Vladimir Zhirinovsky, firebrand Russian nationalist politician, dies at 75

Veteran leader of the Liberal Democratic Party was also known for making anti-Jewish statements, despite acknowledging his father’s Jewish heritage

Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks during a meeting with animal rights activists in a park in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaks during a meeting with animal rights activists in a park in Moscow, Russia, Sept. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia’s veteran firebrand with a flair for political theater who appeared to predict Russia’s military action in Ukraine, has died at the age of 75.

The politician — who was reported to have been in grave condition after being hospitalized in early February with COVID-19 — died after a “serious and prolonged illness,” the head of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said on Wednesday.

Known for his nationalist populism and skill navigating the Kremlin’s political world, Zhirinovsky had reportedly been inoculated eight times with coronavirus vaccines.

Brash, confrontational and prone to eyebrow-raising antics, Zhirinovsky was a fixture on the Russian political scene for the past three decades and thrived on controversy.

In condolences from the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin described Zhirinovsky as experienced and energetic, saying he “always, with any audience, in the most heated discussions, defended the patriotic position and the interests of Russia.”

Zhirinovsky co-founded and led the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), one of the main forces in the country’s parliament, since 1990.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, poses for a photo during an awarding ceremony in Moscow’s Kremlin, Russia on Sept. 22, 2016. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Zhirinovsky took part in all of post-Soviet Russia’s presidential elections and had been a member of parliament since 1993 when his party scored a major success with nearly 23 percent of the vote.

Often described as a clown in Russian political circles, he was known for his fiery anti-American, anti-liberal and anti-Communist speeches.

‘Not a peaceful year’

He predicted Russia’s military action in Ukraine when he addressed parliament in late December.

“This won’t be a peaceful year,” he said in reference to 2022, urging Russian forces to strike Ukraine.

“This will be a year when Russia will finally become a great country again and everyone will have to shut up.”

Russian nationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, center, in his Russian army uniform, gestures as he is surrounded by members of his private guard, Russian army soldiers, prior to the official unveiling of a memorial statue of Marshal Zhukov in Moscow, May 8, 1995. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

He even mentioned February 22 — the day President Vladimir Putin recognized Ukraine’s two breakaway regions as independent before he ordered troops into the pro-Western country two days later.

Since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent stand-off with the West, Zhirinovsky had shifted into making anti-Kyiv public speeches.

After the annexation, Zhirinovsky arrived in parliament wearing a military uniform and launched into an anti-Ukrainian tirade from the podium.

Zhirinovsky’s wrath was also often directed against the United States.

Wearing a Serbian army cap, Russian nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, waves his party flag demanding an end to NATO attacks on Yugoslavia outside the US Embassy in Moscow, March 25, 1999. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

“At night our scientists will slightly change the gravitational field of the Earth, and your country will be under water!” he said in a 2002 video, where he appeared to be visibly drunk.

Zhirinovsky was also known for making anti-Jewish statements, despite acknowledging his father’s Jewish heritage.

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.

Bad-boy reputation aside, Zhirinovsky was considered a skillful political operator and carefully toed the Kremlin line.

“Only the Russian leader decides what will happen to the world in the next 10 to 15 years,” he said in April 2021.

Russian lawmaker Yevgeniya Tishkovskaya, a deputy from the group called New Regional Politics, punches Russia’s nationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky during an emergency session of the Duma, Russian parliament’s lower house, in Moscow, Sept. 9, 1995. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)

He will be remembered for his frequent nationalist outbursts and often outrageous behavior, such as throwing a glass of juice at liberal opponent Boris Nemtsov during a televised debate and fighting in parliament’s lower house, the Duma.

Supporters described him as a charismatic orator, who was popular with Russians nostalgic for the USSR as well as those disappointed with the Communists, democrats and Putin. Critics found his provocative nationalism shocking.

Russia’s liberal opposition despised him for being the Kremlin’s token opponent who helped channel discontent.

‘Give each woman a man’

Members of Zhirinovsky’s party were behind some of the country’s most attention-grabbing legislative initiatives. One LDPR lawmaker proposed stripping Russian women of citizenship for marrying foreigners. Another proposed banning the US dollar and allowing women to take two days of paid leave a month when they menstruate.

Zhirinovsky himself last year suggested pushing back the age of childhood to 30 because Russians “don’t understand a thing until they’re 30, they are all children.”

In 2007, Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted in Britain in the murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, was elected to Russia’s parliament as a representative of Zhirinovsky’s party and still sits in the Duma.

Born in 1946 in Soviet-era Kazakhstan, Zhirinovsky entered politics after studying Turkish, philosophy and law.

Putin was only an adviser to the mayor of Saint Petersburg when Russians first heard Zhirinovsky’s outbursts during the post-Soviet country’s first free presidential election in 1991.

Russian nationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, left, presents a gift to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, at Hussein’s residency in central Baghdad, Oct. 15, 1995 with the Iraqi flag behind. (AP Photo/Pool/File)

The politician promised to lower the prices of vodka and “give each woman a man.” He placed third with six million votes.

The LDPR has advocated for the return of Moscow’s many lost territories, including Alaska, which Russia sold to the United States in 1867.

Zhirinovsky famously said he hoped that one day Russian soldiers could “wash their boots in the waters of the Indian Ocean.”

Though marginalized in recent years, Zhirinovsky continued to deliver nationalist rants in parliament and regularly appeared on Russian television talk shows.

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