The straightforward truth is elusive in the life of Russian politician Eduard Limonov, but Emmanuel Carrere’s book is so readable it’s difficult to care.
“Westerners are not our enemies,” said Limonov in an interview with the Guardian in 2010, “but I have no reason to look for support from them. Europeans are so timid they remind me of sick and elderly people. And Europe is like one big old people’s home. In Russia, fortunately, the people still have some barbarian spirit.”
It’s difficult to imagine a better subject for a book than the incurably outrageous Russian writer and politician Eduard Limonov; and impossible to imagine someone better suited to write this book than the ruthlessly intelligent, observant and rebellious French author Emmanuel Carrere. From a semi-delinquent adolescence of switchblade gangs and dull poverty, Limonov (whose name is a slang term for a type of hand grenade) is now a prominent member of Russia’s small political opposition, leading a party with an absurdly provocative name: the National Bolsheviks.
Along the way he has been a tailor, a poet of the Moscow underground before the fall of communism, the butler to a wealthy businessman in America, a controversial literary star in Paris and a volunteer in the Serbian army. He has been married numerous times to variously alcoholic, nymphomaniac, and mentally disturbed women as well as having several homosexual relationships: including sleeping with homeless men while down and out in New York City.
In Russia, his party started out consisting mainly of passionately devoted young skinheads in search of a family. One of these members was Zakhar Prilepin, a young writer of exceptional talent who is now regularly mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The book Sankya, Prilepin’s semi-fictionalised account of the political actions of the nazbols (members of the National Bolsheviks), revealed them to be more charismatic hooligans than well-organised militants; however, this did not stop Limonov being arrested on terrorism charges by the Russian government in 2001, while he was in Central Asia.
Carrere expertly handles this improbable wealth of material – knowing exactly when to comment and when to let events speak for themselves – and also includes himself as a character in the book, giving unusual context to his own perspective. He is clear when he is speculating and always allows for the ambiguity of his subject; however, separating fact and fiction is not always the essential task in a character study of this kind. Limonov is so self-mythologizing it seems unlikely he could be sure of the facts of his life, even in his private thoughts.
“He sees himself as a hero; you might call him a scumbag: I suspend judgement on the matter.” Carrere perfectly portrays this complex character, never writing him off as a simple fascist or painting him as a rebellious hero. Limonov is certainly fearless – making most Western ‘cultural rebels’ look about as non-conformist as accountants. He has an enormous ego and extreme, even virulent, opinions, but what makes him fascinating, and perhaps saves him from becoming a monster, is his absolute devotion to non-conformity for its own sake. The only thing really separating him from his greatest enemy, Vladimir Putin, is Limonov’s ability to shoot himself in the foot anytime he comes close to being in a position of real power.
Photographs by Dmitry Rozhkov