The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia
The LDPR is the oldest political party in the Russian Federation. It was formed after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union surrendered its monopoly on power. The LDPR quickly monopolized the right wing of Russian politics and its colorful leader kept it in the spotlight.
The LDPR was led by its founder, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, from 1989 until his death in April 2022.
Where did the LDPR come from? What does it stand for, and how did Zhirinovsky lead the party over those 33 years?
The Democratic Union versus the Soviet Union
Zhirinovsky started his political career when he joined the Democratic Union during Perestroika. This was the first (illegal) opposition party formed in the USSR, holding its founding Congress the day before Victory Day, on 8 May 1988.
Zhirinovsky participated in this congress and was elected to its central coordinating Council. From this position he pushed to have the DU organized under a unitary leadership instead of a collegiate leadership and proposed himself to lead the new party. He was, in some accounts, expelled from the DU after this. In his own account Zhirinovsky simply “withdrew.”
After Zhirinovsky’s departure the DU adopted radically anticommunist and anti-Soviet programs. Of special interest to our current subject are these principles:
- Ensuring in practice the right of nations to self-determination, including secession;
- Cancellation of political articles of the Criminal Code, release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners
- The dissolution of the political police, the KGB
- Radical reduction of the military-industrial complex
As we will see, Zhirinovsky took very different positions in his own party.
In 1989, while writing a program for a non-existent “Social Democratic Party,” Zhirinovsky met Vladimir Bogachev, a member of a Conservative faction that had split from the DU. Zhirinovsky adapted his program paper for the new “Liberal Democratic Party”. Of course, in bourgeois European democracies Social Democracy is to the left of Liberalism and Conservatism is to its right; Zhirinovsky and Bogachev had settled on the middle position.
On March 31 1990 the founding congress of the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union was held. It adopted a “centrist” line which was anticommunist but not anti-Soviet, preferring to work with the state to replace communist ideology and policy.
The formation of the party had been widely broadcast in state media in early March 1990, after the election of Gorbachev to President of the USSR on March 15. The party was promoted despite the fact it had only 13 members at the beginning of the year. By the founding congress they claimed to have thousands of members across the country.
The LDPSU suffered a split before the end of the year. On 6 October 1990 Bogachev called an emergency party congress. He accused Zhirinovsky of being a KGB asset trying to steer the party in service of the state. This Extraordinary Congress voted to expel Zhirinovsky and abandon the centrism in favor of hard opposition to the USSR.
Two weeks later Zhirinovsky convened an alternate congress which expelled Bogachev and his followers. History testifies that it was Zhirinovsky who won this power struggle and became the party’s sole leader.
The KGB’s Pet Liberal
As leader of the LDPSU Zhirinovsky supported the 1991 August Coup against President Gorbachev. On 19 August eight high ranking officials declared that the “State Committee on the State of Emergency” had arrested Gorbachev and would form a provisional government. The Committee included the Ministers of Defense and Interior, the Vice-President, the Premier (Prime Minister), and the head of the KGB. Their immediate goal of the was to prevent the signing of a New Union Treaty. This treaty would have ended the socialist project and reconstituted the USSR as a decentralized Union of Sovereign States.
The coup failed, its leaders were arrested as traitors, and Zhirinovsky continued his support for the Soviet state. In December of that year he would also oppose the Belovezh Accords which formally dissolved the USSR.
Perhaps there was some substance to Bogachev’s accusations. The KGB may or may not have been involved with Zhirinovsky at the formation of the LDPSU but it’s easy to see why he would have been useful as a KGB asset. He had tried to take control of the anti-KGB Democratic Union. When that failed he created a new party to follow the “centrist” line. He expelled the radical democrats from the LDPSU and his organization was recognized by the state as the legitimate split of the LDP. Then as party leader Zhirinovsky opposed the weakening of the Soviet state and supported the KGB-involved coup.
Regardless of his relationship with state security in the 1980s we must consider Zhirinovsky’s much longer career after the dissolution of the USSR and KGB. What did the Liberal Democratic Party (now “of Russia”) stand for after the dissolution?
Establishing the Right Opposition
Zhirinovsky made his debut on the national stage as a candidate in the 1991 Russian Presidential Election, the first ever held in the country. His demagogic style was unlike any familiar Soviet politician. He was rude, offensive, and aggressive to the point of starting fistfights in the legislature. He made populist promises to restore the glory of the past, to lower the price of vodka, to ensure that every woman had a husband. Sensationalism and appeals to the emotions of demoralized Russians drove his campaigns, which could be simultaneously absurd and terrifying.
Zhirinovsky demonstrated some of his characteristic rhetoric and ideals in a provocatively-titled autobiography published for the 1996 presidential election. The book promotes antisemitic conspiracy theories (he would later admit that his absentee father was Jewish), visions of a Russia that extends to the Indian Ocean, the conquest of the lands of the former USSR and Russian Empire, the removal of “cockroaches” immigrating to Russia.
The 1991 election results speak to the strong impression Zhirinovsky made on the electorate. Boris Yeltsin, the CPSU resignee and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, won 58.6% of the vote with the support of the Democratic Union. The CPSU candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, placed second with only 17.2% of the vote. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the previously unknown personality, won third place and 8% of the vote.
With a 9 point spread the LDPSU and CPSU were much closer to one another than either were to Yeltsin. The conditions were set for the communists to fill the role of Yeltsin’s left opposition and for the Liberal Democrats to act as his right opposition. These are the only two parties which have sent deputies to every convocation of the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
If we look beyond the pomp and spectacle that Zhirinovsky deployed then we find two stable principles which have been with the LDPR since its founding. The first is that private business should make Russians rich. The second is that Russia must become a great nation again.
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 yearsLDPR literature, quoted by Meduza
The party finished in first place in Russia’s 1993 parliamentary elections with 22.9 percent of the vote. This was slightly greater than both pro-government parties combined: Choice of Russia (15.5%) and the Party of Russian Unity and Accord (6.7%) won only 22.2% between them. The LDPR gained 64 seats and tied with Choice of Russia as the largest party in the Duma.
Zhirinovsky openly and skillfully embraced populism, but he also maintained his own “fundamental, unwavering vision,” a former LDPR functionary told Meduza. “It concerned the state: he was against national [ethnically determined] regions. His deliberate anti-Western rhetoric, meanwhile, was what his relationship with the Kremlin demanded. And he played that role well, frightening the West.”Meduza
The LDPSU had supported the August Putsch in order to preserve a large and powerful state centered on Moscow. This was not an act of loyalty to socialist internationalism. Zhirinovsky condemned the USSR for oppressing ethnic Russians: according to him the Russians had built the Empire and then the Soviets had made them serve the development of the other nations of the USSR. In this ultranationalist view the autonomous national republics, such as Chechnya, have no right to rule what are historically Russian lands.
Widespread disillusionment had worked to Zhirinovsky’s advantage. After his election, I believed the nationalist leader could – though not necessarily would – become Russia’s Hitler.Michael McFaul, an American observer of the 1993 election, quoted by Radio Free Europe
Zhirinovsky’s early campaigns pioneered the use of TV ads to target specific demographics: women, students, pensioners, soldiers, ethnic Russians living in the post-Soviet states. The LDPR catered its message to Russians who felt uncertain about their future in a post-socialist world.
The LDPR never again saw the level of success that it had in 1993. In the 1995 Duma elections the LDPR vote share dropped by half, to 11%. Zhirinovsky only attained fifth place in the 1996 presidential election.
Unable to break the 10% threshold in subsequent elections the LDPR focused on pandering to its existing base. “Provincial,” underpaid, middle aged men and former soldiers remained loyal to Zhirinovsky to the end. He targeted voters who resonated with his message of Russia’s undignified poverty, depleted virility, and stolen glory.
Zhirinovsky was a perennial presidential candidate and famous political expert up to his death in April 2022. President Putin referred to the LDPR as providing “constructive” disagreement with the government and to Zhirinovsky as a very capable politician.
Zhirinovsky’s influence on Russian foreign policy may be seen in Putin’s “Address to the People of Russia on the Donbas Problem and the Situation in Ukraine” delivered 21 February 2022: he urges the Russian Federation to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and blames the USSR for granting Russian territory to the Ukrainian SSR. The Kremlin even let the old showman “predict” the date and time that the “Special Military Operation” would begin, way back on 27 December 2021.
Zhirinovsky never posed a threat to the governing power: not electorally, ideologically, or strategically. Conflict with the central government would weaken it, in defiance of the LDPR’s goals. After an initial burst of support the party sustained itself on Zhirinovsky’s personality cult and his consultative relationship with the President. Without him the LDPR’s future is uncertain.
[ Featured image: emblem of the LDPR. From Wikimedia Commons. ]