Eduard Limonov, 1943–2020

The Russian provocateur Eduard Limonov venerated “talented misfits” and claimed to offer a galvanizing cause for hopeless youths. But his politics were built on Russian revanchism — a “National Bolshevism” combining fascist imagery with a claim to restore Soviet grandeur.

Eduard Limonov, 1943–2020.

Nineteen ninety-two outside besieged Sarajevo: a quiet moment on the heights from which Serbian artillery has been bombarding the city. Troopers play with dogs or clean their guns. In their midst, Radovan Karadžić — president of the breakaway Republika Srpska, psychoanalyst, poet, and commander responsible for actions that an international tribunal would later term genocide. He is in conversation with a lean, semi-bohemian type dressed rather inappropriately in a tight ’70s leather jacket and narrow blue jeans.

Aside from being well into his forties, the dandy resembles Andreas Baader at the Palestine Liberation Organization military training camp in Jordan, foppishly prancing about a martial scenery in which he clearly doesn’t belong. A soldier shows him the workings of the Browning machine gun he had been greasing. He offers his guest a try. Once instructed on the correct position, the excited visitor fires in the direction of the besieged city.

This footage appeared in the documentary Serbian Epics (1992) by Pawel Pawlikowski and Lazar Stojanovic, which formed part of the evidence exhibit at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the war that destroyed the multiethnic socialist country, what these images appeared to show was despicable: a pathetic war tourist firing at civilians under siege to impress the big boys; an edgy artist exploiting misery to feed his narcissism and carefully constructed public image.

The artist was Eduard Limonov — a former “dissident” Soviet author, and soon a leader of the snappily named National Bolshevik Party. His real name was Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, his nom de guerre was derived from limonka (lemon), the Soviet nickname for an F1 hand grenade.

Watching the Sarajevo footage when it resurfaced on YouTube was enough to despise the Russian provocateur, whose pseudo-political antics I had previously taken a peripheral interest in. I had first encountered Limonov in connection with Grazhdanskaya Oborona, a wayward Siberian punk band I had been a fan of since my late teens. Alongside Limonov and Aleksandr Dugin, their vocalist Egor Letov was among the founding members of the National Bolshevik Party. Pictures of “Nazbol” demonstrations were intriguing: there were black-clad Russian punk girls and skinheads marching in tight formation, extending their arms to display a cross between a Roman salute and the clenched fist of the Red Front. Their banner: essentially a hammer and sickle superimposed on a Nazi flag. Images of Stalin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, and sometimes Sid Vicious . . . It all looked amazing, and I consumed the visuals like fascist pornography. I did not take the politics very seriously — it all seemed a little bit too like the act put on by Laibach to warrant closer analysis.

With the Sarajevo footage, Limonov’s image assumed a darker tone in my mind: what I had previously considered an entertaining prankster looking like Leon Trotsky with a Hitler Youth hairdo, who occasionally issued rather agreeable sound bites about the crimes of “the West,” now seemed like an unscrupulous chancer exploiting tragedy — a bit like the main characters in Cannibal Holocaust, but worse.

Years later, I inevitably stumbled across Limonov again when researching National Bolshevism in earnest. This curious hybrid is the name for the intellectual and political trend whose evolution began in Germany (and, to a far lesser extent, among nationalists in Soviet Russia) under the impression of the Treaty of Versailles and the trajectory of the Russian Revolution from 1919 onward.

What was National Bolshevism? On this, its two preeminent scholars, Otto-Ernst Schüddekopf and Louis Dupeux, disagreed. For Schüddekopf, it was a syncretic crossover politics by virtue of which German nationalists arrived at fundamentally left-wing, socialist positions — not for nothing was his seminal study titled “Left-wing folks from the right” (Linke Leute von rechts). For Dupeux, it was unconditionally an ideology of the “ultra-right” — in his words, “the hardest, purest form of German nationalism” and the most uncompromising outgrowth of the so-called conservative revolution, the intellectual avant-garde of German fascism.

A variation of this ideology — merging a right-Hegelian reverence for the state with the belief that the Soviet Union in its glory days was the last word in Greater Russian nationalism — would again emerge in circles like Limonov’s as the USSR entered its final death spiral.

Budding Poet

So how did Limonov get to this? Born in Dzerzhinsk as the son of a lowly NKVD officer in 1943, he grew up in a modest household, albeit one relatively privileged on account of his father’s connections. Eduard’s future seemed to hold out little more than factory work or lowly service in his father’s image — but his family was a bit more equal than most, shielded as it was from the various hazards of the Stalinist postwar period. Limonov’s memories of this era were overwhelmingly positive: in his teenage years, he became a budding poet running with the bad boys from the ‘hood, for whom he embodied something like their resident gangster rapper.

During his predicament as a laborer in a local factory, Eduard developed a degree of contempt for his coworkers: people in the same position as him, yet people with their shoulders bowed in defeat, deferential to fate, and without any ambitions to escape the monotony of their lives. Eduard’s poetry was his ticket to a bohemian existence in the Russian artistic underground, where poets, artists, and dissidents of all stripes rubbed shoulders — first in Kharkiv, then in Moscow. Limonov never considered himself a dissident. As he would later insist, he was “a delinquent, not a dissident”: a punk rather than a critic. His motivation was never a desire to reform the Soviet system, with which he saw nothing fundamentally wrong aside from a certain inertia, but rather his own personal ambition. Eduard Limonov wanted to be somebody.

He was a great poet during his time in Moscow, if eyewitnesses are to be believed. But in 1974, he decided he had outgrown it and emigrated to the United States – with the blessing of Soviet officials, who by now considered his nonconformist style a mild nuisance. These were the very early days of punk in Limonov’s new home of New York City, and he felt quite at home among the fashionable junkie poets, new wave musicians, and washed-up Warhol hangers-on at the CBGB. It was also the last year in the life of Karl Otto Paetel, an original German “Nazbol” and author of the National Bolshevist Manifesto, who died in New York City in May 1975. I have sometimes wondered whether the two might have met, and if Paetel passed on some seed to Limonov — although the chances are, admittedly, slight.

Limonov, who went from destitute poet to homeless bum and then, by happenstance, became a billionaire’s servant during his time in New York, hated the bourgeoisie. In His Butler’s Story, one of several memoirs based on his Manhattan period, he describes himself as an “anarchist” in this period; he speaks of mastering the “theory of class struggle” in NYC, of “capitalist pigs” and the “international bourgeoisie” of which he considers his philanthro-capitalist employer a particularly hypocritical specimen. But beyond such phrases, chosen by the protagonist to portray himself in hindsight, there is little indication that Limonov’s politics at the time extended beyond the most elementary — if justified — class hatred.

In It’s Me, Eddie (1979) — the most famous of his New York memoirs, which unexpectedly made him a literary star in France, he recalls his brief and superficial involvement with members of James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party. They are exactly what you imagine Trotskyists to be: inoffensive, bookish types from the suburbs. In this book, Limonov admits to a growing fondness of Trotsky: he admires what Ernst Jünger once called Trotsky’s “modern martial energy,” the story of his armored train, his courage and sacrifice in the civil war. Trotsky’s disciples, however, appeared as the very opposite of these qualities. Moreover, Eduard liked Stalin for very similar reasons as he liked Trotsky.

Boris Groys, who remembers Limonov from his Soviet days, confirms my impression: “Limonov learned to hate everything American. He believed that America is only about money and does not respect poets, intellectuals and writers. However, he was not interested in politics in his time in New York.” Limonov’s politicization, Groys tells me, “started in Paris with L’idiot international. That was the beginning of his interest in Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ernst Jünger and so on.” In the pages of L’idiot international, the Sartre-founded journal to which Limonov regularly contributed after relocating to Paris in 1980, the writings of the “fascist Gramscian” luminary Alain de Benoist appeared alongside those of left intellectuals and assorted contrarians. One might, in hindsight, describe its offices as a veritable hub of red-brown intellectual activity, though others would shrug that the French move in mysterious ways to affront common decency — pour épater les bourgeois.

Deciding to Act

Yet it was the period of perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union that gave Limonov the final impetus to take up political activism. In Grazhdanskaya Oborona’s song “Everything Is Going According To Plan,” his future National-Bolshevik comrade Egor Letov, a former anarchist with Tolstoyan leanings, described feelings both men harbored: “So they went and fed my wife to the mob, with the global fist they crushed her chest, with the freedom of nations they tore up her flesh, now bury her in the name of Christ.” The wife, here, was the Soviet Union, about to be fed to the Russian mafia, the liberal oligarchs, and the looters and plunderers from the West. The brutality of this process, the impact it had on the majority of the population, must not be underestimated. When Limonov returned to Russia, he did not like what he saw — and he decided to act.

For a couple of years, he volunteered to fight on the Serb side in the civil war in the Balkans. Evidently, this is where he saw the new front line of battle against the encroaching Great Satan of the West. At first, his role was that of a sympathetic eyewitness — that’s where the footage described at the outset of this article was filmed. As I found out when my attention returned to Limonov more recently, the editing was deceptive: he wasn’t aiming at anyone when trying out the machine gun — and he was shooting from too great a distance to hit anybody. Emmanuel Carrère analyzes the sequence at some length in his Limonov biography.

Limonov would return to the Balkans a year later and take on a more active fighting role, perhaps envisioning himself as a “soldier-poet” in the vein of Gabriele D’Annunzio in post–World War I Italy. While it is uncertain if Limonov killed anyone, it goes without saying that he put his life on the line. He did so in a sordid, deeply regrettable civil war, not to mention in a struggle that wasn’t his. What is more, as some of his later writings testify, he was partly motivated by a desire for “authenticity.” Yet the fact that he was prepared to give his life for what he believed to be a just cause belies any inference from Serbian Epics that he was simply an amoral poseur.

Back in Russia after the Bosnian campaign, Limonov began to mix in circles whose common denominator was anti-liberalism, ranging from orthodox Communists to neofascists. Among them was Aleksandr Dugin — a philosopher well-versed in the writings of the old “conservative revolution,” including National Bolsheviks such as Ernst Niekisch and Karl Otto Paetel, but also an eminent authority on the entire canon of fascism’s heroes and progenitors from Georges Sorel to Yukio Mishima. With Dugin, Limonov set up the National Bolshevik Party — an organization whose name lends itself to a “fascist” label.

Some economic demands found in the 1994 Programme of the National Bolshevik Party did appear to be directly lifted from the German Nazis’ 25-point program from 1920, while others aimed to restore some of the basic property relations of the USSR — a “beyond left and right” pastiche not untypical of fascist rhetoric, peppered with talk of the “total state,” a term borrowed from Niekisch. Nazbol activists were mainly recruited from among punks, skinheads, artists, hooligans, and assorted no-future youths — a social base some might describe as declassed bohemia and lumpenproletariat.

In his manifesto for the NBP’s successor organization, The Other Russia, Limonov drew a parallel with the Bolsheviks: “The first proletarian revolution was organized and performed not by the proletarians but by misfits, hysterics, tramps, demagogues, orators, half-educated people, bums and all kind of rolling stones. The sailors, peasants and the workers joined later, but they were not the fathers of the revolution. Lenin lacked the insolence and honesty to declare that only a party of talented misfits . . . is capable of carrying out a revolution.”

Moreover, unlike fascist movements, the Nazbols were never a particularly violent bunch, confining themselves to spectacular actions, stunts, and damaging property — always directed against those “above,” never kicking down. Russian leftists and workers’ organizations had nothing to fear from them — in fact, the Russian Nazbols regarded them as allies. Nor did their nationalism have a racist character: the NBP program was very clear that anyone, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or descent, could be a Russian and a Nazbol — just as long as they were prepared to give “everything” for Russia.

Nor was Limonov personally a racist or antisemite: if anything, he was prone to a certain “philosemitic” exoticism, motivated not least by his distaste for what he regarded as the typically provincial prejudices of the average Russian boor. Despite all the smoke and mirrors and edgy fascist borrowings, in practice his party resembled a left-nationalist formation — especially after Dugin’s early departure.

Oppositionist (and Not)

So, was Limonov ever a real leftist — or a fascist? In Boris Groys’s view, “it probably depends on the definition of a leftist. But essentially, his political activity is a poetic performance in the style of Marinetti. It was always about being a charismatic leader. He may sound nationalist but in the Russian context, he is neither nationalist nor conservative but a Western import.”

Be that as it may, Limonov’s cultural National Bolshevism resonated with Russian youths in a post-Soviet context. Indeed, the simultaneous experience of national dismemberment and economic doom produced a psychological effect not unlike that which haunted Germans after World War I. The Nazbols boasted their strongest bases of support where the territorial and socioeconomic degradation of the former USSR was felt most acutely — among young ethnic Russians in countries such as Latvia and Lithuania.

From the mid-2000s, Limonov attempted to widen his appeal, rebranding himself as a face of the anti-Putin opposition. He helped to set up a broad “pro-democracy” front alongside worthies such as chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. In this vein, he even earned himself the praise of the late Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist-author of Putin’s Russia. Given his previous political trajectory, it is doubtful that Limonov had really grown soft to notions of democracy and pluralism. The stiff prison sentences endured by Nazbol militants at the turn of the century may well have inspired him to moderate his demands for a strong law and order state.

More recently, events around the “Euromaidan” and the resulting civil war saw Limonov voice critical support for Putin — eventually landing him, the lifelong anti-establishment figure, a regular slot on Russian TV. It’s hard to imagine Pussy Riot taking a similar turn — though nor would a man like Limonov ever have earned the affections of Madonna.

Much about Limonov is relatable — he even displayed an inspiring commitment to the underdog. The profound class hatred permeating his books will be familiar to many of us, yet there is also a certain sensitivity to his writing. In His Butler’s Story, he describes with great honesty the humiliation he feels, his inability to cope with the situation down to his trembling hands, as he endures another barrage of verbal abuse from his boss.

Far from all of Limonov’s work was outstanding — especially objectionable was his sometime inclination to pass off masturbation fantasies regarding young girls as transgressive prose. But despite such repugnant material, he was far from being a substance-free contrarian. He was a “problematic” character, to say the least — but one from whose colorful life and work has much to tell us about the times that created him.

Eduard Limonov died on March 17, 2020 in a hospital in Moscow, following complications after surgery, reportedly linked to cancer. One hopes that his passing will encourage someone to republish the long out-of-print English translations of classics such as It’s Me, Eddie or Memoir of a Russian Punk. Indeed, just days before his death, the seventy-seven-year-old Limonov announced that he had just signed a publishing deal for a book he had written. The title: The Old Man Travels.