How dangerous is it to be a dissident in the post-Cold War era?
Judging by the case of Edward Limonov, a lot more dangerous than being a dissident during the Cold War.
Limonov has been sitting in Lefortovo Prison since April of last year. Initially he was charged with attempting to obtain illegal firearms and to form an illegal armed group. More charges were subsequently added. This past December, the FSB tacked on the amazing charge that Limonov was trying to overthrow the state of Kazakhstan! Altogether, according to Limonov's attorney Sergei Belyak, he faces up to nearly 30 years in prison.
In January of this year, a separate case was brought against Limonov's newspaper, «Limonka» (where I have previously published) as well as Limonov's political party, the extremist National-Bolshevik Party, on charges of terrorism. The case against «Limonka» and the NBP was reportedly thrown out on a technicality, but the Russian state's attack on one of its most famous cultural figures reached such hysterical proportions that it finally attracted the attention of the West. Or rather, one segment of one Western country: France's cultural elite.
«It finally became too obvious even to the French that this criminal case was purely political repression and not because Limonov posed some kind of real danger or threat to the Russian state or to Kazakhstan,» said Belyak, who previously defended Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky. «The authorities went too far in their repression.»
Limonov is a dual French and Russian citizen. Yet it has taken this long for his case to come to France's attention - and has yet to reach the ears of any other Western nation. In part this is due to Limonov's unsavory reputation and radical anti-Western politics, including a famous tour of duty over Sarajevo with indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadjic. Limonov has done little to elicit the Western press and diplomatic corps's sympathy. Yet this does not detract from the story: a famous dissident writer jailed on trumped up charges in an increasingly authoritarian state.
In early January, Patrick Gofman, a Parisian writer and journalist who has known Limonov since he arrived in Paris in 1982, circulated a petition calling for Limonov's release from prison.
«When we heard that Limonov was facing 23 years in prison or perhaps even more, we realized that he was not involved in a petty quarrel with the Russian government, but rather that this was serious,» Gofman said. «We started a petition with three Parisian writers, and from there it snowballed into something very impressive.»
The «Free Limonov» petition is a Who's Who List of France's cultural and literary heavyweights, some 70 figures spanning the political spectrum from the left to the right, from Russian emigres such as Vladimir Boukovsky, Alexander Ginzberg, and the widow of Andrei Sinyavsky to such luminaries as author Bernard Frank and «Le Figaro» literary critic Patrick Besson, who called Limonov «the best living Russian writer.» It includes many leading publishers, including Vladimir Dimitrijevic, director of l'Age d'Homme in Lausanne, one of the West's oldest and largest publishers of Slavic literature.
«Limonov is one of Russia's greatest artists,» said Dimitrijevic, whose house publishes everyone from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. «He is a great writer and a very courageous man. I will always stand by a man who suffers for the truth.»
In mid-January, Limonov's imprisonment became the subject of a France-1 television news feature, but since then there has been little news - and total silence from the French government.
When interviewed by the eXile, the French consul ostensibly handling Limonov's case, Olivier Aribe, forwarded our request for an interview to First Secretary D. Nemchinov.
«We have absolutely no comment,» Nemchinov said. He repeated it with a laugh even though Limonov is after all a French citizen in a Russian prison.
Gofman and others says they find this attitude particularly disturbing, given the official French diplomatic support extended to Zacharias Moussaoui, a Moroccan immigrant who was arrested in the United States and charged with terrorism after reportedly attending flight training school in order to learn to pilot jet liners. Moussaoui is thought to have been assigned to fly one of the hijacked jets on September 11, but he was apprehended a few weeks before the attacks after raising suspicions.
«On the very day that Moussaoui was charged by the Americans with terrorism, the French publicly expressed concern and support to a French citizen because of their concerns of the death penalty in America,» Gofman said. «It's not fair. Limonov hasn't killed anyone, raped anyone or stolen anything.»
It is undeniably counter-intuitive. One immigrant is accused of participating in one of the bloodiest attacks in almost 200 years against France's most important ally, America, and yet the government offers support due to concerns over America's judicial process; another citizen, in spite of being one of France's leading cultural figures, jailed on outrageous charges and subjected to a judicial system that the West has consistently attacked for its cruelty, arbitrariness, and corruption, is officially ignored by the government. Why?
Everyone interviewed for this article agreed that Limonov's anti-Western writings, which strike many as loathsome, as well as France's domestic politics, are responsible.
There is a presidential election this year in France, and the Socialist-led government of Lionel Jospin is keen to woo the roughly 10 percent immigrant vote, most of which is Muslim. Offering support to Moussaoui both shores up the immigrant vote and helps to satisfy the decades-old French desire to plant a bug up America's ass.
Supporting Limonov - a shock-politics critic of the West and Russian nationalist - appeals to a marginal French constituency, mostly on the right. There is some talk that the right-wing in France is pushing the French government to release Limonov and that there is some behind-the-scenes maneuvering - indeed Limonov wrote a letter from jail to conservative French President Jacques Chirac - but because the government is keeping silent, it is impossible to tell what, if any support, they are extending.
Is it more dangerous to be a dissident today than during the Cold War?
In 1974, Limonov, who had gained fame in Moscow's unofficial and underground art world as a leading avant-garde poet, was subjected to repeated KGB harassment and finally expelled from the Soviet Union, along with what became known as the «Third Wave» of Soviet dissidents. Back then, the Western media and diplomatic corps persistently fought for the right of Soviet citizens to publish and express themselves openly, and fought for the rights of anyone jailed or punished simply for the crime of disagreeing. The reason, we said then, was that we believed that freedom of expression was every human being's basic right-indeed that to differ and express was itself to be human-all the more so if that opinion or work of art upset the Powers That Be.
Cut to 2002. Edward Limonov, now one of Russia's most famous public figures after more than two decades as a leading emigre writer in America and France, is once again the target of the KGB, today renamed the FSB. This time, however, they have him in jail, in the KGB's infamous Lefortovo Prison - something even the Soviets would have been loath to do, given the negative press it would have attracted. And here is the difference between then and now - this time, the KGB is getting away with it. The West is officially silent. Most simply don't give a shit as Russia has fallen off America's map except in terms of how they can help us kill ragheads and how they can make a few of our oligarchs a little richer. The press is aggressively ignoring the Limonov story. Even Johnson's Russia List won't publish articles about Limonov's incarceration.
«I am sickened by how these left-leaning journalists are so willing to support the Chechens and criticize Russia,» Gofman said. «Yet when it comes to Limonov, they are deeply silent.»
What has changed? In the first place, a KGB officer now runs Russia, and he's the West's friend.
More importantly, the West - in spite of its previous pronouncements - only supports dissidents who support the West. Grigory Pasko, NTV, TV-6, even Chechen separatism all have found sympathetic ears in the Western press and diplomatic corps. And all are, not coincidentally, pro-Western (at least the non-Wahhabite Chechen guerrillas are).
Gusinsky and Berezovsky, owners of NTV and TV-6, are widely known to have been key figures in the plundering, impoverishment, and soaring death rate in Russia during the 1990s, not to mention being linked to high-profile gangland hits. Chechen separatists kidnapped thousands of innocent Russians during Chechnya's three years of de facto independence, and terrorized its own citizens. The present war was precipitated by a Chechen invasion of Russian territory. While the Russian state's response to all three has been brutal, at least there was some basis for it.
Limonov has harmed no one and has stolen nothing. He is a dissident against both Putin's emerging neo-liberal dictatorship and against Western hegemony. His views were extremist, but not linked to a single death or injury. He called for renationalizing property, boycotting Western goods, and attacked Western-leaning liberals as stooges. He managed to build a significant following among Russia's alternative youth, particularly artists and writers.
«It is not possible to put a man like this in jail and to separate it from his writings and what he is,» said Dmitrijevic.
Limonov arrived in New York in 1974. He quickly grew into the role of a dissident within the dissident movement, arguing that the West was in many ways just a more sophisticated version of the Soviet Union, with more sophisticated propaganda, and just as little tolerance for true dissent. America didn't want to hear that. He found it nearly impossible to publish his political writings in the United States, so he turned to novels.
The Americans were reluctant to publish his first three novels, including «It's Me, Eddie» and «His Butler's Story», both of which shunned standard anti-Soviet emigre literature in favor of a kind of debauched hyper-egoist anti-American stance. The books are funny, incisive, and vexing. This was not what America wanted to read about itself from an ungrateful Soviet emigre.
The positive reception his novels received in France inspired him to move from New York to Paris with his then-wife, singer Natalia Medvedeva, in 1982. He was granted French citizenship in 1987, after taking France's avant-garde literary scene by storm; in 1986, French «Cosmopolitan» even named him one of France's top 40 leading cultural figures. Limonov wrote for several radical French publications, first siding with the left, then with the right.
In 1991, after the first official publishing in the Soviet Union of his controversial 1979 novel «It's Me, Eddie» sold nearly 1.5 million copies, then-President Gorbachev re-instated Limonov's Russian citizenship.
And that was the year, from the point of view of the West, that Limonov went bad. He sided with Serbia during its wars with its neighbors and the West, fighting alongside the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia and publishing his war correspondence. He joined the shadow cabinet of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist, anti-Western LDPR in 1992 as its Minister of Interior, sided with the anti-Yeltsin rebels in 1993, and formed the National-Bolshevik Party in 1994 with radical-intellectual Alexander Dugin and Yegor Letov, lead singer of the punk group Grazhdanskaya Oborona, whose genius as a lyricist is matched only by his ability to attract wanton violence at his concerts on a level that would cause most Western punks to piss in their Dickeys.
Over the past decade, Limonov has been smeared with the fascist, racist, and anti-Semite labels, even though there is no substantive proof to support these accusations. (Similarly, even the eXile has been attacked as a fascist, pro-Nazi, and anti-Semitic newspaper by its many detractors ranging from goyim like former Clinton tool Michael McFaul and commentator Peter Ekman to leading members of the Western press corps. In spite of the fact that our staff is nearly 40% Jewish, this accusation has stuck in many influential circles.)
These smear tactics have gotten so irrational and out of hand that famed Russian privatization adviser Anders Aslund recently attacked Georgetown professor and Yeltsin-era critic Peter Reddaway in print as an «anti-Semite» in part because Reddaway had called Limonov an «enlightened radical». It was so outrageous that many usually urbane academics publicly came to Reddaway's defense. Sure these attacks are funny and insane, but multiply them by every foreign media correspondent, diplomat, and Russia watcher, and you begin to quantify Limonov's problem.
Many in the Western media and academia will say off the record that they think Limonov got what he deserved.
Limonov is an alien to such people. He was shaped by the avant-garde, in particular Russian avant-garde writers of the 1920s such as Daniil Kharms and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, as well as the Anglo-American avant-garde of the 60s and 70s. He told me that the first English poetry he translated into Russian after moving to New York was the lyrics of Lou Reed. Reed, both as singer of The Velvet Underground and as a major figure in Andy Warhol's Factory scene, was aggressively anti-bourgeois and anti-liberal, taking much of his aesthetic from the sado-masochist underground, from the violent fringes of society, from fascism and revolutionary aesthetics, in order to confront contemporary Western culture. Soon after Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Limonov fell in with the punk movement in New York, which also agitated against liberal middle-class culture and values, relying heavily on violence and the threat of violence, though more often than not outrageous humor. Limonov never changed his heart or tastes; indeed, much of his sympathy with the skinheads goes directly back to The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and Lou Reed, a Jew from Long Island who carved a giant iron cross in his skull and strutted around stage in a black leather uniform singing «Kill Your Sons.»
Russian artists, going back to the Romantics like Lermontov and Pushkin, up through Dostoevsky and experimentalists like Kharms, have always had a way of borrowing their aesthetics from the West, Russifying them, and taking them one step too far, which is why they are generally superior to our Western artists. The same could be said of Limonov.
A conference-hopping American academic, a Volvo-chauffeured Western correspondent whose Moscow life consists in going from sushi bar to hotel lobby sucking up to sleazy oligarchs, an unscrupulous FSB agent who wouldn't bat an eye at extracting a bribe from a black-ass fruit trader but recoils in horror at Limonov's freak show and descriptions of homosexuality - all are equally incapable of placing Limonov in context. Through their simplistic moral lenses, he is repulsive. He's where he belongs. And no one is going to waste their time on him.
Last April, after completing a book on jailed Krasnoyarsk aluminum baron Anatoly Bykov, Limonov left for the Siberian region of Altai. On April 7, more than 50 counter-intelligence goons surrounded the dacha where Limonov and a few others were staying; at 4 a.m., they raided, dragged them out and made them lie face-down in the snow, and - failing to find anything besides the royalties Limonov received for his Bykov book - hauled him straight to Lefortovo Prison.
The case against Limonov rests on a sting against two teenagers busted in Saratov for trying to acquire illegal arms. After a few months of coercion, they changed their story and accused Limonov of putting them up to it. This is the basis for the case against Edward Limonov.
Since then, the case has snowballed, until just over the past two months, the accusations and attacks reached a boiling point. Today, with so many leading French figures lining up behind him, Limonov's supporters are hoping that the French government will work to free him.
Meanwhile, Limonov is running in the March 31 elections for a vacated seat in the state Duma in Dzherzhinsk, considered to be among the most polluted cities in Russia. He will face off against candidates from the Communist and pro-Kremlin Unity parties.
It is the kind of story that generally attracts the «bizarre-Russia-story» type of feature for most correspondents. Jailed writer and French citizen runs for Duma seat in most polluted city in Russia.
The foreign press corps may or may not pick it up. The fact is that many find Limonov loathsome, and as they find us nearly as hateful, and as Limonov wrote regular columns in this newspaper on themes ranging from why he hates the West to comparing the vaginas of different nationalities, he is doubly cursed. And he wrote them in intentionally broken English, just to take one last shit on his Western reader's face.
I can never get over the fact that a friend of mine is rotting in prison, someone with whom I spent every other Sunday afternoon for some five years, when I'd come to pick up his latest article. With his constant pacing, and a girl between half and one-third his age somewhere in the back of the apartment, it was never boring. Now he's confined to a small cell, working hard, according to his lawyer, on his memoirs...
Last Friday, June 7th, the Russian Supreme Court, in a closed hearing, ruled to move the pending trial of former eXile columnist Edward Limonov from Moscow to Saratov. The date of the trial has not been set, and is not expected to begin for at least another two to three months.
The trial's venue has been in dispute for several months now, having moved four times.
Limonov, one of Russia's most famous authors and head of the extremist National-Bolshevik Party, is facing charges of terrorism, possession of weapons and explosives, calling for the violent overthrow of the state and attempting to form an illegal militia, for which he faces a total of 20 years in prison. He has been held in remand in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison for over 14 months.
Saratov was proposed by the prosectution as the venue because an illegal purchase of machine guns, which the FSB blames on Limonov, took place there early last year.
At first, the FSB, which is conducting the investigation of Limonov, fought to have the trial to be held in a village in the distant Altai Republic, where he was arrested in April of last year during a raid by masked counter-intelligence operatives.
Sergei Belyak, Limonov's lawyer, fought to have the trial held in Moscow, in order allow for better access to witnesses and attorneys. In April of this year, it was announced that the trial would take place in Saratov. Belyak appealed the decision, as did the Saratov Oblast court, sending the trial venue back to Moscow.
An appeal by Vladimir Ustinov, the General Prosecutor of Russia, to the Supreme Court led to the decision last Friday to re-send Limonov's trial venue back to Saratov.
«It's clear why the FSB fought to move the trial outside of Moscow: they want to keep the trial away from the press and to control the outcome.»
Belyak has said that he will no longer appeal this decision, although he is now fighting to keep the trial from being closed to the press and public, which the FSB is demanding.
«They claim that the trial must be closed to the public because it deals with terrorism, yet all of their terrorism charges come from articles published by Limonov in his newspaper Limonka,» said Belyak. "Everyone can read the evidence, there's nothing to hide."
PEN International has written an open letter to Ustinov calling for Limonov's release pending trial, expressing concern about the conduct of the authorities and the political nature of the trial. Most of PEN's 97 clubs around the world, including PEN Russia, Israel, France and others, have joined in expressing support for Limonov. A group of publishers, writers and intellectuals in France, where Limonov holds dual citizenship, has also petitioned for his release.
Until last week, Belyak was barred from visiting Limonov for two months.
While in detention, Limonov has been actively writing. He has published one autobiography, My Political Biography and a novel, The Book of Water. Two more books are pending publication this summer, including one from Ad Marginum Press, whose publisher, Alexander Ivanov, is also the co-owner of Shakespeare Books in Moscow. In all, Limonov has written six books since his imprisonment.
«The eXile», #11(143), 12 June — 26 June 2002
[Author's Note: Limonov wrote me a letter from Lefortovo telling me that he had written a column for the eXile, under the Dr. Limonov name, for publication. However, the column was never received and is presumed to have been seized. In the future, we will begin publishing translated excerpts from Limonov's prison books. Limonov seems to be in good spirits all things considered. Belyak told me that Limonov was moved to a cell alone so that he could work more, but was recently moved back into a two-man cell.]
The decline and fall of a man who once seemed poised to become the next great émigré writer.
Limonov: It's just him—Eddie
Last week, in the provincial Russian city of Saratov, a judge heard final arguments in the case of writer Edward Limonov. Though Limonov stands accused of plotting to invade a large central Asian country, Kazakhstan, the trial has received zero attention in the United States — in no small part because Limonov is a disgusting nationalist who was once filmed firing off a few machine-gun rounds at the defenseless city of Sarajevo while visiting his pal Radovan Karadzic (the prosecution played the tape at Karadzic's trial at The Hague). And yet 25 years ago, Limonov was poised to become a great émigré writer — a wild-man antidote to all those high-mandarin Brodskys and Kunderas. His failure to become that writer is a telling chapter in the history of modern literature and post-Soviet confusion. It is also a stunning indictment of a certain now-familiar kind of literary narcissism.
Once upon a time, Edward Limonov was an American welfare queen. There was no place in the Soviet Union for his strange, deeply personal, and explicitly sexual poetry, and so he emigrated to the United States in 1974, just after Solzhenitsyn. But he was no Solzhenitsyn. His first and best novel, the profane and affecting «It's Me, Eddie», opens with Eddie sitting on the balcony of a Midtown residential hotel on Madison Avenue, eating cabbage soup and addressing the lawyers he hopes are watching him from across the street:
I receive Welfare. I live off your labor: you pay taxes and I don't do shit, twice a month I head down to the clean and spacious welfare office at 1515 Broadway and pick up my check. … What, you don't like me? You don't want to pay? It's not much — 278 dollars a month. You don't want to pay. Well then why the fuck did you get me to come here, me and a whole crowd of Jews? Take it up with your propaganda — it's too strong.
Dumped by his wife Elena, a despairing Eddie wanders the streets of New York searching for understanding, like a Soviet Céline. Only the most despised and dejected — homeless black street hustlers and members of the Trotskyist Workers Party — will take him in. After a number of back-alley homosexual escapades, the book ends with Eddie, in tears, telling everyone to go fuck themselves.
Eddie raised all sorts of hackles when it was published in 1979: The Soviet press found it filthy, while the more perceptive émigré establishment denounced Limonov for stating the awful truth: that for many of those who came over, America was just nasty, brutal, and expensive — and New York was no city on a hill. But Eddie had its admirers, Truman Capote among them; the Germans gleefully gave their translation the English-language title «Fuck Off Amerika», and the French went with «Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres». The book sold over a million copies when it was finally published in Russia in 1991.
In the hunt for bigger game, and unable to compete with his self-appointed archrival Joseph Brodsky, Limonov abandoned poetry and moved to Paris. He continued to write his peculiar brand of memoir-novels, some of which, particularly «The Teenager Savenko» (Limonov's real name), were excellent. And then the Soviet Union began to dissolve, and it was as if the thin layer of cloth that had separated Limonov's literary fantasies from his reality dissolved with it.
There had always been, even in his poetry, an intense fascination with violence. In the series of notes and semi-absurdist sketches that make up «Diary of a Loser» (1982), there is this short poem:
The pygmies have taken the city of Muchacha!
«They're four feet tall,» the radio intones.
And I'm thrilled, thrilled that the pygmies have taken the city of Muchacha.
I wonder — will they remember to rape all the big women and burn the place down?
And yet this is not a poem about violence or rape — it's a poem about the little people taking on the big people, about the poet's comic desire for revolution and his worry that the revolutionaries might louse it up. The Soviet Union, and the American empire that opposed it, are both going to last a thousand years; in the meantime, the poet is on the side of the pygmies.
But as things started to heat up back home, the violence in Limonov's writing became both more prevalent and more banal — braggadocio about his time in war zones, and his father's NKVD-issue pistol (the NKVD was the precursor to the KGB), about his affection for Russian ethnic separatists and Serb war criminals. As he later put it: «Enough walks in the park with red-cheeked girls, it was time to walk with loyal comrades underneath a red flag. That was my slogan for the 90s.» A terrible slogan — and it led to some terrible writing. He continued to compose his autobiography, but it was now under the guise of history. He wanted to be a man of action, a truth-teller in the post-Soviet time of troubles, but his self-involvement was prohibitive. The great self-explicators like Roth and Bellow had gazed inside their souls and seen the whole epic of human emotions; Limonov, closer to Dave Eggers, began to look at others and see only himself. His chief impression of Belgrade during the early ‘90s was that he went to some cool parties with the Milosevic gang and got laid. His description of Arkan, the leader of the Serbs' top ethnic-cleansing paramilitaries: «I've always loved bright and handsome gangsters.» In 1992 he returned to Russia for good. By then he had become, in politics, an extreme nationalist; and as a writer, an extreme narcissist.
Just as Eddie had been something of a parodic anti-dissident dissident, however, so Limonov became a parodic right-winger; a better poet than his friend Karadzic, he was a less successful fascist. He briefly joined the right-wing politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and then founded his own National Bolshevik Party in 1993. The party's name and its iconography (a sort of retro-Stalinist chic) were a perfect avant-garde version of the ascendant Russian red-browns. But most of Limonov's early followers were urban hipsters and punks who were closer to a clown troupe than to Sturmtruppen. They dressed up like Nazis — and then threw vegetables at politicians. Their public pronouncements ranged from high satire to low nationalism. After Limonov received less than 2 percent of the vote in a bid for the Duma in 1995, he held a press conference promising to impose order on the party and set to work right away by administering a haircut to a «shaggy hipster.» He then promised to organize military camps in southern Russia to train for the recapture of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
The authorities were not amused, and the party was increasingly harassed. Then, in early 2001, shortly after the NBP party newspaper published a plan for creating a «second Russia» in northern Kazakhstan (which had a significant Russian minority there, went the thinking, and sparsely patrolled borders), two NBP members were arrested while purchasing Kalashnikovs. In the wake of what must have been some very persuasive interrogation, the youths claimed they were acting under orders, and Limonov was promptly incarcerated; he has been in prison ever since. After serving for years as the court jester to an already clownish far right, whose leading denizens liked to call him a «fag,» at last Limonov has found someone to take him seriously. The state prosecutor asked that the writer receive 14 years. The judge will rule in mid-April.
Yet something about Limonov still haunts the mind. He is, without question, a real asshole — he called for press censorship during the first war in Chechnya, he struck the British writer Paul Bailey in the head with a champagne bottle at an international writers conference, he declared that what Russia's liberals needed was a dose of the gulag. He is not himself an anti-Semite, but, as the anti-Semites used to say, some of his best friends are. His arrival at this low point was certainly large parts stupidity, confusion, and just plain inferiority complex — Solzhenitsyn once called him «a little insect,» and how do you get over that? But there's more than foolishness here. All his writing is shot through with a curious mixture of self-pity and self-regard — the self, the self, the self. Perhaps every memoirist is already something of a fascist, the politics a logical extension of the idea that your life is more than other lives.
Which is why Limonov's prison writings are so interesting. At first he accelerated his production, writing seven books (mostly memoirs) in less than two years. And then, as he admits, he ran out of Limonoviana — and he began to look around. He saw Lefortovo, «the Russian Bastille,» and he saw his fellow prisoners, some of them Chechen rebels, and he listened to the awful radio programs pumped into their cells 10 hours a day. His last book, «V Plenu u Mertvetsov», or «Prisoner of the Walking Dead», includes a finely observed description of prison life, an imaginary dialogue with Joseph Brodsky, whom he knew («Holy shit!» Limonov tells Brodsky about Sept. 11), and an 80-page motion for his release. It's the best thing he's written in 20 years.
Backed by an army of punked-out teens, cult Russian novelist Eduard Limonov dedicated himself to taking on Vladimir Putin. Will death threats and nutty supermodels derail his democratic revolution?
It's 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning in June when I arrive at the home of Russian opposition leader Eduard Limonov. It's shaping up to be another grimy, humid summer day in Moscow. We need to get an early start if we're going to make our flight to St. Petersburg, where Garry Kasparov, the chess legend who recently joined the political fray, and Limonov, Russia's most infamous literary celebrity, are planning to lead a protest against the country's autocratic president, Vladimir Putin. Together the two head up a ragtag coalition of anti-Kremlin parties known as Other Russia.
The last two times Limonov went to St. Petersburg, things got ugly. In April, an Other Russia protest ended with cops attacking throngs of marchers while Putin's paramilitary goons hunted down and detained Limonov and then brutally stomped his bodyguards. Six weeks before that, another anti-Kremlin rally in Russia's «second city» devolved into truncheon thrashings and unlawful arrests. Limonov was taken into custody in an operation that looked like something out of the Peloponnesian War: Black-clad Kremlin shock troops charged in formation into a phalanx of Limonov supporters, mercilessly beating anyone in their path until they reached their target.
Limonov buzzes me into his building. I climb up a couple flights of stairs, and then wait while he looks out at me through the peephole of his black steel door. We've known each other for more than a decade, during which he has been a controversial and high-profile columnist for the English-language alternative newspaper I run in Moscow, the «eXile». I'm no threat, but Limonov is one of the most marked men in Russia today, and if any of his enemies ever decide to whack him, chances are they'll do it right here. A wide array of politicians, journalists, and businessmen have been gunned down while entering or leaving their apartments or offices — including the high-profile cases of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and «Forbes» Russia editor Paul Klebnikov. The only time I've ever seen Limonov betray something like hunted mammalian unease is when he enters the invisible red zone outside his front door — which is why he almost never travels without bodyguards.
He unlocks a series of dead bolts and opens the door. «Come in,» he says, then quickly shuts it behind me. His muscle hasn't arrived yet.
The writer, now 65, is sharp-featured, lean, and energetic. With his flamboyant haircut and Trotsky-like goatee, he looks like an aging Marxist rock star. Since returning to Russia in 1992, after living in exile in France and the United States for nearly two decades, he has been pursuing his lifelong fascination with revolutionary politics. In 1993, he founded the National Bolshevik Party, which encompasses a strange and evolving mixture of nationalism, left-wing economics, punk-rock aesthetics, and a constant desire to shock. Politics has always been a blood sport in Russia, and ever since he started the party, Limonov has lived under threat. He spent two years in jail during Putin's first term in office.
But things didn't get really bad until a little over two years ago, when a gang of youths went after his followers with baseball bats, cracking skulls, ribs, and limbs. Some of the perpetrators later caught by local cops were wearing T-shirts from the Kremlin youth organization Nashi, or «Ours.»
A few of Limonov's more vocal supporters in the Russian provinces have died under mysterious, violent circumstances. Not so long ago, a well-connected friend warned me to stay away from him if I didn't want something bad to happen to me. (I decided to take my chances.)
This year, the writer has received his two most serious death threats to date. One was passed on by a powerful Duma deputy closely tied to the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB and the beast that spawned Putin. The other came from former FSB operative Andrei Lugovoi, Scotland Yard's chief suspect in the high-profile polonium poisoning of Putin foe Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. At a press conference last spring in Moscow, Lugovoi — who, like a Russian O.J., has been basking in his guilty-‘n'-gettin'-away-with-it fame — told reporters, «I think something is being prepared for [Limonov].» Lugovoi then claimed that the murder plot was a clever ruse by exiled billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky, intended to discredit President Putin.
The threat simply added to the general sense in Russia that anyone who opposes Putin should expect to be the target of violence or persecution. At this point the serious competition has been jailed, exiled, or otherwise brought to heel, and Putin's hold on political power appears to be absolute. While he's obliged by Russian law to step down in March after his second term ends, Putin has found a way to circumvent his term limit and retain power. He anointed a successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as his proxy in the country's upcoming presidential elections. Now Putin will slide into the prime minister's chair with Medvedev as his executive puppet. «He clearly will be supreme leader, maybe leader for life,» declared a «Time» editor shortly after the magazine named Putin Person of the Year for 2007. The only glimmer of popular opposition against the increasingly authoritarian regime is a handful of eccentric radicals like Limonov and Kasparov. That they're still around suggests the Kremlin considers them a safer brand of adversary than Berezovsky or Yukos oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly one of the world's richest men, who today sits in a Siberian prison on various charges, including tax evasion.
The Kremlin may be right about Kasparov — after all, the former world chess champion has been relentlessly building a future for himself and his family (including his American-born child) in the United States, where a series of speaking gigs have helped make him the biggest stateside Russian sensation since Mikhail Gorbachev. It's Limonov who is the real wildcard. His organization provides the bodies in the Other Russia coalition. And the last time he was jailed for his political activities, he emerged stronger and more determined than ever in his opposition to Putin.
As we stand in the kitchen and wait for his bodyguards to arrive, Limonov runs through the day's itinerary: He, Kasparov, and their respective entourages are supposed to convene at Mayakovsky Square and then caravan to Sheremetyevo airport to fly to St. Petersburg. The two opposition leaders always try to travel together to rallies so that one or the other isn't individually detained — appearing in tandem at Other Russia events is key to keeping the coalition energized and unified. Everywhere they go, they are trailed by intelligence agents, who no longer even bother to be discreet.
At an opposition protest in the capital last spring, security forces managed to physically separate the two men, which created disarray among the protesters. In the melee, Kasparov was detained and thrown in jail while Limonov slipped away and did an end-run around the police with an all-night drive on back roads, arriving in St. Petersburg in time for the next rally, where he was then also detained. (Unexpectedly, though, having Limonov held in St. Petersburg and Kasparov in Moscow became a major publicity boon for Other Russia.)
«What do you think the authorities have planned for you today?» I ask him as he paces around his modest kitchen. The room is austere and clean, with simple Brezhnev-era furnishings and an old bathtub just a few feet from the stove. A wooden plank laid widthwise across it holds his soap, shampoo, and toothbrush. It seems to reflect not only Limonov's contempt for middle-class consumerism and clutter, but also his Spartan, disciplined mentality, which has kept him focused on his impossible, lifelong dream: to lead a political revolution in Russia. Only a small-minded sucker would waste his money on some built-in IKEA kitchen — junk for «the goat herd,» as Limonov calls the bourgeoisie in an early autobiographical novel, «Memoir of a Russian Punk».
«I have no idea what will happen today,» he replies. «Anyway, I don't give a shit. It's a waste of time trying to guess what the Kremlin has planned for us. We have to worry about our own plans for ourselves.» The very notion that he should expend energy guessing what his Kremlin foes are thinking irritates Limonov on some basic level. It implies subservience. «They may do what they did a few weeks ago, this ‘soft authoritarianism' bullshit, and not let us go to Petersburg.»
Three weeks earlier, Kasparov, Limonov, their aides, and about a dozen Western journalists, including myself, were detained at Sheremetyevo. We were supposed to fly to Samara for a protest rally, but the woman at the Aeroflot check-in desk claimed that everyone's tickets were possibly counterfeit, so we all had to stick around for questioning. Kasparov pounced on her, relentlessly dissecting her claim. A border guard relieved her, but the poor bastard quickly regretted it: Kasparov was immediately on him, too — something like that face-sucking creature in «Alien». The chess champion scoffed, threw up his hands, and mocked the man. «You're not serious! You can't be! It's shameful, a parody, theater of the absurd! You're breaking the law! Do you realize that you, a law enforcement official, are breaking your own laws? It's just unbelievable!» Kasparov then turned to a captain in Russia's Ministry of the Interior who had joined the fray: «Bring my passport back to me. You have no right! Bring me my passport!»
Limonov, meanwhile, withdrew to the other side of the airport lobby with his bodyguards, where they squatted Central Asian style, looking around with bored and contemptuous expressions. The writer and his crew were dressed in black, while Kasparov wore dowdy blue jeans, a baseball cap, and a tan, Eddie Bauer–style windbreaker. He took a series of cell phone calls from the media and continued his arguments with the authorities, without missing a beat.
«You don't want to bitch everyone out, the way Garry is?» I asked, as Kasparov demanded to see the identification of one of the agents, and then let out a savage laugh.
«You know, I have 13 years' political experience,» Limonov said, smiling. «I don't give a fuck about these schmucks. I don't get so excited about little things as I used to. I'll answer their questions, yes, yes, and then get the hell out of here. This isn't my style.»
We were detained until the last plane for Samara took off, ensuring that Kasparov and Limonov would miss the protest rally. Putin was in Samara that day, hosting German chancellor Angela Merkel. It was supposed to be a routine photo op, but when news hit that the Other Russia leaders had been barred from coming, Merkel went about as ballistic as a dour middle-age German bureaucrat possibly can. At their joint news conference, she scolded Putin: «I can understand if you arrest people throwing stones or threatening the right of the state to enforce order … But it is altogether a different thing if you hold people up on the way to a demonstration.»
Putin didn't fancy being lectured and struck back with a list of countercomplaints, leading the BBC to conclude that Russian–EU relations had «reached a new low.»
The discord was another publicity coup for the opposition. When we finally left the airport, a mob of mostly foreign reporters, television crews, and photographers swarmed Kasparov, while Limonov slipped away with his bodyguards. «Garry has the patience for their idiotic questions, which is good for me,» he said, an inkling of a smile on his face. «Anyway, the Western journalists are mostly afraid of me.»
Before his career in politics forced him to adopt disciplined habits, Limonov led a wild, decadent existence — much of which became the raw material for his early novels and poems. He hung out with rock icons like Marky Ramone and punk legend Richard Hell, and the last three of his four wives have been stars in their own right.
«I think this life he lives now, spending so much time locked inside his apartment or in meetings, causes Limonov some pain,» says Thierry Marignac, a French author who was one of Limonov's closest friends while Limonov was living in exile in Paris in the '80s. «He was very social and he liked partying. He saw himself as a kind of Elvis Presley of poetry.»
Limonov wrote the first sexually explicit, brutally amoral novels that the Russian language had ever seen. His debut effort, «It's Me, Eddie» — which has been compared to the work of Henry Miller by some critics — was banned by the Soviet government but has sold more than a million copies in Russia since it was published there. The book chronicled his breakup with his wife Elena, a fashion model who was also a flamboyant luminary in Moscow's beau monde. They moved to New York in 1975, where she ditched him for an Italian count. Limonov went on welfare, drank prodigiously, and — if his autobiographical novel is to be believed — had sex with anyone he could, sampling the gamut from beautiful young women to scabrous homeless guys. He poured his bitterness against Americans into the book: «I scorn you 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!» He also raged against the West's propaganda about its freedoms: «They've got no freedom here, just try to say anything bold at work … You're out on your ear.»
Limonov crawled out of obscurity after his novels became celebrated in France in the years that followed. Leveraging his return to fame, he married another larger-than-life Russian model, Natalya Medvedeva, a strikingly tall, sharp-boned woman built like a praying mantis. (If you've seen the cover of the first «Cars» album, then you've seen Natalya Medvedeva; she also posed for «Playboy».) Together, they moved to Paris and had a famously cruel, public relationship, replete with affairs and scandal.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the couple moved home so Limonov could pursue his dream of getting involved in Russian politics. Limonov's vision for his life was something on the order of a modern Lord Byron: a writer who undertakes political projects so grand and strange that they would seem to have sprung from the pages of a novel (or an epic poem, in the case of Byron, who led a rebel army and became a national hero in the Greek War of Independence). But Medvedeva's hard-partying lifestyle didn't jibe with his new ambitions, and they split up in 1994. She hooked up with a famous metal guitarist and later died of an apparent drug overdose, while Limonov began a series of affairs with ever-younger fans of his bad-boy politics and art.
The writer's youthful paramours in those years often shaved their heads as a show of loyalty to the dark prince of Russia's underground. Before he was jailed by Putin in 2001 — convicted on a weapons charge related to a bizarre scheme to raise a private army and invade Kazakhstan — his last girlfriend had been a feral teenage punk named Nastya. She was bald and uncontrollable and enjoyed vandalizing his apartment, which was a source of great amusement to him. But after his release from prison in 2003 transformed Limonov into an opposition icon, he lost interest in adolescent lovers.
In 2006, at age 63, he married his fourth wife, Ekaterina Volkova, then a 31-year-old pinup model and Russian television star who bears a much-noted resemblance to Angelina Jolie. She shaved her head and bore him his first child — a son.
She is now pregnant again, a development that seems to have saved the couple's marriage. «I got sick of everything,» Limonov tells me, recalling a recent fight with Volkova that ended with a short separation. «I threw my vodka glass at her, and it almost hit my mother-in-law in the head. Anyway, a couple of weeks later, I find out that she is pregnant with my second child, so that brought us back together again.»
In late September, the Other Russia coalition holds their national convention in a renovated theater hall in Izmailovsky Park, on Moscow's eastern fringe, to nominate a presidential candidate for the upcoming election. Their choice will stand zero chance of winning, but will be symbolically important in flying the flag of opposition to the Kremlin's increasingly authoritarian rule. Delegates come from all over the country and are an eclectic mix: Kasparov-allied liberal intelligentsia mingling with hardcore nationalists, broke war veterans, and — most of all — droves of Limonov's punk-rock kids. Though Kasparov is eventually named the presidential candidate, he actually has relatively few supporters in the hall. Instead, his nomination comes as the result of an agreement worked out with Limonov, whose followers could swing the vote in any direction.
Kasparov, whose name is far better known in the West than Limonov's, hit international democracy-activist superstardom this year. Not only is he the neocons' Nelson Mandela (the «Wall Street Journal»‘s nutty op-ed page has named him contributing editor), but American liberals love him for his wit and charm, and because he criticized the Bush administration for backtracking on promoting democracy in Russia.
But in reality, Limonov provides most of the organizational force behind Other Russia: His 15,000 or so loyalists consist largely of young artists, intellectuals, skinheads, anarchists, and other outsiders. In the past, the group incorporated fascist and ultranationalist elements into both its platform and presentation, and embraced some questionable allies — one of Limonov's most despicable episodes came during the Balkan conflict when he fired automatic weapons down on the city of Sarajevo from a mountain encampment shared with accused Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic. But the party now hews to a straight leftist political line on most issues, playing down its aggressively nationalistic stances. Putin's cynical use of nationalist rhetoric to manipulate public sentiment was partly responsible for the shift. «We live in a truly despotic regime,» Limonov says. «This government is cruel to the poor and the vulnerable. Its only ideology is nationalism. Our left-wing views are much closer to those of the masses. If we were allowed to operate in a free society, I am sure that we would become the most popular party.»
But what seems to animate Limonov's legions of loyal followers most is his philosophy of «Russian Maximalism»: going for broke to free oneself and one's nation from all forms of oppression. For the young punks, this means raging not only at the Kremlin, but also at the out-of-control consumerism that has taken root in this newly rich nation. You can see their fanatical enthusiasm in their suicidal political stunts, like the time they egged a prime minister while he was voting in an election, or when they took over the Health Ministry office and trashed portraits of Putin until FSB commandos arrived and kicked the shit out of them. Hundreds of them have seen the inside of Russia's jails.
Limonov's opposition to Putin is not new. When Putin took power in late 1999, the writer became one of his earliest and fiercest critics. «We were practically the only group to oppose him from the start,» he says. «Why would I support this KGB schmuck who weaseled his way into power? It was obvious for us, but at the time, many liberals supported him.» Within two years Limonov was in jail and being vilified on state television. The state's case grew out of a series of unbylined articles in Limonov's party newspaper advocating occupation of northern Kazakhstan with a private army to set up an ultranationalist Russian state.
In the summer of 2003, he was unexpectedly paroled, thanks to the intervention of some powerful friends in parliament. Shortly after his release, my mobile phone rang: «Mark! It's Eduard! I'm out of that fucking prison and back in Moscow. So let's meet! It's been a long time!» He was as cheerful as ever and full of fighting energy — as if he hadn't been stuck inside one of Russia's infamous overcrowded, tuberculosis-infested cells for two and a half years. During his incarceration, he had written eight books.
His release was an important moment for Russia's underground opposition. He'd fought the czar and won. The National Bolshevik Party's ranks suddenly swelled with thousands of young followers, across Russia's 11 time zones. To them, Limonov was a real-life «Fight Club» rebel, always ready to put everything on the line. Violence and incarceration seemed only to fuel his sense of purpose.
But this morning, in June, bound for St. Petersburg, everyone is nervous as we climb into a black Volga and head off toward Mayakovsky Square. Limonov is sandwiched between two hefty bodyguards in the backseat, while I ride shotgun. At 7 a.m., we link up with Kasparov and his entourage, who are rolling in expensive white SUVs. The traffic looks bad and the chess champ wonders aloud whether it's a sign — or even a Kremlin plot to make us miss the plane. But there will be nothing like that. This time, I'm the only one detained, while the two leaders of Other Russia are waved onto the airplane with their bodyguards, a film crew from «60 Minutes» trailing behind. (They're working on a profile of Kasparov, which in its final form will not even mention Limonov.) In the end, I'm allowed to join them just minutes before the plane takes off.
The protest in St. Petersburg goes off without incident. When the speeches and chants are finished, there's a palpable sense of letdown. Democracy protests are supposed to lead to evermore dramatic confrontations with authorities — culminating either in martial law or popular revolution. But in Russia's case, the dynamics have already changed too much, and that narrative simply doesn't fit.
Kasparov's rhetoric about a Ronald Reagan–inspired liberal revolution seems downright silly in a nation where Putin enjoys more than 70 percent approval and anti-Americanism and anti-liberalism run deep. His candidacy for president will fall apart in December 2007, when the Kremlin requires that Other Russia hold an officially sanctioned nomination in a large public event hall — an impossible requirement since the owners of every such facility in Moscow are too frightened to rent to the party.
Limonov, by contrast, has always shown his mettle as a political activist by quickly adjusting to real-world circumstances.
Over the course of several conversations in November and December, he describes to me an incredibly audacious and media-savvy scheme to expose Putin and Russia's subordinate parliament. It's the kind of stunt that will make the capillaries in Putin's eyes pop in anger and give a jolt of energy to the opposition movement. But he makes me promise not to disclose any details, fearing what the Kremlin will do to stop him. Kasparov's press spokesperson slips up and gives a hint while her boss is still in jail in November, saying that since Putin's legislature won't pass democratic laws, a united opposition front will pass them instead.
It's not clear if Putin is even aware of this mysterious plan, but — coincidence or not — a new crackdown seems to be underway with the arrival of winter. Shortly before a major Other Russia protest in Moscow on November 24, a 22-year-old activist is bludgeoned to death near his home. Shortly before, he had called another opposition activist from his mobile phone and reported that he was being followed by secret police. At the protest itself, Kasparov is arrested and held for five days. («I wouldn't recommend Russian jails to anyone,» he tells me darkly when I reach him after his release.) Meanwhile, Limonov is the target of a new court order. A criminal case seems to be in the works, alleging that the writer continues to operate the now-banned National Bolsheviks.
I ask Limonov what he thinks the Kremlin's reaction will be when he goes public with this mysterious and provocative new plan. «I don't think they'll be too pleased,» he says, not betraying much emotion. «Maybe they won't kill me, maybe they'll just arrest me. Anyway, we'll find out soon.»
Marc Bennetts meets Eduard Limonov, the 1970s New York punk, incendiary novelist and possible future leader of Russia.
I first became aware of Eduard Limonov, modern Russia's most uncompromising writer and politician, during an extended visit to Moscow in the mid-1990s. Back then he was the firebrand head of the National Bolshevik Party, a direct-action movement that sought to fuse the ultra-left and the ultra-right in opposition to the catastrophic reign of President Boris Yeltsin. Addressed by his young, streetwise followers as «vozhd», or «leader» — the term used by Stalinists for Uncle Joe — his party's instantly recognisable flag was an explosive mix of Nazi and communist imagery.
The National Bolshevik Party was outlawed in 2007 after a series of spectacular political stunts, including the seizure of the Kremlin's reception office. Limonov, who turned 67 this spring, is today one of the leaders of the country's tiny opposition movement, part of an uneasy, on-off alliance with a handful of liberal reformers and veteran human-rights activists. He also plans to run for the presidency in 2012, when Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek a third term.
I meet the taciturn youth who will take me to see Limonov at the entrance to one of Moscow's many branches of Mothercare. It's an incongruous start to our meeting, but for a man who embodies much of the chaos and contradictions of his post-Soviet homeland, it somehow seems apt.
Limonov opens the door to the sparsely decorated apartment he uses as a base and ushers me through the corridor into a white-walled room. With his glasses, greying moustache and goatee, he resembles no one so much as Leon Trotsky. In keeping with the «dress code for the future» he outlined in one of his more than 40 books, he is clad in black from head to toe.
My notebook contains a sprawling list of questions (I forced myself to stop after the sixth page), but I am unsure where to start. Limonov has, quite simply, seen it all.
An avant-garde poet forced out of the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s after refusing to inform for the KGB, Limonov ended up in New York, where he hung out with the Ramones and Richard Hell & the Voidoids at the legendary CBGB punk club. «In New York I found the same kind of people — non-conformists, painters, poets, crazy underground musicians — that I had left in Moscow. I even wore Richard Hell's ripped T-shirt for a long time,» he recalls, when I ask him about his punk past. «I still listen to that music, of course. Everyone likes to hear the music of their youth.»
But he laughs away the suggestion that punk has influenced his confrontational political philosophies and strategies. «I am wiser now, I have matured — and anyway, how can one be a punk after 60? That would be silly.»
It was during his stay in the States that he penned It's Me, Eddie, the fictional memoir of deviant immigrant life that would earn him international acclaim. Not to mention everlasting notoriety at home for its depictions of gay sex with a homeless black man, an unthinkable thing for a Soviet writer to have written. A massive success in Europe, Limonov eventually moved to France, where he was granted citizenship in 1987.
He returned to Russia shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union and has been getting into or causing trouble ever since. In 2001, he was jailed for four years on weapons charges after being initially accused of organising an armed uprising among the Russian-speaking population of eastern Kazakhstan. The evidence against him — the testimony of two youths caught buying guns in central Russia — was widely viewed as flimsy, but there was little international coverage of the trial. Limonov's politics were simply too extreme to allow his case to become a cause célèbre.
«I was a non-conformist from birth,» Limonov shrugs. He insists on speaking English throughout the interview, only switching to Russian when he wants to be absolutely sure he has got his point across, and litters his speech liberally with his favourite oaths — «fuck» and «Jesus Christ».
Limonov may insist that his pogo-ing days are far behind him, but when I ask him if he believes he has a real chance of becoming president there is something distinctly punk rock about his answer. «I have a chance to become a conflict,» he tells me, staring out at the impressively urban south Moscow skyline.
The authorities here have a habit of refusing to register inconvenient candidates for polls, usually citing «technicalities». But Limonov is not fazed — in fact I get the impression he is looking forward to the upcoming struggle.
«Right now, if you look at the situation, I have no chance,» Limonov admits. «But if we apply some pressure, this will change. We aim to create a great upheaval in society.»
Limonov's latest «pressure» involves a battle of attrition with the Russian authorities over the freedom of assembly, a right enshrined in article 31 of the country's constitution. Accordingly, earlier this year he and his opposition allies began organising unsanctioned demonstrations at central Moscow's Triumfalnaya Square on the 31st day of every month that has one. The Kremlin is ever wary of expressions of dissent, and the tiny rallies were invariably dispersed by riot police, with many of the demonstrators receiving, in line with Putin's recommendation, «a whack around the head with a baton».
But amid the fallout of long-serving Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov's dismissal, the protests were unexpectedly given the green light in late October. «We are stubborn, and they are embarrassed,» Limonov says of the U-turn. «In modern Russian history there is no such example of this sort of persistence and continued strikes in the same place… The authorities are very, very nervous.»
Typically, he will later refuse to attend the first official protest, organising an illegal rally nearby. Riot police make repeated attempts to drag him to a waiting van, but the youths who act as his bodyguards do their job well and the two demonstrations eventually merge.
But Limonov has been accused by his many critics of sacrificing his young supporters, of encouraging them to commit acts of resistance that, while serving to maintain his high-profile image, see them end up behind bars. Or worse. Limonov himself claims that nine of his followers have been killed by the security forces in recent years. «I can prove it in a fair trial,» he says.
He visibly bristles when I suggest that the human cost of political change in his homeland is too high. After all, by his own admission, the situation in Russia is «bearable».
«You can't change the world without losing some of the buttons on your jacket,» he tells me. «These young people, they are sane, and they know what they are doing. They are strong, and ruled by passion. Prison is nothing in comparison with the freedom of the country.»
Limonov speaks a lot about «freedom», and I can't help but point out that his words are at odds with much of his earlier writing and actions. As an example, just one of many, I mention an extract from his 2003 book The Other Russia, a series of essays for his followers subtitled Outlines for the Future. In it, he proposes solving Russia's demographic crisis by forcing «every woman between 25 and 35 to have four children». The children would then be taken away from their parents when they begin to walk, and educated in a House of Childhood.
«Boys and girls will be taught to shoot from grenade launchers, to jump from helicopters, to besiege villages and cities, to skin sheep and pigs, to cook good hot food and to write poetry,» he wrote, adding ominously: «Many types of people will have to disappear.»
«Fuck,» Limonov replies. «I even forgot I wrote that. This book was written while I was waiting to be sentenced on the Kazakhstan charges. I was already 60 and I was looking at 15 years behind bars. I didn't think I would be able to make it — so these are lectures, some ideas to my supporters.
«I feel free to use dreams and thinking in my work,» he goes on. «I may be as wrong as hell, but if so, I'll say, «OK, don't do it.» It's a different genre from my politics… It's not dogma.»
It's true that while Limonov's election pledges are radical, there is no mention of the House of Childhood or forcing women to give birth. Instead, he promises to introduce the concept of the «professional» mother, with the state picking up the bill. «It's unheard of,» he writes. «But people will get used to it.»
One of the great mysteries for Russia-watchers in recent years is Limonov's political alliance with chess grandmaster and pro-western liberal Garry Kasparov. It is difficult to imagine two politicians more diametrically opposed, and I ask the former head of the National Bolsheviks what draws them together.
«He has his charms and his qualities,» Limonov says, choosing his words carefully. «I need him. But he also has his weak points, like a lack of experience. He is also not a team player. That probably comes from his days as a chess champion. I always try to keep myself separate from Kasparov when he is being strongly pro-American. I leave the press conferences. I want to look pure for my people; I don't even want the shadow of the west to fall upon me.
«Westerners are not our enemies,» he continues, «but I have no reason to look for support from them. If, for example, the US president or even a senator said they supported Limonov at the elections, this would damage me so much. So please, fuck, don't do it!»
Inspired, Limonov launches into an anti-west diatribe. It is the most animated he has been during the interview.
«Europeans are so timid they remind me of sick and elderly people,» he begins. «And Europe is like one big old people's home. There is so much political correctness and conformity there that you can't open your mouth. It's worse than prison. That's why there is no culture in the west anymore. Just dying screams.
«In Russia, fortunately, the people still have some barbarian spirit. But Europeans and Americans are just dying, sick invalids.» He looks across the table at me for a reaction. I sympathise with what he is saying: while life in Russia may not be easy, it is, at least, never dull. But something stops me agreeing with him, and instead I voice an ironic, «Thanks.»
«That's how it is!» Limonov laughs. «That's the reality! They want to dominate the world with their high-tech military devices, but there is no individual collective might and spirit. Look what they did to Iraq, they come with their fucking boots and…» he shakes his head in exasperation. «It's criminal negligence at the very least.»
Limonov's dislike of the west is mutual. He has been persona non grata in western literary circles since he was filmed shooting a machine gun into a besieged Sarajevo in the company of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The incident, captured by Bafta award-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski in his Serbian Epics documentary and shown at Karadzic's trial at the Hague, cost Limonov publishing contracts in both Europe and the US.
But he reacts furiously when I bring up the issue.
«That schmuck,» he says. «I was shooting at a firing range, and that guy put in an extra frame to make it look like I was firing at buildings. I've been saying this for 15 years.»
I'm unsure of how to react to this, as well as to his assertion that he was «always a freelance journalist» during the conflict in Bosnia. I later dig up an extract from his 2001 Book of the Dead where he appears to admit — the sentence is ambiguously phrased — spraying the city with machine-gun fire. I then come across an article where he explicitly states that he «fought» in Bosnia from «February to May 1993». I send him the quotes and call later for a comment. He is beside himself with rage and barks down the phone that he regrets having had anything to do with me. «It wouldn't have been a Limonov interview without a bit of shouting,» a fellow journalist comments.
It is an odd incident. Limonov claims not to «give a shit» about his image in the west. But could it be that his earlier writings, designed to embellish and boost his public profile at home, have begun to get in the way of his policy of, as he puts it, «winning the hearts of the liberals»?
Many of the things he says during the interview are in stark comparison to his previous statements. His comment that he respects Islam and believes the people of the country's troubled North Caucasus region should be «free to practise even Sharia law if they want» are, for example, difficult to reconcile with his 1990s declaration that «it is a pity that Stalin didn't go all the way» with his oppression of the Chechen nation. Even if the National Bolshevik Party did renounce all forms of xenophobia in a 2000 statement that resulted in disaffected members splitting off to form a rival movement, the remark has and will continue to haunt him.
Or is Limonov, as an artist drawn irresistibly to provocation and shock tactics, simply gloriously misunderstood? Mark Ames, the editor of the English-language Moscow-based paper the Exile which Limonov wrote for until it was forced to close down in 2008, has drawn a comparison between his former columnist and Lou Reed, «the Jew from Long Island who carved a giant iron cross in his skull and strutted around stage in a black leather uniform singing «Kill Your Sons». Sex Pistol-era Johnny Rotten's use of the swastika to unnerve middle England also springs to mind, but neither musician has yet to enter politics. And both would undoubtedly be grilled on their choice of imagery if they ever did.
«You have too square a view of me,» Limonov says at one point, refusing to draw a line between his work as an experimental writer and his political career.
I wonder, as our interview draws to a close, if his enmity towards his arch-nemesis Putin is personal, as well as political. For the author of a book entitled Limonov versus Putin, the question seems a fair one.
«No,» Limonov replies, dismissing the thought with a wave of the hand. «To dislike someone you have to know them. I've never met him. Don't let all this talk of his KGB past impress you,» he goes on. «His sinister, macabre image is so exaggerated. He was a minor official, that's all. He's a very dull, very square man. Still he's not as boring as [President Dmitry] Medvedev,» he says, warming to his theme. «You know, the most exciting thing Medvedev has done in his life — and it's so significant for him that it's even highlighted on the official presidential website — is to go and help harvest potatoes when he was a student in Soviet times. Can you imagine such a guy?» he laughs, unable to contemplate such a strait-laced approach to life.
As I leave, I'm still not sure what to make of Limonov. As an artist and politician, he is certainly unique and complex. There is one thing I am certain of — he is a very Russian phenomenon, a reflection of the breathtaking intensity that distinguishes life here. And, just like his homeland, it is his contradictions that make him so vital.
Just as Emmanuel ¬Carrère's¬ earlier book «The Adversary» was an «In Cold Blood»-style «nonfiction novel» about a man who murders his wife, children and parents, so his latest, «Limonov,» might be called a novelized biography. While tracking the amazing, improbable life of Ukrainian writer, adventurer and would-be revolutionary Eduard Limonov, the book interweaves a social and political history of post-Stalinist Russia, chunks of Carrère's autobiography and a hodgepodge of reflections on art, sex, ambition, the punk aesthetic, fascism, mysticism and old age.
Because Carrère — celebrated in France as a journalist, screenwriter and novelist — possesses such an intimately engaging narrative voice, «Limonov» feels almost nonchalant yet is, in fact, quite artfully orchestrated and completely riveting. The first sentence of John Lambert's superb English translation immediately hooks the reader: «Until Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her elevator on October 7, 2006, only those who had been closely watching the Chechen wars knew the name of this courageous journalist and declared opponent of Vladimir Putin's politics.»
Asked to write a magazine piece about Politkov¬skaya's life, Carrère first visits the opposition newspaper where she worked, and in one sentence he captures its forlorn hopelessness: «The offices were tiny, poorly lit, and equipped with old computers.» A few days later, he attends the annual memorial service for those who died during the 2002 terrorist siege of the Dubrovka Theater. In the crowd, writes Carrère, «I recognized Limonov.»
At that time, Limonov was the leader of the National Bolshevik Party, whose skinhead members marched to reactionary slogans like «Stalin! Beria! Gulag!» A few years earlier, Limonov had supported the brutal Serbs in their war against the equally brutal Croats and Bosnians. He'd also spent time in Russian prisons for alleged terrorist activities. Nonetheless, Limonov's books, such as «Diary of a Loser,» were bestsellers, and his sexy young wife was the star of a Russian soap opera. Still vigorous and energetic in his late 60s, with a steel-trap memory, a wispy goatee and a hard, muscular frame, he resembled the rare-book scout played by Johnny Depp in «The Ninth Gate.» Or Trotsky.
But, as Carrère tells us, the arch-nationalist Limonov had had many other lives before that of «fighter and professional revolutionary.» The son of a low-ranking officer in the secret police, he was born in 1943 and grew up in the town of Kharkov yearning to be famous. Early on, the boy concluded that «there are two kinds of people, those you can hit and those you can't — not because they're stronger or better trained, but because they're ready to kill. That's the secret, the only one.» As Carrère writes: «He will become someone you don't hit because you know he can kill.»
Error! Filename not specified.
Nonetheless, there's more to young Eddie than ruthlessness, iron self-control and an ability to down vast amounts of vodka. For instance, he composes prize-winning poetry, dresses like a mod dandy and, to pay the bills, works as a talented, self-taught tailor. When he moves to Moscow in 1967, however, Limonov meets a «lanky twenty-year-old brunette dressed in a leather miniskirt.» The gorgeous Tanya beds him, but she shares her favors with other men, and so one night — crazed with jealousy and Russian despair — Limonov slits his wrists on her doorstep. Naturally, Tanya is deeply impressed by this gesture, and the pair soon marry, becoming the Scott and Zelda of the Soviet glam scene of the 1970s.
Still, Limonov the writer resents all the attention paid to poet Joseph Brodsky and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As Carrère remarks, «the only living legend that interests him is himself.» When an opportunity arises to emigrate to the West, the handsome couple seize it, and in 1975 arrive in New York.
For a while, they are feted and petted by the local Russophiles, notably Alexander Liberman, artistic director of Conde Nast, and his wife, Tatiana. But soon Limonov is working for a depressing Russian-language newspaper, and Tanya is just another failed would-be model — as well as the plaything of a photographer heavily into sadomasochism. One day Limonov comes back to their apartment, and his beautiful wife is gone.
Broken-hearted, the youthful-looking¬ 33-year-old decides to give up women in favor of men. He has sex with vagrants in parks, lives in a squalid hotel and spends his days working on «It's Me, Eddie,» the first in a series of autobiographical books. No American publisher wants it.
Following this gay interlude, Limonov next becomes the lover of a housemaid and, after a while, her rich employer's butler. As it happens, he turns out to be the perfect servant — trustworthy, obsequious and polite. But as he later reveals in «His Butler's Story,» when left alone, he would drink his boss's best champagne and bring in hookers for romps in the master bedroom. Then, unexpectedly, everything changes again: «It's Me, Eddie» is published in France under the provocative title «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks.» Limonov moves to Paris, where he finds himself an acclaimed writer, a minor celebrity.
At this point, Carrère opens up about his own privileged and often unhappy youth. Compared with Limonov, «I felt that I was made of dull and mediocre stuff, and that I was doomed in this world to play the role of a walk-on, and a bitter, envious walk-on at that.» Fortunately, Carrère eventually recognizes, in the words of a Buddhist sutra, that «a man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality.»
Unlike most of the Western world, the Paris-based Limonov doesn't welcome perestroika. Why? Because it implies that 70 years of Russian history were nothing but a mistake and a nightmare, thus denigrating the millions of ordinary people who worked and sacrificed for a noble idea. Still, Limonov's writing does become available in the Soviet Union. As result, when stopping in Belgrade on a book tour in the late 1980s, the celebrated author is invited to visit the recently liberated — that is, demolished — city of Vukovar. Like Gabriele D'Annunzio, T.E. Lawrence and other writers, Limonov is thrilled by this glimpse of war; Soon he throws himself into the Serbian cause, much to the consternation of his Parisian friends. The Johnny Rotten of Russian literature appears to have joined the fascist thugs. But, to use one of Carrère's catch phrases, «Things are more complicated than they seem.»
After moving back to Russia permanently in the 1990s, Limonov reinvents himself once more, this time as a leading ultra-nationalist. He even publishes an incendiary newspaper called Limonka, «The Grenade.» But in the wide-open Wild West Russia of those Yeltsin years, Limonov and his National Bolshevik Party are no match for the ruthless multibillionaires who now pull the strings. For a while, however, freedom thrives despite political and financial chaos — until a former taxi driver named Vladimir Putin comes to power.
One man in his time plays many parts, and Eduard Limonov — now in his 70s — isn't off the stage yet. Whatever you think of his actions and beliefs, Limonov has lived faithfully by the rule of «no hypocrisy, no embarrassment, no excuses.» It's been a spectacular roller coaster life, and Emmanuel Carrère has turned it into an equally spectacular book.
«The Washington Post», October 22, 2014
Part III. Chapter ten. Satan's ball
Moscow's Central House of Writers is, for both good and bad reasons, one of the most written-about buildings in Russian literature of the twentieth century. Built on leafy Herzen Street (now Bolshaya Nikitskaya) in 1934 by Stalin to house the USSR's Writers» Union, membership was a bauble awarded to the loyal, denoting membership of the elite club of the purveyors of official culture.
One of the few proper functioning restaurants in Moscow in hard times, the Central House of Writers (Tsentralny Dom Literatov — TsDL) was endlessly hagiographed by favour-seeking hacks who spun its rather bland official atmosphere as an incubator of literary genius. But it was just as large a bull's eye for dissident writers and satirists such as Mikhail Bulgakov, who featured it as the «House of Griboedov» in The Master and Margarita (from which the reputation of the building never recovered). The TsDL was the slightly adjusted «old, two-storeyed, cream-coloured house» with an asphalt veranda into which the novel's poet Ivan Bezdomny bursts, half-crazed having witnessed Satan and a giant pistol-toting housecat decapitate the head of the Writers» Union, carrying a wedding candle and wearing only his underwear (and causing a major ruckus).
There was a certain symmetrical and slightly demonic surrealism in the air in December 1992 when Prokhanov, chairman of the Russian Writers» Union, threw a gala dinner there for opposition nationalists. One of these happened to be Eduard Limonov, a wiry, goateed dissident, recently arrived back from exile in France, having decided, according to his own account, «that it was time to interfere in history as it was unfolding in Russia». Another attendee happened to be Dugin, sporting his pudding-bowl skobka haircut («à la a young Alexey Tolstoy», as Limonov recollected). He had clearly been drinking before he arrived.
There, at tables festooned with fine food and endless bottles of liquor, were assembled the beau monde of hardline nationalism in Russia. At one table was Prokhanov. The Day was the nerve centre of the patriotic opposition, the «ship of dignity in the midst of an ocean of shamelessness and hyper conformism», according to Dugin, who called Prokhanov the «Russian Don Quixote» for his continued idealistic loyalty to the lost cause. Across the room sat Zyuganov, the potato-faced chairman of the rejuvenated Communist Party, with whom Dugin was currently feuding, accusing him (justifiably) of stealing his ideas.
By 1992, the «Red Brown» opposition was a pastiche of contradictions: Orthodox monks carrying portraits of Stalin and retired Soviet Army political officers alongside atamans of refounded Cossack troops; appeals to proletarian internationalism vying with the darkest anti-Semitism in the same speeches. New opposition organizations sprang up like mushrooms, mostly on the model of the old ultra-nationalist gang Pamyat. These mainly consisted of a rabid, polyphonic leader, some armbands and a bit of money from who knew where.
The evening featured a host of other nationalist political and cultural figures, such as deputy speaker of the Duma, Sergey Baburin; Stanislav Kunyayev, chief editor of the nationalist «thick journal» Nash Sovremennik; Valentin Rasputin, the acclaimed nationalist author; and the mathematician Igor Shafarevich, author of famous samizdat essays.
Limonov himself was a recent convert to the nationalist cause. A former dissident writer, like Solzhenitsyn he was exiled in the early 1970s. (Or, as he put it: «I was detained by the KGB in 1973 and they suggested I emigrate.») He had lived for years in the US and France before returning to Russia following the collapse of communism. Unlike other exiles who came back to a life of slippers, tea and occasional quotes in the newspaper decrying the state of the country for an audience that barely remembered them, Limonov was determined to make his mark once again.
He had not had the average dissident's life in the US. He was no Joseph Brodsky or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, retiring to the rural perfection of Vermont. Nor did he stay in the nostalgic lap of the Russian émigré community in Brighton Beach. Instead Limonov took to 1970s America like a fish to water: sex, drugs, rock 'n» roll. Limonov's world revolved around Manhattan's Lower East Side — the drugs, the punk scene of the CBGB music club, the Ramones and plenty of heroin. His first and most famous book, It's Me, Eddie, was completed in New York in 1976 and managed to shock the jaded US literary establishment with the tale of «Eddie», a Russian émigré writer, who (one only hopes) was not based entirely on Limonov himself. Solzhenitsyn famously called it «pornographic». «I am on welfare. I live at your expense, you pay taxes and I don't do a fucking thing», wrote Limonov in one of the most oft-quoted portions of the book. «I consider myself to be scum, the dregs of society, I have no shame or conscience.» The book was an account of the disintegration of Limonov's first marriage soon after he emigrated to New York with his wife Elena Shapova, a stunning Russian beauty who left him for an Italian aristocrat. It records his feelings of betrayal by both his native Soviet Union and the ugly American capitalism that confronted him. In agony over his divorce, Eddie turns to homosexuality, while Elena overdoses on sex and drugs — exploits recorded by Limonov in several rather graphic passages. She is «typically Russian, throwing herself into the very thick of life without reflection».1
Limonov managed to catch the American zeitgeist at just the right time. An edgy beatnik, he was more a personality than a writer, trading on his mysterious, unhinged Russianness, which still had scarcity value on the New York literary scene. He played to the crowd, with stereotypical Russian temper and drunken exploits, dating a succession of models after Shapova. He also married another striking model, Natalya Medvedeva, who posed for Playboy and whose face adorns the cover of The Cars» first album.
Limonov collided with the typical immigrant's emotional response to living in the United States, with its vast wealth, its impersonal and arm's-length social culture, and its intolerance of emotion. «I scorn you because you lead dull lives, sell yourselves into the slavery of work», he addresses US readers in a characteristic passage. Limonov's feelings of provincial inadequacy, nostalgia for the vanished motherland and unvanquished resurgent pride in his nation show through in his writings. He loved and hated his boring, hidebound country, his cobwebbed and creaking Russian culture living on the achievements of a century ago:
I think vicious thoughts about the whole of my loathsome native Russian literature, which has been largely responsible for my life. Dull green bastards, Chekhov languishing in boredom, his eternal students, people who don't know how to get themselves going, who vegetate through this life, they lurk in these pages like diaphanous husks … I hate the past, as I always have, the name of the present.2
In the United States, Limonov confronted the inferiority complex that is often the wellspring of radicalism, driven inwards by the agoraphobia of modern America. He became a nationalist who had no real use for the nation, a loose cannon looking for a cause. Nation for him wasn't a value, it was a purpose. As he put it in Eddie :
Whom shall I meet, what lies ahead, none can guess. I may happen upon a group of armed extremists, renegades like myself, and perish in an airplane hijacking or a bank robbery. I may not, and I'll go away somewhere, to the Palestinians, if they survive, or to Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, or someplace else — to lay down Eddie-baby's life for a people, for a nation.
It was in this vein that he found the perfect outlet for his intellectual energy in the cause of Serbia, where he witnessed (and some say participated in) the shelling of besieged Sarajevo in 1992.3
The fighting in Yugoslavia had become a magnet for many Russian nationalists, who saw in Serbia a fellow Orthodox Slavic civilization under siege, and in the break-up of Yugoslavia a microcosm of Russia's humiliation following the collapse of the USSR. Russian state television broadcast sympathetic portrayals of the Serbs, even as they proceeded to commit the worst genocide Europe had seen since 1945. Russian volunteers organized into two battalions, one Cossack-led, the other led by a former Russian general.
Limonov's pro-Serbian sympathies fit the bad-boy image he had worked so hard to cultivate in polite Parisian literary society. He has been persona non grata in Western literary circles ever since he was filmed shooting a machine gun into a besieged Sarajevo, in the company of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić. He claims he was only shooting at a practice target range. The incident — captured by Bafta award-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski in his Serbian Epics documentary and shown at Karadžić's trial at The Hague — cost Limonov publishing contracts in both Europe and the US.
In Belgrade he had met Vojislav Šešelj, head of the Serbian Radical Party, who convinced Limonov that there was a political future in hardline nationalism. Back in Russia, Limonov began to hang around nationalist salons. And now, at the dinner, Limonov was seated next to Gennady Zyuganov, talking about the future of Russian patriotism. Many toasts had been drunk, first to Russia, then to the future and great endeavours, when suddenly Dugin walked up to both of them, obviously very drunk. «Hey, Limonov, what are you doing with this shit?» he asked, slurring and wavering a bit.
Zyuganov was startled, but then his expression turned to sympathetic fatherly concern when he saw it was Dugin. He broke in and introduced the newcomer: «This is our Alexander Dugin, a very talented young philosopher.» «And you're shit, Gennady Andreevich, what do you know?» said Dugin, wobbling and turning back to Limonov. «Why are you with them, these mediocre shits?'
Dugin's relationship with Zyuganov was complicated, to say the least. The two men had been close collaborators, developing an ideology for the opposition Communist Party until their recent falling out had put an end to their cooperation. Dugin was quick to anger when he felt he wasn't given credit for ideas (surely a major flaw in a ghost writer). He had broken off communication with Zyuganov for this reason. «When he got into the Duma, he acted arrogantly. We fell out», says Dugin.
Limonov tried valiantly to defuse the situation. «Why? Why are you with these mediocre shits?» the very drunk Dugin continued to complain. Finally, in frustration, Limonov retorted: «Why are you?» This only made Dugin more belligerent. Soon Prokhanov, editor of The Day and patron of the evening, came over and interceded to avoid a scandal.
Limonov had never met Dugin, but this encounter was to be the start of a friendship that would see them through most of the decade as partners in an exotic political project known as the National Bolshevik Party. Limonov was struck by Dugin's imposing physical stature combined with a certain gracefulness: Dugin was a big man with heavy thighs, but when he walked he took small ballet steps, lending him a poise almost «inappropriate for the massive figure of this young man».
They left the party, very drunk, the two of them and Prokhanov. Crossing Tverskoy Boulevard, near the Kremlin, a car screeched to a halt: Dugin had drunkenly kicked in its taillight after the driver had turned too close to them. The driver got out, pulled a gun and pointed it at Dugin's head. In an instant the situation had grown decidedly dangerous, but Dugin seemed amused by the whole thing. The gunman looked like he knew how to handle a weapon.
Limonov looked at Dugin helplessly. Suddenly, Dugin blurted out: «Hey, I'm Eduard Limonov!» and smiled drunkenly. The gunman looked confused, but clearly had never heard of Limonov. Limonov stepped in: «Actually, I'm Limonov. My friend didn't want to … just excuse us?» The driver finally lowered the gun, spat, and with a final «Fuck you!» got in the car and drove off.
Limonov wasn't the first person to notice Dugin's drinking. The latter also had a fearsome temper — «exaggerated emotions», as Limonov would put it. «It was a spot on the reputation of a philosopher — that's all. Not even a speck, if you look at Dugin in the context of the Russian tradition.» And indeed, for a Russian philosopher, alcohol abuse was practically the sine qua non of the profession. Dugin and Limonov got on like a house on fire, and were practically inseparable for the next five years.
The year after they met, in May 1993, Limonov was by his own account returning from the fighting in Knin Krajina, near Sarajevo, when he decided it was time to create his own national radical party, the National Bolshevik Front, together with a group of teenage gang members from a Moscow suburb. The experiment ended farcically after his gang beat up their allies, the Communist Youth League of Zyuganov's party. «It became clear that we had to start again, from zero», he writes in his autobiography. He remembered Dugin, got in touch and, despite the latter's bruising experience in Pamyat, after which he had forsworn politics, Dugin decided he liked Limonov enough to give it another try. The two created the National Bolshevik Front in June, just three months before the constitutional crisis between Yeltsin and the State Duma nearly led to civil war.
Each man found in the other something he lacked. Limonov sensed in Dugin a Russia that he had missed during his 20-year sojourn in the West, while Dugin envied Limonov's Western experience, writing credentials and fluency. Limonov may not have been far off the mark when he wrote in his biography about the drunken scene on Tverskoy Boulevard, when Dugin introduced himself to the gun-toting Mercedes driver as Limonov: «The scene in the street was symbolic — Dugin sometimes mistook himself for me. I think he really genuinely wanted to be Limonov.» In Dugin, Limonov had found a cause, at least temporarily. As Dugin told me: «Limonov as a writer was incapable of invention, and so he only wrote about what happened to him. He needed events to write about.» In Limonov, Dugin had found a publicist: «Dugin always needed a director, he couldn't function on his own», according to Limonov.
As Limonov gradually got to know Dugin, he found he was materially better-off than he let on. He had a vaulted Stalin-era apartment in the centre of Moscow, rare books and a computer. As Limonov wrote: «I think Dugin exaggerated his poverty because he was embarrassed. I think when I left they threw the sausages in the trash and ate meat.» Dugin's relative wealth is perhaps an indication that the writer received funding beyond what can be explained by his book sales.
Dugin, according to Limonov, was an impossible romantic, but otherwise had no real strict beliefs: «Dugin was like a chameleon or an octopus, who can mimic the colours of whatever environment it is put in. He lived in a fascist environment, and so he assumed fascist colours.» He also brought a «bright spirit of megalomania» to the party, and an indifference to traditional ideas of right and left. «Unconditionally, as an intellectual, Dugin surpassed practically any other single figure in the Russian world at the time», said Limonov, even after their acrimonious break-up in 1998.
In 1993, amid economic shock therapy that plunged Russia into crisis, the situations of the democrats and the patriotic opposition were reversed. Once ascendant, Yeltsin's camp very rapidly lost support to a growing opposition nationalist mood, stoked by hardliners in the system.
The economy was mostly to blame. Yeltsin had come to power on the promise that democracy would usher in an era of Western-style economic prosperity; instead, in 1992 the economy collapsed. In January of that year came the first market reforms, which saw prices rise by 245 per cent that month alone, creating widespread panic. Hyperinflation wiped out the savings of the university professors, bureaucrats and intellectuals who, just a few months before, had been the strongest bulwark of liberal reforms. The balance of opinion in the Supreme Soviet shifted fast. Hundreds of deputies who had once backed Yeltsin drifted into the opposition camp.
The nationalists, whose initial experiences at the ballot box had been farcical, began to gain popular support, becoming a political threat to Yeltsin. And it was he — the selfsame politician who, just two years before, had faced down tanks — who ultimately would be forced to rely on armed force to secure his power.
Politically, the reformers were in trouble. There were mass defections from the democratic camp to the side of the patriotic opposition. Ruslan Khasbulatov, an economist who was speaker of the Supreme Soviet, and even Yeltsin's own vice-president, former fighter pilot Alexander Rutskoy, joined the opposition against him.
Yeltsin deftly managed to shed most of the blame for the dislocation caused by economic reforms and push it onto his prime minister, the 35-year-old whiz-kid Egor Gaidar (who was in and out of power according to Yeltsin's mood), and his privatization chief, the enigmatic economist Anatoly Chubais. Yeltsin was still popular: when parliament threatened to impeach him, he held a referendum and won 59 per cent of the vote. But his influence was nonetheless waning, and Russia's political system slid towards conflict once again. Throughout the summer of 1993, Yeltsin plotted to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections, while his opponents still planned to try again to impeach him. But neither could garner the political support to finish the other off.
The events of September–October 1993 would lead to armed conflict in the centre of Moscow, the worst fighting there since 1917, and very nearly to full-scale civil war. The motives and behaviour of both sides remain extremely puzzling to this day. After the conflict was over, US President Bill Clinton said Yeltsin had «bent over backwards» to avoid bloodshed; however, there is accumulating evidence that bloodshed is exactly what he wanted — to do militarily what he could not do politically: destroy the opposition, suspend the constitution, and unilaterally redress the balance between executive and legislative powers to create a super-presidency. That is exactly what he got.
On 21 September, Yeltsin struck, signing «Decree 1400» dissolving parliament. He freely admits in his memoirs that this was an unconstitutional measure, but ironically it was the only way to defend democracy in Russia, he claimed: «Formally the president was violating the constitution, going the route of antidemocratic measures, and dispersing the parliament — all for the sake of establishing democracy and rule of law in the country.»
Again, at the centre of the stand-off was the famed White House, which was a familiar symbol of freedom to Western television viewers — the very place where Yeltsin had stood stalwart and called for resistance to the generals» coup in August 1991. This time the tables were turned: Rutskoy and Khasbulatov were ready and they barricaded themselves in the White House. The political confrontation turned increasingly ugly with each passing day, as the city of Moscow turned off the electricity and water to the building. But parliament held firm, voting to impeach Yeltsin, who was on thin legal ice in dissolving parliament. For days the confrontation hung in the balance. The army did not want to become involved in politics, as it had been in 1991 and during the various independence struggles around the Soviet Union which had preceded its break-up. However, it became clear that only the army could eventually decide the outcome.
Curiously, while electricity to parliament was cut off immediately, it took a week before the Interior Ministry put a cordon of razor wire and police around the building — a delay that allowed political leaders, ex-generals, thrill-seeking teenagers, disgruntled pensioners and everyone in between to flood in. They all milled around inside the building, meeting by candlelight, with no one visibly in charge.
Vladislav Achalov, a former tank commander who was drummed out of the army for supporting the August 1991 coup, was the acting defence minister, appointed by Rutskoy. He made the fateful decision — in retrospect a bad miscalculation — to appeal to paramilitary patriotic opposition groups to join the defenders. Thus Dugin, Prokhanov, Limonov and other nationalists joined the parliamentary defenders in the gloomy candlelit darkness. Dugin was deeply unimpressed: «There was chaos. Everyone was wandering around, they thought they would receive new government posts, that they would rule the country. Nobody thought they would simply be shot.»
The arrival of fighters and radical extremists was welcomed by Khasbulatov and Rutskoy as an extra show of muscle. But throwing in their lot with the nationalist opposition would ultimately prove a gigantic mistake. They were out of their depth. They thought they would be fighting for control of buildings and neighbourhoods, when the real battle was for television screens and world opinion.
That was the only thing constraining Yeltsin. He did not lack muscle — he used only a handful of the 6,000 riot police during the crisis.4 He had army Special Forces units, tough-eyed commandos under the command of the Federal Security Service (FSB — the successor to the KGB) and the Interior Ministry; and although it remained officially neutral, he also controlled the army. The Taman Motor Rifle Division, which had roared into Moscow two years previously, was based an hour away, as was the Kantemirov Tank Division. The only thing Yeltsin lacked was the legitimacy to use the force arrayed at his disposal. Had he declared a state of emergency and fired on parliament during the first day, there would have been an outcry worldwide and probably a mutiny within the armed forces. But the appearance of gangs of communists, mercenaries, crypto-fascists and neo-Nazis may have provided the spectacle he needed to justify the use of force, and to call parliament a «fascist communist armed rebellion», which he did on 4 October, an hour before tanks opened fire.
Ilya Konstantinov, a former boiler-room worker who was head of the opposition National Salvation Front, recalls:
It was obvious that [the paramilitary groups] were compromising the whole parliament. I don't even think they were aware they were doing it. But by the time they were in the building, we couldn't get them out. We couldn't eject them without a fight, and no one wanted this.
International public opinion, initially wavering and unwilling to tolerate violent repression of parliament by the Yeltsin administration, gradually swung in the president's favour as Khasbulatov and Rutskoy faltered and erred.
For two weeks, the siege was static, as parliamentarians and protesters milled around the darkened White House, meeting by candlelight, going home every day to take showers and shave. Rebel leaders tried to whip up support in the streets, and gangs of opposition protesters clashed frequently with police. Yeltsin, meanwhile, used the airwaves to coax the population over to his side.
There was little bloodshed until 3 October, when the momentum seemed suddenly to shift in favour of the mutineers. A massive crowd gathered in Moscow's October Square, under a statue of Lenin, and began marching north along the ring road, towards parliament, in a bold attempt to break the police blockade of the building. They overwhelmed an outnumbered detachment of riot police on the Krymsky Bridge, capturing weapons and ten military trucks; and then, to their utter astonishment, police surrounding parliament gave way after a small scuffle, surrendering to protesters. The crowd then broke through the police lines surrounding parliament, breaking the blockade.
In the euphoria, as they massed in front of the building, the protesters waited to be told what to do next by the very confused leaders of the revolt. From the balcony of the White House, Khasbulatov said to move on the Kremlin; Rutskoy said to go to Ostankino — the needle of a tower from where the city's radio and television signals are broadcast and which houses the offices of the main national broadcasters. As the crowd decided on Ostankino, the battle appeared to hang in the balance. No loyal military units barred the way of the 700-odd protesters who set out on the ring road towards the television tower, driving in captured military trucks and school buses. Dugin, Limonov and Prokhanov were among them, hanging off the backs of trucks or crammed into buses. «The city seemed to be ours», said Limonov. «But it only seemed that way.»
The man leading the protesters to take the TV tower was General Albert Makashov. Riding in a jeep with a few heavily armed bodyguards, he led the motley motorcade around the ring road and towards Ostankino. As they drove, he looked out at the road and saw ten armoured personnel carriers (APCs) roaring alongside. «Our guys», he assured his men. He appeared to believe that the APCs were carrying mutinous forces that had switched sides to join the protesters. But he was wrong. They were, in fact, transporting a unit of 80 commandos from the elite Vityaz battalion of the Interior Ministry's Dzerzhinsky Division, still under Yeltsin's control, that had been scrambled to defend the TV centre. Their vehicles drove alongside those of the protesters for most of the way.5 One account of the day, albeit on a pro-rebel website known only as Anathema-2, deserves some attention. It (and numerous witnesses) reported, fairly plausibly, that the Moscow ring road at Mayakovsky Square was blocked by Vityaz APCs, and that, more incredibly, the column of armed demonstrators in vehicles had stopped in front of it, but was allowed to continue.6
The protesters and the Vityaz commandos arrived at Ostankino at roughly the same time. Sergey Lisyuk, the Vityaz commander, says he was given the order via radio to return fire if fired upon. «I made them repeat it twice, so those riding next to me also heard it.»7 The soldiers, arrayed in body armour and clinking with weaponry, ran through the same underpass as the protesters and entered the building. Meanwhile the protesters set up outside with megaphones and heavy trucks. Nightfall was drawing near. The protesters were jubilant, toting truncheons and riot shields captured from police. Eighteen of them had assault rifles and one had an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Makashov, the former general who commanded the armed men, ordered the vehicles to turn around and ferry more demonstrators, until the crowd outside the TV centre numbered over a thousand. Journalists arrived in vans and jeeps, dragging tripods and hurriedly unwinding cables. Inside, the Vityaz men, in grey camouflage with black balaclavas, could be seen scurrying around erecting barricades and taking up firing positions.
Night fell. It was around 19:20 when General Makashov, wearing a black leather overcoat and black paratrooper beret, addressed the Vityaz defenders inside Ostankino: «You have ten minutes to lay down your arms and surrender, or we will begin storming the building!» The Vityaz men made no public response, though negotiations between Makashov and Lisyuk were ongoing via radio, according to numerous accounts.
At 19:30 a group of protesters brought in a heavy military truck, captured that day from riot police, to try to break into the television compound. Over and over, it battered against the glass and steel entrance, trying to smash through; but it was unable to get through the concrete building supports. Near the truck squatted the man toting the grenade launcher. Details of this man, including his last name, are scant, though Alexander Barkashov told me his name was «Kostya» and he was a veteran of the Trans-Dniester conflict of 1990. Other witnesses say that he was a civilian, and did not know how to fire the grenade launcher until a policeman who had joined the parliamentary mutiny showed him how. What happened next is still the subject of a great deal of controversy.
To this day, the specific actions that led to the carnage at the TV centre are still debated, but what can be established is that as the truck was smashing its way into the compound, snipers on the upper floors of the building opened fire. Simultaneously, an explosion reverberated on the lower floors of the TV centre, and a Vityaz private named Nikolay Sitnikov was killed. Colonel Lisyuk said he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the crowd. He said his men opened fire in self-defence, and only after Private Sitnikov's death.
Every witness has a slightly different memory. Dugin recalls that a Vityaz soldier fired a shot which hit the leg of the man with the grenade launcher, who accidentally triggered his weapon: «The Vityaz men started shooting people, unarmed people. At first some started shooting back, three or four machine-gun rounds, and that was it, later the shooting was only from Vityaz.» Prokhanov saw the grenade man fall. He «suddenly began to sit, to slip along a wall. Nearby the twilight flashed and a small cloud of concrete debris was lifted into the air by a bullet strike.» That was his description of the scene, taken from Red Brown, his (very) semi-autobiographical novel about the events, published the following year.
Tracers flew out of the TV centre. Bullets cracked overhead and thudded into bodies. «A wave of heavy red explosions covered us all», according to Limonov. He dropped to his belly and crawled away. At one point he looked back to where he had been standing, near the truck, and saw 20 bodies, «some of them were groaning, most said nothing». Tracer bullets rained down on the crowd for over an hour. At least 62 people were killed in the mêlée, mainly bystanders, but also several journalists.
Dugin wrote movingly about the tragedy, finding esoteric meaning in the events. In one account of the chaos he described how he had «felt the breath of spirit» during the massacre, when, seeking cover, he dived behind a car and accidentally pushed someone who had already taken cover there into the open. Instead of shoving him angrily «as a live human body should involuntarily do», the man simply embraced him, exposing himself to fire and shielding Dugin from the shots. Dugin wrote of the transcendent spiritual feeling «above the flesh and above life» which he felt, being under fire for the first time.
«It was a day of severe defeat», he wrote seven years later, «when it seemed that not only our brothers and sisters and our children, but also the huge structure of Russian history had fallen.»8 He spent most of the night under the car, and finally crawled away into the nearby stand of trees after the shooting subsided, finding Oleg Bakhtiyarov, one of Makashov's bodyguards, who had been shot in the leg. Dugin flagged a car down, took Oleg to hospital, and went back to the Duma at about 3 a.m. The mood was sombre, as news of the scale of the catastrophe at Ostankino filtered back. «That's when I understood that our leaders were bastards, that they started this war, they started this confrontation, they sent people with no weapons, no instructions, to die. They simply committed a crime.» Knowing the end was coming, Dugin left parliament in the small hours of the morning.
To this day Lisyuk defends the actions of his men: «The firing was aimed only at those who were armed, or who tried to obtain arms», he said in a 2003 interview. However, he added:
Try yourself to figure out, in the dark, who is a journalist and who is a fighter … I don't have any guilt — I followed orders. Of course, I feel very sorry for the ones who died, especially the ones who were innocent. We were all victims of a political crisis. But I want to say the following: the price would be high if the military did not follow orders.9
However, Colonel Lisyuk's version is disputed, and a number of inconsistencies add to the mystery of exactly what, and who, caused the massacre. Leonid Proshkin, the head of a special investigative team from the Russian general prosecutor's office, spent months investigating the parliamentary uprising. He found no evidence that a rocket-propelled grenade had hit the building because there was no damage found that was consistent with such an explosion:
Such a grenade can burn through half a metre of concrete, the grenade from an RPG-7. And all that was there were marks from a large-calibre machine gun, from an APC. It all boiled down to this: if Sitnikov had been killed by an RPG, it would have looked completely different.10
Proshkin determined that the wounds received by Sitnikov, and the damage to his bullet-proof vest, were not consistent with an RPG-7, which is designed to penetrate tank armour. Rather, it was likely caused by a simple hand grenade:
Sitnikov died not from the firing of the grenade launcher from the direction of Supreme Soviet supporters standing near the entrance, but as a result of the explosion of some sort of device located inside the building, that is, in the possession of the defenders.11
It remains possible, therefore, that Sitnikov's death was either an accidental grenade detonation or, more ominously, the result of a provocation aimed at goading the building's nervous defenders into massacring the crowd.
For Yeltsin, Ostankino was a tragedy, but a tactical success in his duel with parliament. It was portrayed on TV screens and newspapers across the world as an armed attack by protesters on the TV station, coming in the wake of the successful seizure of the mayor's office. It was possible (and partly true) for the Kremlin to say that, rather than massacring dozens of nearly defenceless demonstrators, they had repelled an armed attack.
After Ostankino, the end of the conflict was no longer in doubt. At 7 a.m. on 4 October, several T-80 tanks positioned themselves across the Moscow River from the White House. They were manned entirely by officers. Meanwhile, commandos from Alpha Group reluctantly took up positions around the building, waiting for the order to storm it.
It was during the lead-up to the operation that another mysterious tragedy occurred. As the Alpha detachment was exiting their APCs, one of the soldiers was hit by a sniper and mortally wounded. Korzhakov — Yeltsin's former KGB bodyguard, who took a leading role in managing the 1993 parliamentary crisis — writes of this incident in his biography. Seeing one of their own killed, he said, had brought Alpha's fighting spirit back: «Suddenly their military instincts returned, and their doubts vanished.»12 To this day, however, the mysterious shooting is debated. After his retirement, Gennady Zaytsev, the Alpha commander at the time, gave an interview saying that the shot did not come from the White House, but rather from forces loyal to President Yeltsin in the Mir Hotel.13 He made the incendiary accusation that the shot had been a deliberate attempt to provoke his forces: «It did not come from the White House. That's a lie. That was done with one goal in mind, to make Alpha angry, so that we rushed in there and cut everyone to pieces.»14 If true, it might cast new light on the killing of Private Sitnikov the previous day, which had provoked the massacre at Ostankino by the Vityaz commandos.
Korzhakov disputed this account, saying in an interview that Zaytsev was «in a bad psychological state» during the operation: «And how anyway is he able to tell where [the soldier] was shot from? Did he do proper police work? Did he line up the body and take measurements? No. They took the guy off the battlefield alive, it was only later he died.» Zaytsev said, however, that he understood the situation immediately, and despite what he believed to be a provocation that had cost a young soldier his life, he ordered the operation to go ahead: «I understood that, if we completely refuse the operation, Alpha would be disbanded. It would be the end.»15 However, he is sure in retrospect that the reason Alpha was transferred to the Ministry of Security's control after the conflict was that it did not perform its duties «using different methods» — i.e. taking the building by force and killing Rutskoy and Khasbulatov.
The identity of the sniper, the killer of the Alpha soldier, remains one of the key mysteries yet to be unravelled in the events of that October, just like the explosion at the Ostankino tower. If Alpha, the elite soldiers of Russia's intelligence service, were themselves merely rats in the maze of a broader conspiracy, it is chilling to think of who could have been higher up the food chain.
Shortly before 9 a.m., one of the T-80 tanks fired a 150mm shell at the White House, hitting the top floors. There followed several more shells, likewise aimed at the top floors in order to avoid killing the building's occupants. The shelling was mainly symbolic, to break the morale of the defenders. Nonetheless, some 70 people are believed to have been killed, including some bystanders. After the shelling, the Alpha commandos positioned around parliament moved in and led the mutineers out peacefully.
Ultimately, the snipers firing on the pro-Kremlin forces throughout the siege of the White House were never found or tried. Korzhakov suggested that they belonged to the Union of Officers and had escaped from the White House via tunnels, under the Moscow River and out of the Hotel Ukraine on the other side. Security Minister Nikolay Golushko was thought to have sealed these off but had not, according to Korzhakov.
The events of late 1993 were grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists, reflecting the overwhelming conviction of the parliamentary defenders that they had been the victims of a great deception, designed to lure them into a trap. The Red Brown protesters now believed that Ostankino had been a set-up — that the trucks they had captured from riot police (with keys still in the ignition!) were part of a grand strategy to goad them into the killing fields outside Ostankino, where they could provide their own pretext for getting massacred. They claimed to have been emboldened by specially planted disinformation concerning the supposed defection of army units to their side. They had — in the version described on Anathema — even been allowed through a roadblock on Moscow's ring road, all for the sole purpose of providing a provocation aimed at giving Yeltsin the excuse to use tanks against parliament.
Prokhanov's account of the events is encased in his surrealistic fantasy novel Red Brown, which described the fictional «Operation Crematorium': a conspiracy by Yeltsin and his American puppeteers aimed at trapping the patriotic opposition in the kill-zone of Ostankino and the smoking tomb of the White House. But the use of provocateurs by the regime may not simply have been a figment of Prokhanov's vivid imagination. This became apparent when I interviewed Alexander Barkashov about his role in the 1993 confrontation.
I had to drive for three hours to his dacha outside Moscow, where he keeps fighting dogs and a collection of hunting bows. As the evening wore on, he became more and more conspiratorial, until eventually I asked him why he had taken part on the side of the parliamentary defenders. He dumbfounded me by replying that he had been acting under the orders of his commander in the «active reserve», by which he meant the retired chain of command of the former KGB. He identified his commander as acting Defence Minister Achalov, the same man who had originally issued the call for armed nationalist gangs to come to the aid of the White House defenders: «If Achalov had told me to shoot Khasbulatov or Rutskoy, I would have.» If his claim is true, it would explain a great deal. Barkashov played the role of a provocateur in the parliamentary siege, discrediting the defenders in the eyes of world opinion by publicly aligning them with neo-Nazis. Curiously, Barkashov's forces from Russian National Unity (RNU) did not take part in the Ostankino siege, and the party lost only two members killed in the fighting.
Achalov, whom I interviewed about Barkashov's claim, flatly denied the accusations: «I'm just a tank soldier, nothing more. I don't know what Barkashov is talking about.» If Barkashov, in his own words, was acting not according to the convictions of an ideologue, but on the orders of a state structure, then the goals of that structure must be wondered at. The rise of nationalism in post-communist Russia may have been a far more complicated event than first meets the eye.
* * *
Dugin had left the White House in the small hours of the morning, knowing what would come. He went back to his apartment and, his belongings packed, waited to be arrested. «I was one of the ideologists, I was sure they would arrest me, but they didn't. We were all waiting for the repressions, but they never came.» Instead, there arrived an invitation to appear on Red Square, at the time a popular talk show, where he was asked about his role in the attempted coup.
Clearly, the Kremlin was trying another tack. Instead of suffering repressions, which might have been expected, the rebels were by and large left untouched. Many were encouraged to return to political life. Prokhanov went into hiding in the forest for months, but it turned out that no one was actually looking for him. The Day was closed by the authorities, but Prokhanov was allowed almost immediately to open a successor newspaper, Zavtra (Tomorrow).
The remarkable turn of events showed how Yeltsin changed strategy: after killing a significant number of the opposition, he now moved to co-opt them, holding elections in which he allowed the Communist Party to participate, following which he allowed the rebel plotters to be amnestied. Yeltsin also pushed through a new constitution, creating in effect a super-presidency that emasculated parliament and gave the post-1993 status quo legal form. Following the October 1993 confrontation, the opposition was never again able (or inclined) to challenge Yeltsin on any matter of substance.
The terrible power of the state was reborn once again in the hands of the Kremlin. The old USSR had not been able to lift a finger to save itself in 1991, when Marshal Yazov could not think «in whose name» to give the order to fire on demonstrators. Now that state had revealed itself only too clearly outside Ostankino and the White House. It was every bit the unblinking methodical killer that the old Soviet Union had been. But the conflict of 1993 changed the ruling equation in Russia. The shelling of parliament both strengthened Yeltsin and crippled him at the same time. His approval rating plummeted from 59 per cent to 3 per cent, and the Communists and Liberal Democrats swept the next parliamentary elections to comprise the bulk of the opposition to Yeltsin.
Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats were rewarded for their decision to stay neutral in the uprising, enjoying the Kremlin's good offices and favourable TV coverage. He and his deputy Alexey Mitrofanov had weathered the crisis in Germany («like true Bolshevik revolutionaries», jokes Mitrofanov), and Zhirinovsky showed up at the White House in the aftermath with bottles of duty-free wine. «They are Molotov cocktails!» he scolded deputies who questioned his commitment to the patriotic cause. Winning a quarter of the votes cast for party lists, the LDPR won so many seats, in comparison to its small membership, that even bodyguards found themselves on the list of deputies; when even that was not enough, they took some Communist Party deputies from Zyuganov's election list. The new Duma elections were a considerable windfall — «a gift from the sky to the moderate-communist nomenklatura opposition», according to Limonov. «In a normal, non-parliamentary context of political struggle, what awaited them were their slippers and disputes over tea.»
That appeared to most observers to be part of some grand bargain by Yeltsin, allowing some nationalist parties to run in the election, in exchange for support in passing the new constitution. The February 1994 amnesty, which freed Rutskoy, Khasbulatov and other kingpins of the 1993 crisis, also seemed to be a political trade; soon afterwards, parliament ended its investigation into the official crisis death toll of 173, principally at Ostankino and as a result of the shelling of the White House.
But the strength of the nationalist message could already be seen in Yeltsin's eagerness to co-opt it. Yeltsin was forced to embrace his opponents» ideas in order to stay in power: his team had proved its fitness to rule through its cynicism and ruthlessness, its ideology steadily adapted to the reality of the country. Yeltsin once again stole his opponents» proposals. He had stolen Gorbachev's reform agenda, and now he began to co-opt the ideology of his nationalist opponents. He put out a barrage of new initiatives designed to outflank the nationalists from the right. He reinvigorated the Commonwealth of Independent States, and negotiated a Union Treaty with Belarus, whose new president, Alexander Lukashenko, elected in 1994, publicly advocated such a step. He championed nationalist causes, throwing the Kremlin's weight behind efforts to rebuild the Christ the Saviour cathedral in the centre of Moscow, which had been demolished and turned into a swimming pool by Stalin in 1932. He also allowed the Duma a largely free hand to legislate on nationalist and religious issues, creating a commission in 1996 to come up with a Russian «national idea».
Dugin and many other extremists said they sensed a sharp shift in the Kremlin's attitude towards nationalism and away from the West in the wake of the events of that October. «Yeltsin made a correction, a profound correction, after 1993», says Dugin today. «Politically he castrated the political opposition, but also he has corrected, improved and changed his own political course.»
Yeltsin's strategy of carrots and sticks split the nationalists — the Communists and the LDPR went into parliament, where they never again challenged the authority of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Dugin and Limonov refused to join them. «We tried to remain radical and irreconcilable», wrote Dugin, though he admitted that, during the following six years of Yeltsin rule,
…we, the defeated, humiliated, crushed party, can hardly brag about anything … But we have kept the most important thing, and no matter how dispersed, scattered, divided and separated we are we have kept precisely the Spirit that breathed then [at the massacre of Ostankino]. It doesn't matter that it no longer burns, but it is obviously smouldering independently, it aches in us, torments us.
The shock of what he had seen, Dugin says, was profound. During his appearance on Red Square he was asked whether he bore responsibility for the killing that had taken place. The question shook him, but he handled matters skilfully, blurting out: «Yes, but your Yeltsin is a bloody assassin.» The answer came in a single breath and so nothing could be edited out. The interview was not used. Nonetheless, «It was a trauma.» Dugin withdrew temporarily from political life.
Limonov was just as demoralized, and disgusted with the nationalist movement in the wake of the 1993 disaster. He wanted to create a real opposition party, with an ideology «based not on ethnic emotions of bleating, primeval people, not based on some outdated ideology of orthodoxy, but on the concept of national interest».
The two men sat in Limonov's flat one day in the spring of 1994. Limonov proposed taking the National Bolshevik Front, which they had created the previous July, and turning it into a party. Dugin was none too keen on the idea. Since he had left Pamyat in 1988, he had vowed not to participate in political organizations, and the experience of October had even further decreased his appetite for politics. He said he would help in the organization of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), but he did not want a formal post. In time, Dugin came around. The two men discussed their project in a beer tent on Old Arbat Street in Moscow. Dugin leaned over and said: «Eduard, your task as a warrior and kshatriya is to lead people; and I am but a priest, magician, Merlin, I have a woman's role to explain and console.»16
In fact, the party was arguably Dugin's brainchild — the name was his idea, as was the flag: a black hammer and sickle in a white circle on a red background, evoking the Nazi swastika. It was not going to win them any elections, in a country that lost 20 million to Hitler's fascism; but that was not the NBP's goal. The official NBP salute was a straight arm raised with a fist, alongside a cry of «Da, Smert!» (Yes! Death!).17 Inside the group's headquarters, the highest-ranking party member present was always referred to as the Bunkerführer. The veneer of fascism was very much calculated — it was a bohemian «political art project», in Dugin's words. He, according to Limonov, «seemed to have deciphered and translated the bright shock that Soviet youth experience when they pronounce the initials «SS»».
The NBP's ironic stance towards fascism, though, was also a carefully calculated ploy. The salutes, the slogans («Stalin, Beria, Gulag!» was one) were so odd and over the top that they verged on parody. Equating their party with fascist symbols, however, was a pose — pioneered by Dugin — that would come to define Russia's image of authoritarian rule under Putin in the coming decade. The NBP was a «sight gag» that undercut criticism by making it seem — ever so slightly — as though it was missing the point. Calling the swastika-waving, goose-stepping NBP members «fascists» frankly sounded so odd that no one ever did it, for fear of looking ridiculous. Both men were instinctive haters of conventional wisdom. They loved to shock. And the movement they founded was a mélange of each man's upbringing: Dugin a product of the overly intellectual Moscow bohemia of the 1980s; Limonov, the pre-AIDS Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s transplanted to central Moscow.
The name of the party made no difference to Limonov, Dugin told American diplomats in 2008 (the cable was published in 2010 by Wikileaks): «He wanted to call it «National Socialism», «National Fascism», «National Communism» — whatever. Ideology was never his thing. The scream in the wilderness — that was his goal.»
Limonov, according to Dugin (they had had a bad falling-out by this point), was like «a clown in a little traveling circus. The better he performs, the more attention he wins, the happier he is».18 At around the same time, when he spoke to me in 2009, Limonov called Dugin «a degenerate servitor of the regime, and shameful conformist».
It would be a mistake to view the NBP as a serious political party with clear goals: the party's code of conduct includes «the right not to listen when your girlfriend is talking to you», and members were encouraged to vandalize Russian cinemas showing Western films (though no one in the party has any memory of this actually having happened). Instead, the NBP was designed to become the germ of a new counterculture, the core of what Andreas Umland, an expert on Russian nationalist groups, refers to as «uncivil society», whose goal is not necessarily conquest of executive and legislative power, but rather ideological subversion aimed at acquiring dominance over the cultural superstructure.19 The NBP quickly became an icon. «You had three choices if you were a teenager here in the 1990s», explained Andrey Karagodin, an NBP veteran. «You could get into rave, you could become a gangster, or you could join the NBP. That was it.»
Limonov enlisted his friend Egor Letov, lead singer with the popular band Civil Defence. His NBP membership card was number 4. He would routinely interrupt concerts with long diatribes against Yeltsin and in support of the NBP. Aside from Letov, ex-NBP members have distinguished themselves in some of the most creative professions in Russia. Zakhar Prilepin, who joined the movement later on, went on to become one of Russia's most interesting young authors, after a career that, oddly, began in the elite police force, the OMON. Alexey Belyayev-Gintovt went on to win the coveted Kandinsky Art Prize. And Karagodin himself is now editor of Russia's edition of Vogue.
The NBP was an exploration of the limits of freedom. In this Limonov and Dugin represented diametrically opposite poles: the anarchy of the Russian spirit on the one side; on the other, the ever-present totalitarian impulses that have gripped the Russian soul over five centuries of history. It was a party which espoused fascist ideas, yet simultaneously revelled in the libertine Moscow of the 1990s. It was a living demonstration of the paradox of freedom and a simultaneous suggestion of the authoritarian alternative. As Letov put it: «Everything which isn't anarchy is fascism, and there is no anarchy.» This dialectic of contradictory thesis and antithesis was played out in the playground of Yeltsin's Russia, and became the ruling synthesis of the next decade. The movement pioneered the creation of «youth leagues», which sprang up everywhere in the Putin era in a bid by the Kremlin to control the streets. «They stole all our ideas», complained Limonov to me in 2011. Limonov went on to become the shouting conscience of the Putin era — the highest-profile dissident of a new regime; while Dugin would become the ideologist of the new autocracy.
The first issue of their newspaper, created by Limonov and named Limonka (the nickname for a Second World War grenade), came out in 1994, with a front page denouncing the «old opposition» in favour of the new. Dugin presented the founding idea of the party, arguing that the difference between old and new opposition was not one of political ideology, but one of psychology and style. The «old patriots» were focused on restoring the old, while the new patriots were not reactionary «whatever their views, from communism to monarchism to Russian fascism, they think in terms of a new society, a revolutionary process … their goal is to create something principally new».
Funding was going to be difficult. «There was basically never any money», remembers Dugin. Without money to rent an office, they decided to try and extort one — with surprising results. In mid-December they wrote to the Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov, vaguely threatening that unspecified disturbances would befall the city of Moscow if they were denied. Luzhkov, a rotund, proletarian former chemical industry specialist who had arrived on Yeltsin's coat-tails to govern the city, was not in the mood for trouble and seemed to think that a free flat was a small price to pay for the good behaviour of yet another radical fringe group of sociopaths. Out of the blue, a few weeks later, someone from Luzhkov's office called and made an appointment for them with the Moscow Commission of State Property. The beaming city bureaucrat who received them assured them that «art and the state should work hand in hand». He offered them accommodation for 17 roubles per year per square metre — «that is basically free», Dugin assured a perplexed Limonov.
The apartment they chose was a basement on Frunzenskaya Street, not coincidentally located below a police station. The flat «had the notable quality that every so often, due to a cracked sewer pipe located in the wall, it would become covered in shit», according to Dugin. «The bunker», as it became known, was a focal point for the NBP. As Prilepin described it in his semi-autobiographical novel Sankya:
It was similar to a boarding school for sociopathic children, the workshop of a mad artist and a military headquarters for barbarians who had decided to go to war against God knows where … There were a lot of young people who cut their hair in all manner of ways — either letting it vegetate, or leaving a single bang, or a Mohawk, or even weird whiskers above the ears. However, there were unexpectedly also boys with perfect hair styles in suits, and ordinary workers with simple faces.
With their new premises, they began to coalesce. But not really. Limonov was a committed revolutionary who wanted to declare war on convention in all forms, an instinctive hater of the political establishment. Dugin, still lecturing at the General Staff Academy and not wanting to burn his bridges entirely with the political order, was more restrained. Dugin and Limonov more than once clashed over Dugin's lack of extremism. Dugin readily admits that he was gently putting the brake on the more radical tendencies of the NBP. As he told me in 2010: «During my period in the NBP, one could say under my supervision, there were no illegal acts, no criminal cases. Limonov would plan them, I would put the brakes on. I was opposed to violating the law for no reason.»
Limonka, meanwhile, was full of polemics and provocation. But the editorial line of the paper, again under Dugin's supervision, seemed to stick closely to the agenda of conservatives in the Kremlin clan led by Yeltsin's bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, who was fighting constantly with liberal opponents in Yeltsin's entourage.
A close reading of Limonka, according to NBP veteran and former Dugin acolyte Arkady Maaler, was illuminating. Rather than straight opposition, Dugin's editorials (for he ran the editorial department of Limonka) were more nuanced, praising the line of Kremlin hardliners like Korzhakov, while criticizing the liberal lobby within the government (such as privatization chief Anatoly Chubais).20 Maaler believes that Dugin was actually working the whole time for Kremlin hardliners, a faction led until 1996 by Korzhakov, while Limonov was not — something that Dugin categorically denies.
Yeltsin's most fateful concession to the hardliner lobby was the December 1994 invasion of Chechnya, which had effectively seceded from the Russian Federation, declaring full independence from Moscow in 1993 under the leadership of former Soviet Air Force General Dzhokhar Dudaev. Russia had supported the anti-Dudaev opposition, but attempts to wrest control of the autonomous region from separatist forces had stalled. In December 1994, Yeltsin ordered Russian forces to «restore constitutional order» in Chechnya, and this sparked a wave of resignations among army generals. Instead of a quick, surgical strike aimed at regime change, the campaign was a botched, bloody affair, and the Russian army quickly became bogged down in the conflict, taking an estimated 5,500 dead until a ceasefire was declared in 1996. A horrific toll was inflicted on Chechen civilians.
Chechnya quickly became synonymous with Yeltsin's impotence as a leader, but it symbolized a «correction» in the Kremlin's attitude, as Dugin put it, away from liberalism and towards nationalism in the wake of the events of October 1993. The conflict inspired some singularly ghastly headlines in Limonka. When Russian forces invaded, the paper's headline blared: «Welcome, War!» And after the Chechen capital fell (and before Russian forces were routed the following year) another banner headline read: «Hooray! Grozny is Taken!'
It is telling that the line on Chechnya changed soon after Dugin and Limonov split, when Limonov took control of the paper's editorial line: the paper began to support Chechen independence from Russia. The attitude to revolution also changed — in 2001 Limonov would be arrested for plotting terrorist attacks in Northern Kazakhstan. A cursory reading of Limonka headlines appears to confirm Maaler's allegation (though neither Dugin nor Limonov will admit it) that the NBP was operating within strict political limits during Dugin's time there. While cultivating a reputation for anarchy, the party never strayed far from certain boundaries, and it seems these were set by Dugin.
If the NBP had an agenda other than uncompromising nihilism and radical revolution, however, it was not obvious to the rank and file. It became the political party of choice among Russia's counterculture musicians and artists — popularizing nationalism within a stratum of society uniquely predisposed to avoiding it. Limonka became something of a phenomenon, both in Moscow and in boring Russian provincial towns, where it gingered up the stale atmosphere. It united disparate youth countercultures in its readership. «They didn't join the NBP, but they read us», says Limonov. The paper was particularly strong for its cultural offerings, its reviews of avant-garde cinema, rock groups and underground poets.
For many provincial Russian youths, languishing in stultifying mining towns and crushing poverty, the NBP offered a rush of adrenaline. Valery Korovin was one such convert, joining the movement in 1995. I found him ten years later, still Dugin's disciple and one of the leaders of the Eurasian movement in the Putin years. He told me how he had arrived there.
Growing up in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in the 1980s, he was the quintessential target audience of the NBP: talented, young and bored. A self-described «head banger», he happened to see a TV interview with Letov calling for revolution against the «Yeltsin regime», at which point the programme suddenly cut away for a commercial break. As Korovin recalls: «I realized I was completely out of it, I was sitting in Vladivostok out in the middle of nowhere, and meanwhile in Moscow Letov and somebody I'd never heard of, Limonov, were planning a world revolution. I had to get there and be part of it.» He took a train to Moscow, enrolled on a university course at the Moscow State Construction Institute, and sought out Limonov, finding him with about ten followers in the basement on Frunzenskaya Street. «I was in a very radical mood, expecting I would be given a bomb or a grenade to throw somewhere. I was serious-minded. They started to calm me down, saying «Easy, we have to prepare first».» Dugin was sitting in the far room, half-naked, typing seriously, surrounded by books and beer bottles. It was Saturday, and they had to clean the place once a week. Korovin remembers Limonov called to Dugin: «Sasha! What are all these bottles for?» «They are required for my work», said Dugin flatly. Korovin remembers: «They worked well together. Dugin was a philosopher, a metaphysician, works with the mind. Limonov was all in public. He was for public actions. Radical revolution.»
But gradually, the two men drifted apart. Limonov was not the first collaborator with whom Dugin quarrelled. In his autobiography, Limonov described his «Merlin» as «vindictive, destructive, totally jealous».
In 1995, the NBP was thoroughly trounced in parliamentary elections, and the first serious rift appeared between Dugin and Limonov. Dugin evidently saw that Limonov was not serious about reaching the establishment, and began working with Zhirinovsky's LDPR, which made Limonov crazy with anger. «Merlin was looking into the forest, searching for a new King Arthur», related Limonov in his autobiography. Korovin noticed the tension. It was clear to everyone in the NBP that, «Staying with Limonov, Dugin could not reach the establishment, could not address the Duma, ministers. Limonov made the party marginal.» Limonov loved the counterculture, bohemian project, but as a permanent malcontent he was uncomfortable with any role other than die-hard opposition. Dugin had greater ambitions. «I was holding him back», concedes Limonov today.21
Tensions continued in the NBP. It was divided into the intellectuals, who were with Dugin, and on Limonov's side the «chess faction», described by Korovin as «lumpen youths» who mainly played chess and worked out with dumbbells in the Frunzenskaya basement.
In 1997, Dugin further exacerbated the divide when he joined the Old Believer sect — a sixteenth-century schismatic version of the Orthodox Church, preferred by the original Eurasianists because it was the faith of Russia at the time of the Golden Horde. It was also soon after the publication of Khlyst, a book by Alexander Etkind, a professor of history at Cambridge University, on the role of Orthodox Christian sects in moulding the eschatological worldviews of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. In fact, Limonov complained in his biography that Dugin had made the entire NBP buy the book and read it.
Whatever the cause of Dugin's conversion, he convinced nine members of the NBP to convert as well, and even took the unusual step of inviting monks from the Preobrazhensky Old Believers monastery in Moscow to come and sew traditional black kosovorotki, or peasant blouses, for the entire NBP. According to Korovin, who followed Dugin into the Old Believers and still wears a long flowing beard to prove it: «Dugin's embrace of Old Belief irritated Limonov, even more so when most active members of the party followed this idea and started to fast, grow beards, sew shirts and go to church.» Limonov criticized Dugin openly. «Dugin's going mad», Limonov told one meeting. «He has zombified you and you follow him like blind moles. You have forgotten about the party, the revolution. It's necessary to give up all this crap.»
Dugin's faction started cultivating beards and dressing in black. «I thought it was a phase, a hobby, it would pass», wrote Limonov. «But the party was not made to serve the intellectual dalliances of our Merlin.» Dugin also stopped drinking — a step that was seen as intensely disloyal among the «chess faction» of his party. He even gave a lecture in 1997 on the need to delay revolution, saying that before any bloodshed they must first create a new type of human being — the «philosophical Russian».22 «Only after this, sometime in the far distant future could we have a revolution», related Limonov in his memoirs, describing Dugin's speech. After Dugin left the bunker to host a radio show, Limonov immediately countermanded him: «The party is not a circle for the study of art and literature», he told members. «The party has political goals and self-improvement is not one of them. I am all for self-improvement, but you can do this in your own time.»23
The movement split along theological lines. The final straw was an argument over 248 roubles which disappeared from the party's cash box, with the two groups pointing the finger at each other. Dugin wrote a long-winded article in Limonka pouring bile on «useless beer-swilling, chess-playing half dolts» in the NBP. Limonov's libelled loyalists demanded an apology. Dugin left in a huff, taking his nine followers, including Korovin. He settled in an office in a library across from the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, hung with postmodern art nouveau posters. Weeks before the split, Dugin had already begun his journey towards the political establishment, with the publication of a new book that would change his fate — and arguably that of Russia as well. «Dugin requalified as the guru of geopolitics in Russia», as Limonov put it.
«Black Wind, White Snow:
The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism»
// New Haven: «Yale University Press», 2016,
hardcover, 384 pp.,
dimentions: 235⨉159⨉32 mm
1 Shapova retaliated two decades later with an autobiographical It's Me, Elena: «I'm writing this story about how much I hate you», she writes on the second page, without naming Limonov. «Here is a story for your kids, if you ever have any. If you don't, so much the better.»
2 Edward Limonov, It's Me, Eddie: A fictional memoir, Pan Books, 1983.
3 Eduard Limonov, Anatomiya Geroya, Rusich, 1997.
4 Bruce Clark, The Empire's New Clothes: The end of Russia's liberal dream, Vintage, 1995.
Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski («Ida») is set to direct «Limonov,» an ambitious adaptation of French author Emmanuele Carrere's novelized biography of radical Russian poet and political dissident Eduard Limonov.
The Polish-born Pawlikowski has completed the screenplay for the biopic, which recounts «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,» as the extended title of the book's English translation reads. The film is set for a 2018 shoot.
Limonov was a Soviet underground idol under Leonid Brezhnev; a butler to a millionaire in Manhattan; a writer in Paris; and more recently the charismic leader of Russia's National Bolshevik Party.
The biopic will be in the languages of the places where it's set, which are Russia, New York, and Paris.
Italy's Wildside, which is owned by FremantleMedia, is co-producing «Limonov» with French producer Dimitri Rassam's Chapter 2, the company behind «The Little Prince.» The budget is about €16 million ($19 million). Warner Bros. Italia will be the film's Italian distributor. Talks are underway for a world sales company to come on board.
Wildside's Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli and Lorenzo Gangarossa are the lead producers.
Wildside won a bidding war in 2013 for rights to «Limonov,» which has been a bestseller in Italy and France, where it won the Prix Renaudot in 2011. Carrere's book has also been named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers.
Carrere is board as a consultant.
«Pavel has done a great job on the screenplay,» said Gianani, noting that Carrere's novel «was a re-interpretation of the Limonov character» and that «the film will be even more so.» British writer-director Ben Hopkins collaborated with Pawlikowski on the script.
Casting for the Russian actor who will play the lead has just started in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Pawlikowski first intersected with Limonov when the director shot 1992 Bosnian War BBC documentary «Serbian Epics» and filmed him in the company of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was found guilty last year of crimes against humanity.
Pawlikowski won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film for «Ida» in 2015. His upcoming Poland-set period romance «Cold War,» now in post-production, was acquired in August by Amazon Studios.
«What's wrong?» I asked my friend Mikhail* as he stumbled into the dorm room. «You seem shaken up.»
«It's nothing,» he said, sitting next to me on the bed. «A gang tried to beat me up on my way from the Metro.»
It happened in a central district of Moscow. And then it happened again two weeks later. It was the spring of 2005, the early stages of Russia's precipitous descent into the far right.
«A group of five or six,» he replied breathlessly through a thick Russian accent. «They wore black and had armbands with a hammer and… how do you say it?… A sword.»
After he left, I went to my computer to research the insignia, finding myself in the territory of the so-called «left-wing of fascism,» with terms like «Strasserism,» the «Black Front,» and «National Bolsheviks.» The leading National Bolshevik in Russia was a well-known aesthete and provocateur named Edward «Limonov» Savenko.
I recognized the name Limonov from The eXile, a bi-weekly English-language tabloid that thrived among the expatriates who flocked to Moscow in search of rebellion through sex, drugs, and nihilistic misanthropy.
As a student, Moscow's unfathomably complex socio-cultural composition gave me vertigo. I hoped to find in The eXile something like a weekly alternative news guide. What I found increasingly struck me as deranged and delusional.
Limonov performed the deeply nihilistic sentiment that expatriates wanted to find within Russian culture — like an actor playing the gimmicky stereotype of the Russian avant-garde. I had a sadly-mistaken faith that the editors of a popular expatriate alt-weekly would not regularly publish a fascist. Yet even former eXile editor Matt Taibbi would later call him a «neo-fascist revolutionary,» and Taibbi's former co-editor, Mark Ames, gave Limonov the cringe-worthy tagline, «the Iggy Pop of the right-wing literary world.»
The more I researched the supposed «left-wing fascists,» and particularly the National Bolsheviks who made Russia their geopolitical redoubt after the Cold War, the more I realized how vulnerable we were to an encroaching far right that used pop culture, decadence, and nihilism to access subcultures, co-opt their spaces and signifiers, and draw them into a morass of political reaction.
Much of the Western media and many experts have rightly emphasized the brutality of the Alt Right, drawing its lineage to sectors of the U.S. far-right. However, there is far less understanding of the influential role played by National Bolshevism and the destructiveness it has ported into the left under the guise of prurient satire and hysterical chauvinism.
With horror, I watched this process unfold over the next decade, as so-called National Bolsheviks crossed over into American countercultures, drawing together left and right-wing tendencies that have influenced the US's political spectrum contributing to the alt-right. The eXile's alums played a critical role in cultivating these connections, joining with and influencing the inchoate alt-right in defense of Putin's aggression and in opposition to Western liberalism.
Limonov and the National Bolsheviks
A goateed Trotsky look-alike, Limonov had spent an extended stint in New York City's bohemian subculture during the 1970s before mixing with the banal fascists of the European New Right in France. Advocating «an incinerating hatred of the anti-human system of the triad of liberalism/democracy/capitalism,» Limonov came to fuse far right and left, celebrating the genocidal former leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, as «the Bolshevik Caesar of our country in its best period.» Of self-proclaimed «super-fascist» Julius Evola, Limonov wrote that the «racist and woman-hater… presents the only ideological balance to socialism and Marxism.»
Limonov's ideological synthesis, known as National Bolshevism, has its dubious origins in the 1920s amid an assortment of leftists, Russian émigrés, and «revolutionary conservatives» hoping to unite Germany and the Soviet Union in national-socialist brotherhood. After Hitler's death and the destruction of the Reich in 1945, Nazis aligned with dissident Otto Strasser to create a «national revolutionary» following seeking a «Third Way» between the Communist Soviets and the Liberal North Atlantic. Influenced by these trends and promoted by banal fascists associated with the European New Right, National Bolsheviks continued the fight against NATO for a «spiritual empire» stretching «from Dublin to Vladivostok.»
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Limonov joined fellow National Bolshevik, Aleksandr Dugin, to promote that dream of a Eurasian «large space» premised on fascist geopolitics and based in the Kremlin. Committed to the total destruction of what they perceive as the liberal and weak West, the National Bolsheviks asserted the spiritual greatness of Traditionalism found in the «Heartland» of the Asian continent.
While Dugin became the philosopher of this fascist ideology, influencing everyone from the Communist Party to the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Limonov developed his role as a leading propagandist of the Russian far right. According to professor Markus Meili, Limonov «decisively influenced the emergence and growth of the Russian skinhead movement in the mid-1990s.» Despite this, firing on Sarajevo with war criminal Radovan Karadžić, and calling for a «Serbian solution» to challenges against Russia, he was indulged as a misunderstood performance artist.
Moscow and Misogyny
With Limonov, the eXile's editors, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, took a leading role in defining some of the most chauvinistic tendencies of non-Russian expats who used Russia as an exploitative playground for glorified sex tourism and corruption. While articles have been written about The eXile's misogyny, it is rarely shown in the context of the broader melange of left and far-right politics that the tabloid put forward with Limonov.
When confronted by an interviewer about writing, «we actually prefer Russian women who embrace their roles as sex objects,» among other missives, Taibbi responded that he «had this idea that I was an equal opportunity offender.» In his own part of their co-authored book about The eXile's early years, «The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia», Ames tells of hiring underage sex workers and threatening to murder his ex if she refused to abort their baby.
The authors now claim that the book and the tabloid merely featured, in Ames's words, a «shockingly offensive satirical aesthetic,» despite its original claims to «non-fiction.» Also, The Daily Caller reported that no woman has come forward with accusations of sexual impropriety against Taibbi stemming from those days.
At the same time, Newsweek contributing editor, Owen Matthews, claimed in The Moscow Times that he was present during real occasions that Ames wrote about in the tabloid under a pseudonym, «Johnny Chen,» only to later dismiss as fiction. Specifically, Matthews referenced an article in which «Chen» rapes a woman he meets at a nightclub. In an article that fits the description, «Chen» describes the victim as «bleeding and crying,» and contemplates throwing her off a balcony.
Contacted via email, Matthews cautioned that not all of The eXile's writings should be taken completely literally. «The eXile's weakness — in this puritan age — was their prurient celebration/satire of Moscow's excess, it's celebration of rape culture and denigration of women,» he explained.
«If you think they were reveling and exulting in Russia's deep decadence, you missed the point,» Matthews wrote. «They were living it, and writing about it, and exposing the horror of it on their own skins, as the Russian phrase goes.»
In an exceedingly hostile tweet responding to a question I emailed him, Ames called his pseudonymous persona «a character created to be outrageous and morally vile in order to burlesque 1990s American expats' rape and pillage of Yeltsin's Russia.» Since The eXile was at the heart of the very 1990s American expat scene it was satirizing, however, it becomes difficult to parse the satire from reality — and such blurred lines, themselves, obscure the effect of rape «humor» on that community in the first place.
Under his own name in a June 2000 interview, Ames told The Observer, «It took me a while to learn you really have to force Russian girls, and that's what they want… All relations between guys and girls is basically violent, I think. It's all war.» Satire was not mentioned.
Limonov took such logic to its political conclusion in his delirious essay, Who Needs Fascism in Russia: «Russia's citizens really want the FASCISTS to come — terrible, tensed, young — and solve all problems,» Limonov declared. «Life will suddenly become easy for the kept intelligentsia… A boss will come, take her by the hair, pull her to him, and use her in accordance with her purpose.»
Politically, The eXile came to follow now-familiar rules: criticize Putin, but reserve the most obscene tirades for Western media hypocrisy. They would level criticisms against Putin on tough issues, such as his stony response to the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but turn those articles back against the US. Ames seemed to oppose Putin and the oligarchs, but downplay the threat of fascists like Dugin, while publishing his comrade-in-arms, Limonov. For this reason, scholar and author of Russian Fascism, Stephen Shenfield, argued that «ways should be found to put the eXile out of business» (according to Ames's account).
Contributions to the Alt-Right
One of The eXile's most recognizable contributing editors was «the War Nerd,» the sobriquet of a war-obsessed misanthrope named John Dolan writing under the pseudonym Gary Brecher. In 1997, Dolan let his affinities be known by translating a Limonov novel under his own byline, but the pen names afforded him more license. He has admitted that the War Nerd is based on «my early self and people I knew» and that Brecher is «a more honest version of who I am.»
«Indians and Pakis Too Faggy for War,» read one Dolan headline in The eXile, deploying the racial slur common among the British far right. In another piece, he argued for «pruning» the world population by «nuking the entire Middle East,» because, «In a century the population will be 14 billion devout imbeciles (a nice volatile mix of Hindu and Muslim — what fun Saturday nights will be!)»
In 2002, Dolan joined far-right ideologue Steve Sailer for a Q&A in which he advanced racialized ideas about conflict. Alongside an essay by Sailer, Dolan placed a 2007 book review in The American Conservative, a magazine co-founded by Pat Buchanan, whom Dolan described as someone «I usually agree with.» The assistant editor at the time was alt-right «co-creator» Richard Spencer, who had already built a reputation as a far-right misogynist through his handling of the Duke lacrosse scandal.
Spencer told me in an email that he brought the War Nerd with him to Taki's Mag after being fired from The American Conservative for extremism. A spin-off of American Conservative, Taki's Mag was founded by Panagiotis Theodoracopulos, who has defended the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party as «good old-fashioned patriotic Greeks.»
Along with landing far-right agitator, Gavin McInnes, a job at Taki's, Spencer told me he personally solicited and edited three articles from Dolan in 2008 and 2009. Spencer's work at Taki's was crucial to the development of a new far-right movement that he was starting to call the «Alternative Right,» or «alt-right,» bringing anti-interventionist voices together with Ron Paul libertarians, hipster fashion, and white nationalists.
One of Dolan's articles in Taki's Mag, «War of the Babies,» presented undocumented migrants as combatants in the «conquest-by-immigration we're seeing now in Europe and North America» — a typical white nationalist talking point. «I was a fan of the War Nerd's outlandish yet very smart analysis,» Spencer told me.
As with The eXile, the alt-right presented the horrifying with a satirical twist, thus testing and challenging the boundaries of acceptable discourse. Dolan's 2008 eXile article, «Bush Fought the Wars and the Wars Won,» was reposted five days later at The American Conservative, showing his cross-over status. Indeed, he was so popular among the inchoate alt-right that white supremacist, John Derbyshire, used a Dolan epigram for his 2009 book on «Conservative Pessimism» before being fired by the National Review three years later for a racist article published in Taki's Mag.
Under Spencer's leadership, the alt-right was growing, and it embraced Dolan and The eXile with alacrity.
The eXile Returns
The eXile increasingly came to represent a common thread between left and far right in geopolitical sympathy with Putin's Russia and ruthless animosity for those they identified as neoconservatives, humorless leftists, and fussy liberals, alike.
Taibbi and Ames had parted ways in 2003, apparently on bad terms, but The eXile continued in Moscow for another five years. When Ames finally shuttered the publication, based on claims of state repression that were disputed by the eXile's own investors, Spencer wrote the publication up as a «fantastically irreverent English-language paper» and praised Limonov as «a true fusionist, as it were.»
Hoping to help find Dolan a new job, American Conservative editor, Daniel McCarthy (aka Tory Anarchist), proclaimed, «Save the War Nerd,» calling The eXile a «samizdat» — the word for Soviet dissident publications that tracked the persecution of activists.
As the alt-right grew, its members idolized The eXile. Daryush Valizadeh («Roosh V), a leading Men's Rights Activist (MRA) often condemned as a «rape advocate,» described Taibbi and Ames's book as life changing, writing, «my favorite part of the book being when they describe ladies night at the Duck Bar. It was dubbed ‘rape camp' by the expats.»
Like Roosh V, leading MRA, Matt Forney said of Ames and Taibbi's co-authored book, «This is honestly one of the few books I've read that changed my life, and one of the few I make a point to re-read once a year.» Similarly, on the alt-right Counter-Currents Radio, Forney praised Ames's 2005 book, «Going Postal», as an adequate explanation, if not justification, for Incel-style school shooters.
Since the Men's Rights Movement helped fuel some of the most violent currents of the alt-right, The eXile's life-changing role in the lives of two MRA leaders further illustrates its editors' influence on modern fascism.
Within two years of The eXile's shuttering, Dolan was able to land a new gig at the American University in Iraq-Suleimaniyah, but the university let him go after learning of hysterical rants involving an image of Ann Coulter's face on the body of a woman being gang raped by four Arabs with the text, «Oh Annie, you little fascist flirt, you know you want it.» The university's dean called Dolan an «academic fraud» and «oblivious to any rational distinction between the real world and his imagination.»
National Bolshevism Empowered
Though the eXile left Moscow, it maintained an online presence as Russian foreign policy grew more interventionist. From Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 to the war in Ukraine in 2014, The eXile's editors helped frame West-East conflict in ways that deflected criticism of Putin back to the US and reflected Russia's propaganda line, which brought left and right together in a geopolitical struggle with National Bolshevik overtones.
Ames blamed the U.S. for Putin's election rigging; The eXile blamed the rise of the far-right within Putin's government on the US's support for Yeltsin in the 1990s; Dolan and Ames both relished Russia's invasion of Georgia, with the War Nerd calling it «the war of my dreams.» Richard Spencer, while praising the War Nerd's position, felt it necessary to add that Dolan's «taste for blood and guts exceeds mine.» Meanwhile, Putin waged a personal war against opponents and hired Lyndon LaRouche associate, Sergei Glazyev, as his advisor on Eurasian integration.
Transferring nostalgia for the Soviet Empire into modern, capitalist conditions, Putin oversaw the rehabilitation of the reputation of far-right figures like Ivan Ilyin as well as Stalin, while amassing a vast personal fortune and unleashing far-right oligarchs on eastern Ukraine. When a Ukrainian revolution overthrew Yanukovych in 2013, Putin sent troops who wrote things like «For Stalin!» on their tanks in semi-clandestine efforts to establish an imperial «Greater Russia.» To this day, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine manifest a melange of mercenaries and ideological fascists, authoritarian communists, and National Bolsheviks.
Looking at Ukraine, Ames took two conflicting analyses which were shredded by analyst Marcy Wheeler. The first report discussed by Wheeler presented a nuanced discussion of the interests of the opposition, while the second offered a weird and dubious account of pro-Western neoliberals responsible for teaming up with fascists to instigate regime change. His position was summed up in another article: «Stay the Hell out of Russia's way for awhile… Sorry Ukraine, but you're screwed.»
Limonov rejoined Putin's side after years on the opposition, enraptured by the convergence of ultranationalism and Soviet nostalgia. Limonov's former close comrade, Dugin, exhorted pro-Russian forces in Ukraine to «Kill! Kill! Kill Ukrainians!» and his close associates took leading roles in the Kremlin-supported «civil war.» Limonov and Dugin appeared on Russian TV together, a symbol of the power of the invasion of Ukraine to reunite old comrades.
The alt-right received a meaningful boost from both cofounders of the National Bolshevik Party. Dugin afforded Spencer a platform at his think tank's website, and Spencer's then wife served as Dugin's English translator. Much of the American far right read Dugin's books and developed international alliances with his international network — for example, Matt Heimbach's once-influential Traditional Workers Party.
Meanwhile, left-wingers from the West increasingly flocked to the newly minted Sputnik News, joining the head of Dugin's Center for Conservative Studies on podcasts promoting conspiracy theories and denouncing «Atlanticists.» Joining the cry of many an anti-imperialist, Spencer appeared on RT to denounce the U.S.'s «cold war» in Ukraine.
Moscow's clandestine social media influence operations and public support for quixotic «anti-imperialist» movements that united left and right against liberalism followed the patterns of National Bolshevism. Amid the resurgence, Limonov even experienced a small comeback. Holocaust denier and erstwhile Wikileaks collaborator, Israel Shamir, boasted of Limonov as his «friend» in the left-wing site CounterPunch. In a 2017 article in the alt-right associated Unz Review, antisemitic blogger Anatoly Karlin, who had already lauded the eXile as «irreverent court jesters,» recalled «the chiliastic chic of Limonov's monthly rant.»
Meanwhile, the far right kept up its love affair with The eXile. When the Washington Post's Kathy Lally described The eXile as «juvenile, stunt-obsessed and pornographic, titillating for high school boys,» Sailer jumped to defend Taibbi and Ames in the Unz Review. One Unz commentator opined, «Their support of Limonov actually makes them somewhat precursors of the alt-right.» Indeed, the War Nerd published white nationalist talking points in Taki's Mag during the formation of the alt-right, and Ames and Taibbi's book figured as a life-changing influence for leading MRAs.
For Ames's part, having spent years creating travel documentaries for RT, he migrated to Pando News, a site partly funded by Silicon Valley Trump supporter, Facebook board member, and Palantir co-founder, Peter Theil. According to the New York Times, a Palantir employee would work closely with Cambridge Analytica to inappropriately gain access to millions of Facebook users' information and use that data to assist the Trump campaign.
The «Next Stage» of Dirtbags
Despite continuing to defend and promote Limonov amid the rise of the alt-right, The eXile's alums became idols for a growing online community of self-described «dirtbag leftists,» a term coined by podcaster Amber A'Lee Frost to describe a contingent of leftists associated with the controversial podcast, Chapo Trap House.
The top-ranked podcast on Patreon, Chapo Trap House (CTH) emerged in 2016, growing to include more than 26,000 patrons dishing out over $108,000 per month. Known for an «ironic» sense of humor that blurs the distinction between truth and ideology, the million-dollar a year podcast typically garners 100,000–200,000 listens per episode.
Like the alt-right, hosts make often self-deprecating jokes at the expense of rape survivors and people with autism. Controversy flared when CTH hosts seemingly mocked the #MeToo movement and responded to a critical essay by Jeet Heer in The New Republic with a homophobic comment.
Given their misogynistic tendencies and opportunistic blurring of satire and reality, it is no surprise that in the early days, CTH fawned over Taibbi as «our old pal and first mega-guest.» When Dolan and Ames's podcast, Radio War Nerd, was listed as part of the «dirtbag left» in a critical piece, Ames tweeeted out the hashtag, «#JeSuisDirtbag.»
Showing the alt-right's sustained enjoyment of The eXile's form of offensive irreverence, now in the form of the «dirtbag left,» Richard Spencer told an audience, «I do find it kind of amazing. If you listen to fifteen minutes of [CTH], it sounds like an alt-right podcast in terms of the jokes, the memes, the cynicism, the irreverence. It's pretty funny. So I do think that that's going to be the next stage.»
Spencer's comments may not be not far off. A few years before CTH started, soon-to-be host Virgil Texas brought the alt-right «comedy group,» Million Dollar Extreme, to perform at one of his events, indicating the proximity between their style, if not politics.
The «dirtbag left» also engaged in an interesting pattern of geopolitical analysis so conducive to National Bolshevik ideology that the Duginist blog, Fourth Revolutionary War, cross-posted a number of articles and podcasts from Ames, Dolan, and CTH, including a CTH episode with Taibbi. CTH hosts seem to invite such crossovers, having gone on Sputnik and RT and toed the Kremlin's foreign policy line — particularly with regard to the war in Syria, where one of their hosts praised war criminal Issam Zahreddine.
While Spencer changed his Twitter handle to feature an image of the Syrian regime's flag after Assad forces deployed a chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun, another CTH host named Will Menaker joined conspiracy theorists in speculating that the attack was a «false flag» on Twitter before deleting the tweet.
Such false-flag conspiracy theories are promoted through an extensive pro-Kremlin network involving a mix of left and right-wing commentators attempting to discredit the Syrian opposition — especially the first responders known as the White Helmets, whom the purveyors of disinformation accuse of staging the chemical attacks. These accusations, often used to deflect from efforts to confront genocide in Syria, issue from a tendency to support authoritarian dictators that the left has yet to fully reckon with.
Although many of their fans have attempted to distance themselves from The eXile's former editors, CTH hosted a Syria podcast with the War Nerd, who deflected from regime atrocities in Aleppo. For their podcast, Radio War Nerd, Dolan and Ames brought on frequent RT and Sputnik commentator Max Blumenthal, who has mocked Syrian victims, referred to the White Helmets rescue workers as «an arm of Al Qaeda,» and is currently facing a defamation lawsuit for allegedly participating in a «coordinated effort to attack, discredit and endanger journalists whose work counters a certain political line.»
Aside from attacking me personally in an article cowritten with Blumenthal, Ames has defended a similar line on a number of salient issues. Following the GRU's Novichok attack in Salisbury that left Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia hospitalized and killed a bystander, Ames and a number of pro-Kremlin pundits and right-wing conspiracy theorists started trying to poke holes in the «official narrative.» After open-source analysts at Bellingcat uncovered the identities of the two suspects as members of the GRU, Ames joined The eXile's Yasha Levine and an extensive pro-Kremlin reaction against the open-source investigation group.
Indeed, Ames has a history of attacking Bellingcat, stretching back to harsh words comparing the group to 9/11 Truthers after it uncovered evidence that Russia had been involved in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17). Ames and Bellingcat crossed swords again in 2017, when Ames attacked founder, Eliot Higgins, for critiquing journalist Seymour Hersh's debunked reporting on Assad's use of chemical weapons.
The «dirtbag left» and associated lefties have revealed similar clustering tendencies regarding Donald Trump — for instance, dismissing allegations of collaboration with Russia, defending Trump's foreign policy, and supporting left-right convergences. When liberals brought up the potential that Russia engaged in elections meddling, Taibbi compared them to WMD theorists — a comparison repeated by Trump less than a week later. When Trump shocked NATO by questioning the defense of small member states like Montenegro, which had narrowly avoided a Russia-backed coup coordinated with Serbian ethno-nationalists, Blumenthal used the opportunity to deflect from Trump by taking another stab at liberals. When CTH favorite Angela Nagle appeared on Tucker Carlson's show in favor of hard borders amid Trump's concocted «border crisis,» Richard Spencer giddily tweeted out, «NazBol [National Bolshevik] gang when?»
It bears noting, despite tendencies to align, that the «dirtbag left» is a complex and decentralized political ecosystem with different pundits related along particular lines of affinity and harboring distinct grudges. Even a CTH host denounced Nagle for her comments on borders, while a host of the related Dead Pundits Society podcast defended her. It is further worth noting that, while the «podcast left» of would-be pundits have an outsized influence, they hardly constitute the ideals of the left, in general. Although they have capitalized on the left's growth since 2008, the dirtbags's egos are viewed by many leftists as a liability and an impediment to actual left-wing organizing.
Abandoning the Geopolitics of Edgelords
In the 1990s, Limonov and Dugin set to work harmonizing fascism and Stalinism in an imperial geopolitik that they hoped would return Russia to a mythical former glory. The eXile gave Limonov a regular platform, bringing his work to a larger English audience and endearing themselves to the U.S. far right. Through this tacit support of National Bolshevism, as well as general misogyny and Dolan's direct engagement with the inchoate alt-right, The eXile gained a cultish following that still intermingles far right and radical left.
Though The eXile, itself, exists as more of a blog than anything else, its nostalgic status as an edgy and transgressive gonzo publication remains, inspiring the next generation of left-wingers who engage with misogyny and fascism in much the same way that they did. Yet in a world where «anti-establishment» populism has become hegemonic, the renegade aspect of The eXile's «transgression uber alles» approach may be wearing thin, even for The eXile's own former editors.
Whereas he once gloated that The eXile published in Russia partly because they «were out of the reach of American libel law,» Taibbi now leverages legal threats against critics with the help of a lawyer who works for Kremlin-promoted activists from left and right.
With the decline of the alt-right, due in no small part to allegations regarding their leaders' terrible treatment of women, a sense of triumphalism has emerged in some antifascist circles. «We out-organized them,» some proudly declare. However, when the pervasion of misogyny, disinformation, and fringe fusion of far right and hard left go unchallenged, the seedbed from which the alt-right emerged will remain fertile.
To prevent the return of an «anti-establishment» National Socialism, leftists will have to combat ignorance, abandon the geopolitics of edgelords, and build a public reputation as honest and open defenders of the commonweal.
* My friend's name «Mikhail» has been changed for the purposes of this article.
Alexander Reid Ross teaches at Portland State University. He is the author of «Against the Fascist Creep», ranked one of the Best Books of 2017 by the Portland «Mercury», and his articles have appeared in such sites as «Haaretz», «Vice Noisey», and «Think Progress».
Eduard Limonov, who has died in Moscow, was a one off. A Soviet-era dissident, his controversial 1970s memoir 'It's me, Eddie' scandalized Russia when first published in the country in 1991, selling over a million copies.
His death was announced by State Duma (national parliament) deputy and chief editor of «Yunost» magazine Sergei Shargunov. Limonov's assistant Dmitry Sidorenko subsequently confirmed it to Moscow daily RBK. He didn't specify a cause of death, but Russian media suggested it was due to complications from surgery.
Shargunov told the TASS news agency that Limonov died on Tuesday evening at a hospital in Moscow. «He had his wits about him to the end, and was talking, he remained of sound and clear mind,» the MP explained.
Russian writer, political activist Eduard Limonov has died today at the age of 77. Honest, talented, provoking. A Lord Byron of modern times. R.I.P. pic.twitter.com/KqaqezSGUK
Born in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) region in 1943, as Eduard Savenko, to a military family, Limonov mostly grew up in Kharkov, in Soviet Ukraine. He moved to Moscow in the 1960s where he wrote poetry and became active in literary circles. in 1973, Limonov and his second wife, Elena Shchapova, emigrated from the USSR. Soon after, she left him later marrying an Italian Count.
Limonov settled in New York, working for a Russian-language newspaper and immersing himself in radical politics and the punk sub-culture. He complained about harassment from US authorities, writing that «the FBI is just as zealous in putting down American radicals as the KGB is with its own radicals and dissidents... [but] the methods of the FBI are more modern.»
He later detailed this period in «It's me, Eddie»where he graphically illustrated casual sexual encounters with homeless people, alongside other unconventional behavior. In France, where it first achieved fame, it was titled «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks» («Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres»).
Disillusioned with America, Limonov relocated to Paris in 1980. There he become close with the leaders of the French Communist Party.
France suited him better, with his work finding a receptive audience. He remained popular in the country over the following decades. In 2011, the French film director, and writer, Emmanuel Carrère wrote a best-selling biographical novel based on the Russian's life and times, bringing him to a new audience.
As a newly constituted Russia emerged from the Soviet collapse, Limonov returned to Moscow and took Russian citizenship. He had been stateless from 1974 to 1987, when he acquired a French passport, which he would later relinquish.
Around this time, as Russia opened up, most of his writing was first published at home. «It's Me, Eddie» stunned a conservative Russian society emerging from the totalitarian isolation of the USSR-era, with its hardcore depictions of homosexual acts involving the narrator.
In Moscow, he set up a magazine «Limonka» and founded an ultra-nationalist political party, called the «National Bolsheviks.» It advocated for Russia to create a huge empire, dominating all of Europe and north and central Asia. The movement, seen as a midpoint between communism and fascism by Limonov's then ally, controversial philosopher Alexander Dugin, was outlawed.
In the 1990s, Limonov was already agitating for Crimea to be returned to Russia. He also passionately supported Bosnian Serbs in the Yugoslav wars and was once notoriously filmed shooting a gun in the hills above Sarajevo, in the presence of Radovan Karadzic, who was later jailed for war crimes.
He began writing in English, for Moscow ex-pat magazines «Living Here» and «the eXile», whose former editor, Mark Ames, described him on Tuesday as «the last great Russian writer.»
Mark Ames @MarkAmesExiled («Twitter», 17.03.2020):
Never wasted a day of life.
RIP to the last great Russian writer.
Эдуард Лимонов умер из-за осложнений после операции.
Как сообщили нам его представители, в последнее время политик болел. Сегодня перенес сразу 2 операции. Начались проблемы с горлом, потом пошло воспаление, великий писатель умер.
An arrest followed, in 2001, on terrorism charges when he was accused of planning to raise an army to invade Kazakhstan and of possessing weapons. Limonov dubbed the trial ridiculous, but he spent two years in jail over the affair.
Limonov, who had been strongly opposed to Vladimir Putin since he was first elected to the Kremlin in 2000, became active in the Moscow protest movement, leading the «Other Russia» campaign, along with chess legend Garry Kasparov and Human Rights activist Lev Ponomarev.
He decided to run for president himself in the 2012 Russian election. However, the Central Election Commission denied him registration. A year later, he broke with his liberal opposition allies when he strongly condemned the pro-Western «Euromaidan» protests in Kiev. Subsequently, Limonov labelled them «traitors» after they opposed Russia's 2014 reabsorption of Crimea, which he vocally backed.
Like many Russians, his nationalism became more pronounced during the Ukraine crisis, and his rhetoric more hardline. He called for the closure of «enemy» opposition media and suggested pro-Western journalists be «expelled» from the country. In 2016, he began to write a regular column for RT's Russian-language service.
Limonov was married four times, to artist Anna Rubinstein, the aforementioned Shchapova, poet and singer Natalia Medvedeva and actress Ekaterina Volkova. With the latter, he had two children, a son Bogdan (now 13) and a daughter Alexandra (now 11). The couple separated in 2008, but Volkova said Limonov was a hands on father, actively involved in raising his children.
When fellow Soviet-dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, Limonov was scornful. «The ideological death of Solzhenitsyn took place the night after the Soviet Union fell in 1991,» he ventured. «What came after was a sort of life after death.»
Whether or not that was true of Solzhenitsyn, the same certainly could not be said of Eduard Limonov.
— Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko (better known was Eduard Limonov) was born on 22 February, 1943 in Dzerzhinsk, USSR. He died in Moscow, Russia on 17 March, 2020.
On March 17, writer and political activist Eduard Limonov died in Moscow of cancer at age 77. It was reported on the site of the political party, The Other Russia, that Limonov headed.
Limonov was born Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko in 1943 in Dzerzhinsk. He began to write poetry in 1958 and took part in his first political protest in 1963 in a strike against wage cuts. At age 17 he was already working in a variety of manual jobs including a loader, ironworker, welder, and construction worker.
In 1967 he moved to Moscow where he quickly gained celebrity more as a tailor than a poet: he sewed jeans and jackets for the entire Moscow underground. During his period in Moscow, he wrote and self-published poetry and was a well-known part of young literary Moscow. Somewhere along the way Savenko became Limonov, a nom de plume purportedly invented by the cartoonist Bagrich Bakhchanyan. In 1974, by his account, the KGB told him he either had to become an informer or emigrate; he and his then wife, Yelena Shchapova, whom he married in an Orthodox Church ceremony — almost unheard-of at the time — left for New York.
In New York Limonov and Shchapova quickly divorced. Limonov worked as a proof-reader for the local Russian-language newspaper «Novoye Russkoye Slovo» while continuing to write prose and poetry. His largely fictional autobiography «It's Me, Eddie,» was a sensation in the Russian diaspora and then in the Soviet Union, once a copy was smuggled in. Limonov's New York was not an émigré paradise. Written in a revolutionary style, «It's Me, Eddie» was brash, critical, obscene, pornographic and yet moving and utterly compelling. He would write other books about his time in New York including «The Butler's Story,» in part about his job working as a private servant in a home on the upper East Side of Manhattan. He was author of more than 15 works of fiction and hundreds of articles.
At the same time he was writing fiction, he worked with the American Socialist Worker's Party and once handcuffed himself to the building of The New York Times to protest their refusal to publish his articles. He was eventually fired from «Novoye Russkoye Slovo, and in 1980 Limonov moved to France, where he became close to the leaders of the French Communist Party, who were instrumental in helping him get French citizenship in 1987.
However, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, Limonov arranged for Russian citizenship and moved back to Moscow. Although he continued to write, both articles for the Russian press — and some in intentionally terrible English for «The eXile» — and fiction, he was more involved in politics, professing an odd, for Russia, mix of left and right. While he attended every protest against state impingement of the right to assembly and joined forces with Gary Kasparov to march in anti-governmental demonstrations in Moscow 2006–2008, he founded the right-wing, nationalist National Bolshevik Party and then, after it was disbanded under court order, the Other Russia party.
Limonov stood with the Serbs and was filmed shooting a machine gun at the Bosnians in the war in former Yugoslavia, supported the Abhazians in their war against Georgia, and took the side of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic against Moldova. He supported the Berkut officers who shot and killed protesters on the Maidan in 2013 and strongly supported both the annexation of Crimea and the war for separatism in the Donbass. He was arrested for arms possession and served a few months of a four-year sentence before being released on parole.
It is no wonder that Russian social media has been filled with heated arguments about Limonov and his legacy. Many people recalled the young Limonov and the incredible impression that «It's Me, Eddie» made on them. Film critic Anton Dolin wrote that Limonov «was a great Russian writer — there are few, if any, like him.,» to which Maxim Pavlov, head of the cinema program of the Tretyakov Gallery, replied, «He was scum, ordinary scum…»
On her Facebook page, writer Liudmila Petrushevskaya noted that despite his despicable behavior, «We will never forget that flash of joy that readers felt with «It's Me, Eddie».» Poet Lev Rubenstein recalled liking Limonov's early poetry, but not liking the man. «He reminded me of a little boy who locked himself in the toilet to scare his grandmother, and then his grandmother went out and the little boy had to sit there in the locked toilet.»
The photographer Eduard Gladkov recalled meeting Limonov in the 1970s. «One morning on the way to work I met Limonov near my house. He'd come out of the next-door entrance, got into my car and started chatting away, saying he didn't care where he went… he said he'd spent the night in a stranger's apartment… and when he woke up, no one was there, so he left. He sounded very drunk as he told me this. I got worried and asked if he locked the door. He answered me, completely sober, «Of course, I locked it! Do you take me for an idiot?» And I suddenly realized that it was all a game, a game he played for himself, I suspect. He probably found it easier to write that way. Maybe some of those episodes from his later fiery life were a game, too?»
He will be buried in a private ceremony in Moscow.
Eduard Limonov, a Russian writer, leader of the opposition Second Russia movement, and a devotee of the politics of Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, died at the age of 77 in Moscow, Vijesti.ba news portal reported on Wednesday.
The Russian writer, has spent part of his life in the United States and France. His most famous literary work is the novel «This is Me, Edicka», about a Russian immigrant in New York. Interfax has announced that the cause of his death is unknown at this time.
In 1992, Limonov fired from firearms from Pale on residents of Sarajevo
Limonov, a supporter of Greater Serbian politics, in 1992, accompanied by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, fired Pale from a machine gun at the besieged Sarajevo.
Before that, he was in occupied Erdut, as a friend of Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, and visited Vukovar shortly after the fall, reports Hina.
I have never made peace with the single rough photograph I took of Edward Limonov in the living room of his house in Moscow. It's a domestic, amateur portrait that you'd find in a private album of memories, but now I have to definitively reconcile myself with the shot, because the bandit is dead.
Many of us did not want to believe it and asked immediately for confirmation. «Da. Pravda. Yes, it's true» wrote one of his tireless assistants: Olga, taxi driver, one golden tooth for more than 30 years, shaved blonde hair. The writer Edward Limonov died on March 17 in a Moscow clinic where he was hospitalized after surgery operations and complications, Olga confirms for me via Telegram. The same channel where the Kremlin reported his death to the rest of Russia through the mouth of their deputy Serghey Shargunov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Yunost, «Youth».
Whenever big things changed in the Russian Federation all the journalists always reached out to Limonov, a professional provocateur always willing to be extreme. He could be counted on to have something irreverent to quote. Now he will no longer respond quickly as usual for the interviews, with the speed that distinguished him and for which, in the end, you thanked him. He would always reply steadily: «I'm not a kind man, I'm just an effective type.» Even if he mocked those who teared up in pain, the boys of Drugaya Rossia — the Other Russia — the political party founded by the writer in 2009, are now mourning him among his memories, books, leaflets. They had been marching for years following him in the protests in the streets of the Russian Capital, holding the red flag with the symbol of the limonka, the grenade, the object with which the «hooligan of literature» had decided to baptize himself, bartering his original surname with «Limonov». The man wanted to be called a bomb.
Limonov was born as Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko in 1943 in the Soviet Union while it was in a brutal war. He grew up in Charkiv — now Ukraine — as a son of poverty and violence, which he exercised indiscriminately in return against all those who stepped against him. He always lived at an extreme limit that the ones who tried to narrate his story could never fully grasp but only observe through him.
He became Edik, Eddie, Edichka at alternate latitudes. He possessed the talent of astounding those around him. Vernacular, stinging, ineffable, romantic. «It's me, Edichka. The Russian poet who prefers large Negroes» is the title of his first scandalous novel, with which he decided to amaze the Soviet Union which had just collapsed in the 1990s. Limonov had already died dozens of times, as he loved to say smiling, but unlike this time, he had risen in a thousand improbable and unreal existences, from one side of the world to the other, in alienating destinies between Paris and New York, Russia, America and Europe. Tailor, waiter, high village courtesan, dandy butler, riotous and macho, fighter and confidant of commanders of the Serbian wars. Finally he had become a cross-legged revolutionary on whose words the Russian suburban boys hung, those that nobody ever listens to. He, Limonov: the punk, the nationalist Bolshevik, disconsolate representative of a broken humanity. A paradoxical marathon runner, a mask with a sense of humor underneath that was forbidden to the rest of us.
When I first met him, in a cold Moscow spring, I had more than 15 questions in my notebook, but only one in my head. Who would open the door in Limonov's house? The protagonist of a novel or a real man? The literary and alcoholic rogue born from the French pen of Emmanuel Carrere or the boy who died and rose again many times between New York and Paris? The man who passed under the smug eyes of the Serbian commander Karadzic? The butler, the dandy, the revolutionary, the fighter? Will Limonov or his dvoinik — his double, his literary impersonator — or both, be behind his door?
He lived where the black, gigantic statue of the most famous futuristic poet of Russia stands, in a square usually full of young Russians that peel their knees falling off skateboards. On the top floor of a pastel-colored building, a thousand steps from Vladimir Majakovsky square, Limonov looked usually through the peephole for quite a long time behind his black, armored door. Eventually he decided there was no danger and he would invite you to enter, smiling palely.
Behind the door there was a thin man, straight like a gun, with a white smile the same color of his hair, a pink and smooth skin on which wars, despair and unhappy loves have left no scars or wrinkles. He was a shaved, bony bundle of nerves, imprecations and extreme political positions, courted many times by the official political establishment to which he has never succumbed. He conjugated all Russian contradictions and all the artistic ones. Narcissist, megalomaniac and dedicated writer, in a dry body like a birch trunk. He lived 77 years with few moments of peace and calm in his biography.
If not in the streets and squares or marching in the Capital, he was in his house, a four room apartment where he lived between black and white photographs, and pages and pages. Once inside his house, he insisted on kindly offering his green tea. A sweetness that you could not reconcile with the extremism of his positions and his destiny. In the rooms where he lived barricaded between walls of books, you did not find flames, memories of the prison and guns he loved to write about, but biscuits and all the versions of the novel by Emanuel Carrere, the writer who made him famous by bestowing on him the role of the thug. He silently derided the stereotype of the Russian rogue built on his figure for European readers by the novel.
Talking to him was like boxing. A fight that would leave poor strength and punches to settle. «Don't you love Dostoevsky?» I asked him. «It's not about loving or not loving, the story is another matter. The Western world thinks that Dostoevsky's characters represent Russians, but real Russians have nothing to do with them. Dostoevsky was an epileptic boy and many of his books are born from his experiences in prison, where people are very close to each other, they constantly drink tea and talk endlessly about anything, any bullshit. For me Dostoevsky is not bearable, but the West likes to think that Russians are like this,» Limonov said.
Limonov, like Dostoevsky, spent years in Russian prisons, the cells that he described in Book of Water. He told me: «An old criminal once told me in prison: I live here. After that sentence I did exactly the same: I started living in there every single day. You have to live in prison, don't wait for the day you go out. I never lost an hour of air, I did physical exercises, I trained, I read a lot, I wrote every day for five hours, I wrote seven books when I was inside.»
Limonov's favorite writer was Gogol, which he told me clearly.
«I believe that the best Russian writer is Gogol, he produced some of the greatest Russian archetypes,» he commented. I demanded: «What other writers do you love?». A question he would answer with a nasty verdict: «I really hate writers. I hate being with writers. They are not interesting. They irritate me. I spent part of my life with soldiers, activists, prisoners. But not with writers.»
I noticed a seeming contradiction: «aren't yourself a writer, the Russian writer Limonov, the hero of Carrere's novel?» And he replied: «Carrere misunderstood many things, but I promised him I would never report them, so I won't tell you now.» Beyond literature, it was «Rossya», Russia, the word he would pronounce the most: «In the future Russia will become even more patriotic. After Putin someone else will come, and no matter who, he or she will be obliged to follow the wishes of the people, who demand social equality and that all Russians are reunited in one state. Russia wants its share of power in the world. Russians love to be a great power, this is our obsession, our disease.»
The Russian hunger for power was an illness Limonov would explain further. «We are sick of a mania of greatness. We have always been an empire, the great people of the Second World, this has gone to our heads, but also to the heart. We can live very badly, to be a great nation, it is our specialty. Russian people know how to sacrifice their happiness for their pride.»
Now we can no long ring his doorbell, he won't be watching us through the peephole. Limonov left us with the same questions that slammed between the walls of our brains while he was still alive: who was Edward Limonov? Moscow now pays homages to its indomitable son. The bandit turned out to be a novel character for himself and for the others and — surviving his own myth like few else — he managed to pursue his literary mission until the end. A few days ago, on March 13, he confirmed the release of his latest book, from a title that sounds like a prophecy of his last pilgrimage: The Old Man Travels.
Fabrizio Fenghi is an assistant professor of Slavic Studies at Brown. His book «It Will Be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia» (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020) focuses on the culture and history of Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party.
Eduard Limonov (né Savenko) died in a Moscow hospital on the evening of March 17, at the age of 77. According to the website of the «non-registered» radical organization The Other Russia, today's incarnation of the National Bolshevik Party, which he led, the official cause of death was cancer. Limonov, as he often claimed, would have rather died a violent death, preferably «blown up» by one of his political opponents. And he tried as hard as he could to die young, like a romantic hero. Limonov was an absolute rebel and an absolute contrarian. At times he called himself a hero, at times a loser. And at times he looked like a fool. As many of those who knew him wrote in the past few days, Limonov had never grown old. Or to put it differently, like in the lyrics of a famous song by his beloved Ramones, Limonov didn't really want to grow up.
(Russian-)American readers mostly remember him as the protagonist at the beginning of his most famous semi-autobiographical novel, «Eto ia – Edichka» («It's Me, Eddie», 1979), standing naked on the balcony of the Hotel Winslow at the corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, eating cabbage soup from a giant pot and shocking «the clerks, secretaries, and managers» looking at him from behind the windows of the surrounding office buildings. The novel portrayed all the misery and humiliation of émigré life, Edichka's compulsive loneliness and masturbation, his love for the outcasts, and his sexual escapades with both women and strong African American men. Edichka lived on welfare, criticized dissidents for ignoring the fate of millions of Russian immigrants for whom life in the West had turned out to be even more miserable than in the Soviet Union, befriended Americant Trotskyites, and dreamt of a violent world revolution.
In the 1990s, Limonov came back to Russia and co-founded (with the guru of Russian imperialism Aleksand Dugin) the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), with the goal of gathering into a single organization all of Russia's new outcasts and those whom the market reforms had left behind — communists and fascists, as well as punks, anarchists, metalheads, war veterans, and nonconformist artists. The party and its newspaper «Limonka» combined the aesthetics of the Russian avant-gardes, Italian Futurism, neo-Nazism, and punk. Limonov and his followers wrote about Jean Genet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse, and about idols of the far right like Julius Evola, Miguel Serrano, and the general of the White Army Roman Ungern von Sternberg, the «Mad Baron.» For a good part of the 1990s, the NBP remained a sort of political art project that attracted pretty much everyone who had a taste for the radical and the extreme. To use the expression of Alexey Tsvetkov, one of the minds behind it, the National Bolsheviks or natsboly were mostly «thugs who aspired to be poets» and «poets who aspired to be thugs,» who scared the Russian public with terrifying slogans like «Zavershim reformy tak — Stalin, Beria, Gulag» («This is how we'll implement reforms — Stalin, Beria, Gulag!»). In the late 1990s, the natsboly tried to turn some of these scary slogans into reality by organizing an armed revolt in the Altai Mountains. But things did not turn out too well and Limonov ended up spending three years in prison on illegal arms trade charges. When Putin came to power, the natsboly became pioneers of the resistance against his authoritarian rule, in part redeeming themselves in the eyes of the liberal media. With the coalition The Other Russia, the Dissenters' March, and Strategy 31, the focus of the NBP became advocating for freedom of speech and assembly and protesting human rights abuses, social inequality, and corruption. The natsboly became famous for their peaceful and carefully staged «direct actions» against the government. They also indirectly exerted a certain influence on mainstream politics: the infamous state-sponsored youth movement Nashi, for instance, was thought of as a direct response to the NBP in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Things changed again quite drastically in 2014, when the natsboly, who had historically supported the idea that Russia should take back all the territories formerly belonging to the Soviet Union, supported Putin's annexation of Crimea and the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Since then, Limonov became a somewhat more acceptable figure for the Russian establishment and mainstream media. Many in Russia saw this as a betrayal and a sign that he had sold out to the regime.
As Eliot Borenstein points out, Limonov's legacy is indeed complicated. Perhaps it is not by chance that the NYT whitewashed his memory, given that Limonov's life and personality cannot be easily boxed into a unidimensional narrative (as the ones that unfortunately the NYT has recently produced when covering Russia). Faced with a similar issue, scholars of Russia have historically tried to compartmentalize his life and work, trying to fit him into one or the other canon: «he was a great writer, but a horrible politician,» or vice versa, «he was not a writer but a media personality and a provocateur, but as a writer he will soon be forgotten,» or again, «his early poetry was great, but everything he did afterwards was despicable.» Paradoxically, Limonov himself did everything he could to be recognized as a writer and at the same time he made sure that his work could not become part of any kind of canon. His novels are intimate, sexual, and violent to the point of being disturbing. His poems are direct, funny, and often very powerful. He violated taboos and challenged the puritanism and conservatism of the Russian literary establishment by portraying homosexual love and desire, as well as the anger of the Russian and Soviet peripheries. And he was a pioneer of Russian counterculture. In this sense, the NBP was Limonov's main and most accomplished masterpiece, like The Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's. Indeed, style and fashion played an important role for Limonov, who back in the 1970s made his way into the Moscow underground by tailoring pants for prominent Russian artists and writers. But, like many punks and rockstars, and perhaps even more so, in his quest for radicalism and destruction Limonov also embraced various forms of hate and bad taste. He befriended and admired war criminals in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and he tried to join forces with true neo-Nazis like the infamous leader of Russian National Unity Aleksandr Barkashov. And both his writing and his politics were not devoid of misogyny, machismo, and prejudice.
For someone who based so much of his work and life on self-fashioning, Limonov's public persona was not very likable. He was not at all accommodating and he often played the part of the tough guy — but with thick glasses (which he hated) and a slightly high-pitched, almost nagging voice. Sometimes he could be unpleasant. I experienced this intentionally hostile attitude first-hand when I interviewed him in his apartment in Moscow back in 2013 when I started researching the NBP. On that occasion, Limonov played a role that (as I later discovered) he had rehearsed many times in the past. He welcomed me in adidas sweatpants and a sort of souvenir t-shirt with the writing «Cuba, Pearl of the Carribbean.» At the time I was a graduate student at Yale, which he obviously saw as a symbol of academic prestige and Western colonialism, but of course I was also much younger and more inexperienced than he was and I found the idea of talking to him, a famous Russian writer, about my project potentially intimidating. However, during the interview Limonov refused to answer several of my questions and repeated several times — scoffing — that he had no idea of what I was talking about because he «did not go to Yale» and he was a politician and a «man of action» and not an intellectual. As I later discovered, this was a rhetorical device that he often used during interviews with academics — of course by changing the name of the prestigious institution in question (La Sorbonne, Yale, Berkeley, etc.). Even if at the time I thought that this response was quite superficial and almost a bit cliché, what I found redeeming later on in my research was Limonov's loyalty, support, and sympathy for those who are most vulnerable and disenfranchised. I could appreciate these qualities not just in his writing but through the eyes of the numerous natsboly I talked to while working on my book, all of whom respected him deeply and saw him as a source of inspiration. Limonov had been hostile toward me because he thought I came from a position of privilege (like most of the journalists and academics he interacted with), while he reserved his humanity and support for his young radical followers, who for better or worse were fighting or had been fighting, in certain cases sacrificing pretty much everything they had, for what they believed in. Overall, I could respect that.
Limonov often proclaimed his love for the outcasts and the losers of the world and his hatred for the «masters of life.» In one of his best novels, «Podrostok Savenko» («The Adolescent Savenko», translated into English as «Memoir of a Russian Punk»), Limonov's alter ego is Eddy-baby, a romantic, desperate, and somewhat naïve sixteen-year-old from the working class periphery of Kharkov (or Kharkiv) in Soviet Ukraine in the 1950s with a passion for poetry and organized crime — a sort of Young Werther carrying a straight razor in his pocket. While walking through a sketchy neighborhood in New York City, Edichka declares: «If I were making a revolution I would lean first of all on the people among whom we were walking, people like me — the classless, the criminal, and the vicious. I would locate my headquarters in the toughest neighborhood, associate only with the have-nots.» Throughout his life, the eternal adolescent Limonov remained faithful to his young, angry, and somewhat naïve self, that of Eddy-baby, and to the losers of the world, and brought this energy into his writing and politics. It is ironic that Limonov died at a time of fear of contagion and «social distancing.» What Edichka hated the most about America and neoliberalism was the distance and indifference that he experienced as a poor, marginalized immigrant, which he identified with the words «that's not my problem.» Edichka's work and politics were too personal, physical, and almost visceral to be appreciated from afar — they needed to be experienced up-close.
«NYU Jordan Center (fort he Advanced Study of Russia)», April 6, 2020
Again, damnit! I've been doing this forever. Most of my friends kicked the bucket before I reached the ripe old age of 30. Addicts don't live that long, heroin isn't a nurturing mother, no matter what you think when you use it. Since then, I had very few genuine friends. Well, Edward Limonov, whom I've consorted with for forty odd years, was one of them. He just died before the onset of apocalypse, as we know it with this cybernetic virus of a very dubious origin. Sly old bastard, he even figured when to leave the world scene.
I knew he was gonna die, all flags were red the last times I saw him, in Paris in May 2019, to march with the Yellow Vests, and in Moscow, October 2019, when we had that last meal. He greeted me with a joke, parted with me joking. Motherfucker had class. Knew it was likely to be our last reunion and I did too.
Although, damnit, not so soon!… Since you don't want it to happen, you always think, it's gonna last a little longer. In Paris in May, when I saw him drinking like a fish, I thought: all right, he knows, decided to have some fun before sunset. In Moscow in October, I confronted him with that shit: why are you drinking, when you're not supposed to? He came up with a dubious theory according to which vodka was better than wine (one glass a day, as he had previously determined since his brain tumor was removed four years ago) for his ailment. So it was obvious, he was preparing to die. He knew that I knew, and just smiled. Between old friends, some things stay unsaid, but not unbeknownst, particularly when it's time to go. I always knew when my friends were going to die. Call it junkie intuition.
Now, motherfucking Limonov had a tremendous influence on my life, I wouldn't even be writing an «eXile» column without him. I met Mark Ames in his Moscow flat, twenty odd years ago. Because Edward had this gift as well, he just knew what was going to be fruitful, and he had the generosity.
When I first met Edward, in March 1981 in Paris, he was a freaking living god to us, coming from New York, the punk-rock Mecca, and from Moscow, essential to the punk-rock esthetics. We just hated the bleeding heart liberal baby boomers, he was the living-proof that some people from that generation, coming from the cold, could be worth our while. In freaking France, they had published his scandalous first novel, «It's me Eddie», and, wannabe journalists, we interviewed him. Not knowing to whom sell the interview. We eventually did. Edward did not know any genuine Parisians at the time, save for his publisher and the PR woman. He and my crew (most of them dead now) made fast friends. He even bought pot to my long gone friend Fabrice, a burglar fresh out of jail. He talked about it in his first «Book of the Dead», published in 2000.
He and I had a special bond, for a very simple reason, I was the only one, in that crew, gifted with foreign languages, English at first, then Russian when, again thanks to him, I met Nina, a Russian immigrant who forced me to learn Russian, when I fell in love with her, as he had foreseen. She was the drinking buddy of Limonov's new wife Medvedeva, so in a way, however strange it may sound, we had a family. This bond strengthened when I married Medvedeva so she could get a French Green Card and stay with Edward in Paris. Nina was jealous. And so was Medvedeva, her drinking buddy had tried the French guy, who was her husband?… Limonov laughed when I recounted the women's intrigues…
Then, as years went by, it was my turn to exert a tremendous influence on Edward, when I wrote my first novel, Fasciste, in 1988. Nobody, much less him, was expecting it from me, rather an account of my street junkie days, which I wrote thirty years later. When I got drunk with him and our pal Danila Doubshin in 2015, eating gigantic pork chops, he recognized, against all odds, that my first book was a revelation to him. I never thought he would admit it, although I knew it since I have a long-ass memory. But this motherfucker was, on top of it all, also generous with his friends. And I was lucky enough to be one of them, as the New York Russian journalist Oleg Soulkin once said to me: You're one of the few he never trashed. So Edward said, yes Thierry, I remember your first book to this day! Much to my amazement.
Then there are numerous stories, how we lost one another in JFK airport in 1982, my first trip to New York, then met again in a art opening in a art gallery in SoHo, after I put an ad in the Village Voice — «Limonov Call Me» — and when the Puerto Rican girl said we don't put family names on ads, I answered it's a Russian name, she didn't know better at the time. Edward and I ended up at Chemiakin's place, and when Chemiakin threatened me — he was gonna kill me because I was staying at some Russian woman's place and the Russian painter was sweet on her — Edward punched him in the face.
Then in February 2001, I'm detained by the FSB at Sheremetyevo airport, since I'm carrying Limonov's letter to the infamous old mercenary Bob Denard. It's all bullshit, since he's inviting him to a «Congress of hot spots» on the Earth, and the Russian Embassy has to grant him a visa, and they know Denard since the Cold War days, he's fought them in Africa, not to say Denard is fresh out of jail at the time and already Alzheimer's. Yet, the agents dance the macho menuet to freaking make me wet my pants. Well, I'm a veteran of the junkie wars, I remember how it was in the old days in France, I don't particularly freak, knowing they don't have much on me.
As soon as I land in Paris I call Limonov to let him know what happened. He says: Well, that happened. Now his apartment was bugged all over, and a few weeks down the line, when I call Nina, passion of my life to this day, she says, don't ever come back, yesterday on TV they posted conversations between you and Edward talking about coup d'État !… But I'm back there two months later, invited by the French Embassy to write a novel, and Edward is already in jail. I walk the straight and narrow. Mark Ames and I have paranoid meetings on the Red Square, away from the bugs, to determine what we're gonna do, since our names were brought up in Limonov's trial. We wouldn't even utter a word in the eXile headquarters where we both worked together. And the lawyer is trying to pull us in way deeper, since it could be useful in Edward's trial. Damn!… I don't even remember how we survived. Nina, Edward's original gift from Paris 1983, supported me wholeheartedly, and wisely. Mark had worked out his own immunity already 8 years living in Russia. We managed to escape any dire consequence and Edward got out of jail in 2003.
How the fuck can I forget a friend like that, with whom I've gone through so much, who always supported me through thick and thin?… Damn, the world doesn't seem right without this motherfucker, something's missing!…
A former street hooligan and bisexual mercenary, he led the National Bolshevik Party and delighted in provoking the Kremlin.
Eduard Limonov, the ultra-nationalist Russian writer and politician who has died aged 77, was, variously, a teenage hoodlum, counter-culture poet, bisexual émigré writer, Parisian socialite, mercenary with the Bosnian Serbs, jailbird, and the eventual «Johnny Rotten of Russian politics».
He was born Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko on February 22 1943 at Dzerzhinsk, near Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), the son of a low-level secret policeman in the NKVD; his mother was a munitions worker. «I was a non-conformist from birth,» he claimed.
He grew up in a dingy, dirt-poor industrial suburb of Kharkov, a grim Soviet industrial town in Ukraine. As he recalled in a memoir, The Adolescent Savenko (1983, also translated as Memoir of a Russian Punk) after being beaten up aged nine he determined to transform himself into a hardcore street hooligan.
By the age of 20 he had been a thief, a burglar, a foundry-worker and a docker. He also tried his hand at poetry, eventually joining a group of Nihilist artists calling themselves the SS, who went in for such pranks as reciting Hitler speeches in public, riding animals at Kharkov Zoo or opening their veins with cut-throat razors – the last episode getting young Eduard committed, briefly, to a psychiatric hospital.
Eventually he escaped to Moscow where, as Eduard Limonov («Edward Lemon»), he survived by making and selling trousers while attempting to establish himself as an avant-garde poet, becoming something of an idol of the Soviet underground in the Brezhnev era.
He made such a nuisance of himself that in 1974 he was expelled from the Soviet Union, albeit with a false Israeli passport which allowed him to enter the United States. He arrived at about the same time as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and was sometimes described as a “dissident”, but since he revered Stalin and called Solzhenitsyn «an old fart», he hardly qualified.
He ended up in New York, where he became a figure on the nascent punk scene, hanging out with the Ramones and Richard Hell & the Voidoids at the CBGB club. When New York lost interest, he lived as a down-and-out, drank, had casual sex with both men and women, and was involved in robberies and brawls. Eventually he found a job he detested as a butler for a Russophile multi-millionaire on the Upper East Side.
It was during his stay in the US that he penned the semi-autobiographical It's Me, Eddie (1979 in Russian, 1983 in English), that would earn him notoriety in the Soviet Union during glasnost more for its lurid depictions of gay sex with a homeless black man than for its obscene language or the author's proud boast that «I have no shame or conscience.»
The book became an immediate succès fou in France where it was published under the spoiler-alert title Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres, prompting Limonov to move to Paris.
There he became, in the words of Emmanuel Carrère, the author of a biography of Limonov, a «sexy, sly, funny guy … everyone's favourite barbarian» in radical literary circles. It helped that, with his glasses and goatee beard, he resembled Leon Trotsky, and he was lionised as a sort of Russian cross between Jean Genet and Henry Miller.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Limonov returned to Russia, where he felt drawn to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the chairman of the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party, an overtly racist and rabidly nationalist organisation advocating the establishment of a Greater Russia within the boundaries of the old Tsarist empire.
Limonov accepted the job of security minister in Zhirinovsky's shadow cabinet but soon became dissatisfied, finding Zhirinovsky «too passive». In 1993 he formed the breakaway National Bolshevik Party, or «Natsbol», a direct-action movement that sought to fuse the ultra-Left and the ultra-Right in opposition to Boris Yeltsin.
Its flag was based on the Nazi white circle on a red background, but with a hammer and sickle replacing the swastika. Its magazine, Limonka, a pun on Limonov's name and a Russian slang term for a hand-grenade, was accused of advocating mass terror.
Limonov proudly claimed to have the most extremist platform in Russian politics, advocating everything from banning imported food to invading Russia's neighbours, and Serb-style ethnic cleansing to protect Russians in the independent former Soviet republics.
His young, disaffected followers addressed him as «vozhd» («leader») – the term used by Stalinists for Uncle Joe, and over the next few years Natsbol supporters occasionally popped up in news reports: shaved heads, dressed in black, marching down Moscow's streets giving a half-Nazi (raised arm), half-Communist (balled fist) salute, chanting «Stalin! Beria! Gulag!»
During the Balkan wars of the 1990s Limonov signed up with Serbian forces as a mercenary and hobnobbed with future indicted war criminals including the paramilitary thug Arkan and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Notoriously, during the siege of Sarajevo, he was filmed, alongside Karadzic, firing a machine-gun into the streets. A clip can be found on YouTube, and the film was shown at Karadzic's trial at The Hague.
Though Vladimir Putin espoused many of the same causes as Limonov, Russia's new leader and his allies had little tolerance for Limonov's insurrectional political stunts, and in 2001 Limonov was arrested, tried and imprisoned for obscure political reasons, apparently connected to arms trafficking and an attempted coup in Kazakhstan.
Halfway through his four-year term he was released, surprisingly enough for «good behaviour».
After a series of spectacular political stunts, including the seizure of the Kremlin's reception office, the National Bolshevik Party was outlawed for «extremism» in 2007.
Subsequently Limonov formed an unlikely alliance with liberal politicians, including the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov and human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, as one of the leaders of the anti-Putin umbrella movement The Other Russia, taking part in protests and «Dissenters' Marches», during which he was arrested and held on several occasions.
His liberal allies might have been surprised by some of the ideas put forward by Limonov in a book, also called The Other Russia (2003), one of eight written during his spell in prison.
In one passage Limonov proposed solving Russia's demographic crisis by forcing «every woman between 25 and 35 to have four children».
The children would be taken away from their parents and educated in a House of Childhood where they would be taught «to shoot from grenade-launchers, to jump from helicopters, to besiege villages and cities, to skin sheep and pigs, to cook good hot food and to write poetry … Many types of people will have to disappear.»
In 2012 Limonov attempted to stand against Putin in that year's presidential elections, but his candidacy was rejected. However his subsequent support for Russia's annexation of the Crimea returned him to favour in pro-Kremlin circles.
He began writing a column for Izvestia and appearing on television talk shows, also writing a column on the website of the Kremlin-backed RT television.
Limonov regularly featured in ratings of Russia's political sex symbols. In addition to numerous lovers, he was married four times, his wives including the Russian punk rocker and writer Nataliya Medvedeva, and the actress Yekaterina Volkova, with whom he had a son and a daughter.
Eduard Limonov, born February 22 1943, died March 17 2020
Mario Gianani, CEO of Fremantle's Rome-based The Young Pope and My Brilliant Friend production powerhouse Wildside, is enjoying a high-profile time on the international film festival circuit this year.
The producer, whose earlier feature film credits include Marco Bellocchio's Vincere (2009) and Bernardo Bertolucci's Io E Te (2012), was at Cannes this May with Belgian directorial duo Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch's Jury Prize winner The Eight Mountains.
He is now at Venice with a quartet of Italian titles: Emanuele Crialese's Golden Lion contender L'Immensità, Paolo Virzì's Out of Competition title Siccità (Dry) and first features Amanda and Ghost Night.
Deadline talked to Gianani ahead of the world premiere on Sunday of the 1970s Rome-set drama L'Immensità, starring Penelope Cruz as a mother, whose daughter's determination to identify as a boy pushes their fragile family dynamics to the edge.
DEADLINE: Wildside is also in production on Kirill Serebrennikov's Limonov, based on an adaptation by Pawel Pawlikowski of French writer and filmmaker Emmanuelle Carrère's book about the controversial Russian poet and political dissident Edouard Limonov. Do you have an update?
— That's another long story. We took the rights to the book six years ago. Pawel Pawlikowski came on board to write and direct, and we financed the film but then he changed his mind.
We kept the script. It was a fantastic script, as ever. He managed to condense the story into 80-pages and it's great.
We were looking for alternatives, for Russian directors. An agent put us in contact with Kirill Serebrennikov and it was a fantastic meeting. We asked him if he knew the character of Limonov and he pulled out a picture, showing himself as an 18-year-old next to the real Limonov.
It all came together very naturally but again it was complex. We had been shooting for three weeks in Moscow and then there was the invasion. We had reconstructed New York in Moscow, so we had to lose the whole set and rebuild in Riga. We stopped for a few months and restarted in August and will be finished in the coming days.
We're very proud. We think this is a very timely project. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are today. Limonov is the seed of everything. He was an isolated man and a loser. As often happens in life, losers embody that something that is the belly of a larger community. A few years later, [his writing] has become a very sharp prediction of what is happening now, but we didn't understand at the time.