I met Vladimir Zhirinovsky just once, in the autumn of 2016 when I was a ‘hot property’ on the Russian political talk shows and took part in Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, where Zhirinovsky was one of the ‘regulars.’ My making the rounds of the talk shows was due to the keen interest just then of the production teams, and presumably of their domestic Russian audiences, in views of the Trump candidacy from bona fide Americans. This is all well before Covid and the Zoom era: panelists on these shows had to be based in Moscow, or no further away than St Petersburg, where I was at the time, and had to be on call for invitations on a moment’s notice. There were very few Russian-speaking Americans with tested on-air political analytical skills who met those criteria. I was one.
In any case, my shared time with Zhirinovsky on a segment of the Solovyov show did not leave a pleasant aftertaste. Zhirinovsky made one of his typically outrageous remarks, which I countered when my microphone was turned on. He then pounced, asking rhetorically: “What is this CIA agent doing on the show.”
That vitriolic statement was classic Zhirinovsky. It was a sign of why he had so many enemies and…so many devoted supporters.
I had first become aware of Zhirinovsky’s existence back in the fall of 1995, when he was running for the State Duma elections in December and was making waves. He was then the leading figure in the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) which he founded in the closing years of the Soviet Union and then re-registered as the first non-Communist party in the new, sovereign state of the Russian Federation.
My favorite English-language newspaper, The Financial Times, called him a fascist in 1995. That designation stuck for a while, though even the FT understood it was a gross misrepresentation, and quickly changed to “far-right” the adjective that it regularly attached to his name. At the time, it was widely recognized that the LDPR led by Zhirinovsky and the Communist Party led Gennady Zyuganov shared ultra-patriotic views and antipathy to the American-led West that was busily buying up Russia and installing its representatives in Russian ministries. Both parties rallied the general electorate behind an anti-West electoral revolt that claimed many Duma seats in December 1995. Though it is largely ignored, that tidal wave of nationalism set off alarm bells in Washington, where it now became clear that the pro-Western government of Boris Yeltsin could be replaced by politicians who were not friendly at all. Thus, the nationalist wave in Russia put wind in the sails of those in the United States who were pressing for NATO expansion to the East. I discuss this in some detail in my diaries of the period that were published a year ago in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s. (see amazon.com and all other online book sellers; available in ebook, hardbound and paperback formats).
When the Soviet Union was disbanded by the Belovezh Accords in December 1991, Zhirinovsky denounced the dissolution. However, over time he revised his views substantially and in the last decade of his life spoke out repeatedly against any attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe. This is a point that most Western analysts overlook entirely when they speak of supposed Russian nostalgia for its Soviet past especially among the patriotic Right. Zhirinovsky explained his position in the entirely rational arguments of economic nationalism: the Soviet republics had been a net drain on its core political entity, Russia. Similarly, the East European countries in the Soviet bloc were also a net drain on Russia. Zhirinovsky spoke in favor of the American practice of extracting financial benefit from foreign policy instead of the Soviet pattern of throwing good money after bad by trying to buy friends abroad.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or “Volfovich” as he was familiarly called on the talk show that promoted him and his ideas the most, that of Vladimir Solovyov, was during the Putin years a regular contestant in the presidential elections, mostly polling less than 10% but nonetheless a force that was felt around the country, in particular, in the Far East, where LDPR had especially strong local presence. He was intentionally colorful, both in the loud sports jackets he wore on occasion, and in the unspeakable proposals he made regarding the exercise of Russian power abroad.
It is commonplace in Western journalism to say there are no “opposition parties” in Russia but that is a gross oversimplification. It is true that Zhirinovsky’s LDPR voted regularly with the Government on nearly all foreign policy issues. However, in domestic policy the party had its own programs which it consistently defended in legislative initiatives, quite distinct from those of United Russia.
In the new millennium, Zhirinovsky played the fool in his television appearances, but it was all very well calculated to remain in the public eye while not arousing repression from the powers that be. When his 75th birthday was celebrated on television, he dropped the clown’s mask and spoke honestly about the challenge of remaining at the top of Russian politics in the face of a very strong and dominant United Russia party.
Otherwise, it bears mention that Zhirinovsky was well educated and a skillful linguist. His Ph.D. in the humanities focused on the Turkish language and culture. He is said to have been fluent in Turkish even to the end and he always was a knowledgeable commentator on political developments in the Middle East and Central Asia, where he was born.
As part of the feature programs on Russian television dedicated to his life that are being put on air now that his demise was announced in the morning, we are shown snippets from his predictions of political events to come year by year. In the midst of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, we are all reminded that Zhirinovsky foresaw this proxy war between the United States and Russia. He was a leader among the patriotic Russian elites in being ready to stand up to the United States militarily in the confident expectation that Russia will be victorious.
The leadership position in his LDPR party that Zhirinovsky held for most of three decades cannot be filled by anyone else. But the patriotic Right that he represented will in one form or another remain a major current in Russian politics.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022