Alliance of nationalists

In 1989, in the waning days of the Gorbachev regime, Zhironovsky(together with Vladimir Bogachev) founded the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia(LDPR) and became its chairman. He was against the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, but upon the creation of the Russian Federation became one of its most popular political leaders. He placed third in the presidential elections of 1991, garnering more than 6 million votes -8 percent of the total. In the Duma elections of 1993 his party won 23 percent of the vote. His success is attributed to his populist and demagogic skills, as well as to his propaganda tactics. Characteristically, this week he brought to Israel bottles of vodka and cognac, cigarettes, lighters and pens and buttons with his name on them and distributed them generously.

Above all, though, he is known for his direct and blunt style of speech, which sometimes slides into coarse language. Zhirinovsky promised that if he were elected president, he would hand out vodka and brassieres. He did not hesitate to become involved in fistfights with his rivals. On one occasion he struck a Duma member. In 1995 he threw a glass of juice into the face of his political rival Boris Nemtsov during a live-television debate. Nemtsov responded in kind. It is not surprising that Zhirinovsky is much in demand as a television guest.

In the past Zhirinovsky expressed the hope that the Russian Empire would be restored. He called for the conquest of Alaska from the United States and for scattering Soviet nuclear waste with the wind toward Germany and the Baltic states. In 2005 he was declared persona non grata in Kazakhstan, his native land, after he questioned the importance of its place in history. Recently, Ukraine stated that he would not be allowed to enter its territory, after he called for a gas boycott against the country if Kiev persisted in its refusal to pay market prices for the fuel. Before the first Gulf War, he sent volunteers to Iraq known as "Zhirinovsky's Falcons" to assist Saddam Hussein in his struggle against the United States. He then praised the Iraqi dictator's regime, saying Baghdad had a "democratic government." He sent congratulations to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the racist and ultra-rightwing leader in France, urging the creation of an "alliance of nationalists."

Zhirinovsky has often assailed the supposed influence of the Jews. He identified with the remarks of Pat Buchanan, the American arch-conservative, during his run for the presidency in 1996, when he called the United States a "Zionist-occupied territory." "We in Russia have the same problem," he said.

Such antics and comments have given him the reputation not only of a nationalist and an anti-Semite, but also of someone who is unstable, erratic, a political clown and a master of political gimmicks. Nevertheless, he continues to enjoy considerable popularity among the Russian public. He now heads a faction of 35 parliament members(nearly 10 percent of the 450-seat Duma). Public opinion surveys predict that his party will triple its strength in next year's elections; he intends to run for president in 2008, after the expected retirement of President Vladimir Putin. "I am convinced that one day - if not in 2008, then in 2012- I will be president of the Federation," he says.

"I am pro-Israel"

This is his second visit to Israel. He was first in the country in January 2003, in order to support the election campaign of an Israeli sister party, which was established by a group of unknown new immigrants, but the party did not obtain enough votes to enter the Knesset. He is boycotted by the Foreign Ministry (which also boycotts Le Pen, Romania's Corneliu Tudor and other anti-Semitic leaders), and the Israeli authorities pondered the possibility of refusing to issue him a visa. In the end it was decided that this would be counterproductive, as it would cause a diplomatic incident with Moscow. In Israel, Zhirinovsky received a royal welcome from the Russian Embassy; a special representative escorted him everywhere and a chauffeur-driven car, bearing diplomatic license plates, was placed at his disposal.

"Everyone who alleges that I am anti-Semitic is a liar," he tells Haaretz in an interview, in his room on the 11th floor of a Tel Aviv seaside hotel, between visits to the cemetery. "I have a high regard for the Jewish people, and in the past three years, in several Duma speeches, I praised the experience and intelligence of the Jews. I say only good and positive things about the Jews."

What do you say to the opinion that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in the heart of the Russian people?

"It is true that there is a certain problem with anti-Semitism in Russia. But that is only a matter of 100, 120 years, because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Many ministers and aides of Lenin and Stalin were Jews. So it is no wonder that there are people in the nation who hate then, because they hate Communism."

But there was anti-Semitism in Russia under the tsar, too.

"Fine. So write that there was anti-Semitism in Russia for 200 years, not 120."

In recent years there have also been anti-Semitic statements, and you are among those who fanned the flames of anti-Semitism.

"I am not anti-Semitic. But it is true that in the government of Boris Yeltsin there were people like [prime minister Yegor] Gaidar, who introduced economic reforms and privatizations that hurt the people. Look at all the oligarchs - Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Gaydamak, Khodorkovsky, Nevzlin - they are all Jews. I have no connections with them. They are all Yeltsin's creations. They were poor people who suddenly became billionaires. How do you think they did that? They robbed and stole the money of the Russian people. And they must return the money to the people."

Are you a rich man?

"Certainly not. I live from the salary of a Knesset member [sic] in the opposition. If I were in the government, I might be rich," he replies, amid cascades of laughter. Perhaps he recalled that on a previous occasion he told a different interviewer that he is fond of Mercedes cars and owns a few.

You claim that you are not anti-Semitic, but that's how you are viewed in Israel.

"That is also not true. I am Pro-Israel."

Pro-Israel? But you portrayed yourself as a friend of Saddam Hussein.

"I am not his friend. He invited me to visit him. So I went. I did it for the sake of the Russian people. He owed us $9 billion and the only way to get the debt repaid was perhaps through a dialogue. I was also against the American aggression. I foresaw it all. History proved me right. Look at the chaos in Iraq. The Americans removed Saddam Hussein and brought in Al-Qaida. I am an orientalist and I know the Arab and Muslim people. Only Saddam Hussein could have maintained stability in Iraq. It is the same in Afghanistan. Who created the Taliban? The Americans. And you will see that the Taliban will come back into power in Afghanistan."

Are you also against an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

"Correct. That will create instability."

Can you understand Israel's concern about nuclear weapons in the hands of the ayatollahs' regime in Iran?

"Of course I understand. And maybe you should attack. But I do not advise that, because it is very dangerous. Iran is our neighbor, and an attack on Iran will cause the spread of instability and violence to us, too, in the Caucasus. A military operation in Iran will cause a situation there like the one in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and maybe even worse. I suggest a different solution: to create a strategic alliance between Israel, Russia and the United States. That is power no one will be able to stand up against. The problem is that the Americans, like Napoleon, are out to achieve world hegemony."

Here in your soil

His flow of words is suddenly curtailed. He becomes reflective, looks at his father?s photograph, and tears flow from his eyes again. "Enough with international politics. I want to tell you how I discovered my father's grave."

Three months ago, he says, he was approached by a Russian journalist who told him he was preparing a wonderful gift for his 60th birthday, on April 25. I think I have discovered where your father is buried, the journalist told Zhirinovsky.

The journalist told him about the grave of Wolf Ben Yitzhak Eidelshtein, in Holon. "At first I did not believe him," Zhirinovsky recalls, but I decided to try anyway, to check this direction also." He asked the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv for assistance. The consul general, Gocha Buachidze, contacted the Hevra Kadisha (the burial society) and the Interior Ministry, and located Yitzhak Eidelshtein, Zhirinovsky's cousin, and together they collected the details until all the pieces of the puzzle fit.

Wolf Ben Yitzhak Eidelshtein was born in the town of Kostopol (not Konotopol, as his mother told him) near Rovno - then in Poland, now in Ukraine. Zhirinovsky's grandfather was a wealthy man, who owned a plywood factory with 500 employees. Now, Zhirinovsky is demanding that the Ukrainian government, which will not permit him to enter the country, compensate him for the family's lost assets; he plans to split any such compensation with his newfound cousin Yitzhak, Zhirinovsky said this week.

At the end of the 1920s, he sent his son Wolf to study agriculture and commercial economics in France. In 1932, Wolf Eidelshtein completed his studies at the University of Grenoble and entered the family business. When World War II broke out, he fled with his brother, Aharon(Aron), to the Soviet Union. The other members of the family -his parents, his sister Rosa and the extended family -perished in the Holocaust.

The rest is a story characteristic of the war generation. The two Eidelshtein brothers made their way from the Soviet Union to Poland, and in 1949 immigrated to Israel. Two years later, Wolf remarried; his second wife's name was Lola Kivlevitz. The couple had no children, but treated the nephew, Yitzhak Eidelshtein (the son of Wolf's brother, Aharon), as their son.

Yitzhak Eidelshtein relates that his uncle Wolf (Vladimir Zhirinovsky's father) never mentioned those details in his past that have come to light only now. He never revealed to his relatives in Israel that he had left behind a wife and a baby son. "He was a warm man, very devoted to family. He told me that when he completed his studies in France, he was offered a position at a French bank but he was in a hurry to return to Poland to be near his mother, who had an eye disease."

According to Yitzhak Eidelshtein, his father Aharon and his Uncle Wolf were not politically active, but they were considered rightists and supported Menachem Begin's Herut movement. "My Uncle Wolf was a very courtly man and a feinschmecker. He loved to dress well. He wore ties and suits. He loved to eat well, especially French food, with which he became acquainted during the period of his studies. He read books in Hebrew, Polish and French and every Friday he took me to see a film."

For a short time Wolf Eidelshtein lived in Jaffa and then moved into a "key money" apartment at 121 Dizengoff Street. He spent his entire working life at Amir, an agricultural equipment company founded by the Farmers Union. He retired in 1972. In 1983, as he was crossing Dizengoff Street next to his home, he was hit by a bus. He was taken to Ichilov Hospital and died there of his injuries. His wife died in 1991 and is buried next to her husband in Holon.

Reverently, Zhirinovsky opens a transparent plastic folder. In it is an official Interior Ministry death certificate, bearing the symbol of the State of Israel. He then removes from the folder photographs of his mother, his father and of himself, a two-month-old infant, in his mother's arms. Again he breaks into tears. Then he regains his composure, perhaps because his son, Igor Lebedev (who bears his mother's name), enters the room.

Thirty-three years old, Igor is tall and his physical build recalls that of his father. A lawyer by education, he is chairman of his father's faction in the Duma. This is his first visit to Israel, and yes, he says, he is enjoying it very much. "You have a beautiful country," he says politely, and adds, "I'm very happy that my father found grandfather's grave. It bothered him his whole life. And I can understand him. I have had a father since I was born. My father did not have a father. Apart from that, I'm happy to discover the grandfather I never knew and to hear his life story. Now I know for certain that I'm one-quarter Jewish."

Won't that hinder your political career?

"I don't think so. I am Russian and I feel like a Russian."

Vladimir Zhirinovsky intervenes, "Why in the world should it hinder? What difference does it make whether you are Russian or Israeli or American or black or white?" he says in a conciliatory tone, as though he had never outrageously said the opposite. "What we need in Russia is someone with Jewish intelligence, a Russian heart, German precision, an American entrepreneurial spirit and Asian fanaticism - and do you know who has all that"? he asks rhetorically. "I do. I have Russian heart. Jewish intelligence. And because of the father I discovered here in Israel, Wolf, who has a German name, I can say that I also have German precision and a sense of entrepreneurship. After all, he was a rich man. Having been born in Kazakhstan, I also have Asian fanaticism."

And one more thing: "Inform the Jewish people that if I am elected president or if I am in the government, you in Israel will have no problems, not with Iran's nuclear program and not with the Hamas terrorists. I will know how to deal with them. After all, my father is buried here, in your soil."