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Letter from Brighton Beach: Zhirinovsky plays the clown, and an emigré is not amused

This story was published long ago in Forward (Jewish Weekly). Unfortunately, ultra-nationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky is still in power and continues to brainwash Russians. The story describes his visit to Brooklyn in 2002.

It was a strange feeling. As if I never left the Soviet Union, as if I never escaped anti-Semitism, as if I am still a target. Hateful statements, followed by long applause—ethnic Russians laughing over dirty jokes about Jews. No, it was not a nightmare.

It was Aug. 21, 2002. I was at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn’s famous Russian emigré neighborhood often called “Little Odessa.” On the podium I could see Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the far-right Russian lawmaker, known for his populist style and offensive remarks about Jews, Israel and America.

In Boston a week earlier, his appearance attracted fewer than 100 spectators and more than 30 protesters. Here in New York, Zhirinovsky was more successful. Before speaking at the 1,500-seat theater, he promoted the event on a Russian-language radio station, a local restaurant, a hair salon and even at the beach, where he posed with local beauties and distributed hand-made flyers about his busy schedule in Brooklyn. His marketing paid off: At 8 p.m. more than 1,000 Russian immigrants, maybe half of them Jews, packed the Millennium.

Later, one Russian-language paper would describe the event as a circus — but it was a joyless circus and, for the careful listener, a dangerous one. Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, or parliament, and leader of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, again repeated his inflammatory charge that on September 11th, 4,000 Jews heeded a call to stay away from the World Trade Center. Where did he get his information? “In your American newspapers with Jewish editors,” he said. “Ask your fellow Jews why they printed such information.”

A naïve World War II veteran rose to ask a question. “I fought Nazis, most of my family members were killed in ghettoes or concentration camps, and you are saying that the Holocaust was organized by Jews to help the Zionist cause?” he asked. “How can you explain your anti-Semitic statements?” Zhirinovsky answered with a smile, “You, papasha [daddy], probably spent too much time in a tank. You have to read Ben-Gurion’s memoirs. The founder of the Jewish state conceded that without the Holocaust, Israel would have never been created.”

And so it went, a three-hour barrage of political fantasies—“Georgia will be off of the map very soon, Caucasian gangs will destroy themselves with Russian arms”—macho foreign policy— “If America attacks Iraq, I will call for hundreds of thousands of Russian special forces officers to go to Baghdad to kill as many Americans as possible”—anti-Americanism—“There is no civilized society in America if you let Arabs continue training in your flight schools, even after September 11, out of fear of so-called profiling”—and anti-Semitic remarks—“Ninety percent of lawyers, doctors and businesspeople in Russia are Jews, so obviously Russian people have reasons to hate Jews.”


His remarks were often greeted with ovations. Zhirinovsky, who confirmed in an autobiography last year that his father was a Polish Jew named Volf Isaakovich Eidelshtein, explained at the Millennium his personal hatred toward Jews. “Why in the world should I say one good word about my Jewish father who left me when I was a child and never expressed interest in my life, never wrote me one letter? I have all reasons to be proud and thankful to my Russian mother who alone raised me.”

He claimed that he witnessed at Russian embassies all over the world long lines of emigrés who wanted to come back home, although he neglected to mention huge daily lines of those seeking to leave near the American embassy in Moscow. He spoke highly about his friend Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French ultra-nationalist. He praised a recent $40 billion trade agreement between Russia and Iraq. “We don’t produce Toyotas, Mercedes, BMWs or Hondas,” he said. “We produce Moskwich, Zhiguli and Volga [cars] and good Russian arms—unlike bad Jewish Uzis. So, if someone wants to buy our arms, our cars, our steel, why not? All of Baghdad uses Russian automobiles. That’s great! If you produce poisoned cutlets and somebody buys them, why not continue to sell them?”

Zhirinovsky had some angry words about the few Jewish protesters outside the theater: “They were paid to protest”—by whom, he didn’t say. He praised his bodyguards for their courage in standing up to the protesters, such as Susan Lasher, a middle-aged American, who held a sign reading: “Zhirinovsky—Jew-hater.”

At the end of his performance, tireless Zhirinovsky promised to return to Brighton Beach next year. Zhirinovsky’s party polled about 6 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections two years ago; in Brighton Beach, few take him seriously, appreciating him more for his entertainment value than his ideas.

Nevertheless, when I listened to his speech, looked at his skinhead bodyguards and heard the laughter in the audience, I had a strange feeling. Adolph Hitler, at the beginning of his political career, was also ridiculed and taken lightly.

By Ari Kagan, Forward, August 30, 2002


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