Eduard Limonov // Biography of chaos // Biografía del Caos

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.



Eduard Limónov no es un personaje de ficción. Existe. Yo lo conozco. Ha sido granuja en Ucrania, ídolo del underground soviético bajo Bréznev, mendigo y después mayordomo de un millonario en Manhattan; escritor mimado en París, soldado perdido en la guerra de los Balcanes, y, ahora, en el inmenso burdel del poscomunismo en Rusia, viejo jefe carismático de un partido de jóvenes desperados. Él se ve como un héroe, pero también se le puede considerar un cabrón: yo por mi parte no me atrevo a juzgarlo”.

Más o menos así presenta Emmanuel Carrère al protagonista de su último libro, Limónov, que arranca en Moscú el 7 de octubre de 2006, el día en que Anna Politkóvskaya fue asesinada a tiros en las escaleras de su casa. Carrère había ido a Rusia para escribir un reportaje para la revista XXI, y se encuentra con Limónov en una manifestación anti-Putin. El hilo de la memoria le lleva hasta el París de los años ochenta, cuando conoció al escritor y activista exiliado. A partir de ahí, oscilando entre la admiración y la irritación, el escritor y periodista francés dedica casi 500 páginas a contar la novelesca, aventurera y muy exagerada vida de Limónov, un gran personaje, lleno de luz y oscuridades, tan digno de simpatía como pantanoso.

Nacido en un pueblo de Ucrania en 1943, fue un joven hooligan, poeta sin hogar, exiliado soviético reconvertido en intelectual pequeñoburgués en París, para pasar luego a ser pobre de solemnidad y autor de cierta fama en Nueva York, improbable soldado a las órdenes del criminal de guerra serbio Radovan Karadzic (la BBC lo filmó disparando en el asedio de Sarajevo), y hacer luego el camino de vuelta como nostálgico del estalinismo y revolucionario profesional, líder de cabezas rapadas en el Partido Nacional Bolchevique, aliado y más tarde enemigo íntimo de Gary Kaspárov, y desde 2005 preso político en Lefortovo (el Alcatraz ruso) y después en el flamante campo de prisioneros Engels, en el Volga (llamado por los presos el Eurogulag), por intentar derrocar a Vladímir Vladimiróvich —Putin—.

Carrère y Limónov sitúan en ese moderno campo de prisioneros la espoleta del libro. El entrevistado (“a la vez Houellebecq, Lou Reed y Cohn-Bendit”, escribe Carrère) cuenta al entrevistador que el lavabo de acero de su celda es exactamente igual, un diseño de Philippe Starck, al del baño de una suite de Manhattan donde se alojó una vez. Ahí, ambos tienen claro que esa vida ha merecido la pena (Limónov) y merece ser contada (Carrère).

Tras fascinar a la crítica y desnudarse ante miles de lectores con Una novela rusa, El adversario, De vidas ajenas y Yo estoy vivo y vosotros estáis muertos: Philip K. Dick 1928-1982, Carrère ganó con Limónov el Premio Théophraste-Renaudot, uno de los más prestigiosos de Francia, que suele otorgarse a novelas. El libro, que se parece mucho a una novela de aventuras, es también una biografía y un gran reportaje histórico. Carrère hace novela de no ficción desde hace 15 años: se llame autoficción, biopic, relato real o nuevo periodismo, eso da casi igual. Su escritura, clara, precisa e irónica, mete al lector —y a él mismo— en veredas complicadas porque desde el Mac portátil en el que escribe se las arregla para meterse en la piel de ideas y personas que significan lo contrario del que escribe y lee.

Carrère (París, 1957), el pelo casi rapado, vaqueros y un jersey de pico azul, la mirada franca y la expresión entre desafiante y burlona del niño que acaba de robar un balón en el patio del colegio, nos recibe en su amplia casa bobó (burguesa bohemia) del distrito X de París. La conversación empieza con Limónov.

“Tardé cuatro años en escribir el libro”, recuerda, “y pasé de la fascinación al fastidio muchas veces. Pero siempre pensé que esa no era mala mezcla para un motor de un libro. Con Limónov pasas momentos en que le estimas y otros en que solo sientes hostilidad, es rey y mendigo a la vez. Un perdedor y un héroe. Los héroes que ganan mucho dinero y no tienen alma de perdedores no son héroes verdaderos. Realmente no sé si es un héroe de verdad, pero creo que su idea siempre fue ser uno de ellos, a pesar de que en su vida hay mucha confusión. Él se cree que es de una coherencia perfecta, pero yo no estoy de acuerdo. En todo caso intenté ser fiel a su visión de sí mismo, a su manera de conservar al niño. De pequeños todos queremos ser Robin Hood y el Conde de Montecristo, y con la madurez se nos pasa. Él fue siempre fiel a sus sueños de infancia y siempre pagó un alto precio por ello. En eso es admirable”.

“En algunas cosas es un personaje de novela picaresca, un plebeyo volátil y fuerte a la vez, que va por el mundo corriendo aventuras y cada vez se inventa una nueva. Más Don Quijote que Don Juan, siempre es devoto a sus mujeres”, prosigue. “Lo importante es que aprendí mucho escribiendo el libro. Intenté aprender sobre los Balcanes, tuve que documentarme mucho sobre Ucrania para contar su infancia… Es a la vez una novela de aventuras a lo Dumas y un libro de historia. Partí de un reportaje e intenté mantener ese tono durante todo el libro. Su vida es interesante siempre. Tiene momentos poco simpáticos, como cuando lucha a las órdenes de Karadzic, resulta ridículo ver jugar a un cincuentón con armas como si fuera un jovenzuelo. Pero al mismo tiempo su valor es admirable. El tipo vivió en París como un escritor respetable, luego en Nueva York como Henry Miller en París, y de repente dejaba todo y cambiaba radicalmente de vida”. Esa riqueza de experiencias, cree Carrère, “es una hazaña rara, habla de alguien que ha vivido con gran intensidad, renunciando a lo cómodo, y yo celebro esa forma de ser. En París podía haber sido un escritor menor pero apreciado, tenía amistades intelectuales y artísticas, y hace falta tener muchas agallas para de repente alistarse con los serbios e irse a la guerra”.

Su propia voz en el libro es la del bobó parisiense que lo será toda la vida, pero admite que exagera un poco: “¡Seguramente! Pero Francia es un sitio con muy poca movilidad, y sus élites son conformistas y prudentes. Quizá exageré un poco esa inmovilidad, pero me pareció interesante hacer un relato como el de Holmes y Watson, y quizá mewatsonicé un poco, aunque desde luego no soy tan sabio como Watson. Holmes es interesante porque Watson lo cuenta desde su mirada. Limónov es un gran contraste si se compara con el pequeño burgués socialdemócrata e intelectualoide que soy yo”.

Es curioso que hablaran muy poco… ¿Se evitaban? ¿Cómo se llevan ahora? “Solo le entrevisté un par de veces, unas cuantas horas. El resto fue documentación y biografía. Sé que cuando salió el libro estaba intrigado por su biógrafo, pero dijo una cosa estupenda sobre el libro: “Nunca diré nada sobre el fondo”. Estoy seguro de que cometí miles de errores, pero no entró a juzgar eso. Añadió que estaba contento de que el libro existiera, y mostró su gratitud diciéndome: “Me has resucitado”. Lúcidamente, agregó: “No estamos en el mismo lado de la barricada”. Y tiene razón. Se comportó como un personaje de ficción que te sale interesante y justo. A los 70 años fue un regalo inesperado para él, casi como si le dieran el Nobel, le gustó ver sus fotos en revistas y librerías. Se lo tomó con una ironía simpática”.

Y todo ello a pesar de que el final del libro es tremendo, porque Emmanuel Carrère compara a Limónov con Putin, su gran enemigo. “Me divirtió incluir eso como una provocación”, explica el escritor. “Sabía que le cabrearía, porque Putin es un apparatchik agarrado al poder y Limónov es lo contrario, nunca ha tenido el menor poder. Pero creo realmente que si lo tuviera haría como Putin o peor, metería en la cárcel a sus enemigos y los fusilaría si pudiera. Los dos comparten la nostalgia del comunismo, y nuestra visión del mundo, la democracia, los derechos humanos, la casa común, todo eso les produce risa. Piensan que somos unos capullos virtuosos; como dice Limónov, los derechos humanos son una herencia del colonialismo católico del XIX. Consideran que tratar de imponer la democracia es una falacia (bullshit), y que los europeos somos unos colonialistas disfrazados. Y la verdad es que tienen un punto de razón, aunque nos desagrade pensarlo. Nada nos impide acercarnos a ese pensamiento, y en el fondo ese mecanismo está muy presente en el libro. Lo que hace es tratar de entender esa forma de ver el mundo, que nos puede parecer fascista, violenta, el mal. Las etiquetas no bastan. Limónov es un fascista raro porque siempre ha estado al lado de los débiles. Y si lo miramos despacio, El Asad o Gadafi son lo mismo: unos pobres dictadores de provincias. Pero creo que es sano preguntarse lo que no es obvio, lo que no se ve, lo que nos une realmente a ellos”.

Y no parece que nosotros podamos presumir mucho, metidos como estamos en pleno neoliberalismo financiero…

— “La historia da muchas vueltas y quizá dentro de 30 años a nuestros nietos les parezca aberrante esta época, o lo que a nosotros nos parece aberrante a ellos les parezca bien. Siempre está bien poner en duda las verdades oficiales, yo solo trato de desestabilizar al lector que se parece a mí, al conformista, al demócrata que en realidad ya no cree en la democracia, y le invito a mirar el mundo desde el punto de vista del otro. Limónov es todo menos un golfo, tiene 70 años y no tiene un rublo, entra en la cárcel cada dos meses, no está del lado de los caraduras. De alguna forma los occidentales estamos resignados a nuestra suerte, vivimos bajo el diktat del mercado omnipotente, los Gobiernos no pintan nada al lado de los bancos, las democracias están recurriendo a economistas que no han sido elegidos para gobernarnos. El ideal de la virtud política hoy no vale nada”.

Emmanuel Carrère cuenta que eligió hacer relatos reales hace 15 años, el día que decidió “empezar a escribir eso que Truman Capote llamó novelas de no ficción. Esto no quiere decir que no me gusten las novelas, me parecen formidables, me encantan y sigo leyéndolas, y además lo que escribo se parece mucho a las novelas. Empecé por razones confusas y largas de explicar, quizá porque me apetecía partir de la realidad”. Así, en El adversario contó la vida de un falso médico que asesina a su familia; en Una novela rusa el protagonista era él mismo y en De vidas ajenas narraba la tragedia de una vida privada: un tsunami, un cáncer… “Y las cosas me fueron llevando a donde estoy ahora”, dice. “Limónov es historia y política. Creo que usar la realidad y aparecer en mis libros es una cuestión de honestidad. Me parece más honesto decir al lector quién habla realmente. Pero mis motivos reales son puras banalidades. Hablar sobre mí mismo, contar lo que pasa a mi alrededor, si la historia es más o menos grande resulta más o menos ambiciosa, pero al final es simple: escribo sobre lo que me parece la vida, la mía y la de la gente que me rodea. Sé que es banal como respuesta, pero consiste en eso, en dar forma literaria a mi experiencia. Incluso en el caso de Limónov, por un juego de opuestos: al fin y al cabo es mi experiencia porque me interesó”. Eso sí, honestidad no equivale para Carrère a sinceridad: “Yo intento ser honesto, pero no digo la verdad. La verdad no existe. Cuento lo que veo y oigo, que es una cosa muy distinta que ser sincero. Pero es un imperativo moral y artístico y mi razón de escribir: ser honesto”.

Biógrafo, reportero, narrador, Carrère usa la técnica del periodista y la mirada del novelista: “Doy un tratamiento novelesco a un material real, periodístico. Uso todas las técnicas y trucos de la novela, pero en un sentido amplio escribo informes sobre lo real”. De hecho, una parte de De vidas ajenas trata sobre las deudas bancarias, pero él desdeña el papel de profeta. “No era profético”, matiza. “Estaba pasando, la gente pedía créditos para comprarse un coche con el que ir al trabajo. Como el protagonista es un juez que se dedica a eso, tuve que enterarme a fondo, y siento mucho orgullo profesional de haber podido meter esas 60 páginas tan áridas en una novela, necesité 10 o 15 versiones, pero al final conseguí que fueran claras, límpidas. Esa es mi gran voluntad cuando escribo, ser claro para que un lector no especializado pueda entender bien de lo que se habla. Hacer pedagogía con estilo es otro imperativo del periodismo”.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s