Late last December, Vladimir Zhirinovsky took to the podium in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, to deliver a warning.
“At 4am on 22 Feb you’ll feel [our new policy], ”The far-right firebrand MP said. “I’d like 2022 to be peaceful. . . It will not be peaceful. It will be a year when Russia finally becomes great once again, and everyone has to shut up and respect our country. ”
Zhirinovsky, who has died aged 75, had already been in hospital for three weeks from Covid complications by the time Vladimir Putin gave the order to invade Ukraine. It was at the same hour and just two days later than he had predicted – and marked the final realization of his ultranationalist crusade for a return to Russian imperialism.
As a politician, Zhirinovsky was a jester in Putin’s court, leading the improbably-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), one of the country’s tame “systemic opposition” movements. From his seat in the Duma, he pioneered a xenophobic pugilism which was increasingly appropriated by the Kremlin.
Born in 1946 in Soviet Kazakhstan, Vladimir Volfovich Eidelshtein, as he was then, had a Russian mother and a Jewish father who had been deported from western Ukraine. His father, Volf Isaakovich, reportedly emigrated to Israel, prompting Zhirinovsky to take his mother’s first husband’s surname. “My mother is Russian and my father is a lawyer,” he would later joke when reporters tried to square his Jewish heritage with his anti-Semitic outbursts.
In 1964, he was accepted to study Turkish at the prestigious Moscow State University, where fellow students gossiped that he had been recruited by the KGB. Five years later, Zhirinovsky became a translator at a Soviet-built sulfuric acid plant in Turkey, where he was arrested for “espionage and propaganda,” then deported after spending 17 days in prison.
The incident ruined his prospective career as a diplomat and fueled rumors about ties to the KGB that dogged him for the rest of his life. In 1990, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Communist Party’s monopoly, Zhirinovsky emerged from obscurity to lead the Liberal Democratic Party. A top adviser to Gorbachev would later claim this had been ordered by KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov himself.
Suspicions quickly emerged that the LDP was a Kremlin plot to siphon away support from the real anti-Soviet opposition, then led by former apparatchik Boris Yeltsin. Eventually, members of the LDP cottoned on that Zhirinovsky was a plant and tried to kick him out of the party. Undeterred, he launched a new vehicle, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and secured 3mn rubles interest-free to run against Yeltsin for the Russian presidency in 1991.
A fiery orator and savvy modern campaigner, Zhirinovsky won 6mn votes – only 8 per cent of the electorate – but a staggering total for an unknown figure. His campaign included ludicrous promises to hand out free vodka and build giant fans to blow radioactive waste across the border into the Baltic states. But his real skill was in channelling the frustration felt by Russians left destitute by the economic collapse and cast adrift by the implosion of Soviet ideology after the fall of the USSR.
Zhirinovsky reached his political zenith in parliamentary elections two years later, in which the LDPR came first with an astonishing 23 per cent of the vote. The party never again rallied this level of support, but his clownish antics proved useful to Putin’s Kremlin, which used the LDPR to draw voters away from the real opposition – just as its reputed KGB creators had intended.
The rightwing extremist, who had three children with his wife Galina Lebedeva, was increasingly aggressive and unpredictable in his final decades. His party was cartoonishly boorish and misogynist, and dogged by corruption accusations. It was reported that some LDPR MPs paid Zhirinovsky more than $ 1mn for their seats – charges he denied. Party members included Andrei Lugovoi, who was accused of fatally poisoning former spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
Nevertheless, Zhirinovsky exerted a potent political influence. The foreign ministry adopted his bracing, pugnacious style, while Putin’s pronouncements about Ukraine strongly resembled Zhirinovsky’s revanchist zeal at the time of the Soviet collapse.
Fittingly, Zhirinovsky even predicted Putin’s strategy for political longevity. “There will not be elections any more. They’re sick of the fuss, ”he decreed two years before Putin moved to reset the limits of presidential terms. “He’ll rule for life like Xi Jinping. They’ll bury him like Mao Zedong. ”