Russian nationalist 'fringe' politician lays claim to a following Zhironovsky exploits memories of Afghan war

August 03, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW B — MOSCOW -- At one end of Manezhnaya Square one recent day was a painful exhibit on the Afghan war, a testament to everything that went wrong, and at the other end of the square was another sort of testament, one to the politics of bitterness as now practiced in the Soviet Union.

The war was a turning point in Soviet history, one of the colossal mistakes that helped tear the old regime to shreds. And Vladimir Zhironovsky -- anti-Communist, anti-democratic -- is one of the new politicians finding root here, in a country turned cynical by frustration and defeat.

Manezhnaya is a sweeping open square overlooked by the Kremlin. Hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators have gathered here in the past. At one end is the Manezh, a low yellow building that was once a riding academy for the czar's officers and is now an exhibit hall. At the other is the grim gray fortress of the Moscow Hotel, built during the Stalin years.

At the Manezh on a misty afternoon last week was the exhibit, called simply "Afghanistan: Our Memory and Our Pain."

And at the Moscow Hotel was Mr.Zhironovsky, unthinkable in the Communist heyday, calling down abuse on foreigners, politicians and the press, and promising to make Russia strong again.

Many here consider him a fringe figure, a joke. But that he exists at all as a political phenomenon is due in large part to the currents of dismay and disorientation let loose by the Communists' failure in the Afghan war.

Visitors to the Manezh are greeted first by large photographs showing a puffy-faced Leonid I. Brezhnev, general secretary of the seemingly invincible and permanent Communist Party, kissing troops as they went off to the war he launched in 1979.

There are a few armored personnel carriers, and then farther on there's an entire field hospital set up on the floor of the exhibit hall, typical of the hospitals that treated most of the 49,985 Soviet soldiers wounded in the war. But for others -- 13,833 others -- the field hospitals were no help.

Attached along one entire wall, in rows from floor to ceiling, are army cots, each with a tight blue blanket and a single red rose, and in the center of each cot a photo of a bright-faced freshly scrubbed young man in his new uniform. All those young men are dead.

To the left are huge photographs of the Afghan landscape and people. Weapons and letters fill display cases. To the right are life-sized, grainy, black-and-white photos of Andrei D. Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile because he opposed the war.

And on the back wall are plans for a memorial to the war, to be called "The Black Tulip," looking starkly similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. There's a giant picture next to it of two soldiers, one, with his eyes bandaged, being led by the other. Next to them, in rough, reddish-orange lettering, is the single word: "Homeward!"

"This kind of war should never be repeated," said Alexander Gafin, head of the organizing committee for the exhibit. The exhibit,backed by veterans groups and the mothers of soldiers who died in the war, was two years in the making.

Mr. Gafin said that his aim was to spur recognition of the problems of veterans, to pay tribute to those who died and to keep before the public the issue of the prisoners of war. About 260 Soviet soldiers are still being held by rebels in Afghanistan.

All of Russia felt the pain of the war. Mr. Zhironovsky, the politician, plays to that pain, even without stating so directly. He is popular in the army these days. He rails against Africans and Georgians, among others. "I'm going to defend Russia and the smaller peoples," he said last week.

Mr. Zhironovsky, the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party, ran against Boris N. Yeltsin this spring for the Russian presidency on a platform devoted to lowering the price of vodka. He won 7.8 percent of the vote, blaming his poor showing on a conspiracy among the press and the democrats. While many dismiss him as a buffoon, others worry that Russia might soon be ripe for his kind of politics.

He's already running for president of the Soviet Union, on the assumption that elections may come next year. He said he would solve the ethnic issues in the Soviet Union by doing away with the republics and blockading any that didn't go along. He would institute martial law. Everything would be run from Moscow.

Mr. Zhironovsky invited Soviet reporters to a news conference at the Moscow Hotel even as Mr. Gafin was preparing to lead a tour of the Afghan exhibit across the square. Mr. HD berated them, yelled at them, harangued them. Some reporters yelled back.

"You can call me a nationalist," he told them. "You can call me a fascist. But you can't say I'm not popular."

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