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Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 1946-2022: a far-right Russian arsonist

Late last December, Vladimir Zhirinovsky took the podium in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, to deliver a warning.

“At 4 a.m. on February 22, you will feel [our new policy]’ said the far-right hot-headed MP. “I want 2022 to be peaceful. . . It won’t be peaceful. It’s going to be a year when Russia finally gets great again and everyone needs to shut up and respect our country.”

Zhirinovsky, who died at the age of 75, had been hospitalized for three weeks with Covid complications when Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine. It was at the same hour and just two days later than he had predicted – and marked the final realization of his ultra-nationalist crusade for a return to Russian imperialism.

As a politician, Zhirinovsky was a fool in Putin’s court, leading the unlikely-named Russian Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), one of the country’s tame “systemic opposition movements.” From his seat in the Duma, he pioneered a xenophobic fist fight that was increasingly being appropriated by the Kremlin.

Born in 1946 in Soviet Kazakhstan, Vladimir Wolfowitsch Eidelshtein, as he was then known, had a Russian mother and a Jewish father who had been deported from western Ukraine. His father, Volf Isaakovich, reportedly emigrated to Israel, prompting Zhirinovsky to take the surname of his mother’s first husband. “My mother is Russian and my father is a lawyer,” he later joked when reporters tried to reconcile his Jewish heritage with his anti-Semitic outbursts.

In 1964 he was accepted to study Turkish at the prestigious Moscow State University, where fellow students gossiped that he had been recruited by the KGB. Five years later, Zhirinovsky became a translator at a Soviet-built sulfuric acid factory in Turkey, where he was arrested for “espionage and propaganda” and deported after 17 days in prison.

Russian lawmaker Yevgeniya Tishkovskaya snaps up Russia's nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky
Russian lawmaker Yevgeniya Tishkovskaya of the New Regional Policy party grabs Vladimir Zhirinovsky during an emergency Duma session in 1995 © Misha Japaridze/AP

The incident ruined his career as a diplomat and fueled rumors of KGB links that would haunt him for the rest of his life. When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Communist Party’s monopoly in 1990, Zhirinovsky emerged from the darkness to lead the Liberal Democratic Party. A senior adviser to Gorbachev later claimed that this was ordered by KGB leader Vladimir Kryuchkov himself.

Suspicions quickly arose that the LDP was a Kremlin conspiracy to withdraw support from the genuinely anti-Soviet opposition, then led by former apparatchik Boris Yeltsin. Eventually members of the LDP realized that Zhirinovsky was a seedling and tried to kick him out of the party. Undeterred, he created a new vehicle, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and secured 3 million rubles interest-free to run against Yeltsin for the Russian presidency in 1991.

A fiery orator and accomplished modern activist, Zhirinovsky won 6 million votes – just 8 percent of the electorate – but a staggering sum for an unknown number. His campaign included ridiculous promises to give out free vodka and build giant fans to blow radioactive waste across the border into the Baltic States. But his real ability was to channel the frustration of Russians, left destitute by the economic collapse and sidelined by the implosion of Soviet ideology after the fall of the USSR.

Zhirinovsky reached his political peak two years later in the parliamentary elections, in which the LDPR took first place with an astonishing 23 percent of the vote. The party never garnered that much support again, but his clownish antics proved useful to Putin’s Kremlin, which used the LDPR to lure voters away from the real opposition – just as its supposed KGB founders intended.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his wife Galina Lebedeva listen to a retired officer playing the accordion during a Defenders Day party
Vladimir Zhirinovsky had three children with his wife Galina Lebedeva © Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images

The right-wing extremist, who had three children with his wife Galina Lebedeva, has become increasingly aggressive and unpredictable in recent decades. His party was cartoonishly boorish and misogynist, and plagued by allegations of corruption. It has been reported that some LDPR MPs paid Zhirinovsky more than $1 million for their seats – allegations he denied. Party members included Andrei Lugovoi, who was accused of fatally poisoning former spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Nevertheless, Zhirinovsky exercised a strong political influence. The State Department adopted his firm, combative style, while Putin’s remarks on Ukraine were reminiscent of Zhirinovsky’s revanchist zeal at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fittingly, Zhirinovsky even predicted Putin’s strategy for political longevity. “There will be no more elections. They’re fed up with the fuss,” he proclaimed two years before Putin reset the presidential term. “He will rule like Xi Jinping for a lifetime. They will bury him like Mao Zedong.”

https://www.ft.com/content/69853fce-dbfd-470f-ad41-8b321d8cb739 Vladimir Zhirinovsky, 1946-2022: a far-right Russian arsonist

Adam Bradshaw

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