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Limonov On the Loose

Russia's bad-boy writer and nationalist party boss leaves prison vowing to keep fighting. by Nabi Abdullaev 2 July 2003 MOSCOW, Russia--On the last day of June, the writer and extremist party leader Edward Limonov walked out of a prison in the southern Russian town of Engels.

Limonov had served more than two years of a four-year sentence for buying illegal firearms and leading an organized crime group. On 18 June, a court in Saratov, across the Volga from Engels, told Limonov his good prison behavior had earned him early release.

He intended "to be a modest and decent citizen" after returning to civilian life, Limonov told the court during the release hearing. Then he added, "But nobody can force me to give up my views, and I will [still] be involved in politics."

Politics yes, but literature no more, said the poet, novelist, and memoirist who made his name in the West two decades ago with a handful of angry, raunchy novels featuring protagonists much like himself. Speaking to journalists the day prior to the release hearing, Limonov said that after writing seven novels in prison he was quitting literature.

"I am a thinker now," he said.

Limonov's political credo is a mix of extreme leftist rhetoric and nationalism, but it's his personal charisma rather than ideology that attracts people into the tiny and notorious National Bolshevik Party he founded, Alexander Tarasov, an expert on radical politics from the Moscow-based Panorama think tank, said, adding that most party members are young people who identify their leader with the unfettered heroes of his books.

Last winter, Limonov drew the attention of a Saratov television reporter to the similarities between his struggle with the state and that of the 19th-century writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What Is To Be Done?, the novel about Russian free-thinkers that Chernyshevsky wrote while serving a prison sentence, became a favorite of many Russian radicals even though the author distanced himself from the peculiar behavior of his male protagonist. Limonov suggested that the case against him was no less political than Chernyshevsky's, who he said was convicted based on a false charge of signing a proclamation against the government.


Critics may debate whether Limonov deserves a place among the ranks of Russian artist-provocateurs, but the state went after him on more concrete grounds.

Prosecutors originally charged Limonov and five other National Bolsheviks with plotting to overthrow the government, forming an illegal armed group, and conspiracy to commit terrorism. Earlier this year in a Saratov courtroom, however, Judge Alexander Matrosov threw out those charges, which could have sent Limonov to prison for 14 years.

After handing down the sentences in April, Matrosov lambasted prosecutors and the Federal Security Service (FSB), saying they had undermined their own case with irrelevant details and manipulated information to inflate the threat posed by the defendants.

Limonov has always exhibited a theatrical bent--he once said that during his New York days he demonstrated at the offices of The New York Times, demanding the paper publish his writing--and in the past decade has constructed his public face as much through outrageous stunts as through writing. He once lent a hand to Bosnian Serb nationalists by firing a few rounds in the direction of besieged Sarajevo as the Serbian nationalist chieftain Radovan Karadzic looked on. National Bolshevik Party members have hurled tomatoes at NATO Secretary General George Robertson and a cake in the face of the mayor of Nizhny Novgorod.

In the party's paper, Limonka--the title plays on the party chief's name and refers to a kind of grenade--Limonov used to urge his followers to mount attention-grabbing, nonviolent actions. He also warned them to be on their guard against security forces who might try to bring the party down.

Russian authorities shut down Limonka in 2000, but the party now publishes the paper under the banner of Generalnaya Liniya, or Guideline.

While in prison, Limonov speculated that one of his own articles in Limonka roused the FSB's wrath. The security agency had tipped off Latvian police that four National Bolshevik activists were on their way to Latvia to demonstrate in support of ex-KGB officers on trial there for crimes committed during World War II. Infuriated, Limonov used his paper to accuse the FSB--successor to the Soviet KGB--of betraying its own. He labeled its agents as ratfinks--the most detested category of inmates in Russian prisons.

This article, Limonov said, explained the hard-heartedness of his captors and their determination to punish him despite the holes in their case.

Born Edward Savenko, the young writer took his nom de plume from limon (lemon)--fittingly, for the authorities soon went sour on the young poet, finally expelling him from the Soviet Union in 1974. He went first to America, using his experiences in New York to good effect in his first novel, It's Me, Eddie and following up later in the 1980s with further autobiographical fiction: His Butler's Story and Memoir of a Russian Punk.

The exiled Limonov was most at home in France, the country whose intellectuals welcomed him and whose government gave the stateless writer a new passport. In 2002, a long list of French writers, journalists, and publishers signed a letter demanding Limonov's release from Moscow's Lefortovo prison, where he was being held in pre-trial detention. They were joined by the late Alexander Ginzburg and by Vladimir Bukovsky--two former Soviet dissidents living abroad--but outside France his arrest and trial received little attention, and even in Russia it was followed mainly by the intelligentsia.

One of the few groups to call attention to Limonov's case was the Russian branch of the writers' organization PEN, soon followed by PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee director Sara Whyatt, who issued a statement calling on Russian authorities to ensure that the writer received a fair trial--adding that PEN considered many of Limonov's views "to run counter to its own charter, specifically that PEN members 'pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of humanity living in peace in one world.' "


Although four of Limonov's associates admitted to illegal arms purchases--a total of six Kalashnikov rifles--the government failed to find the smoking gun in its terrorism case against him.

Fittingly, perhaps, for its case against a prolific writer (author of 33 books, he is "perhaps the best writer in the Russian language," Limonov himself put it in 2002 in an open letter, headed "Cell 32, Lefortovo Prison, Moscow," to French President Jacques Chirac), the prosecution relied heavily on documents. Its prize clues were articles published in Limonka and newsletters circulated among party members in 1999 and 2000.

Prosecutors argued that the texts and other documents, as well as secretly recorded conversations, proved that Limonov and former Limonka editor Sergei Aksyonov were the masterminds behind a plan to create a "Second Russia" in one of the former Soviet lands with large Russian populations.

The newsletter articles--Limonov claimed half of them were FSB fakes--maintained that there was no point trying to mount a putsch in Russia itself because any uprising there would be nipped in the bud. Mountainous regions were most suitable for guerilla bases, but the anonymous authors of the plan rejected the rugged Caucasus countries because they are stuffed with Russian troops and agents, not to mention a non-Russian populace who might begrudge Russian guerillas in their midst.

No, the best place to set up a Russian enclave with Limonov at its head, out of which would arise a new Russian state that would eventually absorb old Russia, is northern Kazakhstan. The local army is weak, and best of all, the country has a large Russian population who would support the "cause of liberation," the newsletter said.

In court, Limonov did not deny his authorship of a letter the FSB said was confiscated during a customs check on his friend, a French writer named Thierry Marignac. The letter was addressed to the French adventurer Bob Denard, whose exploits include leading an attempted military takeover of the Comoros Islands in 1995, and allegedly invited Denard to Russia to advise on the Kazakhstan scheme.

In the teeth of the evidence of the newspaper and newsletter articles and the Denard letter, Limonov and Aksyonov denied drafting the "Second Russia" plan, and testified that they had never advocated the violent overthrow of the Russian government.

Judge Matrosov gave short shrift to the prosecution's most serious accusations. He threw out the charges that Limonov and Aksyonov had plotted to overthrow the government, created illegal armed formations, or planned terrorist acts.

Even bugged conversations revealing Limonov and other party members discussing an invasion of Kazakhstan in the writer's Moscow apartment were, the court said, only "common theoretical talks."

The prosecution called just one witness to back its terrorism case against Limonov. National Bolshevik member Artyom Akopyan testified that Limonov had ordered him to look for places to set up guerrilla bases along the Russian Altai region's border with northeastern Kazakhstan. Limonov denied giving such an instruction.

The judge mocked Akopyan's testimony as the "product of his spy-mania and obsession with Ian Fleming's fiction."


In June, Limonov told reporters the first thing he planned to do after being freed was to work for Aksyonov's early release. The former Limonka editor was also found guilty of the illegal weapons buy and was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.

Limonov's party fellows rejoiced after the court's decision to release their guru.

"I am truly happy and all the other party comrades feel high with the news," said Anatoly Tishin, the party's acting head.

Tishin said 200 delegates from 50 Russian regions attended a National Bolsheviks convention in late April, when they decided to file registration papers with the Justice Ministry to run candidates in this December's parliamentary elections.

There was little reaction to the news of Limonov's impending release in political circles, although some of the cultural figures who had earlier campaigned for Limonov's release seemed slightly bemused.

Days before the writer walked through the gates of the Engels prison, Yevgeny Lesin, editor of Ex Libris, the respected arts supplement to the Nezavisimya Gazeta newspaper, wrote:

"An aged, weary, and meritorious 60-year-old poet and prose writer will soon leave the clink. A young, hungry, and fierce 60-year-old politician will walk free. … Limonov will hardly be involved in literature anymore. Articles, leaflets, but no more books …"
Nabi Abdullaev is a Moscow-based journalist and a long-standing contributor to TOL.
With additional reporting by Sergei Borisov, TOL’s correspondent in Ulyanovsk.
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