That the police or the army should be corrupt, it’s to be expected. That human life is worth little, that’s the Russian tradition. But the arrogance and the brutality of the representatives of power when ordinary citizens hold them to account, the certitude they have in their own impunity, that’s what neither the mothers of soldiers, those of the children massacred at the school in Breslin, in the Caucasiens, nor the families of the victims of the Doubrovka theatre could not accept.
At the death of Anna Politkovskaïa, the french journalist Emmanuel Carrère who was already in Russia was hurried over to Moscow to cover events and, attending a rally on the 31st of the month protesting in favour of article 31 of the constitution stating that Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets, there are, as always, more police than protestors and frequent arrests as referred to in the opening quote. At the rally, Carrère notices Limonov whom he had met years earlier in Paris.
In the days to come as he is working on the death of Politkovskaïa, Carrère is lead to put into question the views he had of this minor dissident from the Breznhev era who had been expelled from the USSR and had turned his experiences surviving with little or no money, living, amongst other places in Harlem, into a first book, his own version of “On The Road”, telling amongst other things of his homosexual relationships with down and out black men, which he managed to get published in France as “Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres.” Which I won’t translate (It was later published in English as “It’s me, Eddy”, and was published years later in Russia, see the cover at the start of this article. Limonov then moved to France and as Carrère describes his appearence:
We were right in the middle of the Punk surge, he claimed Johnny Rotten, the leader of the Sex Pistols, as his hero. He had no qualms about calling Solzhenitsyn an old fart. It was refreshing, this new wave dissidence, and Limonov was from the outset the darling of the small parisien literary world.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Limonov thought of himself as a revolutionary and wanted to be involved in the war in former Yougolsavia if possible fighting for the Slavs, which gave a whole other view to the west of Limonov:
We saw him in a documentary on the BBC, shooting up a besieged Sarajevo under the watchful eye Radovan Karadzić, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs and an acknowledged war criminal.
So a decade or so later when running through Politkovskaïa’s articles he discovers a whole new view of Limonov, Carrère decides to plungeinto detail and write this book about Limonov, leaving no stones unturned:
Running through a compilation of articles by Anna Politkovskaïa, I discovered that she had, two years earlier, followed the trial of thirty nine militants from the national-Bolchevik party who were accused of breaking into and vandalising the headquarters of the presidential administration, crying out “Poutine out!”. For this crime, they had received long prison sentences and Politkovskaïa defended them with vigour: courageous young people, honest, alone or almost in giving confidence in the moral future of our country.
I couldn’t believe it. It had all seemed clear to me, unquestionable: Limonov was a terrible fascist at the head of a militia of skinheads. But now, a woman, who since her death was unanimously considered to be a saint, spoke of him and of them, as heroes in the fight for democracy in Russia. Elena Bonner was saying the same thing on the internet. Elena Bonner! Sakharov’s widow, the great scholar, the great dissident, the great moral conscience, the winner of the Nobel peace prize.
Carrère’s book allows us to re-visit modern history, from Breznev through to the end of the Soviet Union, the chaos that followed, through to Putin’s Russia. All of this crossed with Limonov’s life, and Carrère’s own, and this is the interest of this superb biography.
First Published in French as “Limonov” in 2011 by P.O.L
Translated into English by John Lambert and published in 2015 as Limonov by Penguin.
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
Que la police ou l’armée soient corrompues, c’est dans l’ordre des choses. Que la vie humaine ait peu de prix, c’est dans la tradition russe. Mais l’arrogance et la brutalité des représentants du pouvoir quand de simples citoyens se risquaient à leur demander des comptes, la certitude qu’ils avaient de leur impunité, voilà ce que ne supportaient ni les mères de soldats, ni celles des enfants massacrés à l’école de Beslan, au Caucase, ni les proches des victimes du théâtre de la Doubrovka.
On était en pleine vague punk, son héros revendiqué était Johnny Rotten, le leader des Sex Pistous, il ne se gênait pas pour traiter Soljenitsyne de vieux con. C’était rafraîchissant, cette dissidence new wave, et Limonov à son arrivée à été le coqueluche du petit monde littéraire parisien.
On l’a vu, dans un documentaire de la BBC, mitrailler Sarajevo assiégé sous l’œil bienveillant de Radovan Karadzić, leader des Serbes de Bosnie et criminel de guerre avéré.
En parcourant un recueil d’articles d’Anna Politkovskaïa, j’ai découvert qu’elle avait deux ans plus tôt suivi le procès de trente-neuf militants du parti national-Bolchevik, accusés d’avoir envahi et vandalisé le siège de l’administration présidentielle aux cris de “Poutine, va-t’en!”. Pour ce crime, ils avaient écopé de lourdes peines de prison et Politkovskaïa prenait haut et fort leur défense: des jeunes gens courageux, intégres, seuls ou presque à donner confiance dans l’avenir moral du pays.
Je n’en revenait pas. L’affaire m’avait paru classée, sans appel: Limonov était un affreux fasciste, à la tête d’une milice de skinheads. Or voici qu’une femme unanimement considérée depuis sa mort comme une sainte parlait de lui, et d’eux, comme des héros du combat démocratique en Russie. Même son de cloche, sur internet, de la part d’Elena Bonner. Elena Bonner! La veuve de Sakharov, grand savant, grand dissident, grand conscience morale, prix Nobel de la paix.