The weird and instructive story of Eduard Limonov
Eduard Limonov’s first book, published as a «fictional memoir» back in 1983, showed the rarest of talents: the ability to laugh at one’s own insecure, obnoxious, angry, and overbearing self. It’s Me, Eddie begins with a rant describing the main character living in squalor—we first see him eating sour cabbage soup (shchi in Russian), halfnaked on the balcony of a disreputable New York City hotel. By the fifth paragraph the novel stumbles as it tries to distance the narrator from himself:
I think it’s clear to you by now what a character I am, even though I forgot to introduce myself. I started running on without announcing who I was; I forgot. Overjoyed at the opportunity to drown you in my voice at last, I got carried away and never announced whose voice it was. My fault, forgive me, we’ll straighten it out right now. I am on welfare. I live at your expense, you pay taxes and I don’t do a fucking thing. Twice a month I go to the clean, spacious welfare office at 1515 Broadway and receive my checks. I consider myself to be scum, the dregs of society, I have no shame or conscience, therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me and I don’t plan to look for work, I want to receive your money to the end of my days. And my name is Edichka, «Eddie-baby».
The author has by now made it clear that he is from Russia, and he anticipates the inevitable question:
Who was I over there? What’s the difference, what would it change? I hate the past, as I always have, in the name of the present. Well, I was a poet, if you must know, a poet was I, an unofficial, underground poet. That’s over forever, and now I am one of yours, I am scum, I’m the one to whom you feed shchi and rotten cheap California wine—$3.59 a gallon—and yet I scorn you. Not all of you, but many. Because you lead dull lives, sell yourselves into the slavery of work, because of your vulgar plaid pants, because you make money and have never seen the world. You’re shit!
Going from underground poet to scum was just the first chapter or two of Limonov’s adventures. More precisely, it was the first of dozens of books that Limonov would write about his own life, all of them «fictional memoirs». (He’s now seventy-two, living in Moscow.) Sometime relatively early on, certainly by book twelve (A Foreigner in Troubled Times, published in Russian in 1991), he lost the ability to avoid taking himself too seriously—or dropped the pretense of not doing so. He also gradually lost his foreign-language publishers.
Now the French writer Emmanuel Carrere has condensed the first sixtysix years of Limonov’s life into a book called Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. If the subtitle reflected the contents of the book fully, it would include at least two more items: «a fellow traveler of Serbian forces in the Balkan wars who also achieved nirvana». Even this expanded catalog would fall short of describing all of Limonov’s incarnations, at least a couple of which came after the period described in Carrere’s book.
Limonov called most of his autobiographical books «novels». Carrere, who has written novels and biographies, and at least one book that was both at the same time (a fictionalized biography of Philip K. Dick), has decided for the purposes of writing Limonov that Limonov’s novels were factual memoirs. Without supplying much, if any, evidence for saying so, Carrere states that Limonov never lies. He asks the reader to take Limonov’s veracity on faith—a questionable proposition if only because Limonov himself never claimed to be telling the truth in his novels.
Carrere has read Limonov’s autobiographical books and retells them, indicating which book he used for each chapter (for descriptions of historical events, he also uses several other books about Russia, some with attribution and some without). Captivating as Limonov’s early writing was, few people would have the time and patience to read ten or more books about a single person’s life. It is therefore useful to have the remarkable life story condensed into a single book by a storyteller as smooth as Carrere. The translation from French into English, by John Lambert, is one of the most colloquial and fluid I have ever read. The result is seamless: a story twice transformed flows as though someone with immediate knowledge of the events were telling it.
The jacket copy calls Carrere’s Limonov a «pseudobiography». But the book does what most biographies do: it repackages stories that have been rehearsed over and over, losing details, acquiring embellishments, and stringing themselves into sequences more logical than life itself can provide, conflating and reshuffling dates in the process. What makes Limonov unusual is that using the written record one can trace some of the changes that have been made in the stories along the way. Carrere takes liberties with some of Limonov’s recollections. For example, when Limonov visits his parents in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov after fifteen years in exile—a visit described in A Foreigner in Troubled Times—Carrere brings his protagonist straight from the train station to the apartment door, with a moment’s reflection on whether his father might die of a heart attack from the shock of unexpectedly seeing his son; he then rings the bell. In the original Limonov suffered misgivings and minor mishaps; he called from the station, and he took a few pages to make his way to the family home.
At the same time, Carrere preserves the fibs and the factual errors of Limonov’s writing and adds many of his own. He has Andrei Sakharov exiled to Gorky for fifteen years in 1973—in fact, the Russian dissident was exiled in 1980 and was allowed to return home to Moscow in 1986. This is just one of dozens of inaccuracies: generally speaking, dates and figures in the book are more likely to be wrong than right. In addition, Carrere, the descendant of Russian emigres and the son of a Kremlinologist, offers a variety of interpretations of Russian culture and language that bear the imprint of generations of distortion. Some are innocuous: he claims, for example, that «in the period following [World War II], cities aren’t called cities but «population concentrations»»—when in fact «population concentration» is simple bureaucratese for all cities, towns, and villages.
Some of his renditions are almost comically wrong. Carrere, for example, writes that Limonov’s father worked as a «nacht-kluba, which you could translate as ‘nightclub manager,’ but which here means organizing leisure and cultural activities for the soldiers». In fact, Limonov’s father worked on an army base as a nachalnik kluba, which is unrelated to any sinister German- sounding word for «night», and translates simply as «club director». In a detailed passage, he invents a convoluted version of the collective drinking binge, which he says is called zapoi—but that is simply the Russian word for «drinking binge», which can be engaged in alone or in a group and has no attendant rituals other than the drinking itself.
A Russian-speaking reader could spend hours criticizing Carrere’s translations of Russian words: improbably, he manages to misuse just about every Russian term he includes in the book. Add the anachronisms and misstated dates, and you are faced with a most uneasy question: How much do facts matter? Throughout the first half of Limonov, vivid and perceptive descriptions of people and events consistently emerge from the mess of scrambled facts. Carrere, for example, supplies an accurate summary of the Brezhnev era, also known as the Era of Stagnation, and its meaning in the post-Soviet period:
Practically all Russians old enough to have known this leaden, resigned, and in a way comfortable stability think back on it with nostalgia today, when they’re condemned to swim and often drown in the icy waters of self-serving calculation. A popular saying of this period was «We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us». It’s not a particularly stimulating way to live, but it’s all right. You get by, and provided you don’t screw up completely you don’t risk much. No need to care about anything; just adapt as best you can to a world that, as long as you’re not named Solzhenitsyn, will remain as it is for centuries because it only exists thanks to inertia.
Limonov was born during World War II; his young father was a soldier who never saw battle because he served in the secret police. Limonov was both a hoodlum and a poet during Nikita Khrushchev’s short-lived Thaw; he made a living as a black-market tailor during Brezhnev’s endless Stagnation, and finally got into enough trouble, through his writing and his friendships, to be thrown out of the country. Carrere supplies an incisive summary of Limonov’s personality as defined by history:
The son of a subordinate Chekist [i.e., secret police] officer, raised in a family that was spared the major convulsions of history and that, having never experienced absolute arbitrariness, thought that if people were arrested, well then, there had to be a reason. He remains a Young Pioneer who’s proud of his country, its victory over the Fritzes, its empire that spans two continents and eleven time zones, and the holy fear it inspires in those Western pansies. He doesn’t care about anything, but he cares about that.
In the mid-1970s Limonov landed in New York—badly. His own story enabled him to meet such Russian-emigre luminaries as the poet Joseph Brodsky and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, both of whom he envied and therefore despised; he never became a part of their circle, or any circle. He lived in squalor. His wife left him. He had sex with a homeless man. Then he wrote his own story of hitting bottom and called it It’s Me, Eddie. During the next few years, a small number of Russian- speakers read the manuscript, and most of them liked it. But in New York, being an underground writer admired by a handful of people who have read your work—virtually the definition of being a living legend in Moscow in the 1970s—did not add any dignity to the life of a welfare recipient in an SRO hotel.
Limonov’s unlikely climb began with a love affair with the housekeeper of a New York multimillionaire who also happened to be a Russophile. When the young woman quit her job, Limonov took her place. He would later describe that period of his life—and disgrace his employer—in the book His Butler’s Story. Meanwhile, his first manuscript kept circulating, collecting praise but no money—until he finally got a publishing contract in France. Limonov then moved to Paris and began the life of a writer: he was controversial, which he liked; he was not rich, but he was no longer destitute; he was invited to parties and to contribute comments on literary and political matters, but his fame was not nearly what he felt he deserved. Back in the Soviet Union, the Era of Stagnation ended; then dawned an era in which old, infirm apparatchiks came to power and soon dropped dead, which quickly ended; and something new began. Carrere supplies another telling summary:
I’m not going to start lecturing about perestroika, but I’ve got to insist on one point: the extraordinary thing that happened in the Soviet Union during these six years, the thing that swept away everything in its path, was that people were free to write their history as they saw fit.
Indeed, it would appear, practically anyone could write the history of what used to be the Soviet Bloc—and this includes Carrere. He once again gets the chronology wrong, and replaces fact with fiction—he claims, for example, that the secession of the Baltic states from the USSR (which he misdates) was casual, peaceful, and bloodless. It was not. He condenses the process of the dissolution of both the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union into a single year, which, he writes, ended as follows: «The entire petit bourgeois population of Western Europe, myself included, went to spend New Year’s in Prague or Berlin».
Throughout the book, Carrere returns his gaze to himself in order to compare his own history and views to his hero’s. He has used this device in his previous books, most notably in Other Lives but Mine, a story of human tragedies he witnessed—and there it worked beautifully. His selfexamination in that book is by turns ruthless and pitying, and the effect is one of witnessing a grown man’s forcing himself to claim maturity. But about halfway through Limonov, this high-wire act fails Carrere: after one too many reminders of the author’s petit bourgeoisie roots, his voice begins to sound cloying. At this point, too, the historical narrative becomes egregiously false, perhaps because Carrere begins to rely on his own recollections, which, it would seem, are even less accurate than Limonov’s.
This is also the point where Limonov’s trajectory took another sharp turn, in ways that make his biographer distinctly uncomfortable. Limonov could not be idle while others rewrote and remade his country’s history: he wanted to throw himself into the middle of it. He began taking frequent trips to Moscow, inserting himself into skirmishes on the fringes of Soviet political life. His other destination was Yugoslavia. Limonov spent time with the Serbian forces in the contested areas of both Croatia and Bosnia. Carrere writes:
What he likes are the armed soldiers, the tanks, the sandbags, the gray-green uniforms that stand out against the snow, the mortar fire that they start to hear from a distance. It’s crossing villages whose ruins are still smoking. It’s being able to think, in this frozen corner of the Balkans, that it’s 1941 instead of 1991. It’s war, real war, the kind his father missed out on, and he’s in it.
Like many Western intellectuals, Carrere was making his own reporting trips to Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He never became an expert on the region, but he met people who were unlike anyone he had seen before. He calls them «subtle minds». These are intellectuals who can talk a good line under any regime—and are in particular demand in times of crisis and in times of crackdown—because they will invariably claim that «things are more complicated than they seem». French intellectuals of Carrere’s circle—he quotes Bernard-Henri Levy in particular—claim that things are in fact «tragically simple», but the author himself confesses, «I can also imagine, perhaps too readily, the reasons or circumstances that might have pushed me in other times toward Nazi collaboration, Stalinism, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution».
While Carrere might only imagine it, Limonov did it. He managed to get himself filmed chatting (in heavily accented English) with Radovan Karadžič, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. He was then photographed kneeling behind a machine gun and firing at the besieged city of Sarajevo. Carrere tries, halfheartedly, to justify his hero:
I didn’t see the film when it was shown on French TV, but the rumor quickly got around that it showed Limonov shooting people on the streets of Sarajevo. When he’s asked about it fifteen years later, he shrugs his shoulders and says no, he wasn’t aiming at people. In the direction of the city, yes. But at nothing in particular, or at the sky.
What the footage shows is a Bosnian Serb soldier shooting at the city and then Limonov putting on one of the hats worn by Karadžič’s men and taking over the machine gun without changing aim. But the passage supplies a perfect description of both writers: one man goes through life spraying bullets at nothing in particular; the other is fascinated and repelled but can be relied upon to give the first one a pass.
Early on, when Limonov has done nothing worse than rage against those who have more money or success in life than he does, Carrere first makes the claim that Limonov is not as bad as he seems. The passage begins with Limonov’s own description, in His Butler’s Story, of a conversation at his employer Steve’s kitchen table; the multi millionaire is grieving for a friend’s son, a five-year-old who is dying of leukemia. Limonov exults: «I’m not moved, I don’t sympathize, and I’m not sorry! My own life—my real life, the only one—is held down by all these fuckers. Go ahead, die, doomed boy!» Carrere imagines the former employer reading this passage in Limonov’s book:
What an asshole! Steve thinks, and I think the same thing, and no doubt you do too, reader. But I also think that if anything could have been done to save the little boy, especially if that something was hard or dangerous, Eduard would have been the first to attempt it, and he would have given it everything he had.
Perhaps—if he thought it would make him famous, or give him an opportunity to fire a gun. There is nothing in this book, or in any of Limonov’s own books, that would provide justification for Carrere’s assertion that his hero is basically good at heart.
As the book progresses to describe Limonov’s transformation from a Western literary rebel into a militant pan- Slavic nationalist, Carrere tries to prove that the man is not as bad as he seems. «I don’t think Eduard is either vile or a liar», he writes. «But who is to say?» A biographer might be expected to. Instead, in a rare rambling passage in the middle of the book, Carrere brings up Werner Herzog and Friedrich Nietzsche in order to assert that a man has no right to judge another man, even for being a fascist. Limonov began to identify himself as a fascist in the early 1990s when he moved back to Moscow permanently and cofounded a new political party, called the National Bolsheviks.
Carrere’s stubborn belief that Limonov is not «vile» is more than an attempt to justify his fascination with and sympathy for his subject: it is an expression of fear of the void in Limonov’s character. Carrere’s world is populated with Parisian literary and academic types who hold strong political and moral convictions, so strong, in fact, that they sometimes make Carrere uncomfortable. In Eastern Europe, he discovers what he calls «subtle minds», people whose convictions are more flexible.
But Limonov is neither set in his beliefs nor flexible: he has no convictions whatever. He likes having a position from which to confront the world. As a result, his positions often change, but can seem inflexible at any given time. As he wrote at the beginning of It’s Me, Eddie, «I have no shame or conscience, therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me». His lack of convictions is typical of people who grew up in the Soviet Union, where survival depended on being finely attuned to the everchanging Party line. The difference is that most people in the USSR, and in Putin’s Russia, change their views in order to fit in while Limonov generally changed them so as to differ from the majority position at the moment.
Once Limonov refashioned himself as a party leader, he discovered he could always have a following. There were times when the National Bolshevik Party counted tens of thousands of young people across Russia among its members. They generally shaved their heads, wore leather jackets and combat boots, and worshiped Limonov. They also collected signatures to get their party and their leader on ballots and staged protests against the Russian government. In 2001, Limonov was arrested on charges of illegal arms possession and organizing an illegal armed unit. He was sentenced to four years in prison but was released early. In prison he meditated while performing menial tasks and once, while cleaning an aquarium in the warden’s office, he achieved nirvana. Upon his release in 2003, he became a hero to tens of thousands more young men with shaved heads. Soon after, Carrere began drafting a biography of Limonov on the basis of his books.
A few years later, Carrere went to see Limonov with the intention of interviewing him in order to fill out or correct the draft of his book. He discovered that, while Limonov apparently remembered him from the passing acquaintance they had had in Limonov’s former life in Paris, and while he was willing to cooperate, he was not in any way drawn to Carrere:
No doubt he’d be interested in me if he met me in prison, guilty of a beautiful, bloody crime, but that’s not how it is. The fact is that I’m his biographer: I ask him questions, he answers and when he’s finished answering he says nothing, looks at his rings, waits for the next question. I think to myself that there’s no way I can spend several hours on an interview like this, I’ll get along fine with what I’ve got. I get up and thank him for the coffee and his time.
This seems a bizarrely lazy ending to a fascinating story that could also have been illuminating. In fact Carrere gets cold feet earlier, around the time Limonov begins to take himself seriously as a politician. Carrere writes:
At this point I’m not sure my readers really want to hear any more of the exhilarating epic about the beginnings of a neofascist party and its official rag. And I’m not sure I want to tell it, either.
Nevertheless, things are more complicated than they seem.
I’m sorry. I don’t like that sentence. I don’t like the way the subtle minds use it. The problem is that it’s often true. Here, for example. Things are more complicated than they seem.
Perhaps more accurately, things are more difficult to understand than a conventional Western view of morals and politics would suggest. Like its leader, Limonov’s neofascist party seemed to have no clear political program. In the early 2000s, it became the first political force to sound the alarm about the repressive, authoritarian, and fundamentally inhuman practices of the Putin regime. The National Bolsheviks staged marches and small but militant protests and were frequently arrested. Members of the party became Putin’s first political prisoners. Limonov formed an alliance with the chess champion turned anti-Putin politician Garry Kasparov and, later, with Lyudmila Alexeyeva, an elderly former dissident with impeccable human rights credentials.
If Carrere had tried to tell Limonov’s story up to around 2005, he could have stopped there, secure in his assertion that his hero was ultimately a force for good. But a few years later Limonov moved on to a very different position: almost as soon as mass protests began in Russia, when it briefly seemed that the anti-Putin movement was becoming the mainstream, Limonov sided with the Russian president. And since his president unleashed a war in Ukraine, Limonov has given him his enthusiastic, fervent support. Most recently, he has come out in favor of the arrest, on charges of high treason, of Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven who allegedly called the Ukrainian embassy with information she had overheard on a public bus.
In what would perhaps be the saddest and most fitting afterword to Carrere’s Limonov, the real-life Limonov wrote the following reaction to the Paris massacre in January:
I personally have also been attacked by Charlie Hebdo. In issue 56, dated 21.07.1993, they published a disgusting article directed against me, titled Limonov: L’intellectuel arracheur de coquilles («Limonov: An Intellectual Who Will Rip Your Balls Off»), and it was accompanied by caricatures that would befit the title. So seventeen dead bodies are their punishment for moral debasement. Oh, well.
«The New York Review of Books», vol.LXII, #9, 21 may 2015