Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the rabid Russian nationalist lawmaker whose political rise in the early 1990s scared the West and underscored the fragility of democracy in the immediate post-Soviet era, has died. He was 75 years old.
Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Zhirinovsky died after a “long and serious illness”. Zhirinovsky had been in a Moscow hospital since early February after testing positive for COVID-19 and developing pneumonia.
Zhirinovsky had been one of the most visible and well-known figures in Russian politics over the past three decades, making national and international headlines with his xenophobic comments and outlandish public behavior, including brawls in parliament and on TV talk shows.
He had been an important part of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, since his misleading name, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won a strong result in 1993, winning the most votes in the first legislative elections since the collapse of the Soviet Union two years earlier.
He then ran five times for the presidency, without ever obtaining 10% of the vote. And while he frequently sparked fears with his provocative statements during his early years in the spotlight, he later struggled to raise eyebrows as Russians grew accustomed to his remarks and his role in the apparatus in power.
It appears to have lost almost all of its real political clout years ago, serving instead as a controversial but ultimately predictable colorful element of the so-called “systemic opposition” to President Vladimir Putin, which is using this group to advance its objectives and preserve a veneer of democracy and pluralism.
Zhirinovsky rose to prominence in the early 1990s by playing on the widespread disillusionment of the Russian population with the economic and political upheavals that occurred before the Soviet collapse and deepened after the country’s demise in December 1991.
The rapid transition to a market economy under President Boris Yeltsin plunged many Russians into poverty as factories closed, inflation soared and the communist-era social safety net, threadbare as it was -he, was unraveling.
In the December 1993 parliamentary elections, many citizens expressed their opposition to both Yeltsin and the Communist Party by voting for Zhirinovsky, who offered little practical solution to these problems.
Zhirinovsky’s platform called for lowering the price of vodka, “defending the rights” of ethnic Russians inside and outside the country, and incorporating former imperial lands.
He has also threatened to use nuclear weapons against former adversaries — one of many aggressive, often exaggerated positions he has taken publicly — while blaming the West for many of the nation’s ills.
“Less a party than a backdrop for its demagogic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the [LDPR] adopted ultra-nationalist positions, including anti-Western rhetoric; expanding Russia’s borders to include Poland and Finland, and eventually reaching the Indian Ocean; increase arms sales abroad and re-establish ties with traditional Soviet allies like Iraq and Libya; intensified support for Serbia; rid Russia of non-Russians; provoke ethnic wars outside Russia; and warning Japan, Germany and the United States of nuclear attack or blackmail,” the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe said. said in a January 1994 report analyze the election.
The LDPR won nearly 23% of the party list vote in the election, beating liberal opponents and sparking fears among Western officials who hoped democracy would take hold quickly in Russia after centuries of autocratic rule.
Zhirinovsky’s strong performance in the election prompted some observers at the time to draw comparisons with Adolf Hitler, who had won over disgruntled voters with his vocal nationalism during a similar period of deep economic and political turmoil in Germany after its defeat in the First World War.
“The generalized disillusion had worked to Zhirinovsky’s advantage. After his election, I thought the nationalist leader could – but not necessarily – become the Hitler of Russia,” wrote Michael McFaul, an American election observer at the time who would become President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia. from 2012 to 2014. his book From Cold War to Hot Peace.
McFaul described Zhirinovsky as the “symbolic victor” of the election and said his popularity challenged the prevailing liberal view of “the superiority and inevitability of global democracy”.
For a brief period, Zhirinovsky was seen as a serious challenger to Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, the first in Russia since the Soviet collapse.
However, his political star quickly faded as his rude behavior alienated voters.
In the Duma elections of December 1995, the LDPR obtained 11% of the party list votes, twice as many votes as the Communist Party. Six months later, Zhirinovsky came fifth in the first round of the presidential election, with less than 6% of the vote.
Over the years, Zhirinovsky’s tirades and antics have made him more of an artist than a politician in the eyes of Russian voters. To liberal opponents and the national intelligentsia, he was little more than a clown.
Its influence declined further with Putin’s political rise in the late 1990s.
In more than 22 years as president or prime minister, President Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power in part by neutralizing parliament and co-opting political forces that are nominally in opposition.
The LDPR has rarely opposed the policies of Putin and the dominant party, United Russia, controlled by the Kremlin. Political observers say the Kremlin has sometimes used Zhirinovsky and his party to send trial balloons over initiatives he doesn’t want to immediately associate with the government.
Like Zhirinovsky, Putin also attached importance to the issue of ethnic Russians who found themselves living outside the country after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The difference was that, until 2014, Putin had always argued that talking about ‘bringing back’ these lands with a lot of Russians in the so-called ‘near abroad’ was not politically realistic,” said Brian Taylor, professor of political science. at Syracuse University which focuses on Russia.
Since 2014, when Putin sent in the military to take control of Crimea, the president’s rhetoric towards Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine “has become more strident, which has rhetorically brought him closer to Zhirinovsky, although generally without the extreme frills that Zhirinovsky was famous for,” Taylor said.
Zhirinovsky ran against Putin for president in 2000, 2012 and 2018, and against placeholder Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 – campaigns widely seen as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to create the appearance of pluralism and competition . By contrast, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was barred from the 2018 poll due to financial crime convictions which he says were fabricated to sideline him.
Zhirinovsky was born in what was then the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan on April 25, 1946, a year after the end of World War II, to a father of Ukrainian Jewish descent and a mother of Russian descent.
Zhirinovsky initially denied his Jewish heritage and rarely spoke of his father, Volf Eidelshtein, who moved to the new state of Israel a few years after his son was born.
Zhirinovsky took the surname of his mother’s first husband when he was 18 years old.
He moved to the Soviet capital in the 1960s to attend Moscow State University, where he majored in Turkish studies, and he worked briefly in Turkey. He obtained a law degree in 1977 and a degree in philosophy much later, in 1998, after defending a thesis on “the past, present and future of the Russian nation”.
In March 1990, Zhirinovsky was elected leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union, which he had helped to create – apparently with the support of the KGB – a few months earlier. It was the first legal opposition party in the Soviet Union.
He ran for president of what was still the Russian Soviet republic in June 1991, finishing third with 8% of the vote in an election won by Yeltsin.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist six months later and political upheaval continued, with Yeltsin ordering the bombing of the parliament building in October 1993 during a confrontation with anti-reform opponents that led to an election legislative in December.
Zhirinovsky is survived by his wife, Galina Lebedeva, and three adult children.