I have never made peace with the single rough photograph I took of Edward Limonov in the living room of his house in Moscow. It’s a domestic, amateur portrait that you’d find in a private album of memories, but now I have to definitively reconcile myself with the shot, because the bandit is dead.
Many of us did not want to believe it and asked immediately for confirmation. “Da. Pravda. Yes, it’s true” wrote one of his tireless assistants: Olga, taxi driver, one golden tooth for more than 30 years, shaved blonde hair. The writer Edward Limonov died on March 17 in a Moscow clinic where he was hospitalized after surgery operations and complications, Olga confirms for me via Telegram. The same channel where the Kremlin reported his death to the rest of Russia through the mouth of their deputy Serghey Shargunov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Yunost, “Youth”.
Whenever big things changed in the Russian Federation all the journalists always reached out to Limonov, a professional provocateur always willing to be extreme. He could be counted on to have something irreverent to quote. Now he will no longer respond quickly as usual for the interviews, with the speed that distinguished him and for which, in the end, you thanked him. He would always reply steadily: “I’m not a kind man, I’m just an effective type.” Even if he mocked those who teared up in pain, the boys of Drugaya Rossia — the Other Russia — the political party founded by the writer in 2009, are now mourning him among his memories, books, leaflets. They had been marching for years following him in the protests in the streets of the Russian Capital, holding the red flag with the symbol of the limonka, the grenade, the object with which the “hooligan of literature” had decided to baptize himself, bartering his original surname with “Limonov”. The man wanted to be called a bomb.
Limonov was born as Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko in 1943 in the Soviet Union while it was in a brutal war. He grew up in Charkiv — now Ukraine — as a son of poverty and violence, which he exercised indiscriminately in return against all those who stepped against him. He always lived at an extreme limit that the ones who tried to narrate his story could never fully grasp but only observe through him.
He became Edik, Eddie, Edichka at alternate latitudes. He possessed the talent of astounding those around him. Vernacular, stinging, ineffable, romantic. “It’s me, Edichka. The Russian poet who prefers large Negroes” is the title of his first scandalous novel, with which he decided to amaze the Soviet Union which had just collapsed in the 1990s. Limonov had already died dozens of times, as he loved to say smiling, but unlike this time, he had risen in a thousand improbable and unreal existences, from one side of the world to the other, in alienating destinies between Paris and New York, Russia, America and Europe. Tailor, waiter, high village courtesan, dandy butler, riotous and macho, fighter and confidant of commanders of the Serbian wars. Finally he had become a cross-legged revolutionary on whose words the Russian suburban boys hung, those that nobody ever listens to. He, Limonov: the punk, the nationalist Bolshevik, disconsolate representative of a broken humanity. A paradoxical marathon runner, a mask with a sense of humor underneath that was forbidden to the rest of us.
When I first met him, in a cold Moscow spring, I had more than 15 questions in my notebook, but only one in my head. Who would open the door in Limonov’s house? The protagonist of a novel or a real man? The literary and alcoholic rogue born from the French pen of Emmanuel Carrere or the boy who died and rose again many times between New York and Paris? The man who passed under the smug eyes of the Serbian commander Karadzic? The butler, the dandy, the revolutionary, the fighter? Will Limonov or his dvoinik — his double, his literary impersonator — or both, be behind his door?
He lived where the black, gigantic statue of the most famous futuristic poet of Russia stands, in a square usually full of young Russians that peel their knees falling off skateboards. On the top floor of a pastel-colored building, a thousand steps from Vladimir Majakovsky square, Limonov looked usually through the peephole for quite a long time behind his black, armored door. Eventually he decided there was no danger and he would invite you to enter, smiling palely.
Behind the door there was a thin man, straight like a gun, with a white smile the same color of his hair, a pink and smooth skin on which wars, despair and unhappy loves have left no scars or wrinkles. He was a shaved, bony bundle of nerves, imprecations and extreme political positions, courted many times by the official political establishment to which he has never succumbed. He conjugated all Russian contradictions and all the artistic ones. Narcissist, megalomaniac and dedicated writer, in a dry body like a birch trunk. He lived 77 years with few moments of peace and calm in his biography.
If not in the streets and squares or marching in the Capital, he was in his house, a four room apartment where he lived between black and white photographs, and pages and pages. Once inside his house, he insisted on kindly offering his green tea. A sweetness that you could not reconcile with the extremism of his positions and his destiny. In the rooms where he lived barricaded between walls of books, you did not find flames, memories of the prison and guns he loved to write about, but biscuits and all the versions of the novel by Emanuel Carrere, the writer who made him famous by bestowing on him the role of the thug. He silently derided the stereotype of the Russian rogue built on his figure for European readers by the novel.
Talking to him was like boxing. A fight that would leave poor strength and punches to settle. “Don’t you love Dostoevsky?” I asked him. “It’s not about loving or not loving, the story is another matter. The Western world thinks that Dostoevsky’s characters represent Russians, but real Russians have nothing to do with them. Dostoevsky was an epileptic boy and many of his books are born from his experiences in prison, where people are very close to each other, they constantly drink tea and talk endlessly about anything, any bullshit. For me Dostoevsky is not bearable, but the West likes to think that Russians are like this,” Limonov said.
Limonov, like Dostoevsky, spent years in Russian prisons, the cells that he described in Book of Water. He told me: “An old criminal once told me in prison: I live here. After that sentence I did exactly the same: I started living in there every single day. You have to live in prison, don’t wait for the day you go out. I never lost an hour of air, I did physical exercises, I trained, I read a lot, I wrote every day for five hours, I wrote seven books when I was inside.”
Limonov’s favorite writer was Gogol, which he told me clearly.
“I believe that the best Russian writer is Gogol, he produced some of the greatest Russian archetypes,” he commented. I demanded: “What other writers do you love?”. A question he would answer with a nasty verdict: “I really hate writers. I hate being with writers. They are not interesting. They irritate me. I spent part of my life with soldiers, activists, prisoners. But not with writers.”
I noticed a seeming contradiction: “aren’t yourself a writer, the Russian writer Limonov, the hero of Carrere’s novel?” And he replied: “Carrere misunderstood many things, but I promised him I would never report them, so I won’t tell you now.” Beyond literature, it was “Rossya”, Russia, the word he would pronounce the most: “In the future Russia will become even more patriotic. After Putin someone else will come, and no matter who, he or she will be obliged to follow the wishes of the people, who demand social equality and that all Russians are reunited in one state. Russia wants its share of power in the world. Russians love to be a great power, this is our obsession, our disease.”
The Russian hunger for power was an illness Limonov would explain further. “We are sick of a mania of greatness. We have always been an empire, the great people of the Second World, this has gone to our heads, but also to the heart. We can live very badly, to be a great nation, it is our specialty. Russian people know how to sacrifice their happiness for their pride.”
Now we can no long ring his doorbell, he won’t be watching us through the peephole. Limonov left us with the same questions that slammed between the walls of our brains while he was still alive: who was Edward Limonov? Moscow now pays homages to its indomitable son. The bandit turned out to be a novel character for himself and for the others and — surviving his own myth like few else — he managed to pursue his literary mission until the end. A few days ago, on March 13, he confirmed the release of his latest book, from a title that sounds like a prophecy of his last pilgrimage: The Old Man Travels.
So enjoy your last trip Edichka, dasvidaniya.