Limonov, the protagonist of Emmanuel Carrère’s strange book, is actually quite worth discussing. And so is Carrère’s attitude to him.
Limonov was born in my native city of Kharkiv, and in 1974 he somehow managed to emigrate to the US. I have no idea how he managed to do it unless he worked for the KGB and was sent to New York with the task of spying on the Soviet dissidents there. Limonov’s father was a low-level NKVD officer, so it’s not that out there. Nobody knows for sure how he managed to leave, though, and I’m as clueless as anybody on this account.
When Limonov got to New York, he experienced what every Soviet person did when encountering capitalism: shock and disappointment. What made him different is that he spoke about it openly. The other emigrés immediately hated Limonov for saying what they could never dare, which was that they were sorry they’d emigrated.
What shocked Limonov was that in a capitalist country you have to work very hard to have a regular, middle-class lifestyle. Not fabulous riches, not your own island with a castle and a private airplane but just a normal life. Limonov perceived the suggestion that he had to work his tail off with no expectation of owning a castle as an insult.
This absolute outrage at what life in a capitalist society was really like informed Limonov’s writing and politics for the rest of his life.
The funny thing is that Limonov did achieve success in the West. His books were all published and got translated into different languages. He had fans, interviews, and a following. But a writer in the West doesn’t make billions. (Unless she gets divorced from Jeff Bezos but that’s a different story). Success only made Limonov’s outrage grow. He was widely recognized as a talented writer but there was still nothing remotely resembling fabulous wealth coming his way.
He went back to the USSR, and when the USSR fell apart, he founded the National-Bolshevik party to bring the Soviet Union back. It was an openly fascist movement back in the time when the word “fascist” still meant something. It was also a very tiny movement. Limonov never had more than a handful of members in his party. Finally, Putin – who back then was pro-democracy, pro-West, and George W Bush’s best friend – got fed up and sent Limonov and all his party members to a prison camp.
Nobody ever took Limonov seriously because his dreams of Russia going to war against the West and the restoration of the USSR sounded nuts. But it turns out that his true following in Russia was bigger than anybody could imagine. That following rose, swept up the miserable weakling Putin, and is now doing everything Limonov ever dreamt of.
Carrère turns himself inside out trying to explain every war crime Limonov participated in (yes, real war crimes) and every expression of love for Hitler as something he couldn’t have possibly meant. “When he fired into a crowd during the war in Serbia, I’m sure he fired over the civilians’ heads. He’s a gentle soul, he didn’t mean any harm.”
These “gentle souls” are raping toddlers in Ukraine but there’s still a crowd of these officious Western intellectuals who are eager to explain how they don’t really mean it.