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Who's Afraid of Edward Limonov?

03.15.2002 | CULTURE

Edward Limonov, one of Russia's most famous authors, has been sitting in the KGB's Lefortovo prison in Moscow since April of last year. As author of several taboo-breaking novels, editor of the radical newspaper Limonka and chairman of the National-Bolshevik Party, Limonov has been one of the most controversial and scandalous public figures in post-Soviet Russia.

Today, he awaits charges that he was conspiring to overthrow the state of Kazakhstan, to acquire illegal weapons, and to form an illegal armed militia. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

Until this January, Limonov's case got no attention whatsoever outside of Russia. Which is odd, considering how much press jailed Russian writers, no matter what their politics, used to get during the Cold War. Moreover, Limonov is a dual French citizen, where he lived throughout the 1980's and grew to fame as the enfant terrible of modern European literature. The West's hitherto silence on Limonov's imprisonment is therefore baffling, if not downright hypocritical.

Recent developments may mean that things are slowly beginning to change for Limonov. Two months ago, a petition began to circulate among France's literary elite calling attention to Limonov's case and for the government to work to free him. The petition was signed by so many heavyweights that it eventually became a feature on France-1 state television.

The petition was the brainchild of Parisian journalist and writer Patrick Goffman. "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," Goffman 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 émigrés 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." Since then, several PEN clubs around the world have called for his release: PEN Russia, Italy, Belgium, Bolivia, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, and others.

On March 1st, Sara Whyatt, PEN International's Program Director for Writers in Prison Committee, issued an official statement expressing International PEN's "concern about the trial process against writer and Bolshevik Nationalist [sic] Party leader, Eduard Limonov."

While the statement noted that PEN "considers many of the views expressed by Eduard Limonov to run counter to its own charter," it recognized Limonov's importance in modern Russian letters: "Limonov, during his exile in the USA and France in the 1970's and 1980's, gained a reputation as one of Russia's most noted avant-garde writers, leading this organization to take a special interest in his case."

Oddly enough, while the Limonov detention has made regular TV radio and print press in Russia, the Western press corps in Moscow ignores his case. Only in my newspaper The eXile, where Limonov was a regular contributor up until his arrest, and a few smaller articles in our straight-laced rival The Moscow Times has Limonov's detention been written up.

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 2001. Edward Limonov, now one of Russia's most famous public figures after more than two decades as a leading émigré writer in America and France, is once again the target of the KGB, today renamed the FSB.

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, including the co-editor of Limonka, a viciously anti-government newspaper, 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. He must be the only dissident to have been persecuted TWICE by two opposing regimes in the same country.

The case against Limonov rests on a sting against two teenagers busted in February of 2001 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 prosecution's case snowballed, capping with December's additional charge of attempting to overthrow the state of Kazakhstan, and with January's failed attempt to shut down Limonka and Limonov's extreme left-right political party, The National-Bolshevik Party.

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. 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 re-nationalizing 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.

Indeed if Limonov's life has been characterized by one thing, it's that he has always been in opposition to Power. When 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 émigré 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 émigré.

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. In the next few years, he published some of the world's greatest modern fiction, including Memoir of a Russian Punk (Podrostok Savenko in Russian), a water-tight masterpiece about one brutal epic weekend in the life of a lumpenprole teenager in Kharkov during the post-Stalin era. His aesthetic was frighteningly cold, merciless and insectoid, more Jean Genet than Dostoevsky. Limonov 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 racist and anti-Semite labels, even though there is no substantive proof to support these accusations. 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 also more often than not on 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.

Which is why he is not only misunderstood, but loathed.

A conference-hopping American academic, a Volvo-chauffeured Western correspondent whose Moscow life consists of 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 Caucasian 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, a threat. He's where he belongs--in jail.

Limonov is perhaps the only Russian artist to be persecuted both by the KGB and, 30 years later, the FSB. And he is the only one who today rots in jail due to a collective wall of silence in the West.

As a personal friend and former editor of Limonov, I am finally hopeful. Sara Wyhatt of PEN International has now spoken out. The pressure put on by France's literary elite, followed by declarations of support from so many PEN clubs, has finally raised Limonov's profile. Now the real question is: will the Western media, whose power was so great in freeing dissidents in the Soviet era, bother to report on the plight of a writer who not only pissed off the Russian authorities, but also the West?

About the Author
Mark Ames lives in Moscow, where he publishes the eXile, an alternative English language newspaper.
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