Nobody took this jester-politician seriously — until it was too late
Not long after arriving in Moscow in 1997 I spotted some alarming graffiti close to my apartment building. “LDPR” it read; the initials referred to the “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia” which, despite its anodyne name, was actually a fascist party, headed by the notorious Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Only a few years earlier Zhirinovsky had made headlines worldwide when he threatened to invade Europe and Asia and wage nuclear war on Russia’s enemies. Then he won the largest share of the vote in the country’s first ever democratic parliamentary elections.
This was an early indication that the much hyped economic and political reforms being inflicted upon the Russian populace were not going well, and that a humiliated and angry populace might one day turn to a demagogue for revenge. It turned out however that Zhirinovsky was not that kind of demagogue; in fact, by the late 90s he had already settled into his role as the clown prince of Russian politics, tossing out provocations for shits and giggles, well aware that he would never be in a position to realise any of them.
So it was that when I one day saw Zhirinovsky in person at Moscow’s Victory Park, I thought nothing of walking up to him and getting him to sign my copy of The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, which I just happened to have in my pocket. The friend I was with, still more brazen, handed Zhirinovsky a copy of Afisha, a nightlife magazine to sign. Zhirinovsky glanced at the cover and then obliged. I don’t think we would have tried the same thing on Putin, not even in his early phase as potential partner to the West.
Despite his penchant for bellicose threats, offensive invective and occasionally getting into fist fights, Zhirinovsky just wasn’t that frightening. Indeed, even when Western papers were hyping him as a Hitler-style evil messiah, he had much more in common with the other post-Soviet self-created men who emerged in the early 90s — the New Age gurus, fake Christs and millionaire coffin magnates. Zhirinovsky was born Vladimir Eidelshtein and had worked for a Jewish organisation in Moscow in the late 80s before reinventing himself as a Russian Mussolini. The minister of security in his shadow cabinet was the novelist-poet-provocateur Edward Limonov (real name: Savenko); he also hung around with the TV faith healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky and the Hungarian-Italian porn star Cicciolina.
Zhirinovsky was a political entrepreneur, an entertainer whose schtick was shock. Although mostly known outside of Russia for his xenophobic outbursts, his routine also incorporated sex. Even as he was threatening to start World War III he claimed to have slept with 200 women. In 1995 he suggested to a US journalist that she might like to have sex with his two bodyguards, and after he had watched for a bit, he would join in. In 1998 he published The Alphabet of Sex, in which Zhirinovsky proposed that that Russia could make money from sex tourism. In 2014, however he did a volte face and suggested that it was only necessary to have sex 3 or 4 times a year (and that everyone should eat more vegetables). Evidently it was time for some new material to keep the act fresh.
Zhirinovsky’s dedication to the schtick was total. He accepted his role in Putin’s managed democracy, performing the role of fake opposition leader with such dedication that he ran for president five times, never polling above 10%. For years he would talk about seizing chunks of Ukraine, and he crowed about the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it is hard to believe that he actually knew anything when — at the end of last year — he correctly predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine on February 22nd. Perhaps he was just making it all up.
But that is the most chilling thing. A character who for decades was just too much, and who nobody took seriously, had actually articulated positions that are now state policy. This blurring of the line between fantasy and reality is not unique to Russia of course; ideas once considered too ludicrous to consider are spreading to the centre in many places. But perhaps Russia is the most extreme case, with the most tragic results. Zhirinovsky played the clown right up until he was dead. But who’s laughing now?