A Failed Putin

Emmanuel Carrere, Limonov, translated by Magdalena kamińska-Maurugeon, Wydawnictwo Literackie 2012.

Counterculture in the West is commonly associated with the New Left, with the mythical 1968. Pacifism and deep ecology, experimenting with altered states of consciousness and “free love” in hippie communes—all these were accompanied with a joyful rebellion against “repressive” institutions: the state, school, family.

It was different with counterculture in Russia. Two factors contributed to that: tough experiences of real communism and cultural separateness of the country, following its own Euroasian path. Such a situation favoured flirting with the New Left, which in the West was an extravagant diagnosis of the affluent society by the Baby Boom generation. The coarse Soviet reality proved a fertile ground for phenomena which from the Western perspective do seem bizarre or even offensive.

Eduard Limonov is an icon of Russian counterculture. But before he achieved this status he went under a more prosaic name—Savenko. He was born in 1943 Dzerzhisk near Nizhny Novgorod in the family of an NKVD officer. He spent his childhood and early youth in Kharkov. He began with adolescent hooliganism, theft and petty crime, and later he became a member of the local bohemia. Then he found himself in Moscow, where he became part of the dissident community. He wrote poems and he earned his living as a tailor. In the early 1970s he emigrated to the West, where he impressed the literary world with a scandalising autobiographic novel It’s Me, Eddie, published in 1979. After a stay in the US and France he returned to his homeland in the twilight years of the USSR. In that period he got close to the groups promoting the idea of “grand empire patriotism” and therefore opposed to the process of the break-up of the Soviet Union. And when Yugoslavia began to come apart, he went to the Balkans to take part in the armed struggle on the Serbian side. Back in Russia he finally became the leader of the ominously called National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and one of the leading figures of the non-parliamentary opposition against Putin.

The Russian writer is the protagonist of Emmanuel Carrere’s book Limonov. One gets an impression that the author attempts to accustom the Western reader to people who have no respect for any values. And today’s highest values of the West constitute the canon of the liberal political culture, which rejects both all kinds of authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies and radicalisms leading to revolutionary violence.

Let us begin with the origins of Savenko’s nom de plume. The word “limon,” as Carrere explains, means a lemon in Russian but “limonka” is a type of a lemon-shaped hand grenade. The fundamental question which comes to mind when you read the book is: are we dealing with an uncompromising revolutionary (a grenade man) or a mere dandy who likes to attract attention of the public through provocative gestures?

When in the early 1980s Carrere met Limonov, the latter did not fit the stereotype of a Soviet dissident. He did not look like a unkempt bookish type but as a “sailor from a man-of-war and a rock star rolled into one.” He announced that his idol was Johny Rotten, the leader and vocalist of the punk group Sex Pistols. But he remained a man formed by the Soviet political mythology.

As a son of a low-rank NKVD officer Limonov did not have first-hand experiences with the atrocities of the communist system. He believed that when someone was arrested in the USSR, it was because he had committed a crime. Carrere says: “He was a little scout, proud of his country, of its victory over the Krauts, of an empire encompassing two continents and eleven time zones and of the mortal fear it struck in the hearts of these pussies from the West.” All reports on the horrors of the Gulag he considered as exaggerated. The only thing which was not an exaggeration for him was to emphasise that the Russians suffered great casualties in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans.

Limonov showed an almost instinctive and mocking hostility to the dissident movement born in the 1960s. For Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Iosif Brodski were part of the same clique with the leading Soviet apparatchiks. Any contradiction in that? This is how Carrere sums up the way of thinking which justified being against both groups: “This is not our style—our meaning hoodlums, cons, little crafty lumpenproles. We know only too well that it is an exaggeration to regard the Soviet society as totalitarian; our society is above all one big brothel and if someone is cunning, he can make use of the charms of this brothel and have a lot of fun.”

So how should we interpret Limonov’s political choice? He founded the National Bolshevik Party in the first half of the 1990s with the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. Limonov recruited its members from rock music lovers and participants of fistfights. They were often people from lower social strata for whom the economic consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union proved painful. Limonov was saying to them: “You are young. You don’t like the life in this shitty country. You don’t feel like becoming neither an ordinary poor person, nor a scoundrel thinking only about money or an ordinary KGB officer. You have the spirit of rebellion in you. Your heroes are Jim Morrison, Lenin, Mishima, Baader. So here we go: you already are a Nazbol” (National Bolsheviks for short).

And according to Dugin National Bolshevism was to draw on the radical political currents from the 20th century, and they did not fit into the simple “left-right” categorisation. The main evils for them were liberalism, capitalism, the West and the Enlightenment heritage. So Dugin had no trouble with looking for inspiration in, for example, what the Freikorps did—they were paramilitary nationalist formations composed of soldiers demobilised after World War I. In the version he promoted Russia was brought to its knees—the results of the Cold War proved equally humiliating for Russia as the provisions of the Versailles Treaty for Germany seven decades before. So the flag of the National Bolsheviks should not surprise anyone. It is the same as the flag of the Third Reich, but the swastika is replaced with a hammer and a sickle.

So what was the NBP in the 1990s? Carrere quotes the words of a young Russian fiction writer Zakhar Prilepin, who was also in its ranks: “Nazbols where the Russian counterculture. The only one. The rest is a sham, lackeys and so on. Of course, there were some thugs among us, some nervous guys, there were also skinheads with German shepherds, who terrified respectable people by performing Nazi salutes. But there were also all these people from backwater provincial Russia, self-taught comic book writers, bass guitar players looking for partners to start a rock band with, guys tinkering with video cameras, shy poets writing on the sly, longing for pretty girls and grimly dreaming about slaughtering everyone in school and then blowing themselves up like people did in America.”

As time went by, Dugin decided that the formula of National Bolshevism was a fringe idea. So he left the grouping and when Vladimir Putin became president for the first time, he supported him and tried to win him for his geopolitical ideas through various initiatives. In contrast to Limonov, who became one of the oppositionists most fiercely suppressed by the Putin regime. And here Carrere makes an interesting remark. The Nazbols gained the support of some people from the liberal camp, including the most prominent figures fighting for democratisation of Russia and human rights. Anna Politkovskaya regarded the National Bolsheviks as courageous and honest people while Yelena Bonner thought of them as admirable (although she encouraged them to change their name). None of the people speaking to Carrere in Moscow—and as the author assures us, the were no lovers of any radicalisms among them—used the word “Fascism” in reference to Limonov.

Nevertheless Carrere remains critical. When the theme of Limonov’s participation in the Balkan conflict appears, this is what we read about the Russian fiction writer: “A little boy pretending to be a tough guy in a fairground.” In the final stages of the book Carrere discovers many similarities between his protagonist and… Vladimir Putin. The Russian president was also born in the family of a NKVD officer. But in contrast to Limonov he did not stray from the right path when growing up. He was getting his education, he trained judo and finally he entered the KGB intending to serve his country. “He did not trust perestroika, adds Carrere, he did not like the thought that masochists or CIA agents were making a big thing of the Gulag or Stalin’s crimes.”

But according to Carrere what makes for the basic difference between these two figures is success. Putin simply achieved it in political terms. “He is the boss. He may give an order to stop writing badly about Stalin in school books or to turn the non-governmental organisations and idealists into a liberal opposition.” Limonov does not have such possibilities. He does head a grouping which forms a broad common front with other oppositional organisations, so he has gone beyond a certain mark, he is something more than a counterculture freak. But he stands no chance of playing any significant role in Russian politics.

It is striking that that since Putin is the president of Russia, Limonov is speaking less and less about National Bolshevism, putting more emphasis on his fight for civil liberties, so he practically stops to differ from his liberal allies. For this reason the NBP is not as sexy as it was in the 1990s. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the authorities defined the Nazbols as an extremist element and since the beginning of the previous decade are trying to eliminate them from public life. So there are more important matters for Limonov and his supporters. Political survival is more urgent than the “brown-red” revolution.

But perhaps this situation is one more proof of Putin’s advantage over Limonov. The ruling Russian president has a monopoly on rhetoric drawing on the post-Soviet nostalgia, imperial appettites, the sense of national pride, resentment towards the West. So the most Limonov can do is try to outbid Putin in this rhetoric. But he does not do it, for he knows that he is doomed for a fiasco in such a competition. For Putin is behaving as a statebuilder (even if his team takes part in looting the state) and Limonov still comports himself as a bufoon and eccentric. This being the case, an overwhelming majority of Russians will prefer the former. Is the time of the Nazbols gone?

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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