10 January 2008

Vladimir Zhirinovsky of Russia

For a while, there was serious and justified concern around the world that Russia, in its post-Soviet crises, might turn to Vladimir Zhirinovsky for leadership. Zhirinovsky encouraged the concern, much as he encouraged his countrymen to think of him as the solution to their problems. He enjoyed the game of it. He is a colossal bully. Happily, the Russians seem to have moved beyond him. Mostly.

I have sometimes wondered if he meant anything he said — or, conversely, whether he was deadly serious about all of it. When he arrived at his office for an interview with Dan Rather, in 1994, he was accompanied by bodyguards, all of whom were wearing black shirts. These weren’t uniforms, but still. The head of a rabidly nationalistic party that extols totalitarianism just happens to have a private semi-army that just happens to favor the fashion statement of fascistic black? Either it’s a joke or a nightmare.

He is a professional provocateur. He made friends with Saddam Hussein and supported him as a paragon of democracy, even as the United States was preparing to topple Saddam from power. Now, there’s something to be said for preaching to the choir, for taking a position opposite that of the White House if your constituency suspects and resents the United States. But still. Saddam? Democracy?

He was a tough interview, eager to talk and equally eager to answer nothing. Asked about accusations that he was anti-Semitic, he was liable to reply, “I never said anything anti-Semitic in my life! Where did you hear such a thing? Who told you I did? Was it the Jews?”

He had recently published a book of his poisonous musings on politics, and to butter him up a bit, Dan asked him to autograph a copy. Although we were sitting in the man’s office, he had no pen. I offered him mine.

He didn’t give it back.

Well, that was too much. I smiled gently and said, “May I have my pen, please?”

“Oh, is it yours?”


“Ah. Of course.” He gave me the pen.