Letter From the Editors

Was Vladimir Zhirinovsky a liberal democrat? Commentators often describe the name Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as “ironic” or “misleading,” but there is a certain logic to it. It was the Soviet Union’s first registered opposition party, and for a political system to be democratic, it must at least allow some competition. Likewise, in its beginnings, the LDPR tested the limits of the civil and political rights that a “liberal” country must have. In this way, Zhirinovsky helped establish the political culture in post-Soviet Russia and nominally made it a liberal democracy.

Zhirinovsky shaped Russia’s political culture in other ways, too. “Fighting, scandals, public rudeness toward your opponents – it’s all become the norm of Russian politics. Today, everyone operates the way he did. Just look at our diplomats and listen to them. Now they talk exactly like Zhirinovsky,” journalist Viktor Khamrayev tells Meduza in our top feature. The LDPR’s leader also brought the cult of personality back to Russian politics and promoted it aggressively across the now-buyable post-Soviet media, plastering his face on billboards and broadcasting his speeches on TV. Within his party, he established such a monopoly on power that no other prominent right-wingers could see a future inside it.

What Zhirinovsky contributed most to Russian politics, however, was a petulant, paranoid and permanently outraged nationalism. Meduza cites LDPR literature from the early 1990s: “They’re planning to surround Russia with the Chinese, Muslims, Germans, and Balts, and then – tightening the noose – they’ll eliminate the Russians completely within the next 50 years.” The assertion that neighboring countries were committing genocide against ethnic Russians – and that Russia should therefore expand in their defense – was a key Zhirinovsky meme, and one that would be embraced by parties left and right, and eventually by Vladimir Putin himself.

In many ways, Putin created his own political persona as a more respectable, more sober (literally and figuratively) version of Zhirinovsky. When the former FSB chief identified public enemies and threatened them in gangsterish terms, people believed him. People believed in Putin’s geopolitical games because they’d seen him talking to the other players as equals. When the time came for Russia to have a ruling party again, the most popular slogan was simply “United Russia is Putin’s party.” Brash and aggressive one-man rule disappointed some Russians, but shocked few: The political culture of post-Soviet Russia had been priming them for it from the very beginning.

This became especially clear after the 2012 election protests, when Putin came to depend on nationalist supporters in the regions as a counterweight to reform-minded urbanites. In 2014, with the “Russian spring” that followed the Sochi Olympics – marked by the annexation of the Crimea, the outbreak of war in the Donetsk Basin and the imposition of Western sanctions – all of Zhirinovsky’s memes seemed to come together.

While Putin’s Russia had now embraced not only Zhirinovsky’s style but his ideological substance, this left little room for the man himself or his party. From a high of 23% as the largest Duma faction in 1993, by 2021 the LDPR slid to third place with single-digit support. But Zhirinovsky shaped Russia’s political culture more in defeat than in victory, creating the model of “establishment opposition” in place of the West’s “loyal opposition.” His job was to soak up voters who were more Putinist than Putin. “God save the tsar!” he told the president when awarded the medal For Service to the Fatherland “for major contributions to the development of Russian parliamentarism.”

As Zhirinovsky lay dying of coronavirus, the Communists, who had overtaken the LDPR as the leading establishment opposition party, suffered a wave of denunciations and arrests. According to RFCP’s top lawyer, “some in the government want to take advantage of heightened tensions in society and make the RFCP into a nonestablishment force.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky may not have been much of a liberal democrat, but it seems Russia is only growing more illiberal and undemocratic without him.