Limonov by Adam Curtis & Mark Ames


Adam Curtis, the British filmmaker whose many great films and blog posts for the BBC we’ve been ramming down our readers’ throats (in the parlance of our times) to these past few years, has a new piece about Russian politics, punk and avant-garde that is a must-read.


It’s the only work I’ve ever read that makes sense of Edward Limonov—the former eXile columnist and leader of the radical opposition—and places Limonov and his Kremlin nemesis, Vladislav Surkov, in the context of Russia’s post-Communist politics, and Russia’s wild punk rock avant-garde.


It’s rare, as in “non-existent” rare, to read a Westerner who grasps the surface barbarism and extremism of Russian politics and art, and rarer that they can place Limonov’s role in it—Curtis manages this feat, and it’s quite an ambitious piece for a blog post.


Middlebrows have spent the past couple of decades trying to fit their favorite worthless narrative frame over post-Soviet Russia—Weimar Germany, post-war West Germany, Nazi Germany, the anti-Germany—and even though none of those silly comparisons ever explained anything to anyone, they never tired of using them to misunderstand Russia. One of those cliche-peddling middlebrows who peddled the whole line of bad references and historical analogies isour old nemesis Michael McFaul—recently named the US Ambassador to Russia.

Which begs the ol’ question: “If yer so smart, why ain’t you Ambassador?”

Yeah, well, Joshua Foust is winning too. 


Back to Curtis: After tracing the rise of Russia’s punk/maximalist avant-garde, Curtis introduces Limonov the political radical, and Yegor Letov, the (now deceased) god of Russian punk:



And this is where Curtis’ post gets even more interesting, original–and deadly accurate.

A day in the life of Edward Limonov: Outside a Moscow court


Reading Adam Curtis’ piece brought back a lot of memories: The first GrOb concert I went to in Moscow in 1993 with Dr. Dolan and some of my Russian banker friends (they were graduates of the journalism and literary institutes but went into banking for the same reason we now have to), a concert that quickly devolved into a riot, OMON troops firing shotguns to scare the punks, pummeling them with truncheons (Vova, my banker buddy, saved me from an OMONets who was running up behind me with his truncheon cocked over his head), the punks charging at the OMONtsi and setting a tramvai car on fire on its tracks as their one riot trophy…


Curtis’ article also reminded me of a strange meeting I had in 2000, when Taibbi and I were in the US promoting our book, The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia.


We met with a recently-retired American intelligence official who fed us some stories about yet more foul corruption that Clinton, Gore and their investment banker friends were mixed up in in the Yeltsin Clusterfuck that the Clinton/Rubin people were so deeply involved in, and criminally culpable in. Towards the end of our lunch, the mysterious, extremely grim retired intel official got even more grim and and serious, and told us to keep an eye on Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s PR “Wizard of Oz” whose trajectory Curtis contrasts so perceptively with Limonov’s.


From my memory of that meeting, the intel guy told us that in the summer of 1999, Surkov had arranged a crucial, highly secret meeting in a Spanish coastal resort involving Boris Berezovsky, then-FSB chief Vladimir Putin, and a top Chechen rebel leader, possibly Shamil Basaev or one of his surrogates.


We all know what happened shortly after this alleged meeting: Yeltsin appointed Putin as his new prime minister, Basaev’s Chechen separatist rebels launched an invasion into the Russian republic of Dagestan, and then terror spread across Moscow and Russia: apartment buildings started blowing up, killing hundreds of Russians, sparking Putin’s invasion of Russia. Putin’s rating shot up from about 3% to the most popular Russian politician of the past decade.

 Vladislav Surkov & Putin


A little over a year after Putin’s invasion of Chechnya, Limonov was jailed, becoming Vladimir Putin’s first political prisoner; when Limonov eventually beat the rap and was released from prison in mid-2003, he emerged bigger than ever, the most powerful leader of the nascent democratic opposition, so powerful that even US-backed chess champion Garry Kasparov formed an alliance with Limonov, because Limonov was the only opposition figure in Russia with real followers.


And more importantly, Limonov was the only opposition figure who had worked out a real oppositional politics: radical, novel, theatrical, and inspirational.


Curtis’s piece on Russia focuses more the early radical-right aesthetics of Limonov’s politics, when his punk influences were more apparent (Curtis himself first emerged in the late 70s punk avant-garde as part of a movement that included the Gang of Four, around the time that Limonov was involved in the first wave of New York’s punk scene). But Limonov’s prison experience affected his politics as much as the new political environment he faced after he was released from prison–a new political reality molded largely by Surkov.


I asked Limonov about what happened to that punk-fascist element in the National-Bolsheviks after he got out of jail… and he told me: “Why would we bother playing with fascism anymore when the Kremlin is already fascist? We are an opposition party. And today the most radical position of all is to fight for democracy and elections–against Putin’s fascism. It’s far-right fascism that is banal and oppressive now.”


To quote Yegor Letov’s great anthem: “Я всегда буду против!” (“I will always be anti-!”)


To Limonov’s credit, he called out exactly what the Medvedev presidency would be like in his last column for The eXile before we were shut down by the Kremlin. While Council on Foreign Relations types kept holding out the absurd hope that they could split the “liberal” Medvedev from the “revanchist” Putin, Limonov laid out clearly what to expect from Medvedev back in the spring of 2008:



When the four Kremlin agents visited The eXile’s offices in June 2008, the first thing they asked me about was Edward Limonov. It’s easy to see why.

Limonov and Kasparov


While we’re on the subject of Limonov, I want to repost one of my favorite of all of his eXile columns here. If you think you can pigeonhole Limonov, first read this great piece—you can’t understand Limonov, the appeal of the National-Bolsheviks and the Russian mindset, without understanding the sheer energy and pride in Russian self-hatred—or what looks to Westerners like self-hatred:




Would you like to know more?

Read the Adam Curtis piece “The Years of Stagnation and the Poodles of Power” from his BBC blog.


Also read Mark Ames article “The Think-Tank Archipelago: Adam Curtis on how Libertarian Think-Tanks Crippled Thinking”.


For more background, read the Vanity Fair feature on The eXile, Limonov and Russia: “Lost Exile”.


Would you like to know more?

Buy The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia co-authored by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi (Grove). 

Click the cover & buy the book!