The latest outrageous antics of ultranationalist Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- he urged men to rape women reporters who asked him a question he didn't like at a parliamentary press conference -- have sent people to wondering once again whether Zhirinovsky is a staged provocation by Russian intelligence.
I believe he always has been - and here's why.
In 1991, right after the failed August coup, I went to Moscow as a public member of the US delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now known as OSCE, as it turned into an Organization). The US had a system whereby members of civil society could be asked to participate in the delegation on various topics, and I was working at that time as a consultant to the Human Rights Project Group.
This "Human Dimension Meeting" as it was called within the Helsinki Accords follow-up process had been long in coming, and enormous amount of wrangling had gone into its modalities. It took some years for the Western democracies even to concede that Moscow should be able to hold this meeting, as there were many demands for freedom of speech and association for NGOs in and around the meeting that it was feared the Soviet Union would not meet.
In any event, arrangements were finally made for Russian NGOs to register and participate, and also for citizens with petitions to come and speak to delegates. An enormous line formed of people with all kinds of cases -- labor, housing, wrongful imprisonment, police brutality, etc. - and a man named John Finnerty, a staff person of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the joint State Department and Congressional body that monitors the Helsinki Accords and staffs meetings, sat at a little desk receiving the petitioners. I sat along side him, and we tried to cope with this deluge of people who somehow had faith that this new "instantsiya" might help -- hours of trying to get people to explain themselves in such a way that we might actually suggest something helpful, and hours of sorting through numerous folders and documents re-typed on onion-skin paper -- people did not have access to Xerox machines.
While registered NGOs were allowed into the conference, it was not possible to just walk in, and you had to have a badge. Security was very tight, because not only had there just been the defeated coup and massive demonstrations, but there were the usual provocateurs and crazies that come to any such large gathering.
The meeting was held in the Kolonny Zal, or Hall of Columns, a huge ornate palace near the Kremlin with a majestic staircase.
One night when the lovely ladies and gentlemen of Europe -- the diplomats who came to these conference were mainly from European countries -- were at a reception and everyone was chatting amiably and holding their wine glasses, there was suddenly a stir.
Suddenly, we heard a booming voice of a man in formal dress standing half-way down the stair-case, dramatically addressing the crowd and sweeping his arms for emphasis. I quickly wondered how he had gotten into the conference, as it was tough for ordinary Russians to get in without a badge.
I looked around and saw the diplomats nodding in approval -- they were thrilled. I'll never forget a striking, tall blonde Scandinavian or German woman, who cried out, "Isn't it wonderful that they have their freedom of speech now!"
It wasn't that she was patronizing -- it was that I was struck by the enormous disconnect between her enthusiasm and that of all the other gentle people standing around clinking their glasses -- and what I was hearing. They didn't understand a word of Russian.
I was listening -- and horrified. I think this was the first time I heard the expression "Russian soldiers will wash their boots in the Indian Ocean!" -- but it wasn't the first time I heard about "the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy" -- nor the last. The man droned on, ranting in his booming voice -- and people applauded because of the fact of freedom -- not hearing the content.
It was Zhirinovsky.
Later, we all had to wonder how he had gotten in the door -- and it wasn't the first time or the last that those who understood something of Russia wondered about his KGB connections.
For me, it was clear that this was all a staged provocation -- I had heard of Zhirinovsky, who wasn't so well known then, in the informal movement, where he had agitated on certain labor issues and made an abortive run for election. A friend I knew in the Soviet dissident movement had gone to school with Zhirinovsky at the Institute of Oriental Languages at Moscow University -- as it was known then (it has since been re-named to the Institute of Africa and Asia). It was widely believed that people studying in this prestigious institute who would be traveling abroad were recruited largely by the KGB. This friend commented that when they had studied together, Zhirinovsky had been completely normal. He didn't exhibit any strange behaviour or excessive ideologies. He simply seemed to be one of those students destined for secret police work. Panorama has likely the most complete biography in English; I worked with this group of independent researchers from their inception in the 1980s.
His career path followed exactly what we would all associate in those years with the KGB -- any Soviet official who worked with foreigners would either have to be a KGB agent outright, or work very closely with the KGB to spy on foreigners. This was a given; this was a norm. Zhirinovsky also had problems early in his work history - he was expelled from Turkey while working as a Soviet official there and he also was refused application to join the Communist Party. These strikes in his record meant that he was available for compromise with the authorities to survive further and not be pushed into dissent or the GULAG like others less pliable. It seems he took the option available when he was denied travel abroad and further advancement; he cooperated.
Zhirinovsky notably then worked in the International Department of the Soviet Peace Committee -- that was the KGB's playground -- and the Communist Party's domain -- as it was the chief organ for attempting to influence the Wester peace movement to serve Soviet interests in arms talks. It was a hugely-staffed and wealthy outfit that sent people all over the world to conferences, and also had various sub-committees on themes like "physicians for peace" or "children" to interact with foreigners. Next he worked in a department in the Ministry of Justice that dealt with foreigners. And so on. All of the markers in his biography spell to anyone familiar with the Soviet Union: KGB. He could be actually employed by the KGB, and then placed in various organizations for cover, or he could merely cooperate closely, once recruited as an informant.
Everyone in Moscow in those days who saw the emergence of the misleadingly-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and saw them and their hateful signs and antics and demonstrations and parades viewed them as a provocation. They were not sincere, albeit harsh and extreme, like Ampilov's Trudovaya Rossiya, a hardline communist labor group (and maybe that movement was compromised). They were not independent reformers if operators -- like the famous prosecutors Gdlyan and Ivanov of those years. They weren't like DemPerestroika, an independent movement some of whose figures are still active. LDPR was a clown show, and we thought we understood its purpose: to draw people to it, to lure them into trouble, to radicalize them, and then either have them get themselvs arrested -- or merely discredit the very act of independent political organizing.
That was the purpose on the Hall of Columns staircase -- on the one hand, to impress the gullible with the supposed advances of free speech in Russia, and on the other hand, to horrify those with any knowledge of Russian -- this, ladies and gentleman, is what you will get with your free speech. Crazy, loony, hateful anti-semitic and anti-Western conspiracy theory!
In 1994, the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, came out with an expose on the Zhirinovsky issue, claiming that Gorbachev had conspired with the KGB to create a fake party to discredit independent politics.
The KGB official said to be responsible for the project was the infamous Filipp Bobkov, who is still alive today in his 80s, who was at one time head of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB, which was responsible for monitoring and trying to co-opt or get arrested the various Soviet dissidents. One to my enormous surprise, Bobkov came up to me at a conference in 1991, before the coup, but when the Gorbachev thaw was already running -- and facing chilling reversals. He said he had always wanted to meet me -- he had followed me, so to speak. I had made many visits to dissidents in those years. I didn't shake his hand; to do so would be considered zapodlo, against the zek code of honour --- because he had put people in jail and caused enormous suffering. He, meanwhile would write in later memoiries how he imagined he was guiding people out of their erroneous ways...
Alexander Yakovlev, the liberal Politburo member associated with perestroika also said Zhirinovsky was something of a Zubatov-style project -- Zubatov was known as the Tsar's secret policeman from the Okhrana who had pretended to be a socialist party -- again, to lure people into radicalization so they would be visible and to get them arrested. It was said of one of Zubatov's groups that had a name like PromTovarishchestvo, or industrial society, that the people who joined it as a secret police provocation actually came to rather like it, and to enjoy the freedom of expression and discussion it afforded. They were reluctant to give it up and go back to being Tsarist loyalists. Zubatov, on the other hand, committed suicide when the Tsar abdicated.
The story of Zhirnovsky and his KGB affiliations couldn't be more obvious to most informed people -- not only because of his place of education, his career trajectory of compromise, his foreign postings, his Peace Committee work, etc. but because of the obvious authority of not only the Mayor of Leningrad but a Politburo Member exposing that it was Gorbachev's plot. But such was the Western attitude toward Gorbie -- adoring -- that nobody wanted to hear anything negative about him. And there are some pro-Kremlin advocates for whom even a self-confession and folders of documented proof of intelligence connections are never enough. One wonders, for example, what the accepted standard of proof would be for Edward Snowden, given the determination of some to ignore the obvious signs of cooptation.
Whatever the case, while "everybody" knows that Zhirinovsky is a KGB project, a clown meant to serve as a lightning rod to lead people astray and discredit opposition in general, it seems new people are born every minute who have to discover this anew. They either think that Zhirinovsky, whatever his provenance, represents a strain of wild antisemitism and hatred of the West prevelant in Russia anyway that only awaits its entrepreneur, or they think that it's impermissible to call out anybody's KGB affiliations because it's politically incorrect.
And we can't rule out that once the Soviet Union collapsed, and Bobkov was out of a job, that the project no longer had a minder, or was kicked around from office to office and not really properly tended to. And here we all are.