In the autumn of 1998, I got a call from Edward Limonov asking me if I could do a favor for him. His newspaper Limonka—known for its mix of extreme politics and avant-garde aesthetics—was preparing to celebrate its fourth anniversary at the Mayakovskaya Museum.
“My boys begged me to bring Johnny Rotten to the party,” Limonov told me, laughing. “I know it’s a small chance, but maybe Mr. Rotten will think it’s interesting to speak before a group of radical Russian youths who worship him.”
“Don’t you have an agent in the U.S. you could use?” I asked, knowing that Harvey Keitel had just purchased the rights to make a film based on Limonov’s first novel, Eto ya, Edichka.
“No, I have no agent anymore. After I went to fight for Serbs in 1991, I lost all my connection to that world. No one will touch me,” he said, with a mixture of pride and scorn.
Taibbi and I had just signed a deal with the William Morris agency, so I was able to track down Johnny Rotten’s agent in LA. I called the agent’s office, spoke to an assistant, and was told to put the request in writing. Knowing that my rep was on the line with Limonov, I hammed the fax letter up with shameless punk-coded flattery for Johnny Rotten, how he’s idolized in Russia like a God, how Limonov is Russian literature’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols, how Russia post-financial crisis was everything Rotten had ever sung about, etc. There would be no honorarium, but he was guaranteed an experience he’d never forget.
A few days later, Rotten’s agent faxed his answer, which began: “Unfortunately….” Johnny Rotten was due to fly from LA to England about three days before Limonov’s event, which was a problem, the agent explained, because Johnny Rotten always requires at least five days to recover from jet-lag. If he had less than five days, the agent explained, Rotten risked catching a cold. He couldn’t move up his flight to England to an earlier date because he had plans to celebrate Thanksgiving in LA, and—as the agent noted—that Thanksgiving party was important to Rotten.
I knew that Rotten went bourgeois 20 years ago, but my God, who would have thought that he’d become a caricature of a Jewish American Princess, worrying about jet-lag and sniffles and pumpkin pie?!
Limonov laughed, a bitter, disappointed laugh, when I told him. “Oh my god, I can’t say to my boys that this is why Johnny Rotten isn’t coming,” he said. “I’ll have to think of some excuse myself.”
If you look at the historical record of aspiring extremist artists, they all go the way of Johnny Rotten: Lou Reed holding hands with Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel; Jello Biafra turning into a crunchy Greenpeace faggot (for which he was properly stomped at Gilman Street, barely escaping with a snapped ulna); Joe Strummer singing pop songs ridiculing Islam; the entire ’60s radical movement who transformed into corporate-kissing, war-mongering globalization tools (Joschka Fischer, Bernard-Henri Levy, Gloria Steinem, Jerry Rubin, Susan Sontag, Gary Trudeau, etc.); and so on, and so on.
The trend towards posing as a radical just long enough to get Invited In reached such a peak that by the time the ’90s generation came to, selling out was no longer something you did with a red face, but rather it was expected, even celebrated, with just enough self-conscious irony to make everyone feel in on the joke.
Which is why Edward Limonov stands as a singular example in our time, and why so many intelligent people hate him: his one-track obsession with ALWAYS STANDING AGAINST shames everyone who ever thought they had balls and character. He reminds every poseur how far they never went. And it hurts.
When it was announced this past week that Limonov had been arrested and sent to Lefortovo Prison, where he faces eight years behind bars, nearly everyone’s reaction was, “He asked for it.” This is the COWARD’S instinctive response; it almost fills him with a sense of relief to know that the one asshole with enough balls to always STAND AGAINST finally paid for it, because the rest of us, the other 99.999 percent, all reached a point along the rebellion line where we caved in. We had our future to worry about. Just the fear of being ridiculed for behaving “immaturely” turned nearly every youthful rebel/idealist into a collaborator.
“Grow up”; “Get over it.”
So we did.
And our only consolation, as heart disease and humiliation tormented our every waking hour as Cubicle Serfs, was knowing that, had we not caved in, we would have wound up suffering far worse, failing, scorned, alone, forgotten.
Only Limonov proved that wrong. He’s the only artist—and certainly the only writer—I can think of who has stood against everything, and never reached that point where it got too dangerous and he backed down.
He didn’t merely scream “Get pissed, destroy!” before jumping aboard the next fad, switching ideologies as easily as hairdos. Limonov didn’t lie. And that’s what’s so scary about him. And ultimately, what’s so loathsome.
Limonov became the darling of the avant-garde precisely because he was so extreme. The French propelled him to literary stardom in the 1980s because Limonov was as anti-American as he was anti-Soviet, moreso even. They loved reading his fantasies of taking up arms against Power, of machine-gunning the Suits, of living forever outside of the world of the Normals. They loved it so much that by the mid-80s, he was named one of the top 40 most influential figures in French culture. His books were taught in graduate seminars all across Western Europe, translated into some 20 languages. When Edichka finally was published in the Soviet Union in 1991, it sold almost a million and a half copies, according to his Russian publisher, Sasha Shatalov, a prominent gay activist. Hundreds of thousands more copies of his books have been sold since. That same year, during my first trip to Europe, I came across a full-page interview with Limonov in El Pais and again in Prague in a top Czech daily. That was the last year he was every European’s favorite Bad Boy.
It was when Limonov committed the unforgivable sin of acting out his extremist words—taking up arms with the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, and the separatists in Trans-Dniestr and Abkhazia—that the same public who celebrated his daring literature turned violently against him. When it comes down to it, nearly everyone reads literature like Limonov’s for the same reason that they eat at ethnic restaurants: to add a little spice to their dull lives. But they don’t want the real thing: injeera with tse-tse flies; lamb vindaloo with liver flukes…. They want it safe, contrived, contained, like a weekend “Extreme” vacation kayaking down the Colorado.
That’s the demarcation line in 20th-century avant garde poetics: you can say anything you want, so long as you don’t REALLY mean it. Write songs about killing the poor or smashing the capitalist system, then cash your royalty check and buy your wife a new SUV and invest the remainder in a Fidelity mutual fund.
Limonov sided with the Serbs because the Normals suddenly decided that they had a cause, and that cause was to brand the Serbs as modern-day Nazis. Everyone born after 1945 has wished we lived in a world as simplistic, black-and-white, good-versus-evil as the Allies-versus-Nazis world. The plot had been waiting for decades; all they needed was to fill in the characters. Even if it meant cutting corners around the truth, and taking thousands of lives down with it.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and its subsequent colonization, rape, and abandonment by the allegedly well-meaning West turned Limonov into a raging nationalist long before it became fashionable here. But Limonov’s brand of anti-capitalist nationalism could not possibly be the stale, gray-suit, crusty nationalism that has since taken control of this country. It had to be outrageous. It had to be dangerous, not bathed in the hypocrisy of bureaucratic rhetoric. It had to be, in other words, a work of art.
For that he was branded a fascist. While the real fascists committed genocide in Chechnya, stomped on the free press, and killed off multi-party democracy.
Today, you won’t find a single book of Limonov’s in the West, unless you go to a used book store. He’s no longer their darling Bad Boy.
It has always been the shame of every nation and every era that its greatest artists wind up scorned, shunned, and in the worst cases, jailed or killed. Most people today, particularly of the Russian intelligentsia, would sneer if you told them that Limonov is exactly that: this nation’s greatest living artist suffering the collective persecution of ignorance, brutality, and cowardice. Limonov’s works will still be read in 50 years, in 100 years. Not Sorokin. Not Pelevin. Not any of the puzzle-happy hacks who won the Russian Booker Prize. Not Aksyonov or Bitov or Yerofeev or any of the made-for-dissertation novelists. Even Solzhenitsyn—a minor talent compared to the mighty Varlam Shalamov—will probably be forgotten. Only Limonov will be read in 100 years’ time. And in the end, what lasts is what matters. The rest is fish food.
I don’t necessarily blame the State for going after Limonov. From what I know about his case, I don’t believe they could convict him in a fair trial. When some 50 FSB counter-intelligence goons stormed the house he was staying at in a village in Altai, they only found book royalties, and not illegal firearms (for which he is charged). The “confessions” beaten out of two luckless Saratov boys implicating Limonov are hardly credible in a country not known for its respect for due process and defendants’ rights.
That said, Limonov is an authentic extremist and he is a danger not just to the psychological well-being of every sellout alive, but to the State and Power that he opposes. So it’s almost understandable that someday, they would find a reason to put him away.
My problem is with all the rats out there in TV land, living comfortably, endlessly pursuing a life of eating, fucking, and paying bills. A coward’s life. A bunny rabbit’s life, to use Voloshin’s expression.
If you have any soul left in your body, you will oppose Limonov’s jailing. If not publicly, then at least in your traitor’s heart.
As Alexander Zaitchik, who edits a literary magazine in Prague, wrote to me recently, “Sucks about Limonov; since I started reading the exile i’ve lived according to a code of conduct called WWLD—‘What Would Limonov Do?’… and it works, most of the time anyways.”
But really, who can follow the WWLD code for long? Judging by the relieved silence following Limonov’s arrest, the answer seems to be no one.
This article was published in The eXile on March 11, 2001. Edward Limonov was put on trial and charged with terrorism and raising an army to invade Kazakhstan. He was found not guilty on terrorism charges, and sentenced to four years for purchasing Kalashnikovs, then paroled in July, 2003.
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