Limonov NPR coverage of Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrere.
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Limonov

The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia

by Emmanuel Carrere and John Lambert

Hardcover, 340 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $30 |

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Title
Limonov
Subtitle
The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia
Author
Emmanuel Carrere and John Lambert

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Book Summary

Offers a biographical novel of the Russian writer and political dissident and his unconventional, adventurous life as a dissident in Soviet Russia, a bum in New York, a celebrated writer in Paris, and an opposition party leader in post-communist Russia.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Limonov

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Emmanuel Carrère
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-19201-3


I

Ukraine, 1943–1967

1

THE STORY BEGINS in the spring of 1942, in a city on the banks of the Volga called Rastyapino before the Revolution and Dzerzhinsk since 1929. This new name pays tribute to Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the earliest Bolsheviks and founder of the secret police agency that has throughout its history been known as the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, KGB, and is today called the FSB. In this book we will meet it in the form of the last three of these menacing acronyms, but Russians, in addition to the designations of each era, call it, even more ominously, organy: the organs. The war is raging; heavy industry has been dismantled and relocated to the hinterland, out of the theater of operations. In this way, a weapons factory in Dzerzhinsk ends up employing the city’s entire population, as well as NKVD troops to watch over them. It’s a time of heroism and brutality: a worker who arrives five minutes late is court-martialed, and it’s the Chekists, as the secret police are called, who arrest, sentence, and execute him, if need be, with a bullet to the back of the head. One night, as some Messerschmitts on a reconnaissance flight from the Lower Volga drop some bombs on the city, a soldier standing guard over the factory uses his flashlight to light the way for a young worker, who left her post late and is hurrying to a shelter. She stumbles and catches hold of his arm. He notices a tattoo on her wrist. In the darkness lit up by the glow of fires their faces come closer. Their lips touch.

*   *   *

The soldier, Venyamin Savenko, is twenty-three and comes from a family of Ukrainian peasants. A skilled electrician, he was recruited by the NKVD, which plucks the best workers from every industry. So, rather than being sent to the front like most of the youths his age, he was assigned to guard a weapons factory in the countryside. He’s far from home, which is more the rule than the exception in the Soviet Union: what with deportations, exiles, mass population transfers, people continually being shuffled around, the chances of living and dying where you were born are as good as nil.

Raya Zybin, for her part, comes from Gorky, formerly Nizhny Novgorod, where her father directed a restaurant. In the Soviet Union you don’t own or manage a restaurant, you direct one. It’s not something you can start up or buy into, but a post to which you’re assigned, and not a bad one at that. Unfortunately Raya’s father was dismissed for embezzlement and sent to a disciplinary battalion in the battle for Leningrad, where he died not long ago. It’s a stain on the family, and in these days, in this country, a stain on the family can ruin your life. For us it’s one of the most basic tenets of justice that children don’t pay for the crimes of their fathers, but in the Soviet Union it’s not even a formal principle, something you can appeal to in theory. The children of Trotskyists, or of kulaks, as wealthy farmers are called, or of those privileged under the old regime, are doomed to live as outcasts, barred from becoming Young Pioneers, attending university, and joining the Red Army or the Party; they have one chance to escape this fate, and that’s by renouncing their parents and being as enthusiastic about the Party as possible. And since being enthusiastic means denouncing those around you, the organs have no better helpers than those with tarnished biographies—as is brought home by so many terrible stories in Orlando Figes’s outstanding book The Whisperers, on private life under Stalin. In the case of Raya’s father it may be that his death on the battlefield helped things somewhat; the fact is that like the Savenkos, the Zybins made it through the Great Terror of the thirties without mishap. No doubt they were simply too insignificant. This luck doesn’t stop young Raya from being ashamed of her dishonest father, just as she’s ashamed of the tattoo she got while she was at technical school. Later, she’ll try to get rid of it by spraying hydrochloric acid on her wrist, because she hates not being able to wear short-sleeved dresses and, as the wife of an officer, she hates looking like a bit of a slut.

*   *   *

Raya’s pregnancy coincides almost to the day with the siege of Stalingrad. Conceived in May 1942, a terrible month, the time of the most bitter defeats, Eduard is born on February 2, 1943, twenty days before the German Sixth Army capitulates and the tables turn. Repeatedly he will be told that he is a child of victory, and that he would have been born into a world of slaves if the men and women of Russia hadn’t sacrificed their lives to prevent the city that bore Stalin’s name from falling to the enemy. Later bad things will be said about Stalin; he’ll be called a tyrant and his reign of terror will be denounced. But for the people of Eduard’s generation he will remain the supreme leader of the people of the Union at the most tragic moment in their history; the man who defeated the Nazis and proved himself capable of a sacrifice worthy of the ancient Romans: the Germans had captured his son, Lieutenant Yakov Dzhugashvili, while the Russians had captured Field Marshal Paulus, one of the top military leaders of the Reich, at Stalingrad. When the German High Command proposed an exchange, Stalin responded with disdain that he didn’t exchange field marshals for simple lieutenants. Yakov committed suicide by throwing himself on the electrified barbed wire fence of his prison camp.

*   *   *

Two anecdotes stand out from Eduard’s earliest childhood. The first one, his father’s favorite, is touching: the baby, for lack of a crib, lies in a shell crate, sucking on a herring’s tail in place of a pacifier, smiling as if he were in seventh heaven. “Molodets!” Venyamin cries: “Good boy! This little guy will be comfortable wherever he goes!”

The second anecdote, less charming, is told by Raya. She’s downtown, carrying her baby on her back, when the Luftwaffe launches an air raid. She takes refuge in a cellar with a dozen city dwellers, some of them terrified, others apathetic. The ground and walls shake; everyone listens to gauge how far away the bombs are falling and what buildings they’re bringing down. Little Eduard starts to cry, attracting the attention, then the rage of one guy who hisses that Fritz has ultramodern techniques for pinpointing live targets, that they home in on the faintest sounds and that the baby’s crying will get them all killed. He does such a good job of rousing the others against Raya that they throw her out, forcing her to seek another shelter under the falling bombs. Livid with anger, she tells herself and her baby that everything people say about helping one another, about solidarity and fraternity, is just a joke. “The truth, and never forget this, Edichka, is that men are cowards and bastards, and they’ll kill you if you’re not ready to strike first.”

2

IN THE PERIOD following the war, cities aren’t called cities but “population concentrations,” and the young Savenko family, moving from place to place as the postings come, lives in barracks and army camps in various population concentrations on the Volga before settling in February 1947 in Kharkov, now Kharkiv, in Ukraine. Kharkov, a large industrial center and rail hub, was the scene of bitter fighting between the Germans and Russians, who took and lost and retook it, each occupying the city in turn, massacring the inhabitants in the process and leaving, by the end of the war, nothing more than a field of ruins. The concrete constructivist building on Red Army Street that lodges the NKVD officers and their families—called “persons in charge”—overlooks what was once the imposing main station and is now a chaos of stones, bricks, and metal surrounded by fences that you’re not allowed to climb over because apart from the bodies of German soldiers, there are mines and grenades strewn amid the rubble. One little boy had his hand blown off. Despite this example, the band of rascals Eduard joins likes nothing more than raiding these ruins, hunting for cartridges whose powder they empty onto the tramway tracks, causing crackling and fireworks, once even provoking a derailment that becomes legendary. In the evening, the biggest boys tell terrifying stories: of dead Fritzes who haunt the ruins on the lookout for unsuspecting stragglers; of stew pots in the cafeteria with children’s fingers at the bottom; of cannibals and trading in human flesh. Everyone is hungry in these days, there’s nothing to eat but bread, potatoes, and above all kasha, the buckwheat porridge that’s part of every meal served up by poor Russians and which features occasionally in the homes of fairly well-off Parisians like me, who pride ourselves on how well we make it. Sausage is a rare luxury; Eduard is so wild about it he dreams of becoming a butcher when he grows up. No dogs, no cats, no pets: they’d get eaten. Rats, on the other hand, abound. Twenty million Russians died in the war, but another twenty million brave the postwar period without a roof over their heads. Most children no longer have fathers; most of the men still alive are invalids. On every street corner you see people missing an arm, a leg, two legs. Everywhere you see gangs of children left to fend for themselves, children whose parents died in the war or are imprisoned as public enemies, hungry children, child thieves and child murderers, children returned to the state of nature who move about in dangerous hordes and for whom the age of criminal responsibility, that is, of the death penalty, has been lowered to twelve.

*   *   *

The little boy admires his father. On Saturday evenings he likes to watch him grease his service weapon, he likes to see him put on his uniform, and nothing makes him happier than being allowed to polish his father’s boots. He plunges one arm inside, right up to the shoulder, and spreads the polish with his other hand with care, using special brushes and cloths for each step of the operation, part of a whole kit that takes up half of Venyamin’s suitcase when he leaves on assignment and that his son looks after, packing and unpacking it, anxious for the glorious day when he’ll have one too. In his eyes, the only men worthy of the name are soldiers, and the only children to hang around with are the children of soldiers. He doesn’t know any others: the families of the officers and junior officers living in the NKVD building on Red Army Street keep to themselves and have little respect for the civvies, a sniveling and undisciplined lot who are liable to stop without warning in the middle of the sidewalk, obliging the soldier to readjust his path in order to keep to the steady, energetic, regulation four-mile-an-hour pace at which Eduard will walk until the end of his days.

To get them to go to sleep at night, the children on Red Army Street are told stories of the conflict that the Russians don’t call the Second World War as we do but the Great Patriotic War, and their dreams are filled with caving trenches, dead horses, and brothers in arms whose heads are ripped off by an exploding shell. Eduard is thrilled by these stories. Still, he notices his father seems a bit embarrassed when his mother tells them. They’re never about him or his adventures, but only about Eduard’s uncle, Raya’s brother, and the little boy doesn’t dare ask, “But what about you, Dad, did you go to war too? Did you fight?”

No, he didn’t fight. Most of the men his age have looked death in the eye. War, his son will write later, bit them between its teeth like a suspect coin and they know, for not having bent, that they are the real thing. Not his father. He didn’t look death in the eye. He served out the war far from the front, and his wife rarely misses a chance to remind him of it.

*   *   *

She’s hard, proud of her standing as the wife of an officer, an enemy to all tenderness. She always sides against her son and with his adversaries. If he’s been beaten up she doesn’t console him but lauds the aggressor: that’ll make Eduard a man, not a sissy. One of his first memories is suffering from a serious ear infection when he was five. Pus dripped from his ear; he was deaf for several weeks. The way to the clinic where his mother took him crossed the railway tracks. He saw, rather than heard, the train as it approached—the smoke, the speed, the shape of the black metal monster—and he was suddenly seized by the irrational fear that she wanted to hurl him under its wheels. He started to scream: “Mommy! Mommy! Don’t throw me under the train! Please! Don’t throw me under the train!” In his account he insists on the importance of the word please, as if this politeness alone had dissuaded his mother from her dire project.

*   *   *

When I got to know him in Paris thirty years later, Eduard liked to say his father was a Chekist, because he knew that would cast a pall over the room. Once, after he’d gotten his kicks with this announcement, he poked fun at us: “Stop imagining such terrible things, my dad was basically a gendarme, that’s all.”

Really, that’s all?

During the civil war, just after the Revolution, Trotsky, serving as commander of the Red Army, had been obliged to press members of the imperial armed forces into service. These were professional soldiers and weapons specialists, but “bourgeois specialists,” and as such relatively untrustworthy. He created a corps of political commissars to control them, countersign their orders, and shoot them if they showed signs of resisting. That’s how the principle of the “double administration” was born, based on the idea that to accomplish a task you need at least two men: one to do it and one to make sure he does it in conformity with Marxism-Leninism. This principle spread from the army to society at large, and in the process, it became clear that a third person was then needed to supervise the second, a fourth to supervise the third, and so on.

Venyamin Savenko is a modest cog in this paranoid system. His work is to supervise, control, and report. That does not necessarily imply—on this point Eduard is right—terrible acts of repression. Let’s not forget, as a simple NKVD orderly he spent the war planted in front of a factory. Promoted during peacetime to the modest rank of junior lieutenant, he works as a nacht-kluba, which you could translate as “nightclub manager,” but which here means organizing leisure and cultural activities for the soldiers—dance parties on Red Army Day, for example. The job suits him well: he plays the guitar, likes to sing, and in his own way has a taste for the good things in life. He even puts clear polish on his nails: quite the dandy, this Junior Lieutenant Savenko, who, his son says in retrospect, could have led a far more interesting life if he’d had the courage to get out from under his wife’s thumb.

*   *   *

The life of nightclubbing NKVD-style in which Venyamin to a certain extent blossoms doesn’t last, however, because the job is swiped by one Captain Levitin, who becomes without knowing it the sworn enemy of the Savenkos and a key figure in Eduard’s private mythology: the schemer who’s not as good as you but is more successful, whose insolence and devilish luck not only humiliate you in front of the bosses but, even worse, in front of your family, so that the little boy, who all the while loyally parrots his parents’ disdain for Levitin, can’t stop thinking in secret—although he hates himself for it—that his father is kind of pathetic and that Levitin’s son is, actually, pretty lucky. Eduard will later develop the theory that everyone has a Captain Levitin in life. His own will soon appear in this book in the guise of the poet Joseph Brodsky.

3

HE’S TEN YEARS old when Stalin dies, on March 5, 1953. His parents, that entire generation in fact, spent their whole lives in the Great Leader’s shadow. To all of their questions he had the answer, terse and gruff, no room for doubt. They remember the days of fear and grief that followed the German attack in 1941 and the day when, overcoming his despair, Stalin spoke on the radio. Addressing the men and women of his country, he did not call them “comrades” but “my friends.” “My friends”: these simple, familiar words, whose warmth had been forgotten and that proved a balm to the soul in times of such terrible trouble, were as important to the Russians as Churchill’s and de Gaulle’s were to Westerners. The entire country mourns the man who pronounced them. Schoolchildren weep because they can’t give their lives to prolong his. Eduard weeps with the rest.

At the time he’s a nice, sensitive, and rather sickly young boy who loves his father, fears his mother, and is a great source of satisfaction to them both. The delegate of the soviet of Young Pioneers in his class, he’s on the honor roll every year, as is only fitting for the son of an officer. He reads a lot, and his favorite authors are Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne, both very popular in the Soviet Union. Despite all their differences, that’s something our childhoods have in common. Like him, I admired the Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo. I dreamed of becoming a trapper, an explorer, a sailor—or, more precisely, a whale harpooner like Ned Land as played by Kirk Douglas in the film version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Tattooed, quick-witted, and never flustered, his chest muscles swelling his striped shirt, he towered over the learned Professor Arronax and even the mysterious Captain Nemo with his brute strength. These three figures provided me with divergent heroic models: the scholar, the rebel, and the man of action, who was also a man of the people. If it had only been up to me, this last was who I’d have wanted to be. But it wasn’t only up to me. My parents made it clear early on that no, becoming a whale harpooner was out of the question, it would be better to be a scholar—I have no memory of the third option, the rebel, ever being up for discussion—especially because I was shortsighted: try harpooning a whale with glasses!

I had to start wearing them at the age of eight. So did Eduard, but he suffered for it more than I did. Because his handicap barred him not only from an action-hero career but from the one to which he had been naturally destined. The eye doctor who examined him left his parents little hope: with such bad vision their son was very likely to be declared unfit for service.

*   *   *

For him, this diagnosis is a tragedy. He never thought of being anything other than an officer, and now he’s told that he can’t even do his obligatory military service, that he’s condemned to become what he’s been taught to disdain since his earliest childhood: a civvy.

And perhaps that’s what he would have become if the building housing the NKVD officers hadn’t been demolished, its inhabitants scattered, and the Savenkos moved to the new housing complex in Saltov, on the very outskirts of Kharkov. Saltov has streets that intersect at right angles, but there’s been neither the time nor the money to pave them. Four-floor concrete cubes, home to workers at three factories called the Turbine, the Piston, and the Hammer and Sickle, have just gone up and already they’re run down. This is the Soviet Union and in principle it’s not demeaning to be from the working class; still, most of the men in Saltov are alcoholic and illiterate, and most of their children leave school at fifteen to go to work in a factory or, more often, to loiter on street corners, get drunk, and beat one another up—and even in a society without classes it’s hard to imagine how the Savenkos can see this exile as anything but a drop in status. From day one Raya bitterly misses Red Army Street, the community of officers proud to belong to the same caste, the books they passed around, the evenings when, with their uniform jackets unbuttoned, revealing white shirts beneath, the husbands led their young wives around the dance floor to fox-trot or tango records confiscated in Germany. She berates Venyamin, reminding him of more clever comrades who’ve been promoted three times while he’s risen laboriously from junior lieutenant to lieutenant, who’ve been given real apartments in the center of town while the three of them have to make do with one room in this horrid suburb where no one reads or dances the fox-trot, where there’s no one a refined woman can talk to, and where the streets ooze with blackish mud every time it rains. She doesn’t go as far as to say she would have been better off marrying a Captain Levitin, but that’s exactly what she thinks, and little Eduard, who so admired his father—his boots, his uniform, and his pistol—starts to pity him, starts to see him as honest and a bit stupid. His new friends aren’t the sons of officers but of workers, and the ones he likes don’t want to become laborers like their parents, but thugs. Like a career in the army, this career too has a code of conduct, has values and morals that he finds attractive. He no longer wants to be like his father when he grows up. He no longer wants anything to do with that honest and ultimately fairly dull existence; he wants a free and dangerous life: the life of a man.

*   *   *

He takes a decisive step in this direction the day he gets into a fight with a boy in his class, a big Siberian named Yura. In fact, he doesn’t fight with Yura; Yura beats the living daylights out of him. He’s taken home dazed and covered in bruises. True to her stoical military principles, his mother doesn’t pity or console him; she sides with Yura, and it’s a good thing, he thinks, because his life changes that day. He understands one basic thing: there are two kinds of people, those you can hit and those you can’t—not because they’re stronger or better trained, but because they’re ready to kill. That’s the secret, the only one, and nice little Eduard decides to defect to the other camp: he will become someone you don’t hit because you know he can kill.

*   *   *

Now that he’s no longer a nacht-kluba Venyamin is often away on assignment, for weeks at a time. Just what these assignments consist of is unclear. Eduard is starting to lead his own life and isn’t really interested, but one day Raya says she’s counting on him to show up for dinner because his dad’s getting home from Siberia, so he decides to go meet him at the station.

In line with a habit he’ll never lose, he arrives early. He waits. Finally the Vladivostok–Kiev train pulls in. The passengers get out and head for the exit. He’s standing where no one can possibly escape his attention, but Venyamin doesn’t appear. Eduard asks at the desk, checks the train’s arrival time, which is easy to get wrong because there are eleven time zones between Vladivostok and Leningrad and departure and arrival times at each station are indicated using Moscow time—still the case today; it’s up to travelers to calculate the time difference. Disappointed, he wanders from one platform to the next, in the din amplified by the station’s immense windows. Old women in headscarves and felt boots, hawking pails of cucumbers and cranberries to travelers, nag him. He crosses the sidings and comes to the area reserved for freight. And it’s here, in an isolated corner of the station, between two trains, that he happens upon this spectacle: men in civilian clothing, handcuffed and haggard, walk down the plank of a freight car while soldiers in greatcoats with bayonets on their rifles push them roughly into a windowless black truck. The whole operation is overseen by an officer. In one hand he holds a sheaf of papers fastened to a clipboard; the other rests on the holster of his pistol. He calls out the names in a dry voice.

This officer is his father.

Eduard remains hidden until the last prisoner has climbed into the truck. Then he goes back home, troubled and ashamed. What is he ashamed of? Not of his father being part of a monstrous system of repression. He has no idea about this system, has never heard the word Gulag. He knows there are prisons and camps where delinquents are shut away, and has no problem with that. What is happening, something he doesn’t really understand and which explains his shame, is that his value system is starting to change. When he was a child there were servicemen on one side and civvies on the other, and even if he didn’t see the heat of battle, as a soldier his father still deserved respect. According to the code of the Saltov boys he’s in the process of adopting, there are hoods and punks on one side and cops on the other, and just when he chooses the punks’ camp he discovers that his father is less of a soldier and more of a cop, and of the lowest rank at that: a patrolman, a screw, a petty security guard.

*   *   *

The scene has a nocturnal follow-up. In the family’s single room, Eduard’s bed is at the foot of his parents’. He has no memory of ever having heard them make love, but he does remember listening in to a hushed conversation they had when they thought he was asleep. Depressed, Venyamin tells Raya that rather than taking Ukrainian convicts to Siberia as usual, this time he brought some back in the other direction, a whole contingent that was to be shot. A change had been introduced to avoid overly demoralizing the camp guards: one year all those condemned to death in the Soviet Union are shot in one prison, the next year in another. I’ve looked in vain for a trace of this improbable custom in books on the Gulag, but even if Eduard misunderstood what his father was saying, it’s certain that these men whose names his father called as they left the train and ticked off as they climbed into the truck were going to their deaths. One of them, Venyamin tells his wife, made a very strong impression on him. His file was coded as “particularly dangerous.” He was a calm and polite young man who spoke an elegant Russian and made sure to do his exercises every day, whether in his cell or in the freight car. This refined, stoical condemned man becomes a hero for Eduard, who begins to dream that he’ll be like him one day, that he’ll go to prison too and impress not only lowlifes and underpaid cops like his father but women, thugs, real men—and like everything he dreamed of doing as a child, in the course of his life, he’ll get the chance to do just that.

Copyright © 2011 by P.O.L éditeur

Translation copyright © 2014 by John Lambert


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