Readings — From the August 2014 issue

Putin’s Double

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By Emmanuel Carrère, from Limonov, to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Carrère’s books include The Adversary, My Life as a Russian Novel, and Lives Other Than My Own. Translated from the French by John Lambert.

There were two or three hundred people on the square in front of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater, and around them just as many riot police equipped with helmets, shields, and heavy clubs. It started to rain. Umbrellas opened above the candles and signs that people were holding in memory of those who’d died when, in 2002, Chechen terrorists had taken the entire audience of the theater hostage during a performance of the musical comedy Nord-Ost and Russian special forces, foreclosing any possibility of negotiation, resolved the situation by gassing the hostages along with the hostage takers. Each year since then, these families have gathered for a commemoration ceremony. The police don’t dare ban it outright, but they nevertheless surveil it like a seditious gathering — which in fact it’s become.

I was in Moscow to report on the death of Anna Politkovskaya, the courageous journalist and declared opponent of Vladimir Putin who’d been assassinated in her apartment building on October 7, 2006. In addition to the mourning families, every last member of the small world of opposition figures I’d met over the previous week was at the Dubrovka gathering, and I exchanged a few nods with them, gestures marked by a fitting sense of grief.

Right at the top of the steps, in front of the closed doors of the theater, I saw a man dressed in a black coat, holding a candle like the others, surrounded by several people with whom he spoke in a low voice. In the center of a circle, dominating the crowd, standing back yet still attracting attention, he exuded importance; strangely, I was reminded of a gang leader attending the funeral of one of his own. I could just see parts of his profile, a little beard jutting from the raised collar of his coat. A woman beside me who’d seen him as well said to her neighbor: “Eduard’s here, that’s good.” Despite the distance, he turned his head as if he’d heard. The flame from the candle sketched the features of his face.

I recognized Limonov.

I’d gotten to know him in the early Eighties when he moved to Paris, crowned by the success of his scandalous novel It’s Me, Eddie. In it he told the story of the superb and squalid life he’d led in New York City after emigrating from the Soviet Union. Odd jobs, living from day to day in a sordid hotel or on the street, flings with both men and women, drunken benders, robberies, and brawls. The book wasn’t half bad, and those who met its author weren’t disappointed. In those days we were used to Soviet dissidents being bearded, grave, and poorly dressed, living in small apartments filled with books and icons, talking all night about how Orthodoxy would save the world. And here was this sexy, sly, funny guy whose proclaimed hero was Johnny Rotten; he didn’t think twice about calling Solzhenitsyn an old fart. After his chronicles of emigration, he published memoirs about his childhood in the suburbs of Kharkiv in Ukraine, his time as a juvenile delinquent, and his life as an avant-garde poet in Moscow under Brezhnev. He talked of this era and of the Soviet Union with a wry nostalgia, as if it had been a paradise for resourceful hooligans, and every so often, at the end of dinner, when everyone was drunk but him — he can really hold his liquor — he sang Stalin’s praises, which we chalked up to his taste for provocation. He liked to argue and was incredibly successful with women. His unconventional behavior and adventurous past impressed us bourgeois youths. Limonov was our barbarian, our thug: we adored him.

Things began taking a turn for the bizarre with the collapse of communism. He didn’t seem to be kidding around anymore when he said Gorbachev should face a firing squad. He started disappearing to the Balkans for long periods, where, we discovered to our horror, he was fighting on the Serbian side — which was pretty much the same thing, in our eyes, as siding with the Nazis or the Hutu. After these exploits he returned to Russia, where he created a political group with a compelling name: the National Bolshevik Party. News reports sometimes showed young people with shaved heads, dressed in black, marching in the streets of Moscow giving a half-Nazi (raised arm), half-communist (balled fist) salute while braying slogans like “Stalin! Beria! Gulag!” It was about as strange as discovering that an old school buddy had gone into organized crime or blown himself up in a terrorist attack. In 2001 we learned that Limonov had been arrested, tried, and imprisoned for obscure reasons — something to do with arms trafficking and an attempted coup in Kazakhstan. Needless to say, in Paris we weren’t exactly elbowing one another out of the way to sign the petition calling for his release.

I had no idea he was out of prison, and I was astonished to find him here. He looked less like a rocker than before, more intellectual, but he still had an imperious, energetic aura you could feel even from a distance. I considered joining a line of people who, clearly touched by his presence, were coming to say a respectful hello. But then I caught his glance for an instant and, since he didn’t seem to recognize me and I didn’t know exactly what to say to him, I let the idea drop.

Troubled by this encounter, I went back to my hotel, where a new surprise awaited me. While leafing through a collection of articles by Anna Politkovskaya, I discovered that two years earlier she’d covered the trial of forty National Bolshevik Party militants accused of having occupied and vandalized the offices of the presidential administration while shouting “Putin must go!” They’d been given lengthy prison sentences, and Politkovskaya loudly took up their defense, calling them young, courageous people of integrity, practically the only ones who could inspire hope in the moral future of their country. I could hardly believe it. To me it seemed like an open-and-shut case: Limonov was a hideous fascist leading a militia of skinheads. But here was a woman who since her death had been unanimously considered a saint, describing him and his followers as heroes in Russia’s fight for democracy.

Several months later I learned that a political coalition called Drugaya Rossiya, the Other Russia, was forming under the leadership of Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Eduard Limonov — that is to say, one of the greatest chess players of all time, a former prime minister under Putin, and an author whom by our criteria you shouldn’t even be seen with: quite the troika. Something had obviously changed — perhaps not Limonov himself but the position he occupied in his country. Which is why when Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, whom I’d known when he was Moscow correspondent for Le Figaro, told me he was preparing to launch a newsmagazine and asked if I had a subject for the first issue, I responded without a second’s hesitation: Limonov. Patrick looked at me with wide eyes. “Limonov’s a petty thug.”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “It’s worth checking out.”

It took me a while to track him down, and once I’d gotten the number, it took a while to dial it. I hesitated about what tone to adopt. Was I an old friend or a guarded journalist? Should I speak Russian or French? Use formal or informal language? I remember these hesitations but not, curiously, what I said when he picked up. I must have said my name. Without a moment’s delay, he answered, “Ah, Emmanuel. How’re you doing?” I stammered that I was doing fine. We didn’t know each other that well and hadn’t seen each other for fifteen years; I expected to have to remind him who I was. He went on: “You were at the Dubrovka ceremony last year, weren’t you?”

I was speechless. Separated from him by a hundred yards, I’d given him a long look, but our eyes had met only for a second and nothing in his face — not a slight hesitation, not a raise of his eyebrows — had indicated that he’d recognized me. Later I understood: Limonov simply has a prodigious memory and a no less prodigious capacity for self-control. I said I wanted to do a long article on him, and he seemed to have no problem with my hanging around for a couple of weeks. “Unless,” he added, “they put me back in prison.”

Two young, burly guys with shaved heads, dressed in black jeans, black jackets, and combat boots, come to pick me up. I half-expect them to blindfold me, but no, we cross Moscow in a black Volga with tinted windows. When we arrive my guardian angels just take a quick look around the courtyard, then the stairway, then finally the landing that gives onto a dark little apartment, furnished like a squat, where two more skinheads are smoking cigarettes. One tells me that Limonov divides his time between three or four Moscow apartments, moving from one to the next as quickly as possible, keeping no fixed hours and never venturing anywhere without bodyguards — that is, party militants.

I’m finally shown into a spartan office with drawn curtains; he’s standing up, wearing black jeans and a black sweater. A handshake, no smile. In the old days he did push-ups and lifted weights for an hour a day, and he must have kept it up because at sixty-four he’s still slim — flat stomach, adolescent’s silhouette — only now he sports a gray mustache and goatee.

On the plane I’d reread one of his best books, Diary of a Loser. I copied several passages into my notebook. This one, for example: “I dream of a violent insurrection. I’ll never be Nabokov. I’ll never run across meadows collecting butterflies on old, hairy, Anglophone legs. Give me a million and I’ll spend it on weapons and stage an uprising in any country.” This was the scenario he envisaged for himself at thirty as a penniless immigrant on the streets of New York, and thirty years later, there you go, he’s playing the role of his dreams: the professional revolutionary, the urban guerrilla, Lenin in his armored car.

I tell him that and he lets out a cold, dry little laugh, blowing the air through his nostrils. “It’s true,” he admits. “My life’s gone pretty much according to plan.” But he sets me straight: the time is no longer right for an armed uprising. He now dreams of something like the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine. A pacifist, democratic revolution, which is what the Kremlin fears above all else and will stop at nothing to crush, he says. That’s why he lives the life of a hunted man. Several years ago he was beaten with baseball bats, and only recently he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. His name is at the top of the list of “enemies of Russia” — of people to kill — put out by those in power to incite public hatred, complete with addresses and telephone numbers. Politkovskaya was also on this list.

While researching my article I discussed Limonov with more than thirty people, strangers whose cars I’ve been in — because anyone and everyone in Moscow moonlights as a taxi driver for a few extra rubles — as well as friends you could safely call Russian yuppies: artists, journalists, and editors who buy their furniture at IKEA and read the Russian edition of Elle. In other words, not fanatics. Not one said a word against him. When I said, “Still, the flags, the slogans,” they shrugged their shoulders. It was as if I’d come to interview Michel Houellebecq, Lou Reed, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit all at the same time: two weeks with Limonov, what luck! Not that these reasonable people would be ready to vote for him; they just like his fiery personality, his talent and audacity. The newspapers feature him incessantly. In short, he’s a star.

I accompany him to a gala thrown by the radio station Echo of Moscow, one of the social highlights of the season. He’s got his musclemen in tow, but he also brings his new wife, Yekaterina Volkova, a young actress who’s become famous for her role in a soap opera. They seem to know everyone who’s anyone in politics and the media, and of all the people who flock to this soirée no one is more photographed or celebrated.

I get to talk with Yekaterina for five minutes at the buffet, enough time for her to tell me with a naïve freshness that before meeting Eduard she’d never been interested in politics but that now she’s understood: Russia is a totalitarian state, you’ve got to fight for freedom and participate in the protest marches, which she seems to take as seriously as her yoga classes. The next day I read an interview with her in a women’s magazine where she reveals beauty secrets and tenderly embraces her famous husband, the opposition leader. What shocks me is that, when asked about politics, she repeats what she said to me exactly, attacking Putin with as little precaution — and as little consequence — as, let’s say, the Dixie Chicks felt when they attacked George W. Bush at around the same time. I try to imagine what would have happened under Stalin, or even under Brezhnev, on the fictitious assumption that such words could have been printed, and I think that there have been worse things than Putin-style totalitarianism.

In some ways, Putin feels like Limonov’s double. He was born ten years later, in the same sort of family: the father a junior officer, the mother a factory worker, everyone together in a single room in a kommunalka. A puny, timid little boy, he was raised in the cult of the fatherland, of the Great Patriotic War, of the KGB and the fear it inspires in the wimps of the West. As an adolescent he was, in his own words, a small-time hoodlum. He joined the secret police out of a kind of romanticism, because they were composed of elite men who defended their homeland, men with whom he was proud to be associated. He was suspicious of perestroika, he hated it when masochists or CIA agents made a big deal about the gulag and Stalin’s crimes, and not only did he experience the fall of the empire as the biggest catastrophe of the twentieth century but he’ll repeat the sentiment today in no uncertain terms.

The difference between Putin and Limonov is that Putin succeeded. He’s the boss. He can order school textbooks to stop teaching bad things about Stalin, and he can bring the NGOs and the noble souls of the liberal opposition into line. When Europe provokes him he annexes Crimea or threatens to cut off the Russian gas on which the continent depends. If he were being sincere, Limonov would admit he’s impressed by these virile airs. Instead, he writes pamphlets explaining that Putin is not only a tyrant but a bland and mediocre one at that, who’s in a hand-me-down suit that’s too big for him. This opinion strikes me as glaringly wrong. If Putin is popular, it isn’t simply because people are dumbed down by the media he controls. Putin repeats at every turn something Russians absolutely need to hear, which can be summed up like so: You have no right to say to 150 million people that seventy years of their lives, of the lives of their parents and grandparents, that what they believed in, what they fought and gave their lives for, was nothing but shit. Communism was something grand, heroic, beautiful, something that was confident and that bestowed confidence.

When I return to visit Limonov two years later, in 2009, the protocol hasn’t changed, except that now just a single bodyguard takes me to see the boss, and he no longer picks me up in a car but fixes a meeting at a subway station. We walk the fifteen minutes to Limonov’s new apartment, where I find him waiting for me, still in black jeans and a black sweater, still slim, still sporting a goatee. I look for a place to put my coat; the only objects in the room are a table, a chair, and a single bed. For having said in an interview that the judges in Moscow are at Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s beck and call, which is common knowledge, he was fined 500,000 rubles ($15,000), he tells me. They seized everything that could be seized, which hardly covered a tenth of the fine; he still owes the rest.

We go into the other room, the kitchen. He makes coffee, I open my notebook. I’ve told him by mail about my project to write not just a story about him but a whole book. His answer was neutral, neither enthusiastic nor displeased: he’s at my disposal if I need him.

“So, what’s happened in the past two years?”

What happened first was that his wife, the pretty actress, left him. He doesn’t really understand why. It doesn’t cross his mind that the thirty-year age gap may have been a factor, or not being able to set foot outside without two guys with shaved heads at your side. He suffered for a couple of months, he says, then decided that she was a cold, lying, unloving woman. But not to worry. He assures me that he’s got several mistresses, all very young; he doesn’t always sleep in the single bed in the next room.

As for his public life, although he doesn’t say it outright, it’s clear that he’s completely had it. The historic occasion, assuming he really had one, has passed. After what can’t even be called its failure in the presidential elections, Drugaya Rossiya no longer exists. Limonov, however, hasn’t thrown in the towel. He’s created a new movement called Strategy 31, in reference to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right to demonstrate. To make use of this right, members of the movement gather on Triumfalnaya Square on the thirty-first of every month with thirty-one days. In general there are a hundred or so demonstrators and five times as many police officers, the latter arresting a few dozen of the former. Apart from that, he’s trying to set up and preside over a “national assembly of opposition forces,” a project supported by a few old democrats and human rights activists.

What else? He’s published three books since we last met — poems, a collection of articles, memories of his Serbian wars. But writing books is no longer really his thing. It doesn’t pay enough nowadays, the print runs are five or six thousand copies at most, no reprints: he prefers to earn his living by freelancing for magazines, Russian editions of Playboy and GQ.

I get up and thank him for the coffee and his time.

“It’s strange,” he says. “Why do you want to write a book about me?”

I’m taken aback, but I answer sincerely. Because he’s living — or he lived, I don’t remember what tense I used — a fascinating life. A romantic, dangerous life, a life that dared to engage directly with history.

And then he says something that cuts me to the quick. With his dry little laugh, without looking at me: “A shitty life, yes.”

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