AS a little Russian boy among the Muslims of Soviet Kazakhstan, Vladimir Zhirinovsky already felt victimized.
``In [the Kazakh capital of] Alma-Ata, we lived in a communal apartment. I always asked: `Mom, why don't we have our own apartment?' And my mom said: `They give separate apartments to Kazakhs, and we're not Kazakhs,''' Mr. Zhirinovsky, leader of the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party, told this reporter.
``A Russian would answer a question [in school], and he'd get a D,'' he said, leaning across a desk in his drafty party headquarters in Moscow. ``A Kazakh would answer in the same way, and he'd get a B. Those wrong policies against us always existed.''
A hostile figure with a bristling crew-cut whose crude rhetoric appeals to Russian greatness while playing on base prejudices and hatred, Zhirinovsky was widely dismissed as a demagogue and a buffoon - until he took in a quarter of the votes in Russia's first multiparty parliamentary elections.
Now the world is asking the question: Who is Vladimir Zhirinovsky? The answer is buried in a contradictory mass of tales, rumors, charges, and countercharges.
But based on recent and past interviews and his autobiographical book, ``The Last Surge to the South,'' a portrait emerges of Zhirinovsky as an outsider who always felt wronged, a loner perennially searching for a place to belong, to be accepted and admired. Contrary to the image of the Russian as the imperial conqueror, he is the Russian as victim.
For Zhirinovsky, being a Russian outside Russia meant a life fraught with injustice and discrimination. For someone who at an early age believed he was destined for greatness, the indignities were unbearable. A lonely child
Zhirinovsky describes a lonely childhood, living with his mother's boyfriends after his father was killed in an automobile accident. Mrs. Zhirinovsky worked as a cafeteria cleaner to keep him fed, and he craved her affection.
``Everything in my child's soul was directed toward my mother; I loved her very much,'' he writes. ``I could never imagine that she would die or ever disappear.''
Zhirinovsky recounts childhood memories dominated by tales of injustice, many of them connected to an apparent obsession with ethnic purity. At nursery school, he was reprimanded after accidentally bumping into a little Kazakh boy. ``Forty years have gone by since then, and I still remember that childhood incident as though it happened today,'' he writes. ``That's how deeply it affected my soul.''
Later, he recalls his first encounter with a Jew, a teacher instrumental in getting him a post with the Komsomol, or Communist Youth League. When she realized he was only a ``closet Komosomolets,'' he says, she made life difficult.
Despite a record of anti-Semitic comments, Zhirinovsky insists he holds no dislike for Jews. But in an earlier interview with this reporter, he said Jews were ``infecting the country'' through the mass media. ``Seventy percent of all people in radio, television, newspapers, and magazines are Jews,'' he said. ``That does not make Russians very happy.''
He also goes to great lengths to dispel the widespread belief that his father was Jewish. ``He was Russian, Wolf Andreyevich Zhirinovsky. My mother called him Volodya [short for Vladimir],'' Zhirinovsky insisted in an interview with the Monitor earlier this week. ``I've passed thousands of blood tests,'' he continued. ``If you have specialists that would be able to find at least 5 percent Jewish blood in me, I would be proud. But there is none.''
In 1964 Zhirinovsky went to Moscow and enrolled in the Institute of Asia and Africa, where he was trained in Turkish. According to Russian press reports, the institute was a training ground for young KGB employees.
He spent almost a year in Turkey and traveled to several other countries representing Soviet youth organizations. Such privilege gave rise to widespread speculation that he worked for the KGB. ``I had absolutely no contacts [with the KGB],'' Zhirinovsky told the Monitor. ``I wish I had had them.''
Zhirinovsky graduated with degrees in law and Asian studies, his courses interrupted by a two-year stint in the Red Army. Later he worked in a law firm but was fired, a former colleague says, for accepting a bribe, an allegation he will not confirm. He then worked for the Mir, or Peace Publishers, an organization closely tied to the Communist Party Central Committee.
Zhirinovsky also dismissed allegations that he once considered himself a Jew and thus joined the Shalom organization, a Soviet group founded in the 1980s to convince Jews not to emigrate. Asked about his involvement, Zhirinovsky first feigns ignorance of the group. When pressed, he admits to attending a meeting, then to providing legal advice. ``They were pleased and invited me once more,'' he said. ``Then I left and forgot about it, because it all took place five years ago.'' Into public life
Out of this obscure activity, Zhirinovsky first emerged into public view in March of 1990 as co-founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, one of the first parties formed after the end of the Communist Party's official monopoly on power. He claimed to be seeking democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy. But he carefully avoided attacking the Communists.
Leading democratic reformers soon accused Zhirinovsky and his party of being a creation of the Communists and the KGB. It received an inordinate amount of official attention as part of a so-called Centrist Bloc of small parties that were promoted as an alternative to anti-Communist ``extremists.'' His party supported moves to crush nationalist movements in the former Soviet republics and defense of the Russian minorities living there.
Still, Zhirinovsky remained a minor figure until the June 1991 Russian presidential elections, where he came in third place with 8 million votes on a Russian nationalist and populist platform that included halving the price of vodka. A passing oddity
Russian commentators dismissed him as a passing oddity in the country's move to democracy. But it was at this time that Zhirinovsky's curious charisma gathered the first of tens of thousands of mesmerized followers.
``When I first heard him speak on the television, it was a magnetizing effect,'' recalls Vyacheslav Shishelin, a foreign policy expert who now works as Zhirinovsky's press secretary. ``He has the gift to talk on two levels - he says the minimum but you understand the maximum,'' he adds. ``Maybe an hour later, or a day later, you understand the whole message.''