Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a notorious political showman and demagogue who founded Russia’s far-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and led it for more than 30 years, has died in a hospital in Moscow, the lower house of the State Duma confirmed Wednesday. He was 75 years old.
According to Russian media, Zhirinovsky, whose health had been declining for some time, had been seriously ill for weeks after contracting Covid-19, despite claiming to have received eight doses of the vaccine.
In one of his last public appearances in late December, Zhirinovsky appeared to predict Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with startling accuracy, saying, “At 4 a.m. on February 22, you will feel our new policy .
“I would like 2022 to be a peaceful year, but I love the truth. I have been telling the truth for 70 years. It will not be a quiet year. It will be a year when Russia becomes a great country again,” he said. he said, addressing the Duma.
Leader since 1989 of the LDPR, which despite his name has espoused an exuberant ultranationalist populism, Zhirinovsky has carved out a unique place for himself within the Russian political system through his outrageous personality and his often vulgar outbursts.
In recent years, it was sometimes double “Russia’s Trump” and his political style compared to the former US president.
His provocative political positions proposing the military conquest of Central Asia and the Middle East, bombarding the Baltic States with toxic waste and dropping nuclear bombs on Japan and Britain, were matched by his outrageous personal conduct, including getting into fights in the Russian parliament, physically attacking political opponents and, on one occasion, ordering aides to rape a pregnant journalist.
Although Zhirinovsky – whose party centered on the personal charisma of its leader rather than a cohesive program – managed to remain relevant throughout three decades of turbulent Russian politics, it did so at the cost of its independence.
As Russia grew more authoritarian, he became the symbol of the country’s co-opted “systemic” opposition, offering a semblance of political competition, while backing President Vladimir Putin on key issues. Some have speculated that some of Zhirinovsky’s outlandish proposals were trial balloons planted by a Kremlin seeking to test the waters before adopting them itself.
Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma, called Zhirinovsky “a brilliant and talented politician” and “a man who deeply understood how the world works and planned a lot” in a Telegram message confirming his death.
Born Vladimir Wolfovich Edelshtein to a Jewish father and a Russian mother in 1946, in Almaty, then the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, Zhirinovsky would later write how his youth influenced his later politics.
Growing up in the dark post-war years, Zhirinovsky, later a staunch anti-Communist, was disillusioned with the Soviet system from an early age. In his autobiography, he said his mother’s last words were: “Volodya, there is nothing to remember, not a single day of joy.
Abandoned at an early age by his Jewish father and growing up amid inter-ethnic rivalry in Soviet Central Asia, Zhirinovsky—who took the name of his mother’s second husband—adopted a robust ethnic Russian nationalism, sometimes experimenting with both anti-Semitism and resentment towards Minority Nationalities of Russia.
Moving to Moscow, Zhirinovsky enrolled in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Moscow State University, earning a degree in Turkish language and literature, before taking a clerical position in a business house. editing.
The party he co-founded in 1989, in the last days of Mikhail Gorbachev perestroika, was the first legal opposition party in the Soviet Union. This fact led to longstanding rumors, still denied by Zhirinovsky, that he had ties to the Soviet Union’s feared secret police, the KGB.
Zhirinovsky’s first breakthrough came in 1991, when in the Russian Soviet Republic’s first presidential election, the then-unknown Zhirinovsky ran on a populist ticket against national republic separatists and the Communist Party apparatus. He won nearly 8% of the vote.
Its political zenith came two years later, when the LDPR topped the polls in the 1993 State Duma election, with 23 percent and more than 12 million votes, against the backdrop of the painful post-Soviet transition. One of the first signs that then-President Boris Yeltsin’s reform program was running into difficulties was the success of the clown Zhirinovsky – who at the time was publicly dreaming of establishing a dictatorship and comparing himself to Hitler – horrified the Russian liberal intelligentsia.
“Russia, you have lost your mind! Come to your senses!” noted the eminent literary critic Yury Karyakin in a moving speech on election night in 1993, as the scale of the LDPR’s triumph became apparent.
Although much of the world began to prepare for President Zhirinovsky, the far-right leader’s success in 1993 proved short-lived. Its crude conduct and rumors of the party’s links to organized crime saw the LDPR eclipsed by a revived Communist Party, which proved far more effective in harnessing the anger of the losers of the Soviet collapse. In the 1996 presidential election, Zhirinovsky came fifth.
As Yeltsin’s chaotic semi-democracy gave way to Putin’s authoritarianism, Zhirinovsky changed with the times.
The LDPR has become one of the pillars of Russia’s tame parliamentary opposition, virtually accepting a supporting role in a system in which neither Putin nor his United Russia party could ever truly lose.
A regular guest on the belligerent political talk shows that dominated Russian state television after the annexation of Crimea and the break with the West in 2014, Zhirinovsky has maintained his role as the court jester of Russian politics. During a meeting of the Russian State Council in 2020, a 10-minute streamer tirade on the need to purge the Russian language of foreign words saw Putin, along with many other dignitaries, reduced to tears of laughter.
Always the consummate survivor, even Zhirinovsky could not escape the Kremlin’s increasingly tight grip on the Russian political system. The 2020 arrest for murder of Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal, an LDPR member, was seen as a warning shot against the party. The LDPR’s refusal to support Furgal embittered many of its voters and exposed the void in its opposition. In the State Duma elections the following year, the LDPR had one of its weakest performances ever.
Outside of elective politics, Zhirinovsky found time to write several dozen books, ranging from Last Dash to South, in which he pleaded for Russian troops to subjugate the entire Asian landmass to the Persian Gulf, “for the good of all mankind”, and The ABCs of Sex, dedicated to Zhirinovsky’s reflections on the “problems of love and sex”.
In 2009, for the 20th anniversary of the founding of his party, he released an album, on which he performed a number of popular Russian songs, alongside some of his own compositions. He is survived by three adult children.