Those shocking words came before the war in Ukraine. But they were in line with the tirades he had indulged in for 30 years, enlarging the circles of Russia’s enemies, proposing more and more extreme measures to defeat them. The strength of his message resulted from a real oratorical talent, charism, and extravagance. As many others, he appeared in the late 80thies, from nowhere. Even members of his LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) suspected he was a tool of the KGB to seed confusion among the anti-communist opposition. He left them to create the LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), running against Boris Yeltsin in the 1991 presidential election. He received 8% of the votes and, 2 years later, his party won the parliamentary elections with 23% of the votes, securing its place in the Duma till today.
During all that time, Zhirinovsky has been the bête noire of Russian liberals, and Westerners, who deluded themselves by seeing in him no more than a stupid, disbalanced, buffoon. He was cultured, university educated, fluent in 5 languages, with a good knowledge of the world outside Russia. His allies were found among the millions of people who had accumulated frustration since the late 80thies, feeling betrayed by the communists who had lied to them, and the liberals who did not obtain the promised Western assistance.
Everything was complex about him, from the name of his party to his own identity. LDPR was a misleading acronym, reflecting an epoch when any anti-communists were supposed to be democratic and liberal. For Zhirinovsky, the communist regime – or the Bolsheviks as he preferred to call them- had destroyed Russian culture and traditions to replace them by a Soviet internationalism. He never missed an opportunity to hammer that many Bolsheviks were Jewish, hiding their real names under russified ones. Paradoxically, he had done the same, adopting the name of his mother’s first husband instead of that of his father, Volf Issaakovich Eidelshtein – while keeping his patronym Volfovich. The story should have been left to psychologists, if his antisemitism was not so central to his political career. Later it extended to the Russian oligarchs, according to their names, feeding conspiration theories of international dimension.
With age, his rejection of everything that was not Russian, and, more importantly, “good” Russians (nationalists), became a source of embarrassment inside his party, and led to defections. But it continued to resonate among millions of people left outside the economic boom and lost in a “Westernised” un-Russian society. It means that, today, millions of Russians are political orphans, deprived of a rallying point to express their frustration, including of their actual president. They are not the caricatural cohort of poorly educated, brainwashed, aging Russians that Westerners like to believe. It is not even a question of generation, radicalism ridding on the wave of disappointment for too many lost illusions. All generations have been suffering for years of falling living standards following 2014 first Western sanctions, and have no hopes of better life for years to come. Russians know throughs personal connections that their soldiers are dying in Ukraine, and can even doubt on the wisdom of the so-called “special operation”, but many have few doubts about the West’s intention to destroy their country.
This is why the future of the post-Zhirinivsky LDPR is important and the succession carefully observed from the Kremlin. Successions have been traditionally difficult, even fatal, including among liberals, because of the excessive personification of Russian political movements. The successive “party of power” were no more than coalition of people ready to support the president, be it Yeltsin or Putin. So, tensions are expected in the LDPR following Zhirinovsky’s death, but it is an opportunity to consolidate the party around a more collective leadership, to limit desertions by providing a “modern” programme palatable for most of the veterans and younger generations. It is difficult to imagine that someone would liquidate it: the LDPR is the third political force in Russia, well rooted in regions and municipalities, with a working faction in the Duma.
The first signal came with the appointment of Leonid Slutsky, 54, the head of the State Duma committee on international affairs, as interim leader of the LDPR faction. A new congress will be held within a year and the new leaders will have more than 4 years to prepare the next parliamentary elections. Slutsky does not have the charisma of Zhirinovsky, but he is a well-known figure in Russia from the early 90thies, elected at the Duma since 1999. He has an international experience, notably in parliamentary relations, in official delegations abroad, and lately as a member of the Russian team negotiating with Ukraine. His credentials as a fierce defender of Russian interests have been increased by the apparition in the list of people sanctioned by Americans and Europeans since 2014, and almost unaffected by a 2018 report on corruption by Alexei Navalny.
Today, millions of Russians are looking for direction and inspiration. They might turn against Putin in their search for a culprit, but their anger will be mostly directed to the outsiders “guilty” of defying Russia, with the backing of people Putin named “traitors” or even “rats” leaving the ship. Their search for a figure around which to rally has less chance to be the anti-Putin reformed minded character the West is dreaming about. A few weeks ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsly, already away from public life for health reasons, was mentioned as the second most popular political figure in Russia.
For those numerous Russians who dislike the LDPR, there is the Communist Party, together forming the so-called systemic opposition in the Duma which helps Putin to secure a voting majority for any laws he wants to be adopted and a pretense of parliamentary democracy. If things go wrong in Ukraine, and if sanctions further hamper the Russian economy, Putin will have less and less chance to coopt them systematically, even depending on them.