MOSCOW — A raucous, milling crowd gathers in the foyer of the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses, shifting and jostling around a short, chubby-faced man speaking so fast that he sometimes becomes incoherent.
For hours on end, his vocal chords seemingly made of steel, he pours out an unending stream of rapid-fire facts, figures, names and opinions, his wildly gesticulating hands stopping only occasionally to mop the perspiration from his face with a wet handkerchief.
This is Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, 45, the leader of the tiny and inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party. Zhirinovsky is the darkest nightmare of politicians on both ends of this country's political spectrum who see him as a prospective new dictator--a populist who could climb to power on the future shambles of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's government.
As fears grow that popular uprisings will break out across Russia this winter and that the military will seize power in order to restore law and order, the only politician with national status openly willing to front such a junta is Zhirinovsky.
"Future politics in this country is impossible without me," he said. "Either I will lead the country no later than next April, or the military will take over to prevent the utter collapse of everything. And then they will have to take me on to provide legitimacy for their rule."
Formerly an obscure lawyer, Zhirinovsky first gained wide publicity with a bold challenge to Yeltsin in Russian Federation elections last June.
Seen at first as something of a clown, he received 6.2 million votes, in part by promising cheap vodka--"at every corner, around the clock if I win." His total, while only 7.8% of the votes cast, put him in third place in the presidential election and turned him overnight into a serious political figure, prompting some Soviet analysts to compare his rise to Adolf Hitler's early career.
Now, only two men in the vastness of Russia profess to know precisely what the government should do--Yeltsin and Zhirinovsky.
And as Yeltsin loses supporters--only 15% of Russians say they unconditionally support his leadership and policies today compared to 29% in July, according to recent opinion surveys--many are falling into Zhirinovsky's lap.
Like Yeltsin in his past fights against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Zhirinovsky promises swift, painless and radical changes for the better, compared to his rival's tortuous and divisive approach to the market economy.
But while Yeltsin exploited the people's hatred of the overbearing political "center" in the Kremlin, Zhirinovsky appeals to the irrational but widespread fear of capitalism.
And he runs his never-ending election campaign with unflagging energy, appearing almost daily in lobbies, streets, dingy movie theaters, factories--any place where there are enough people willing to listen to his simple solutions for their problems.
"Yeltsin's economic program is a good start--only you've got to do exactly the opposite to what he proposes. Freeze the prices, stop privatization," Zhirinovsky told a recent news conference. "I have a solution for all these Asians," he said of the country's Muslim population during another diatribe. "Pack them off to their native lands.
"Russia is for us, Russians. After that, we'll build a second Great Wall, like the Chinese did--they were clever boys, you know. Let the Muslims bring their goods to the gaps in this wall. From then on, our own merchants will carry them into our lands. In this way we'll prevent their demographic explosion from undermining Russia."
"Russians should reassemble their empire, which was built over millennia," he said. "But we should change the direction; we have been too preoccupied with the drive into Europe. Our true road leads south, to the warm seas, to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. We started out quite right by going into Afghanistan, but we shouldn't have done it under the Red banner; these people don't understand ideology."
Even to Soviet ears, many of Zhirinovsky's arguments sound like strange stuff. But for distraught shoppers now spending more hours in lines than at their workplaces, he offers something even more elusive than bread and sausage--hope.
And he talks and acts with almost biblical confidence in his coming victory. "I will immediately declare a dictatorship--the country cannot afford democracy for now," he said. "I will stabilize the situation in just two months. First of all, I will provide food. I am a realist--I don't promise 10 brands of sausage in the shops. There will be maybe two or three, but these I guarantee."
As Zhirinovsky's public support mounts, so does the criticism leveled at him by politicians and commentators who repeatedly compare him to a modern Hitler.