The death of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Russian political shock jock who packaged fascism in crass buffoonery that was both repellent and entertaining, ended up being as bizarre as his career. The demise of the 75-year-old Duma member, who had been diagnosed with COVID in February, was first reported on March 25—but then denied in an official statement which said that he was still hospitalized in critical but stable condition. This about-face resulted in some quips suitable to a man whose life was unpredictable and performative:
By this Wednesday, Zhirinovsky was dead again—this time with confirmation from the Duma. Speculation immediately followed about whether he had been dead the first time around and the powers that be had decided to save the announcement for a better moment—perhaps for a much-needed distraction from the horrific tales of the massacres perpetrated by Russian troops in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs. But whatever the precise moment Zhirinovsky shuffled off this mortal coil, the timing was uncanny. Russia is, after all, in the midst of an adventure that not very long ago would have seemed like a fantasy from one of Zhirinovsky’s fevered rants: the attempted military conquest of Ukraine accompanied by a rapid and dramatic backslide into a new Cold War with the West, complete with a new Iron Curtain and nuclear saber-rattling meant to terrify the world. His brand of militant Russo-fascism, in less clownish but no less ghoulish garb, triumphed fully in Russia with hardly any daylight left between Zhirinovskyism and Putinism.
Here is a weird personal story: I very briefly met Zhirinovsky in April 1990, on my first trip back to Moscow since my family had left for America a decade earlier. It was the very start of Zhirinovsky’s career. He was one of the speakers at some sort of symposium I attended (I believe it was on drug legalization, of all things), and he mentioned that he was the founder of something called the Liberal Democratic Party of the USSR. That sounded intriguing, and after the symposium I approached him and asked if I could interview him. I assume he had not yet developed his later infamous habit of making crude sexual remarks to female journalists; he handed me his card, sounding brusque but businesslike, and told me to call him. In the next couple of days, I asked several people I knew who were active in grassroots glasnost-era politics if they had heard of this Zhirinovsky guy, only to be invariably told not to mess with him since he and his party were very definitely a KGB project. The first one or two I shrugged off as “KGB under the bed” paranoia of which, understandably, there was a good deal in activist Moscow; but the verdict seemed unanimous enough that I decided to shelve the interview. The card, for all I know, is still around somewhere among my Moscow mementos. A couple of years later on another trip to Moscow, I went to a Zhirinovsky press conference, from which I remember only that at some point he boasted about his sexual prowess as a sign of his general vigor. By then, his act was already notorious.
Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov writes that Zhirinovsky was, in fact, “made” by the KGB, and with a very specific purpose: to discredit the very notion of alternative parties, at a time when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was still in charge, by acting out the role of a buffoon with insane ideas under a “liberal democratic” banner. But the Communist Party fell and the Soviet Union ceased to exist; Zhirinovsky, with his party rechristened as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, not only survived but eventually assimilated all of Russian politics into his brand of ultranationalist insanity with its mix of macho imperialist bluster and mouth-frothing grievance.
In 1993, Russian liberals were shocked when Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, neither liberal nor democratic, won the largest bloc—almost a quarter of the seats—in the new parliament of a free Russia. (“Russia, you’ve gone bonkers!” commented liberal writer and political activist Yuri Karyakin.) It’s hard to say how many voters were won over by his promises to restore Russia’s greatness and how many were simply voting for an alternative both to the Communists and to Boris Yeltsin’s corrupt reformist establishment. But it is very likely that, as sociologist Igor Eidman argues on the dissident Russian website Grani, Zhirinovsky’s success was read as a signal that appeals to imperial nostalgia and grievance worked. Eidman points out that one of Zhirinovsky’s 1993 campaign slogans was, “I will raise Russia from her knees”—a phrase echoed by Putin in a 1999 remark that later became famous: “Russia can rise from her knees and land a good hard punch.” Zhirinovsky was even the first to champion the grievances of ethnic Russians reduced to minority status in the newly independent ex-Soviet republics, a cause that Putin would later make a pretext for his land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine.
As Eidman puts it (my translation):
Putin simply copied the Pied Piper’s tune first played by Zhirinovsky, and a zombified TV audience of millions followed him to the abyss. All the narratives of Putinist propaganda were rehearsed by Zhirinovsky in the early ’90s: the hatred and paranoid fear of the West, the xenophobia and chauvinism, the “rising from knees” and the ravings of “Great Power-ism”; the Soviet-imperial revanchism and expansionism; the hounding of liberals and “national traitors.” Even their pointedly macho sexist style was in many ways similar.
The only difference was one of degree. Where Putin blustered about Russia’s resurgent power, Zhirinovsky suggested that Russian children don’t need to learn English: “Let them learn to handle a Kalashnikov, and then the entire world will speak Russian.” Where Putin spoke darkly of perfidious Western plots against Russia, Zhirinovsky accused America of sinking Russia’s Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000. Where Putin dismissed Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Russian policies with a “best not to argue with women” gibe or made “attaboy” jokes about sexual assault charges against Israeli president Moshe Katsav, Zhirinovsky ranted about women destroying men with their greed and craziness or told his aides to “violently rape” a pregnant female journalist who had asked him a question he disliked. Where Putin spoke about the need for authority and order, Zhirinovsky quipped, “Russia doesn’t need arguments. Russia has one argument: to the prison bed-bunk! When I become president, we won’t have facts, either” (a reference to the Russian weekly Arguments and Facts).
People who had known Zhirinovsky before his rise to fame said, often enough for it to be credible, that his braggadocious, crass, obscene persona was as much of a performance as his fascist ideology. In a way, this makes him an even more perfect figure for the post-truth era than Donald Trump—of whom, not surprisingly, Zhirinovsky was a great fan and whom he urged to stay in power after the 2020 election by using the pandemic to impose a national state of emergency.
In the Putin years, Zhirinovsky remained highly visible as a “loyal opposition” leader who served several useful purposes. He helped maintain the appearance of a multiparty system and the fiction of a Russian democracy when all real opposition was cleared from the field in one way or another. His crazy clown act also made Putin look sane and moderate: looking at Zhirinovsky, many wondered whether genuinely free and fair elections in Russia would mean that Putin would be replaced with someone far worse. But on many occasions he was also basically saying the quiet part out loud—as when he declared in 2014 that Poland and the Baltics would be carpet-bombed and “annihilated” if they insisted on maintaining missile defense installations and air force bases close to Russia.
And yet his buffoonish antics—such as calling for a crusade to liberate traditional Russian obscenities while purging the language of Western influences so that, for instance, toilet would be replaced with sralnik, i.e., “shitter”—often made him entertaining even to those who loathed his politics. In that sense, he was arguably more Trump-like than Putin-like; Russian television loved him for the entertainment value back in the days when it was still free and politically liberal. And, in a way, his clowning made the fascism more palatable: for a long time, liberal journalists often treated him as the eccentric but loveable bigoted uncle, known by the affectionate nickname Zhirik.
Today, Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin eulogizes “Zhirik” as “a man who deeply understood how the world works and foresaw a lot,” adding that “it is difficult to imagine the history of the development of modern Russia’s political system” without him. That’s true, though so much the worse for Russia’s political system. In 2022, much of the Russian political establishment sounds like a chorus of Zhirinovsky clones. National security council deputy chairman Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister who was once viewed as relatively liberal, now promises that the destruction of “Nazi” Ukraine will pave the way for an “open Eurasia,” presumably Russia-dominated, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
And yet Zhirinovsky’s posthumous triumph is an ironic one. In a December 27 speech in the Duma, Zhirinovsky remarkably predicted the February 24 invasion of Ukraine almost to the day—Russia, he suggested, should tell Ukraine to either comply with its demands or feel the consequences “at 4 a.m. on February 22”—but also prophesied that 2022 would be “the year when Russia will finally become great again, and everyone will have to shut up and respect our country.” The second part of his prediction, at this point, seems extremely unlikely to come true.
On the day Zhirinovsky’s death was confirmed, a meme went around on what still remains of liberal Russian Twitter, claiming that Zhirinovsky’s prophetic Duma speech included the words, “We’re going to win, and may I croak if I’m wrong!” Alas, that’s a fabrication. Zhirinovsky did, however, once say that he would remain active in politics not only until death but after it: “I’ll participate even from the grave—I’ll keep sending signals that I’m lying there.” Perhaps Russia will not recover its sanity until it drives a stake (metaphorically, please!) through Zhirinovsky’s heart. Perhaps, too, the West needs to take a long hard look at its own Zhirinovsky wannabes.