In This Review

Zhirinovsky: An Insider's Account of Yeltsin's Chief Rival and "Bespredel" -- The New Russian Roulette
Zhirinovsky: An Insider's Account of Yeltsin's Chief Rival and "Bespredel" -- The New Russian Roulette
By Vladimir Kartsev
Columbia University Press, 1995, 198 pp

Before becoming the director of publications at the United Nations, Kartsev was from 1982 to 1989 the head of Mir, the largest Soviet foreign-language publishing company dealing in scientific and technical literature. A year into his tenure, he hired Zhirinovsky as the company's second lawyer, and, as he tells it, for the next six years suffered, defended, fought, and heard out this man, hence his claim to understand the odd and, for many outside observers, frightening figure in Russian politics.

The fellow he knew then and still thinks he knows, while a little daft, maddeningly opinionated, and a rabble-rouser, was more a sensationalist than a political extremist. Already his tumultuous inferiority-superiority complex was evident and so, too, his antagonism to the system and bulldog determination to inflict small defeats on the authorities whenever he could. Kartsev does not believe Zhirinovsky is genuinely antisemitic, fascist, or that his Russian nationalism seeks forcibly to recreate the Russia of 1900, although he willingly plays the antisemitic card, and his often outrageous comments would fool most.

The author sees Zhirinovsky as a danger, but not because of where he means to lead Russia; rather because of where he is capable of being carried by the Russian people as they give vent to their anger and frustration.

The distinction between a vessel and a prod, however, may not be helpful if Zhirinovsky turns out to be not one or the other but both. Also, Kartsev is an angry man. The state into which Russian society has descended he lays at the doorstep of the reformers. Bespredel, the Russian word for "anything goes," he says, is what this all is, and then turns the second half of his book into a fuming disquisition on the subject. Bespredel is what will transform Zhirinovsky the man, relatively innocuous in his basic excesses, into Zhirinovsky the phenomenon, an altogether more dangerous matter. A reader worries, however, that Kartsev's fury may be determining rather than informing his biography, coloring rather than being colored by the interesting detail he assembles from his earlier association with Zhirinovsky.