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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Take No Remarks at Face Value

MTVladimir Zhirinovsky watching a televised question-and-answer session with President Vladimir Putin in his office in the State Duma building last year.
If politics is a world of paradox and scandal, then Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the poster boy.

Zhirinovsky's boisterous talk is full of ultranationalism, yet his party is called liberal-democratic. He is notorious for starting fistfights in the parliament, yet his deputies resemble low-key bureaucrats more than thugs.

He relishes throwing slander at opponents, yet even liberal political analysts grudging admit that he is a gifted populist.

Zhirinovsky only accepted that his father was Jewish after years of denial and anti-Semitic tirades. And he is accused of being a KGB tool used to create a pseudo-opposition in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

"He will say this to one audience and that to another," said Vladimir Kartsev, who served as Zhirinovsky's boss at the Mir publishing house in the 1980s. "If there is one lesson that I have learned from him, it is not to take anything he says at face value."

Zhirinovsky's antics have paid off well. He has played a significant role in politics since 1990, and his current position as deputy speaker in the State Duma has guaranteed him a national audience. Now he is running for president for a fourth time, although pollsters predict that he won't win more than 5 percent of the vote.

Always the headline-grabber, Zhirinovsky's latest coup brought him international attention: He signed up Andrei Lugovoi, wanted by Britain in the poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, to run with his Liberal Democratic Party for the Duma elections on Dec. 2. The decision appears to be an attempt to raise the profile of the party, with opinion polls giving it less than the 7 percent it needs to win Duma seats.

At a rally in Murmansk on Sunday, Zhirinovsky said the party, known as the LDPR, was aiming for 20 percent of the vote.

Zhirinovsky has surprised detractors in the past. The LDPR, written off ahead of the 2003 elections, went on to win an unexpectedly strong 11.7 percent.

While the LDPR just might make it back into the Duma next month, Zhirinovsky's chances of winning the presidency are seen as highly unlikely. If he did, pundits said, Russia would become a pariah state like Belarus or Iran.

The Public Zhirinovsky

While the Western media like to paint Zhirinovsky as an ultranationalist, linking him to neo-fascist movements in Europe, those who know him well say this portrayal is shortsighted.

At a pre-election LDPR convention in September, the ultranationalism seemed confined to Zhirinovsky's hour-long speech. No skinheads or other unruly-looking people could be seen among the delegates gathered in Moscow's lavish Surikov Hall for a exquisite buffet of mushroom julienne, veal chops and smoked fish. Rather, the crowd looked distinctly bourgeois, wearing gray suits and old-fashioned dresses, with the sole exception of one short man flaunting military epaulettes.

Zhirinovsky took a schoolmasterly approach with his speech, using a telescope pointer and a school map to explain world politics. His speech, titled "Global Civil War," was pure Zhirinovsky, a trademark harangue against a West bent on destroying Russia. Zhirinovsky argued that Western models of democracy were designed to bring down Russia and had led to the Soviet Union's demise. Russia, he said, was historically special, always governed top-down "like a correctional center where the director decides all."

The map did not help Zhirinovsky avoid a major error. He said European "ambitions" had long been hampered by the ocean to the west, "the Pacific," while pointing to the Atlantic Ocean.

He also laid into the United States, a favorite target of his scorn.

Fewer than half of Zhirinovsky's supporters are believed to be ultranationalists. "The rest are disgruntled with politics and alcoholics," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst with Panorama, a think tank.

Zhirinovsky, 61, declined repeated requests over two months to be interviewed for this report. His party's press service first cited a lack of time and later said he was not giving interviews before the Duma elections.

Scandalous From Birth

Igor Tabakov / MT
Zhirinovsky giving an hour-long speech at an LDPR convention in September.

Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky

Born: April 25, 1946

Place of Birth: Alma-Ata, now Almaty, Kazakhstan

Education: Moscow State University, degree in Turkish studies, 1970; Moscow State University, degree in law, 1977.

Advantages: Popular with a wide range of the population; perceived as an entertaining and nonbureaucratic politician; experienced insider who has been in politics for nearly 20 years.

Disadvantages: Unpredictable; ultranationalist rhetoric and violent behavior make him unacceptable in the West; Russia could become an isolated pariah state under his presidency.

Notable Quotes: "Condoleezza Rice needs a company of soldiers. She needs to be taken to barracks where she would be satisfied." Interview with, Nov. 1, 2006.

"We are not the West. We have our own civilization. ... There will be no democracy in Russia. No independent courts. No press freedom. Either accept it or leave." Televised remarks to liberal politician Irina Khakamada after State Duma elections, December 2003.

"Why should I reject Russian blood, Russian culture, Russian land and fall in love with the Jewish people only because of that single drop of blood that my father left in my mother's body?" In his book "Ivan Close Your Soul," 2001.

Scandal seems to have followed Zhirinovsky from the cradle. His birth certificate caused an international uproar when it was published in the 1990s, revealing that he had a Jewish father and his real name was Vladimir Volfovich Eidelshtein.

Zhirinovsky, born in Kazakhstan, had by that time made a name for himself with his anti-Jewish proclamations, accusing Jews of ruining Russia, selling Russian women abroad as prostitutes, hawking healthy Russian children and organs to Western bidders, and provoking the Holocaust.

When confronted with the facts, Zhirinovsky put on a stone face and told reporters that the birth certificate was forged, said Nick Moore, the U.S. journalist who found the birth certificate during a month-long investigation in Kazakhstan, financed by CNN and The Associated Press.

"He really did not look surprised at all," Moore recalled.

Infamously, Zhirinovsky later said his mother was Russian and his father was a lawyer. Only in 2001, seven years after Moore's investigation, did he acknowledge his Jewish roots.

In 2006, he made a public visit to his father's grave outside Tel Aviv. There, he told reporters that he had not known anything about his father for all the 60 years of his life.

Moore, an online video manager with the AP, said in a telephone interview from New York that the Kazakh authorities had not impeded his investigation because "they really despised Zhirinovsky and his imperialist rhetoric."

Zhirinovsky regularly accuses Kazakhstan of discriminating against ethnic Russians. The Kazakh government declared him persona non grata in 2005 after he said the country had no historical right to exist.

Ukraine temporarily declared him persona non grata last year.

Zhirinovsky was born in 1946 in Alma-Ata, now Almaty, in Kazakhstan. His father, Volf Eidelshtein, was a Polish Jew from Kostopol, now part of Ukraine. When Nazi troops invaded Kostopol in 1941, they killed most of his family. Eidelshtein managed to escape to Kazakhstan, where he met Alexandra Zhirinovskaya. When Zhirinovsky was a few months old, his father left and ultimately moved to Israel. His mother later changed his last name to Zhirinovsky.

Zhirinovsky came to Moscow in the 1960s and completed a degree in Turkish studies in 1970. The next year he married Galina Lebedeva, a biologist whom he met at a summer camp while they were both university students.

After carrying out his two-year military service in Tbilisi, Zhirinovsky held a series of positions that involved international relations -- evidence, observers said, that he was connected to the KGB. For five years, he worked in the international department of the Soviet Committee for the Protection of Peace and in the foreign relations department of the Higher School of Trade Unions.

In 1977, he earned a law degree while attending evening classes and took up a post in the International Law College at the Soviet Justice Ministry.

From 1983 until 1990, he worked in the legal department of the Mir publishing house, where practically all scientific books for Soviet readers were published.

Zhirinovsky was probably recruited by the KGB while taking Turkish studies, said Andreas Umland, a scholar at Kiev's Taras Shevchenko University who has written extensively about Russian ultranationalism. A clue to that connection, he said, is the fact that Zhirinovsky spent some time in Turkey as a student. "This was not possible for ordinary Soviet students," he said.

Turkey actually ended up deporting Zhirinovsky on charges of spreading "communist propaganda."

Zhirinovsky has repeatedly denied ever working for the KGB.

Umland said Zhirinovsky's early political activism likely stemmed from a KGB desire to create a pseudo-democratic movement to discredit the more serious opposition in the heyday of perestroika.

But Kartsev, who served as a director at Mir when Zhirinovsky worked there, expressed doubt about any KGB links, saying the secret service had disliked Zhirinovsky for years.

"The KGB representatives at Mir were absolutely opposed to Zhirinovsky and actually strongly advised us to get rid of him immediately," Kartsev said in a telephone interview from Yonkers, New York.

Local Communist leaders also demanded his removal, he said.

Zhirinovsky, a knowledgeable legal expert, seemed to be searching for his place in society, said Kartsev, who wrote a book about Zhirinovsky titled "Zhirinovsky!" in 1995.

"He was looking all the time for something better for himself and did not see a bright future in his profession," Kartsev said. His job at the publishing house was to secure reprint rights from foreign publications.

Perestroika, Kartsev said, gave Zhirinovsky "a tremendous chance to begin a new life."

Foray Into Politics

Kartsev does not believe that Zhirinovsky was naturally inclined toward politics. Rather, he said, Zhirinovsky got involved after being angered by what he saw as unfair decisions.

His first attempt to enter politics ended in a complete failure. In what Kartsev described as "a very unusual move," Zhirinovsky proposed himself as Mir's candidate for Moscow's Dzerzhinsky district council in 1987. He sought to run as an independent against the Communist candidate.

A meeting was called to vote on Zhirinovsky's candidacy, but not enough people showed up for a quorum, causing Zhirinovsky to loudly complain, Kartsev said. "The session had to be dismissed, and when the district authorities called another meeting, that again did not meet the quorum. So he was elected at a third meeting," he said.

After all that, the city's Communist Party committee, of course, rejected Zhirinovsky in favor of their own man.

"He was outraged, and that was when he started his political career outside the Communist system," Kartsev said.

Kartsev's account is largely confirmed by Pribylovsky on his web site,

In another expression of his early interest in politics, Zhirinovsky participated in a rally on Pushkin Square against Mikhail Gorbachev and the Afghan War. "He was arrested and returned [to work] severely bruised with black eyes -- obviously after having been beaten by the police," Kartsev said.

These 1980s events clearly helped shape Zhirinovsky's political views, which remain fiercely anti-Communist. On the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution last week, he denounced the Communist ideology as "hatred" and called the Revolution "the worst in mankind."

But some views have changed since those early years. "Zhirinovsky was quite outspoken and pro-American then," Kartsev said. "He praised America for everything, saying people had better lives and liberties in a democracy."

Kartsev said Zhirinovsky changed his stance after the United States threw its support behind his adversary Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s.

On March 31, 1990, Zhirinovsky founded the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union. It was the first officially sanctioned opposition party and was probably closer to the traditional meaning of its name than its current successor.

Zhirinovsky prides his party for not emanating from the Communist Party establishment. "United Russia, SPS and Yabloko -- they were all in the KPSS," he said at the party convention in September, using the Russian abbreviation for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. SPS is the Union of Right Forces.

Umland said Zhirinovsky deserved credit for building the party from scratch, and that the party initially had a coherent ideology that became blurred over time.

In 1991, Zhirinovsky supported the hard-line coup attempt against Gorbachev, adding fuel to claims that he had links to the KGB. Umland said Zhirinovsky probably later cut himself loose of his KGB past.

In the Duma elections of 1993, Zhirinovsky sent shockwaves through the West by gaining his biggest political victory, placing second and securing 65 seats for his party. Many observers noted at the time, however, that Zhirinovsky had largely won protest votes from people opposed to Yeltsin, who that fall had ordered the shelling of the White House to prevent a parliamentary coup. First place went to the Communists.

A Change in Ideology

It was after the LDPR's entry into the Duma that many associates broke ranks with Zhirinovsky because, some said, his political statements were growing increasingly erratic. "He only became a populist after he entered the State Duma in 1993," Umland said.

Kartsev said Zhirinovsky saw himself as a "huge demagogue."

"He once told me, 'If I am not a demagogue, I will not be elected, and if I am not elected, I cannot serve the people's interests," Kartsev said.

Among those who disassociated themselves in the early 1990s were figures as diverse as Eduard Limonov and Vladimir Bogachyov.

Limonov -- a former ?migr? poet who co-founded the now-banned National Bolshevik Party and later joined The Other Russia opposition coalition -- was more outspoken and radical than Zhirinovsky at the time and criticized Zhirinovsky for being too moderate. Limonov declined to be interviewed for this report, explaining that he felt it would be inappropriate to discuss Zhirinovsky ahead of the Duma elections.

Bogachyov, a liberal former Soviet dissident and folk musician, co-founded the Liberal Democratic Party with Zhirinovsky in 1990 but parted ways after a falling out. He later created the European Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which remains in obscurity.

Zhirinovsky's performance in presidential elections has worsened significantly over the years. In 1991, he took third place with almost 8 percent. In, 1996 he collected 5.7 percent, and in 2000 he had 2.7 percent. He opted not to run in 2004, leaving the job to his former bodyguard Oleg Malyshkin, who scored 2 percent.

The LDPR has long been accused of blatantly selling out to business interests. In the mid-1990s, Zhirinovsky reportedly helped Mikhail Gutseriyev, the Ingush billionaire founder of Russneft, become a deputy speaker in the Duma. Dagestani billionaire Suleiman Kerimov became an LDPR deputy in 2004.

Gutseriyev, who left the Duma in 2000, fled the country this summer after facing accusations of tax evasion. Kerimov switched to United Russia earlier this year but did not make it on the party's list for the Duma elections.

The loss of the two wealthy businessmen dealt a financial blow to the LDPR, said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "But there will be enough money for the upcoming elections," he said, adding that Zhirinovsky was "an ingenious political showman" like no other in Russia.

Zhirinovsky has repeatedly denied allegations that his party sells Duma seats. But critics say he runs the party like a family business.

His only child, Igor Lebedev, head of the LDPR's Duma faction, acknowledged in a recent interview that his aunt owns 300 UAZ trucks. "And I do not remember how many apartments and cars I own already," he told the Russia Profile magazine.

Pribylovsky said Zhirinovsky treated the LDPR like a private company. "His family owns party property all over the country," he said.

Kartsev suggested that despite his political and financial success, Zhirinovsky ultimately has few close friends and associates. In addition to the one son, Zhirinovsky has two grandchildren.

"Maybe he is quite a lonely person," Kartsev said.

Whatever the case, Zhirinovsky does have an enthusiastic following, which includes two fan clubs in the Facebook online community. As of Thursday, the clubs had an accumulated membership of 27.

In the last entry on "Vladimir Zhirinovsky for World Leader," Natasha from Vancouver writes: "He's so damn annoying ... yet he brings so much drama!!! Gotta love him."

Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates. Previous profiles can be read on The Moscow Times web site,