December 12, 2010
"We aim to create a great upheaval in society": Eduard Limonov. Photograph: Diana Markosian for the Observer
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.
"I was a non-conformist from birth": Limonov being arrested at an anti-Kremlin demonstration in Moscow in March. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press
"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.
Marc Bennetts is the author of Football Dynamo (Virgin Books). He is currently writing a book on Russia's fascination with the occult.