Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who has died aged 75 after suffering from Covid-19, was an ultra-nationalist Russian politician who used boorish language and behavior to cultivate an image of being a licensed court jester in the Russian parliament, where he held a seat for close to 30 years. An admirer of Donald Trump, Zhirinovsky outperformed Trump with homophobic and racist invective, and sexual slurs against prominent female politicians.
True to form, he shared the contempt for Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that became the hallmark of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In 2014 soon after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was toppled by a nationalist pro-western coup, Zhirinovsky called all Ukrainian women “nymphomaniacs” and urged two of his aides to “violently rape” a pregnant Russian journalist who had asked him a question he did not like.
Two years later he threatened the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who had become governor of the Ukrainian city of Odessa. “We will shoot all of your governors, starting with Saakashvili, then they’ll be afraid. And there will be a different situation in Europe and Ukraine … Let’s aim at Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington,” he raged.
In spite of these and other similarly wild and abusive comments Zhirinovsky was tolerated as a member of parliament largely because there was no chance that he, or the Liberal Democratic party of Russia that he led, would ever take power.
The origin of his party was murky. It was the first party to be registered after the Soviet constitution was changed in 1990 to abolish the monopoly of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. There was evidence that the KGB had created the party and chosen Zhirinovsky as its leader so as to split the electorate and prevent genuine reform-minded parties becoming the main opposition to the ruling communists. Zhirinovsky contested the 1991 election for the Russian presidency and won 7% of the vote.
In the 1993 elections for the Russian parliament, the Duma, Zhirinovsky’s party did better. It took just under 23% of the vote, emerging as the strongest party. By then Zhirinovsky’s role had changed. The Soviet Union had imploded and Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian president, was bringing in market economy reforms. Zhirinovsky’s aim was to take votes from the communists, who were threatening to make a political comeback and defeat Yeltsin.
Zhirinovsky denounced the economic reforms that Yeltsin and his ministers said were necessary shock therapy to end food subsidies and state ownership of the industry, but which had led to a fall in most Russians’ living standards. He also attacked the rise of a new class of super-rich, the pro-Yeltsin oligarchs.
He projected himself as a populist “third force” that could offer Russians hope where first the communists under Gorbachev and later the reformers under Yeltsin had failed. Apart from his political message, Zhirinovsky’s earthy qualities appealed to many Russians. On TV he was quick and bright in contrast to Yeltsin’s slow and ponderous diction, often made more hesitant as a result of excessive vodka drinking.
His rise as a political star, if not ever a serious power-holder, was surprising, especially as his father, Volf Isaakovich Eidelshtein, was a Jew from Kostopil in western Ukraine. It was rare for Jews to become politicians in the Soviet Union.
His mother, Alexandra Pavlovna (nee Makarova), was of Russian background from the Mordovia region. The couple split when Vladimir was still an infant, and in 1949 his father emigrated to Israel, where he worked as an agronomist. Vladimir then took the surname of his mother’s first husband, Andrei Vasilievich Zhirinovsky, who had died just over a year before she married Eidelshtein.
In 1964, Zhirinovsky became a student in the Department of Turkish Studies at Moscow State University’s institute of Asian and African studies. On graduation in 1969 he did his compulsory military service in Georgia. He later got a law degree and worked in various posts for state committees and trade unions. In 1989, I have served as a director of Shalom, a Jewish cultural organization.
Why he was chosen to head the new Liberal Democratic party of Russia is obscure. I have played down his Jewish origin of him, telling journalists with a smile: “My mother was Russian and my father was a lawyer.” He described himself as an Orthodox Christian.
He took up the anti-immigrant cause, expressing concern that people from the Caucasus were displacing native Russians in Russian cities. He wanted all Chinese and Japanese people to be deported. During a TV interview on a visit to the US in 1992, he called “for the preservation of the white race” and warned that white Americans were in danger of turning their country over to black and Hispanic people.
His views on foreign policy were designed to shock. I have outlined them in a 1995 book, The Last Break Southward. Russia should extend its reach to the shores of the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean, he wrote. Russia would rule the space “from Kabul to Istanbul”. “This is really the solution for the salvation of the Russian nation,” he wrote. I have later advocated the forcible seizure from the US of Alaska, which would then become “a great place to put the Ukrainians”. He called for ethnic Russians to break away from Estonia and Latvia and recommended the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Chechnya.
For the last 25 years of his life, few people took him seriously once it was clear he would never be appointed a government minister.
He is survived by his wife, Galina Lebedeva, and three children, Igor, Oleg and Anastasia.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism