Zhirinovsky: The New Russian Devil We've Been Needing

January 16, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

Most people are uncomfortable with those theories that suggest history is not made by the actions of people but by inexorable forces too vast to discern. They believe that individuals matter.

The average truck driver plying the interstates might know little about the course of Russia's re-creation of itself through the current reforms. But he probably knows who Boris N. Yeltsin is. He is that Russian who gives life to politics.

Mr. Yeltsin, before he impressed himself so thoroughly upon the Russian mind, came here and captured the imagination of everyday Americans -- even if he didn't get an invitation to the White House. For a long time before he won his present high office, official Washington regarded him as impulsive, unpredictable, possibly even a drunk. But he was never perceived as our mortal enemy; he was never a Russian devil.

Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky is, or is becoming one. And he has arrived on the scene just in time. Saddam Hussein is about used up. Which is to say the obvious: If the devil didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him, or some other character of lavishly sinister dimensions.

Mr. Zhirinovsky has seized our attention. He has begun to put the traditional element of menace back into the relationship between our country and his -- the spice of fear.

Whatever one might think of him, he fulfills a need within us to have a villain at work somewhere on the international stage. This need may be mysterious, primal, unexplainable. Or it might simply reflect a natural desire to have some color and drama in the play of life as it unfolds. No matter what else might be said about it, evil has its uses: it makes good understandable.

Mr. Zhirinovsky says all the properly devilish things. He has threatened war with Japan. He suggests another dismemberment of Poland. Last week he called French President Francois Mitterrand a crazy old man and blamed the West for everything wrong in the world. He would take back Alaska, send Russian soldiers to swim in the southern seas. He cavorts with Nazis. He insults the Bulgarians. Indeed, what next?

In response he is painted as a clown. His stunning success in the Russian elections last month, when his Liberal Democratic party won nearly a quarter of the vote, is dismissed as a furious backlash by people hurt by the reforms. But it is a nervous dismissal. People remember that Hitler was ridiculed as a clown, and he left nobody laughing.

Mr. Zhirinovsky generates apprehension. It derives from the sheer nakedness of his threats, of course, but perhaps even more from the awareness that he is a product of a democratic process. That process is supposed to filter out such people, so his emergence calls into doubt democracy's prophylactic effect.

Of course not everybody is anxious over this new Russian ogre. To some he brings a useful warning.

"Judging from his history, and having talked to Russians who have met him, I think there is a very big element of the charlatan and hoax about him," said Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. "He is a man after the main chance."

Dr. Fairbanks, who is directing a project on the West's failure to anticipate the collapse of communism, said: "His emergence is a real service in that it suggests that something very strange is going on in Russia. He calls our attention to some deep problems that I think we've blinded ourselves to."

One of these, he said, is the disinclination among many Russians to take politics seriously, to believe that voting can change their lives, because it never has. The assumption is that it is only such cynicism that could lead a rational person to vote for Mr. Zhirinovsky.

So far nothing Mr. Zhirinovsky has said -- though his are perhaps the most rash words uttered for international consumption by a leader in Russia since the early bloody and boisterous years of Bolshevik power -- has had the withering effect of four little words that fell from the lips of Nikita S. Khrushchev one day while standing in an Iowa corn field: We will bury you.

Now, it is not certain those were his actual words, or if they were, that they were uttered as a literal threat, metaphorically or in bitter frustration at the technological superiority evident all around him. But they live in history. And they fueled the fears of a nation that took them seriously and implemented appropriate measures for defense.

Mr. Khrushchev was a real Russian devil: He had the firepower at his disposal to give weight to his words. Mr. Zhirinovsky does not. But some of the fear he evokes derives from contemplating the possibility, not all that remote, that he might one day get it. So, on the basis of his potential for arranging the apocalypse, he is being demonized. And that, perhaps, is not such a bad thing.

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