Adam Curtis, the British filmmaker whose many great films and blog posts for the BBC we’ve been ramming down our readers’ throats (in the parlance of our times) lo these past few years, has a new piece about Russian politics, punk and avant-garde that is a must-read. It’s the only work I’ve ever read that makes sense of Edward Limonov—the former eXile columnist and leader of the radical opposition—and places Limonov and his Kremlin nemesis, Vladislav Surkov, in the context of Russia’s post-Communist politics, and Russia’s wild punk rock avant-garde.
It’s rare, as in “non-existent” rare, to read a Westerner who grasps the surface barbarism and extremism of Russian politics and art, and rarer that they can place Limonov’s role in it—Curtis manages this feat, and it’s quite an ambitious piece for a blog post. Middlebrows have spent the past couple of decades trying to fit their favorite worthless narrative frame over post-Soviet Russia—Weimar Germany, post-war West Germany, Nazi Germany, the anti-Germany—and even though none of those silly comparisons ever explained anything to anyone, they never tired of using them to misunderstand Russia. One of those cliche-peddling middlebrows who peddled the whole line of bad references and historical analogies is our old nemesis Michael McFaul—recently named the US Ambassador to Russia.
Which begs the ol’ question: “If yer so smart, why ain’t you Ambassador?”
Yeah, well, Joshua Foust is winning too.
Back to Curtis: After tracing the rise of Russia’s punk/maximalist avant-garde, Curtis introduces Limonov the political radical, and Yegor Letov, the (now deceased) god of Russian punk:
One of the first members of the National Bolshevik Party was the punk legend Yegor Letov – leader of GrOb (he was member number 4). Then Sergey Kuryokhin – the leader of the Popular Mechanics band joined and the party soon became a home to many members of the 1980s avant garde music scene.
You can watch some footage of Letov playing at an NBP rally here.
Together they reached back into the past – and borrowed, as punk had done, from fascist and revolutionary aesthetics (and even further – both Limonov and Letov idolised Mayakovsky), in order to invent dramatic ways of confronting contemporary smug westernised culture. They also associated with some very nasty people who took nationalism to racist and xenophobic extremes.
To western liberals who want to spread democracy round the world someone like Limonov is a frightening alien because he is reawakening the dangerous force of nationalism. But he in turn sees western liberals as fools who have been duped, and are really the unwitting agents of a corrupt economic global elite. Limonov believes that the only way to confront that corruption is to harness a force that appeals to the mass of the people.
Here are some glimpses of Limonov and his party on a march called by the communist party in 1997 as President Yeltsin was letting the oligarchs loot Russia – Limonov’s young supporters mingling with the old communists. One of the National Bolshevik Party banners has a fantastic slogan.
RUSSIA IS EVERYTHING
EVERYTHING ELSE IS NOTHING
But there was another route that this generation took.
The key figure is a man called Vladislav Surkov. He is half-Russian, half-Chechen. He was born in the provinces, but like all the others he came to Moscow in the 1980s.
And this is where Curtis’ post gets even more interesting, original–and deadly accurate.
A day in the life of Edward Limonov: Outside a Moscow court
Reading Adam Curtis’ piece brought back a lot of memories: The first GrOb concert I went to in Moscow in 1993 with Dr. Dolan and some of my Russian banker friends (they were graduates of the journalism and literary institutes but went into banking for the same reason we now have to), a concert that quickly devolved into a riot, OMON troops firing shotguns to scare the punks, pummeling them with truncheons (Vova, my banker buddy, saved me from an OMONets who was running up behind me with his truncheon cocked over his head), the punks charging at the OMONtsi and setting a tramvai car on fire on its tracks as their one riot trophy…
Curtis’ article also reminded me of a strange meeting I had in 2000, when Taibbi and I were in the US promoting our book, The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia. We met with a recently-retired American intelligence official who fed us some stories about yet more foul corruption that Clinton, Gore and their investment banker friends were mixed up in in the Yeltsin Clusterfuck that the Clinton/Rubin people were so deeply involved in, and criminally culpable in. Towards the end of our lunch, the mysterious, extremely grim retired intel official got even more grim and and serious, and told us to keep an eye on Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s PR “Wizard of Oz” whose trajectory Curtis contrasts so perceptively with Limonov’s. From my memory of that meeting, the intel guy told us that in the summer of 1999, Surkov had arranged a crucial, highly secret meeting in a Spanish coastal resort involving Boris Berezovsky, then-FSB chief Vladimir Putin, and a top Chechen rebel leader, possibly Shamil Basaev or one of his surrogates.
We all know what happened shortly after this alleged meeting: Yeltsin appointed Putin as his new prime minister, Basaev’s Chechen separatist rebels launched an invasion into the Russian republic of Dagestan, and then terror spread across Moscow and Russia: apartment buildings started blowing up, killing hundreds of Russians, sparking Putin’s invasion of Russia. Putin’s rating shot up from about 3% to the most popular Russian politician of the past decade.
A little over a year after Putin’s invasion of Chechnya, Limonov was jailed, becoming Vladimir Putin’s first political prisoner; when Limonov eventually beat the rap and was released from prison in mid-2003, he emerged bigger than ever, the most powerful leader of the nascent democratic opposition, so powerful that even US-backed chess champion Garry Kasparov formed an alliance with Limonov, because Limonov was the only opposition figure in Russia with real followers. And more importantly, Limonov was the only opposition figure who had worked out a real oppositional politics: radical, novel, theatrical, and inspirational.
Curtis’s piece on Russia focuses more the early radical-right aesthetics of Limonov’s politics, when his punk influences were more apparent (Curtis himself first emerged in the late 70s punk avant-garde as part of a movement that included the Gang of Four, around the time that Limonov was involved in the first wave of New York’s punk scene). But Limonov’s prison experience affected his politics as much as the new political environment he faced after he was released from prison–a new political reality molded largely by Surkov.
I asked Limonov about what happened to that punk-fascist element in the National-Bolsheviks after he got out of jail… and he told me: “Why would we bother playing with fascism anymore when the Kremlin is already fascist? We are an opposition party. And today the most radical position of all is to fight for democracy and elections–against Putin’s fascism. It’s far-right fascism that is banal and oppressive now.”
To quote Yegor Letov’s great anthem: “Я всегда буду против!” (“I will always be anti-!”)
To Limonov’s credit, he called out exactly what the Medvedev presidency would be like in his last column for The eXile before we were shut down by the Kremlin. While Council on Foreign Relations types kept holding out the absurd hope that they could split the “liberal” Medvedev from the “revanchist” Putin, Limonov laid out clearly what to expect from Medvedev back in the spring of 2008:
“Who is Mister Medvedev?” Mr. Medvedev is not a political figure, he is a practically unknown bureaucrat, one of a huge crowd of bureaucrats surrounding Putin. If the elected president had been named Zyuganov or Yavlinski or Kasparov or even Limonov, nobody in Russia would have asked a question: “Who is that man?” Because these are political leaders, actors in Russian political play. They are known to general population. Mr. Medvedev, on the contrary, is not known, or wasn’t known, at all. Mr. Medvedev is not a leader of political party, he is not a member of political party, so he is not a political man. We can guess that he is a member of Putin’s circle of close friends, a member of some inner circle. If he is to be appointed to the post of guarding of their interests, we are guessing that Mr. Medvedev is trusted by Mr. Putin’s group and Mr. Putin himself.
So the answer to the question of “Who is Mister Medvedev?” is shamelessly simple. He is a guardian of Mr. Putin’s property and of property of members Mr. Putin’s group. In Russian criminal world could be found an exact definition of Mr. Medvedev’s role: he is “smotriaschiy”—the caretaker, somebody who is looking after the property and after interests of the criminal group. I didn’t say that Mr. Medvedev is a criminal himself, he is wearing expensive suites and expensive ties, I said that he is chosen to be the caretaker who looks after interests of Mr. Putin group.
Personally, I expect from Mr. Medvedev nothing. The most probable behavior will be filling advice-orders from Mr. Putin. Because Mr. Putin’s group is constructed in the same manner as all groups of power are constructed in Russia, including criminal groups. Leader, “Chief Papa”, is a head of a group, even if he will have no official post, he will forever be father to the group—a “papa.” Putin is “papa” in his group, just for now it is more convenient to group interests that Mr. Medvedev will hold post of President of Russia. “Papa” Putin will for a time hold the second post in the State, the post of Prime Minister. But, one should understand, Putin will be second on the state hierarchy. Inside the group hierarchy, Putin will always be “papa.” As in all closed societies, “papa” will stay “papa” until his physical death. That is what one should keep in mind when thinking about Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin.
Is it possible that Mr. Medvedev will rebel against “papa” Putin? It is highly unlikely. Because such a rebellion will overturn the closed society-group of Putin. Such rebellion will work against interest of all members of a group. Mr. Medvedev was, I presume, chosen exactly for his obedience to “papa” personally, and for his obedience to the laws of the Putin’s group. …I can only applaud that wise decision. He is the best choice for Putin’s group.
But, of course, the main interests of general population is to get rid of Mr. Putin’s as soon as possible. “Papa” is good for his group, but for us he is not “papa.”
Limonov and Kasparov
While we’re on the subject of Limonov, I want to repost one of my favorite of all of his eXile columns here. If you think you can pigeonhole Limonov, first read this great piece—you can’t understand Limonov, the appeal of the National-Bolsheviks and the Russian mindset, without understanding the sheer energy and pride in Russian self-hatred—or what looks to Westerners like self-hatred:
Through Black Glasses (Limonov on Russia)
By Edward Limonov
Russian nation was created by Russian climate and Russian blood.
Contrary to common misconception, Russians living on territory of Russian Federation are not of Slavic blood. The ancient inhabitants of Kiev’s principate were Slavic people, that’s true.
When Moscow principality was created a few centuries later in the 14th century, its population was overwhelmingly Urgo-Finns. Descendants of Kiev’s genealogical tree, their princes were originally of Slavic blood. But when Kiev’s armies moved north with their small troops, they conquered enormous vast variety of Finnish tribes who lived on enormous territory of European Russia. Only aristocrats of Russia were originally Slavs. Simple folk were descendants of Finns. That is why it is practically no different between “Chuvash” and “Finn.” And that is why Serbs are so different from Russians. Because Serbs are Slavs.
Russians are a depressive tribe because of centuries they were living in shadows of moisty forests. Russians are as unhappy with alcohol as Finns are.
So, forget about Slavs. When you will adopt my vision of Russian history, and of Russians, you will understand who Russians are.
I am the best Russian writer, but I am forced to confess that I hate Russian language. Russian words are painfully long, they remind me of naked slimy worms. You know, those pink awful creatures that you can see on some hot summer night on path you walk. Worms get out of soil to copulate under the moonlight. Russian words are copulating on my table every day and night. I am looking at them with hate and I am screaming. I am gnashing my teeth. Why should put “icheskaya” to the end of “social” in “Social Republic?” Seven letters I am adding for what fuck? Fucking “icheskaya!” Hysterical, hystericheskii laugh goes out of me when I am imaging those fucking Urgo-Finns in their shadowy forests. They move in slow motion, they take their time. Why wasn’t I born in a clear lucid language dealing in “Achtung!” and “Shnell?” And when I think that Russians are only a handful of 142 million readers, it’s really depressing for a writer.
The so called “Russian Soul” can be also explained by origins of the Russian people. Proverbial slowness of Finns (“hot Finnish lads!”) can be seen as phenomenon of Russian soul. Enigmatical Russian Soul is simply Russian man, uncertain, slow to decide, hesitating, never sure of itself, never sure of its own decision. Forest man with a milky skin, with thin blond hair. Not a Slav, but a Finn, Finn, Finn! And don’t accuse me of racism. Happily we have Turks and all sorts of Mongols amongst us. But the sick from alcoholism urban Russian Europeans are descendants of native Urgo-Finns and their tribes. They have shadowy mysterious souls because for hundred generations their ancestors were living by the river banks in the forests. They like to get drunk and to weep. Of too many trees, of too much of river’s water the Russian Soul is created.
Then, of course, we live in a terrible climate. We have eight months of winter and only four of summer. This summer, however, can be called a “summer” only such on condition that you have never travelled abroad. The lack of sunshine is chronic on the Russia’s territory. Everything is explained by its climate and the Urgo-Finn blood. Even more, the blood is explained by the climate. It moves slowly because of the freeze. No sunshine makes our kids look sad. When I was young, I thought almost everyday why “we Slavs” (I thought we were Slavic people) living in such an unhuman, uncomfortable climate? Why we didn’t move out of that terrible territory? However, I had tried to move. Our national ideas for centuries was to move south. We fought First World War to capture the the straights of Bosphorus and Dardanelles. We didn’t get it, alas. (Before that, in January of 1878, we were some kilometers from Istanbul-Constantinople before English bastards intervened.) Russian man carries all weight of his climate on itself. My deepest belief is that Russia should swallow Kazakhstan territory if we want our children to have sunshine.
Russian women are very, very bad. The worst of all. Russian women is like the Russian Government. Most Russian women at least are good looking when they are in their twenties. Some Russian women are gorgeously beautiful. But they are bad. They are treacherous because they have no moral principles. Christian faith was eliminated during existence of the Soviet Union so nobody taught Russian women morals. No such discipline was taught in Soviet schools. Russian woman hates man because she is envying him. She wants to be as brutal and stupid as him, she wants to lay on a divan doing nothing as man does, but she has less possibilities. Russian woman is disastrous, relationships with her destined to be tragedy. There is no way that you will end happily. You must subjugate her. If not, she will subjugate you. On both occasions, you will lose. Don’t forget that abortions and divorces were permitted even in Stalin’s Russia, so our country educated women as bitches. Millions of bitches walking our streets. I am absolutely and positively on the side of Muslim strict code of behavior for women. Their system of separation of sexes if effective and healthy.
Russian Government is bloody beast eating human flesh. It is deeply medieval in its principle conceptions. Russian Government strongly believed that Russians are subjects of Russian Government, that they are its property, that Russians should be physically punished for not showing proper respect for its Government. European Governments behave cruelly towards foreign populations, towards Yugoslavs or toward Iraqis. But Russian Government represses its own citizens. Russian Government never said one honest word. Blatant lies, we, citizens, hear from Government. They terrorize us.
Their instrument are police, brutal and unhuman, just millions of scoundrels dressed in grey uniforms. And judges: archaic men and women with terrible medieval faces and black souls under their judges clothes.
As you understand, my view of Russia is macabre, like Lovecraft’s work. I hope country will change soon, I am working for it. Then I will look at my country through rosy tinted glasses. Just wait.
Would you like to know more? Read the Adam Curtis piece “The Years of Stagnation and the Poodles of Power” from his BBC blog. Also read Mark Ames article “The Think-Tank Archipelago: Adam Curtis on how Libertarian Think-Tanks Crippled Thinking”.
For more background, read the Vanity Fair feature on The eXile, Limonov and Russia: “Lost Exile”.
Would you like to know more? Buy The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia co-authored by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi (Grove).
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