MOSCOW — Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently boasted of taking a DNA test to prove that he’s related to Donald Trump. The 70-year-old Russian right-wing nationalist and populist who founded the (not very) Liberal Democratic Party often is compared to the 70-year-old American populist now slightly ahead in the contest to win presidency of the United States. Zhirinovsky is called a “Russian Trump” and Trump, at least in Russia, is labeled an “American Zhirinovsky.”
What similarities do Russians see in them? It could be their brash, fiery rhetoric, the roughness of their style, the way their faces distort with anger, or, as one Russian pointed out, the way that spittle tends to build on the corners of their mouths.
Certainly they share an ability to feed the public with fury, and change their message as they find convenient. Depending on what tune he needed at any given moment in the political arena, Zhirnovsky can act as the Kremlin’s clown or as a calm, even cold, opposition leader.
Now he is in this second mode.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Zhirinovsky described his plan to fight organized crime in Russia. He describes it as a web that’s penetrated all law enforcement agencies and regional administrations, reaching all the way to the highest echelons of the Kremlin’s leadership.
“The organized mafia is directly connected with state corruption,” Zhirinovsky told The Daily Beast on the way to a meeting with voters outside the Kremlin’s wall. “So we need to get rid of it, as we did in Smolensk, where the governor is our LDPR member and all his deputies are from parties other than United Russia,” which is the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If everybody, from a steam bath director to the president and police general have no ties with organized crime, there will no corruption,” Zhirinovsky said. The veteran member of the Duma, who was twice elected its deputy speaker, says he has a plan to fight corruption at the level of prosecutors, police and the FSB (the security service that succeeded the KGB).
But wait a minute. If Zhirinovsky is sincere about fighting organized crime, how can he be such a fan of Donald Trump, who has done business with men reportedly linked to the Russian mafia, notably Felix Sater and Tevfik Arif?
Zhirinovsky sighed at the question, paused, and then answered. “There is an objective side of it: he did not know anybody in business, a foreigner looking for connections, so they introduced him to bad guys,” Zhirinovsky said. “I might also get introduced to mafia. Recently I met with my voters in Bratsk and somebody sent a coded message to Moscow that Zhirinovsky was meeting with local criminal mob, with local bandits.”
When it comes to geopolitics, Zhirinovksky likes to threaten Washington. In 2014 he gave listeners an imaginative description of a Russian attack on the United States. “One day Americans will wake up, and there will be no White House—snow will cover all of America.”
But when it comes to Trump, all that anti-Americanism seems to dissipate. The head of the State Duma’s LDPR faction seems pleased to hear about any parallels between him and the U.S. Republican Party’s presidential candidate.
“Trump is a person who’s close to me somehow,” Zhirinovsky told The Daily Beast. “I liked him the first time we had a short meeting in New York in 2002—he was normal, neither prim, nor prejudiced,” Zhirinovsky recalled as he looked back on the meeting arranged by Russian diplomat Alexander Grachev.
To say something ultimately crazy and watch the reaction, to enjoy the unpunished freedom of insanity as if gauging how far they can go, is the common strategy of both men.
“Trump and Zhirinovsky are twin brothers, representing the new popular trend of nationalist leaders including [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [France’s] Marine Le Pen, [and Hungary’s] Viktor Orbán, beloved by white middle class voters, who were not interested in politics before and now have been awakened by the radical far-right,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent Moscow-based political scientist.
Trump has suggested, famously, banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and building a wall on the border with Mexico. Zhirinovsky, who had been in big politics long before Trump—he ran for the Russian presidency in 1991—has made much more aggressive ultranationalist statements.
In 2013 he hissed, “Block off the North Caucasus with barbed wire.” In response, Chechen politicians called him “a bearer of fascist ideology.” Nobody arrested Zhirinovsky for his statement and he went further, making a fuss about Caucasus mothers having large families of 7, 10 or 15 children: “For as long as there is no birth control, for as long as they have more than two children per family, terrorism cannot be defeated,” Zhirinovsky said.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on Moscow to investigate Zhirinovsky for extremism and hate speech, but the popular nationalist politician got away with it, as usual.
Passengers arriving from Europe in recent days could read promises by Zhirinovsky’s party “to restore the borders with USSR” on every advertising screen at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Less than two weeks before Duma elections the LDPR’s popularity is on the rise once again, but Zhirinovsky once again, is doing his angry thing: “Our actual popularity is much higher, the elections get rigged, voting falsified, fake bulletins get thrown in, elections work by the same corrupt methods,” Zhirinovsky tells The Daily Beast.
In person, it should be said, the politician sounds calm and stable, as if he has two distinct personaities.
“He is a an actor on Kremlin’s payroll, a multi-millionaire defending the poor, but he plays an important role and the Kremlin adores him for that: Zhirinovsky collects all the radical social layer under his wing criticizing Putin, then comes to Putin for the paycheck,” Oreshkin told The Daily Beast.
Radicalism, threats, contempt for opponents—yes, there’s all that in common. And then there’s the womanizing, or at least the pretense of it. Last year the septuagenarian Zhirinovsky presented a book, The ABC of Sex, at a strip club.
Today, the leader of the LDPR is running a campaign for parliamentary elections, enjoying the growth of his popularity: polls show that out of all Russians planning to vote on September 18, up to 15 percent prefer Zhirinovsky’s far-right party to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.
Zhirinovsky clearly hopes that if Trump wins in November, the new U.S. president awill feel he has a kindred soul in the Russian Duma.
But not, it would appear, actual kin. The blood test stunt reportedly came back negative—the Russian nationalist leader is not related to Trump—not by blood anyway.