He wanted to see the Baltic States bombarded with toxic waste. He brawled in parliament. He encouraged Vladimir Putin to declare himself tsar. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of the most grotesque fixtures in Russian politics for over thirty years, is dead. It is the end of an era – and good riddance.
The 75-year-old died in a Moscow hospital of Covid, despite by his own account, having had eight vaccinations. Even in death, he is surrounded by a cloud of hyperbole and mythology.
Although never personally close to Putin, he nonetheless played a crucial role in the emergence of the debauched pseudo-democracy that has characterised the past twenty years. Indeed, in some ways Zhirinovsky died just as he had won: the invasion of Ukraine marks Putin’s final descent into the kind of ethno-nationalist imperialism that ‘Zhirik’ had so long advocated.
Back in 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev was opening up the Soviet system, Zhirinovsky co-founded the Liberal Democratic party of the Soviet Union with Vladimir Bogachev. He was never one to play well with others, though. Within a few months, they fell out. Bogachev sought to have Zhirinovsky expelled on the – not unlikely – claim that he had links to the KGB. But Zhirik was a bare-knuckled political infighter; soon it was Bogachev who was out instead.
What would later be renamed the Liberal Democrat party of Russia (LDPR) was, of course, neither liberal nor democratic. In the 1990s it looked briefly as if its brand of populism and racism might take Zhirinovsky all the way to power. Instead he seemed relegated to the role of perennial also-ran.
However, he had managed to find a niche for himself with his colourful rhetoric, thuggishly flamboyant style and willingness to say things everyone else considered unsayable. For many, he was a clownish figure, but this was part of his cunning. He used his depressingly undeniable talent for demagoguery to make ultra-nationalist and racist ideas not so much cool as comical.
Zhirinovsky expounded a dangerous and divisive narrative that combined a sense of national victimhood and imperialism in a way that looked less threatening because of the way he projected them. For the 2012 presidential elections, Zhirinovsky ran a bizarre election broadcast that managed at once to combine animal cruelty and nationalism, comparing Russia to a donkey that needed to be beaten to make it move. I remember a liberal, pro-Western friend chortling at it, unable or unwilling to see Zhirinovsky – who came third in the poll – as in any way serious.
Yet he was. When Putin came to power, he set to building an essentially theatrical facsimile of genuine democracy, It was crucial to have fake opposition parties who could give the appearance of pluralism while never actually challenging the regime.
Zhirinovsky wholeheartedly embraced this role. Whenever the Communists looked as if they were taking their role as an opposition party a little too seriously, as a counter-weight, the LDPR suddenly seemed to receive more media attention and money to buy publicity.
The game was not only to be a fake opposition; it was also to be such an unpleasant one as to make Putin and his United Russia bloc look wholesome by comparison. Zhirik and his gang of racists, careerists and mystic nationalists did sterling work in this respect.
The LDPR, after all, was little more than a personal vehicle for Zhirinovsky, and beyond a broad commitment to a strong and assertive Russia, it had no coherent policy platform. Instead, it offered a grab-bag of populist policies to the voters and a storefront selling businesspeople political status and immunities from prosecution for cash.
In the process, he and his family reportedly accumulated undeclared property worth more than £100 million. But while Zhirinovsky was helping himself, he was also helping Putin by doing so in such a gratuitously obvious manner that it helped normalise a sense in the Russian public that all democracy is a sham and that no one is clean.
Sadly, though, Zhirik may have had the last laugh. Through his career, he espoused the worst kind of nativist, nationalist, racist, sexist and often anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He advocated brutal authoritarian measures and violent imperialism abroad. While there are differences in detail between his erratic populism and the kind of ethno-nationalism manifest in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the president has not reached for the tsar’s crown, today’s Russia is closer to Zhirinovsky’s ideals than ever.
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