Zhirinovsky’s New York friends tell all
At a recent party in New York, I encountered various members of the Moscow intelligentsia. The topic of conversation was, of course, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. And I was surprised to find that members of that liberal circle who had first championed Gorbachev spoke of Zhirinovsky with the sort of good-humored affection that so many Americans, applied to Ollie North in his heyday. “You know,” said one, “he’s just a cynic. Everyone in Moscow is a cynic. Everyone in New York is a cynic. It’s not such an interesting problem.”
The Russians were rather amused by my curiosity about their leading nationalist and suggested that I join them, the following evening, to meet some of Zhirinovsky’s New York friends and advisers. At 10 p.m. at the kitschy Russian Samovar restaurant on West Fifty-Second Street, I was introduced to several bearish-looking men with broad features and beards, some of whom wore turtlenecks with their dark blue suits. My attempts to discuss Zhirinovsky’s anti-Semitism were curtailed by The Unforgettable Eugenia, a 72-year-old woman in a long sequined dress, who wore enormous plastic glasses and sang Russian Jewish folk tunes. “I spent last month with him,” one member of our group reported between songs, producing snapshots to prove it. “It’s a shame, you know — he’s really getting very arrogant, not nearly as funny as he used to be. Famous people always have this problem with their sense of humor.”
I wondered how funny he used to be, and said that he seemed really strikingly un-funny these days. “You’ve been reading the New York papers too much,” one man said. “It’s really a game. Vladimir likes power and attention. Everyone hated him at school; he was the class clown, and provincial! So he says whatever will make him popular now, but he doesn’t believe any of his own rhetoric. He’s not like Rutskoi or Hitler or Stalin. It’s all a joke, the biggest joke around.” I thought this was pushing cynical pretty far, but I didn’t get to say so because The Unforgettable Eugenia began her grand medley from Fiddler on the Roof.
“Let’s go somewhere we can talk,” said Zhirinovsky’s friends, and they led me to a basement at the corner of Fifty-Seventh Street and Eleventh Avenue, where I found what appeared to be a reproduction of the lobby bar at the Intourist Hotel, circa 1986. A band in navy blue jackets with yellow piping was singing Beatles songs in Russian. There was a revolving mirrored ball, and every table had plates of those revoltingly grainy tomatoes and cucumbers I had thought you could grow only in the depleted soil of the steppe. I asked whether Zhirinovsky was gay, a rumor I’d heard from friends in Moscow. “He’s never very interested in women,” someone remarked. “And he’s always got those good-looking young guards around him.” Someone else knew a male poet who claimed to have had a long-term liaison with Zhirinovsky. The vodka had been going around, so everyone was keen to be helpful at this point. “If you want to sleep with him, we could probably arrange that for you,” one volunteered. Another shrugged. “It might be fun to write about afterward,” he said, then added, sotto voce, “but I know, believe me. I’d think twice about it if I were you.”
I was somewhat distracted by the women who had come to join us, all of them wearing enormous quantities of turquoise eyeshadow, one sporting a floor-length black satin dress and shoulder-length black satin gloves with jet buttons. Feeling out of my depth in the political conversation, I got up and danced under the mirrored ball to “All You Need Is Love” and “Let It Be,” making good use of the slow-dance two-step that I had last done at a high school dance. When I sat down, I pointed out that even if Zhirinovsky was really an actor and didn’t believe his own rhetoric, he might get trapped by it. “Don’t worry,” someone said. “He won’t get enough power to be trapped. He’ll just get influence. Russians are too cynical to elect such a cynic.” I expressed relief. “A cynic like that,” said one of the company, “could much more easily be elected mayor of New York, even president of the United States.” He slapped his hand on the edge of the table. “That’s why we live here,'” he said, and burst out laughing.