Saturday, January 15, 2011

Zhirinovsky Unplugged

In the early 1990s, Zhirinovsky became the spokesperson for the Liberal-Democratic Party and a large portion of the wounded Russian populace, especially pensioners. He advocated Slavic nationalism and a bizarre mixture of policies that veered erratically and dangerously between communism, capitalism, and fascism. Absolute Zhirinovsky: A Transparent View of the Distinguished Russian Statesman, written by Graham Frazer and George Lancelle, two concerned journalists who expertise in Russian affairs, traces the history of extreme Russian nationalism while quoting generously from Zhininovsky's printed speeches and interviews on all manner of subjects, especially economic and foreign policy.

Although comparisons with Hitler during the Wiemar period should not be overstated, it's difficult to avoid all such analogies. After all, Zhirinovsky seemed as voluble and articulate as the NAZI leader, and early post-Soviet Russia was almost as unstable as Germany had been during the inter-war years. Zhirinovsky's rhetoric is unapologetically irredentist. Just as Hitler had hoped to unite ethnic Germans into a Grosse Deutchland, Zhirinovsky claims to represent the twenty million or so ethnic Russians who found themselves living outside of Russia after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Like Hitler, the Russian political leader also tended to appeal to a diverse set of emotions in his audience, including self-pity, vanity, and self-righteous indignation of the loss of superpower status. He also habitually employed anti-Semitic rhetoric to score political points against the rivals he occasionally threatened with physical violence.

Zhirinovsky's political philosophy is unsystematic, but this incoherence could also be interpreted as a form of political realism or ideological flexibility. In the end, much of the man's appeal came from his ability to identify with the suffering of large segments of the Russian population, as well as his capacity for insulting the putative enemies of the poor and disenfranchised. These enemies included "cosmopolitans"--i.e., Jews, Boris Yeltsin and the economic reformers who championed Western economic policies and Western political ideals, Muslims, criminals, and, most importantly perhaps, a wide variety of foreign nation-states.

Although Zhirinovsky had many enemies, he seems to have gained the most traction with his attacks on Islam. For Zhirinovsky, and presumably many of his supporters, Russia's very existence was being undermined by a wide circle of Islamic and Turkic nation-states and cultures. Outlandishly, the demagogue even proposed that it was Russia's historic mission to move once more toward the Indian Ocean. But Zhirinovsky's anger was diverted into many channels and at one time or another he made deeply offensive, historically insensitive, and threatening verbal attacks against the Baltic republics, America, Japan, Great Britain, Poland, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and dozens of other countries.

Since Zhirinovsky appealed to the lowest common denominator in Russian politics, his popularity foundered on the rocks of political and economic realism. Eventually he lost the nomination of his own political party. However, his strange and flamboyant career remains historically significant insofar as it outlined Russia's longstanding grievances against the West as well as Islam, and showcased Russia's inevitable response to unrestrained economic and social dislocation. Against a backdrop of runaway inflation and unemployment, Zhirinovsky's untutored strictures against both unregulated capitalism or traditional communism seemed valid to many Russians. They may also lend at least some credence to the notion that Putin isn't the worst of all possible Russian responses to perceived internal chaos and external diplomatic and cultural pressure.

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