P.’s, Sergei Baburin (1 percent).

If Yeltsin is out of the game by 1995, as he promised, Zhirinovsky will undoubtedly be the most popular opposition leader. A recent poll among the peasants of the Volga region astonished sociologists. Answering the question as to whom among the Russian politicians they would like to see as president, the overwhelming majority named three people: Malenkov, Brezhnev, and Zhirinovsky! The only one of the three who is still around is our hero. But Zhirinovsky is not inclined to wait until 1995. He believes that there is a good chance the election will be held earlier: “They’re now collecting signatures to impeach Yeltsin. If they succeed, then we have new elections. Or if he dies.”

His short-term prognosis was as follows: “The situation will get worse. If not by October, then by March [1993] there will be a different political regime in Russia. The patriots will come to power.” Zhirinovsky certainly erred in his chronology. What happened in March was just a perilous constitutional crisis and a near-impeachment of President Yeltsin rather than a change in regime. Still, the “patriots” are indeed immeasurably stronger now than at the time of his prognosis. To be sure, they don’t like Zhirinovsky any more than the democrats do. Yet he is certain they’ll come to him because, without Yeltsin, there is no other politician in Russia of comparable national stature.

So perhaps, after all, Zhirinovsky’s presidency is not the outrageously unlikely fantasy it seems at first glance. A journalist, Vladimir Nazarov, comments: “Even if Zhirinovsky himself disappears tomorrow, the Zhirinovsky phenomenon will not disappear with him. His place will be taken immediately by someone who is smarter, shrewder, and more stable. But he will inherit Zhirinovsky’s program and his image of a man of the people. He will come forward and say, ‘Don’t believe anybody. Believe me. I am the only one who knows how we can get out of this mess.’ And the people, frustrated and tired, will take the bait.”

I am not sure Nazarov is entirely correct. It is not easy to create a national reputation, and the revolutionary years 1990 and 1991, when Zhirinovsky created his, were extraordinary. Now, there are people among the opposition leaders who are smarter, shrewder, and more stable than Zhirinovsky. Yet none of them can measure up to him. Why not? Precisely because none of them has such a “lumpen” disregard for logic, such an amoral philosophy, such a total lack of decency, and further, such charisma, as Zhirinovsky. I think that until the total crisis in which Russia finds herself today is overcome, Zhirinovsky will be on stage. This, despite the fact that in August 1992 the government dealt him a major blow, declaring the registration of his Liberal Democratic Party illegal, i.e., outlawing it. But after all, Hitler had worse setbacks. He was even imprisoned for a time. And did it stop him?

Add to this that law enforcement in Weimar Russia is weaker than it was even in Weimar Germany. Just consider what Zhirinovsky has been able to accomplish since his party was officially outlawed: the number of its newspapers has grown from one to five; detachments of armed “Zhirinovsky Falcons” have been dispatched to help Iraq and Serbia; a shadow government with Zhirinovsky occupying the positions of Prime Minister and Minister of War has been announced.

In parting with me Zhirinovsky proclaimed, “Give me one billion dollars and in a year from now I’ll be the president of Russia.” Whether with a billion or not, given all his recent expenses somebody from abroad seems to be supporting him handsomely. Meanwhile he behaves as if he were already president: on a recent trip to Munich to meet the German hard-right leadership he declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 legally in force.

Weimar Russia is no less a powder keg than Weimar Germany once was. And although it is right that the West should promote democracy and a free market in Russia, it should perhaps—while democracy is not yet there but the missiles still are—consider how to protect itself with something more sophisticated than paper treaties and humanitarian aid for the current unstable regime.