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Obituary: Russian far-right populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky dies

A KGB agent? A Russian Hitler? Or just a political clown?

A KGB agent? A Russian Hitler? Or just a political clown?

KGB agent? Russian Hitler? Political clown? Over the course of his long career Vladimir Zhirinovsky was many things, but never dull. On Wednesday, the speaker of the Russian parliament said, Zhirinovsky had died after a long and serious illness.

President Vladimir Putin once described Russia's number-one right-wing populist as being "good at starting fires" — recognition coming from the very top, although the Kremlin leader was careful to distance himself from Zhirinovsky's provocative remarks.

Starting fires certainly was Zhirinovsky's forte. He variously proposed enclosing the northern Caucasus with barbed wire, spoke of dropping a nuclear bomb on Istanbul, and threatened a female journalist with rape. He often blustered about occupying Ukraine. With Zhirinovsky, there were no red lines. Like the communists, he too was a dinosaur of Russian politics whose career began in the latter days of the Soviet Union.

A KGB project?

It all started with a fraudulent designation. In 1989, Zhirinovsky was one of the co-founders of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Soviet Union's first party of opposition. After the collapse of the USSR, it was renamed the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) — but the party was neither liberal nor democratic. To this day, it's an explosive mixture of nationalism, revanchism and chauvinism — or simply a post-Soviet version of right-wing populism.

Above all, the LDPR was the party of one man. It would never have been such a success without Zhirinovsky as its leader. Popularly known as "Zhirik," this was an almost affectionate nickname, the kind you give to a buddy, not a politician. The attitude seemed to be: well, yes, he may be a Nazi, but he's kind of funny and likeable, too.

Born in Kazakhstan in 1946, Zhirinovsky studied Oriental languages and law in Moscow, completed a traineeship in Turkey, and worked as a legal expert with various organizations, including a publishing house, that had dealings with foreign countries. Later, this gave rise to speculation that he had connections with the notorious Soviet secret service, the KGB, which kept particularly close tabs on all foreign contacts of Soviet citizens.

The suspicion that Zhirinovsky's party was a KGB project remains to this day. It is alleged that the secret service wanted to create an outlet for growing discontent by creating a political party that, while officially in opposition, could still be controlled by the authorities. There is no definitive proof of this, but this is precisely the niche the LDPR has successfully occupied in Russian politics for decades.

Early 1990s peak

Although Zhirinovsky opposed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it proved to be a stroke of luck for him. Millions of disappointed and impoverished Russians, especially poorly educated men in the provinces, regarded the colorful politician as their representative.

Zhirinovsky often wooed his voters with slogans that were xenophobic, sometimes anti-Semitic. Yet he himself had Jewish roots. Zhirinovsky grew up without a father; he claimed to have learned the details of his father's life only later. Wolf Edelstein was a Jewish businessman from eastern Poland, now western Ukraine. Before World War II, the Soviets deported him first to Kazakhstan, then to Poland, from where he emigrated to Israel.

The LDPR came first in the 1993 parliamentary election, with about 23% of the vote — significantly more than the right-wing liberals and Communists. This was the pinnacle of Zhirinovsky's political career. For a while it even seemed possible that he might become president; the Western media worried about the rise of a "Russian Hitler." Zhirinovsky was cultivating contacts with right-wing extremists in Europe at the time, such as the French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. The far-right German People's Union (DVU), founded and dominated by the Munich publisher Gerhard Frey, also had close ties with Zhirinovsky until the mid-1990s.

Zhirinovsky carefully cultivated his image as a showman. He would wear garish colored jackets, rant, and get physically aggressive. In a famous incident on a talk show in 1995, Zhirinovsky threw a glass of juice in the face of Boris Nemtsov, who was governor of Nizhny Novgorod at the time.

Mouthpiece for Kremlin fantasies

However, by the late 1990s things were going downhill for Zhirinovsky and the LDPR. He ran in almost every presidential election but never came higher than third. For a long time, the LDPR posed no threat to the Kremlin, usually voting in line with the ruling party in parliament.

As president, Putin implemented much of what Zhirinovsky had been calling for since the 1990s — autocracy, turning away from the West, militarization. Meanwhile, Zhirinovsky was given a lot of airtime on state channels, and allowed to say things that were too controversial to come from the Kremlin.

Eventually, though, the LDPR grew too strong. It started to be seen as an anti-Kremlin protest party, especially in Russia's far east.

The LDPR's Sergei Furgal was elected governor of the Khabarovsk region — an affront to the Kremlin's United Russia party. Furgal was arrested in 2020, which sparked protests that went on for months — something quite unusual in Putin's Russia.

Zhirinovsky's death is likely to plunge his party into crisis, as it has no obvious, charismatic successor. The LDPR will not, however, cease to be relevant. There is still considerable mileage in the right-wing populist vote in Russia. And the Kremlin still has a strong interest in keeping those voters contained — in a small party that can not pose a real danger to President Putin.

Edited by: Andreas Illmer