MOSCOW (AP) — Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a senior lawmaker whose sulphurous rhetoric and antics alarmed the West but appealed to Russians’ aggrievement and wounded pride, has died at age 75, the speaker of the lower house of Russia’s parliament said Wednesday.
State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said Zhirinovsky died after “a serious and prolonged illness.” The lawmaker was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Feb. 2; in late March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Zhirinovsky was “in serious condition.”
As the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party for three decades, Zhirinovsky was infamous for making vehement statements that were neither liberal nor democratic, and typically delivered with a ferocious glare.
He advocated for Russia to forcefully regain control of Alaska from the United States, suggested that Russia hit former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s residence with a nuclear weapon and said he wanted a DNA test to see if he was related to Donald Trump.
He also claimed he had received a total of eight COVID-19 shots since August 2020.
While Zhirinovsky played the role of a wild man, many saw him as a tamed one submissive to the Kremlin. In parliament, his party routinely voted to support measures put forth by the more stolid United Russia party, which is President Vladimir Putin’s power base.
Zhirinovsky founded the Liberal Democrats in 1991 as the Soviet Union was pulling apart, and the group became the country’s first officially recognized opposition party. Later accounts contend that its formation was a KGB project aimed at diverting legitimate opposition sentiment into ineffectual channels.
In its early years, the party had a significant presence in parliament. It won the single largest share of votes in the 1993 parliamentary election and took 64 seats in the 450-member Duma. Its prominence steadily declined, and after the 2021 election, the party was down to 21 seats.
Though the party’s influence fell, Zhirinovsky remained a vivid figure whose comments were received with enthusiasm or revulsion but rarely indifference.
Zhirinovsky was born in Almaty, the capital of then-Soviet Kazakhstan, as Vladimir Volfovich Eidelstein, and moved to Moscow at age 18 to undertake Turkish studies at Moscow State University.
After military service, he held a variety of posts in state committees and unions. His political activities were little-noticed until the Liberal Democratic Party’s founding eight months before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Zhirinovsky’s father, who abandoned the family in 1949, was a Jew of Polish descent – an inconvenient heritage given the strong antisemitic views of Russian nationalists. Zhirinovsky long denied he had Jewish ancestry but finally acknowledged it in a 2001 book, dismissing the importance of his ethnic background in a characteristically harsh assessment.
“Why should I reject Russian blood, Russian culture, Russian land, and fall in love with the Jewish people only because of that single drop of blood that my father left in my mother’s body?” he wrote.