Russia’s not so Lovable Rogue

Eduard Limonov cuts a colourful figure in the post-Soviet landscape. A self-made man, he grew up in post-war Kharkov, wrote poetry and burgled shops as a teenager, went to Moscow in search of literary fame, emigrated to the US, slummed it in New York, became the darling of Parisian intellectual circles, and fought in the Balkans on the side of a Serbian militia before returning to Russia in the early 1990s to found the National Bolshevik Party, a movement that counted Lenin, Mishima and the Baader-Meinhof gang among its heroes and was banned for its extremism. Since 2010 Limonov has led The Other Russia, a non-registered opposition party, and continues to write poetry and prose, including journalism — of which more later.

Most of Limonov’s life has been documented in his own books, the best-known of which is his brave, grungy 1979 debut It’s Me, Eddie, a fictionalised memoir of his life in America. The French author Emmanuel Carrère, fascinated by the Russian punk turned politician, has collated the various bits of his subject’s adventurous life in what he calls a novel (for reasons — ignoring the practicalities of contemporary publishing — that remain unclear). Based on interviews with Limonov and people who know him, the book draws heavily on the protagonist’s prose. However, instead of quoting from it, Carrère retells stories already familiar to Limonov’s readers. His version is full of sanitised passages like this: “It’s Edichka, the Russian poet who costs you $278 a month, dear American taxpayers, and who cordially despises you.” Limonov himself put it much better: “I live off your labour: you pay taxes and I don’t do shit. . . . 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?”

Not terribly impressed by Limonov the writer, Carrère gushes: “But what a life! What energy!” He admits that his own is far less exciting. Another Frenchman is quoted in the book as saying that in the USSR, “life is real: serious, adult, as weighty as it should be”, a statement Carrère may not fully subscribe to, although he clearly thinks of his subject as a real man, strong, independent and mature. Some of Limonov’s exploits corroborate this view, for instance when we learn about his time in prison, where he was sent in 2001 on charges of terrorism, fabricated by the FSB. However, the image of a serious adult leading a group of like-minded individuals fades when we are told about the “bunker” where the National Bolsheviks hang out, its walls adorned with “posters and paintings [of] Stalin, Bruce Lee, the Velvet Underground and Nico, and Limonov in a Red Army officer’s uniform”. Carrère goes out of his way to paint a sympathetic portrait of his hero; reluctant to use the word “neofascist”, he tries to reason with the reader: “Things are more complicated than they seem.”

The same refrain is repeated in the chapter about Limonov’s most notorious escapade — as a volunteer in a Serbian unit under the command of a war criminal — where Carrère tries to analyse the actions of an adventurer entrusted with a machine-gun. A scene in which Limonov talks with “Dr Radovan Karadžić, psychiatrist and poet, leader of Bosnian Serbs”, taken from a BBC documentary, ends with Limonov emptying a magazine in the direction of Sarajevo. Carrère’s admiration is stronger than his revulsion: Limonov with the gun may look like “a child encouraged by the adults’ laughter”, but the author still doesn’t think him “either vile or a liar”.

Carrère positions his book not as a lightly fictionalised biography (it’s a novel, remember) but as a commentary on “all our history since the end of World War II”. Russia is at the centre of the author’s attention, and his story of the turbulent events of the past two decades is well-researched and informative, especially in the chapter describing the 1993 putsch. Writing about more recent developments, Carrère looks at the oligarchs running the country with disgust, as befits a Western liberal, which doesn’t dispel his belief that “there are worse things than Putin-style totalitarianism”.

Carrère’s strongest suit is irony, to which he occasionally adds a measure of vitriol, as in this passage about Limonov’s son: “The boy’s called Bogdan, in honor of his Serbian years. I think that Bogdan got off lightly: he could have been called Radovan or Ratko.” Recounting the activist’s attempts to raise money for his party, the author describes Limonov’s contacts as “timid fascists [who] have enough trouble sustaining their own little boutiques”. The irony grows subtler when Limonov, asked in 1993 what he does in Russia, says: “I’m getting ready to seize power.”

The book ends in 2009, when Carrère finds his interviewee unresponsive and decides to make do with what he’s got. The latest turn in Limonov’s writing career — a regular column in Izvestia, the mouthpiece of Russian officialdom — serves as a postscript to the book about a man whose most endearing trait, in the eyes of his novelist-biographer, is always being on the side of the underdog. This is Limonov’s reaction to a protest held in Moscow in March 2014 against Russia’s acts of aggression towards Ukraine: “My creative imagination pictured [the protesters] as a collective of prostitutes, prepared for any humiliation because they find pleasure in it.” His piece, reeking of imperial megalomania, makes you feel nostalgic for the days when the word “prostitute” didn’t have a purely negative meaning to Limonov. Heartbroken after his wife leaves him, the protagonist of It’s Me, Eddie says: “There was me hoping, thinking: we’d be whores, swashbucklers, prostitutes, whoever — but still together throughout life.”

I saw Limonov at a book festival in Moscow four years ago. He arrived flanked by several bodyguards and read some of his recent poems — very good, fresh and energetic, delivered with such gusto it was hard to believe the author was in his late sixties. Poetry aside, comparing Limonov’s political persona today with his younger self is rather depressing. In his 1977 book, Diary of a Loser, the young rebel was sure that even in the old age he would be able “to be a lone wolf . . . and cry out in a hoarse voice: Kill ’em! . . . Those who are not with us are against us!” Three and a half decades later, Limonov prefers to play it safe on the side of Putin’s big battalions.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"