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The Week In Russia: Zhirinovsky Eclipsed


Vladimir Zhirinovsky meets with people next to a Karl Marx monument in Moscow in August 2021.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a flamboyant firebrand whose outlandish persona couldn't quite hide his submissive role in President Vladimir Putin's political system, died at age 75. In Ukraine, evidence of atrocities mounted as the retreat of Russian forces in the north exposed horrific scenes of death and devastation.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Fear Factor

One cold, winter day 30 years ago or more, I wandered into a wax-figure exhibit in Sokolniki Park in Moscow -- and there was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, posing for pictures with likenesses of Lenin, Stalin, and others.

Zhirinovsky died on April 6, according to the Russian authorities -- a few weeks shy of his 76 th birthday and far short of the historical stature of the late leaders he had shared photo frames with on that afternoon long ago.

The fact that he never reached that level may be a good thing for Russia, its neighbors, and the world: His wildly aggressive pronouncements included calls for retaking Alaska by force, a plan to use giant fans to blow radioactive waste into the Baltic states, and a suggestion that Russia should seize a huge swath of territory to its south, so that its soldiers could "wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) bestows an award on Vladimir Zhirinovsky in May 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) bestows an award on Vladimir Zhirinovsky in May 2015.

On the other hand, consider this: Shortly after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Zhirinovsky proposed partitioning Ukraine -- dividing it up between neighboring states in a way that would, in his words, "correct historical errors."

That wording is reminiscent of rhetoric from Putin, who repeatedly suggested that Ukraine's existence was an accident of history before launching an unprovoked war on February 24 that has killed thousands of people, driven more than 10 million from their homes, and darkly clouded the future of both countries -- whose people, he has argued, are "one."

So, six weeks before Zhirinovsky's death, one of his main roles was erased: For decades, his provocative remarks had been used to bolster the arguments of Russian leaders that but for them, the world would be facing a far less reasonable, far more nationalistic, bellicose, and threatening Russia.

The specter of that Russia jumped out and scared the world in the December 1993 parliamentary elections -- the first since the Soviet Union's collapse two years earlier: Zhirinovsky's deceptively named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) won nearly 23 percent of the nationwide vote for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, raising fears of a dangerous ultranationalist turn.

The Jester

But over the years, Zhirinovsky's ability to frighten faded: Once a potential prince of darkness, he became more of a "clown prince," as he was sometimes called -- a jester in Putin's court.

He was increasingly recognized as a cog in Putin's political machine, a reliable pillar of a largely ersatz opposition manipulated to eliminate any threat to its power while preserving a veneer -- wafer-thin as it has been -- of political pluralism.

"He wholeheartedly embraced the role of fake opposition and in the process dragged the center of gravity within the 'systemic opposition' even closer to the 'system,'" author and analyst Mark Galeotti wrote on Twitter following the announcement of Zhirinovsky's death -- which came not from his own party but from the Putin lieutenant who is speaker of the Duma.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with opposition candidates who ran against him in the presidential election, shaking hands with Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the Kremlin in March 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with opposition candidates who ran against him in the presidential election, shaking hands with Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the Kremlin in March 2018.

"He helped Putin precisely by making the alternatives look as unpleasant and untrustworthy as possible. That was one reason why Navalny and the like could not be allowed to stand [in elections] -- Putin relied on looking like the least-objectionable of available choices," Galeotti wrote, referring to Aleksei Navalny, the staunch Putin foe who was barred from challenging him for he presidency in 2018 and is now serving a long prison term. "Zhirik obliged."

Role Reversal

Zhirinovsky and his party were also used by the state to send up trial balloons on both domestic and foreign policy, with the Kremlin testing what it could get away with when it came to the Russian people, the West, and the world.

At the end, though, his usefulness to the Kremlin was exhausted -- his boorish, belligerent talk entirely eclipsed by a real-life action that might once have been laughed off as an empty threat if it had come from his mouth: the invasion of Ukraine.

The horrors of Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin, Chernihiv, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and many other places are a grotesque overmatch for the pronouncements of the motormouth Zhirinovsky.

Who needs words to frighten the world when there are rockets razing cites and soldiers shooting unarmed civilians in the streets of Ukraine?

But the words heard today, too, might drown out even Zhirinovsky if he were still alive: The venomous rhetoric coming from Russian officials, state media, and pro-Kremlin pocket pundits since the start of the war makes his rants sound, in some cases, like light banter.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky checks out a Kalashnikov PK rifle during his visit to the shooting range of the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy organization in Moscow in August 2021.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky checks out a Kalashnikov PK rifle during his visit to the shooting range of the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Navy organization in Moscow in August 2021.

Even Dmitry Medvedev, the Putin "tandem" partner and former president once held out as a kind of anti-Zhirinovsky, a liberal leader who would put Russia on a kinder, gentler, more pro-Western path -- is uttering words than critics say smack of fascism.

And Medvedev or whoever writes his stuff these days had high praise for Zhirinovsky in a Telegram post on April 7, saying the bottom line was that he had "fought tirelessly for the authority of Russia."

'Dangerous And Divisive'

Zhirinovsky's death was announced on a day when graphic evidence of atrocities by Russian troops in Ukraine was mounting, as it still is. Overshadowed in the media by horrific reports from a war that is as unfathomable as it is real, there was a sense that his time was over -- that in the Russia that had developed since that day among the wax figures, he had become superfluous.

By the time he died, it seemed, his work had been done -- by Putin.

Zhirinovsky "used his depressingly undeniable skills in demagoguery and spin to make ultranationalism not so much cool but comical -- a dangerous and divisive narrative that combined victimhood and entitled assertiveness looked less threatening than it was thanks to him," Galeotti wrote.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks in front of a Josef Stalin bust as he attends a ceremony unveiling a series of new busts at the Alley of Rulers in Moscow in September 2017.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks in front of a Josef Stalin bust as he attends a ceremony unveiling a series of new busts at the Alley of Rulers in Moscow in September 2017.

The long-honed narrative that Putin employed to justify the invasion of Ukraine is based heavily on exactly that: victimhood -- the argument that the West is out to deceive and destroy Russia; and entitled assertiveness -- the argument that Russia is concerned about its security and therefore must subjugate Ukraine and roll back the results of the Soviet collapse.

The ultimate enormity of the disaster Putin unleashed is not yet known, with no end to the war in sight. This week, accounts of what witnesses described as war crimes emerged and the scale of the destruction north of Kyiv began to be revealed as retreating Russian forces left heartbreaking stories and stark scenes of death and devastation in their wake.

In late December, in one of his last public rants before he was hospitalized weeks later after testing positive for COVID-19 and developing pneumonia, Zhirinovsky dropped a hint that Russia would invade Ukraine at 4 a.m. on February 22.

He was off by about 48 hours.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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