MOSCOW (AP) — Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a senior lawmaker whose sulphurous rhetoric and antics alarmed the West but appealed to Russians’ aggrievement and wounded pride, has died at age 75, the speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament said Wednesday.
State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Zhirinovsky died after “a serious and prolonged illness.” The lawmaker was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Feb. 2; in late March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Zhirinovsky was “in serious condition.”
As the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party for three decades, Zhirinovsky was infamous for making vehement statements that were neither liberal nor democratic, and typically delivered with a ferocious glare.
He advocated for Russia to forcefully regain control of Alaska from the United States, suggested that Russia hit former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s residence with a nuclear weapon and said he wanted a DNA test to see if he was related to Donald Trump.
He also claimed he had received a total of eight COVID-19 shots since August 2020.
While Zhirinovsky played the role of a wild man, many saw him as a tame creature who was submissive to the Kremlin. In parliament, his party routinely voted to support measures put forth by the more stolid United Russia party, which is President Vladimir Putin’s power base.
Zhirinovsky founded the Liberal Democrats in 1991 as the Soviet Union was pulling apart, and the group became the country’s first officially recognized opposition party. Later accounts contend that its formation was a KGB project aimed at diverting legitimate opposition sentiment into ineffectual channels.
In its early years, the party had a significant presence in parliament. It won the single largest share of votes in the 1993 parliamentary election and took 64 seats in the 450-member Duma. Its prominence steadily declined, and after the 2021 election, the party was down to 21 seats.
Though the party’s influence fell, Zhirinovsky remained a vivid figure whose comments were received with enthusiasm or revulsion but rarely indifference.
Zhirinovsky was born in Almaty, the capital of then-Soviet Kazakhstan, as Vladimir Volfovich Eidelstein, and moved to Moscow at age 18 to read Turkish studies at Moscow State University.
After military service, he held a variety of posts in state committees and unions. His political activities went little-noticed until the Liberal Democratic Party's founding eight months before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Zhirinovsky’s father, who abandoned the family in 1949, was a Jew of Polish descent — an inconvenient heritage given the strong antisemitic views of Russian nationalists. Zhirinovsky long denied he had Jewish ancestry but finally acknowledged it in a 2001 book, dismissing its importance in a characteristically harsh assessment.
“Why should I reject Russian blood, Russian culture, Russian land, and fall in love with the Jewish people only because of that single drop of blood that my father left in my mother’s body?” he wrote.
Putin on Wednesday extended his condolences to Zhirinovsky’s family, calling the lawmaker “an experienced politician, an energetic person open for communication, a bright speaker and polemist.”
“Founder and longtime leader of one of the country’s oldest political parties, he did a lot for the establishing and development of Russian parliamentarism and domestic legislation, and sincerely strove to contribute to solving the most important national problems,” Putin said in a message released by the Kremlin. “And always, in any audience, in the most heated discussions, he defended the patriotic position, the interests of Russia.”
Russia’s former president and current deputy head of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev said Zhirinovsky gave a “powerful contribution in the creation of the Russia’s entire modern politics.”
“Vladimir Zhirinovsky, sincerely, in his own way, in special, unique ways, tirelessly fought for the authority of Russia,” Medvedev said Wednesday on the messaging app Telegram.