Russian far-right populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky dies

World
Thu, 7 Apr 2022 6:22 GMT
His antics kept him at center stage in Russia for three decades, and his once fringe views on imperial expansion had gone mainstream with the invasion of Ukraine.Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a veteran Russian politician who served as both ultranationalist fir...
Russian far-right populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky dies
His antics kept him at center stage in Russia for three decades, and his once fringe views on imperial expansion had gone mainstream with the invasion of Ukraine.

Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, a veteran Russian politician who served as both ultranationalist firebrand and clownish provocateur in the Kremlin’s carefully managed political system, died on Wednesday. He was 75.

The chairman of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, told lawmakers that Mr. Zhirinovsky had died “after a serious and lengthy illness.” Mr. Zhirinovsky was admitted to a hospital in Moscow with Covid-19 in February, the Russian Health Ministry said.

Mr. Zhirinovsky led the Liberal Democratic Party, one of the first parties to emerge to compete with the Communist Party in the early 1990s, when it achieved a stunning upset by coming in second in parliamentary elections in 1993 behind the ruling Russia’s Choice bloc of President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Mr. Zhirinovsky did that by condemning the excesses of both the Communist past and the emerging kleptocracy, but he never again achieved similar success; he instead remained in the limelight mostly through outrageous antics that both shocked and entertained Russian voters.

He gained so much attention throwing a glass of orange juice at the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on live television in the 1990s that it became a signature move, in which he doused other politicians from time to time in parliament.

He once suggested that Russia take back Alaska and was an avowed fan of Donald J. Trump. “Long live Donald Trump!” Mr. Zhirinovsky said at one point during the 2016 American presidential campaign, while admonishing Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, to withdraw, accusing her of being a warmonger.

During a televised Russian presidential debate in 2018, he demanded that the moderator remove a liberal female candidate because, he said, she was an “idiot” and a prostitute, using a more vulgar term.

Mr. Zhirinovsky failed repeatedly in running against President Putin in presidential elections. Yet he remained a central player in Mr. Putin’s system of “managed democracy,” in which parties that were nominally part of the opposition were actually serving the Kremlin.

Mr. Zhirinovsky championed Russia’s continued imperial ambitions. He once said that he dreamed of the day when Russian expansion would have Russian soldiers washing their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. He used to personally lead his party faithful through a recent Moscow museum exhibition that lauded the country’s expansion under the Romanov dynasty, lingering in front of the maps that showed the progression of territorial gains.

With the invasion of Ukraine, his once fringe views had gone mainstream, analysts said. “He was one of the creators of the discourse about the new Russia being a great power, which was always perceived as populist clowning or fake ideology, but which suddenly turned into such a tragic reality,” said Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst.

Mr. Zhirinovsky’s role, analysts said, was to serve as a lightning rod for nationalists and other potential critics on the far right, attracting something of a protest vote despite his staunch support for Mr. Putin on key issues. He did not confront the Kremlin when, in 2020, it removed a popular provincial governor elected from his party, sparking months of street protests.

Mr. Zhirinovsky seemed to keep the party alive by sheer force of personality, and he had a knack for voicing the resentment of ordinary Russians over the collapse of their great power status.

“He was the first populist of the modern European type,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research organization.

On Dec. 27, Mr. Zhirinovsky gave a speech to Parliament that appeared to foreshadow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, predicting that a turning point in the country’s history would come on Feb. 22.

 “This will not be a peaceful year,” Mr. Zhirinovsky said. “This will be the year when Russia finally becomes a great country again, and everyone must shut up and respect our country.”

The invasion began on Feb. 24, but by that time Mr. Zhirinovsky was too ill to comment publicly.

Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky was born on April 25, 1946, in Soviet Kazakhstan. His father, who was Jewish, was deported from western Ukraine after it was captured by Stalin; his mother was an ethnic Russian.

Soon after World War II, his father was deported again, to Poland, and later emigrated to Israel. Mr. Zhirinovsky took the last name of his mother’s first husband.

After finishing school in Almaty, Kazakhstan, he enrolled in the prestigious Faculty of Oriental Languages at Moscow State University, where he studied Turkish and literature. He also studied international relations and law at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

Mr. Zhirinovsky started his career as a lawyer, but as soon as the Soviet system allowed for some degree of political pluralism, he joined the democratic whirlwind of the newly emerging, independent Russia.

He ran for president six times, never winning more than 10 percent of the vote but setting a vitriolic tone in the country’s politics. Leonid Slutsky, a member of parliament who was named his interim successor as party leader, is one of the Russian delegates in the talks between Russia and Ukraine.

In a statement after his death, Mr. Putin said that Mr. Zhirinovsky “always defended his patriotic position and Russia’s interests before any audience and in the fiercest of debates.”

Mr. Zhirinovsky had a penchant for saying what senior Russian officials appeared to believe but hesitated to say aloud; in 2016, he exclaimed “God save the Czar!” after receiving a state order of merit from Mr. Putin.

After Mr. Putin’s electoral victory in 2018, Mr. Zhirinovsky predicted, correctly, that the Kremlin would soon lift the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms. “That’s it,” he said of Mr. Putin. “He’s now there for life.”

Source: The New York Times
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