Eduard Limonov, Russian Writer and Dissident, Dies at 77

Eduard Limonov, Russian Writer and Dissident, Dies at 77

Eduard Limonov, a Russian writer and political activist whose chameleonlike career included living in exile in New York and leading Russia’s ultra-right National Bolshevik Party, died on Tuesday in Moscow. He was 77.

The Other Russia, a political opposition group of which he was a leader, posted news of his death on its website but gave no details.

Mr. Limonov liked to describe himself as the Johnny Rotten of Soviet dissident writers, a reference to the impish, anarchic lead singer of the Sex Pistols. His first book, “It’s Me, Eddie,” published in France in 1979, was a fictionalized, somewhat scandalous memoir about a Russian in New York.

“The Soviet press found it filthy,” Keith Gessen wrote in Slate in 2003, “while the more perceptive émigré establishment denounced Limonov for stating the awful truth: that for many of those who came over, America was just nasty, brutal and expensive — and New York was no city on a hill.”

The book, when finally published in Russia in 1991, is said to have sold a million copies. In the meantime Mr. Limonov had written, among other things, “His Butler’s Story” (1987), another fictionalized memoir, inspired by his time as a housekeeper to a wealthy Manhattanite in the late 1970s. The protagonist, Maggie Paley wrote in a review in The New York Times, had a decidedly sour outlook.

“He hates the underclass for being weak and stupid and the ruling class for being insensitive,” she wrote. “He hates women — whom he describes in terms of female sex organs — for using men. He considers the other Russians in New York to be snobs or boors. He has no use for political systems, Communist or capitalist. He believes in revolution as a ‘phenomenon of nature.’ Yet he’s made no plans to foment it.”

The review was critical of aspects of the book, but Ms. Paley found some merit in the work.

“Though Edward Limonov’s judgment may be faulty,” the review concluded, “he’s to be congratulated for his audacity, his insistence on saying what most people are afraid to say, his sheer, beautiful nerve.”

After living in France for a time, Mr. Limonov returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and created the National Bolshevik Party. He became a visible if sometimes hard-to-pin-down figure, something like the semifictional characters in his books.

“Limonov founded the NBP in 1993 after returning to Russia from years abroad,” The Times wrote about him in 2008. “Since then, his message has changed — from anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism to anti-Putinism and anti-fascism — though rabid nationalism has dominated.”

The article described the group as “part Merry Pranksters, part revolutionary vanguard.” Mr. Limonov called its protests “velvet terrorism” — members, for instance, would throw tomatoes or eggs at political figures they disliked.

The authorities, though, weren’t laughing: Mr. Limonov spent two and a half years in jail in the mid-2000s on weapons charges. (A more serious charge of trying to overthrow the government had been dropped.) After his release, he continued to be a thorn, organizing demonstrations and drawing numerous fines, including one of $380 in 2012 that was added to the almost $17,000 he had already been assessed.

“I earn less and less every day,” he said at the time. “So I will not pay the $380, just like I did not pay the $16,880.”

Edward Veniaminovich Savenko was born on Feb. 23, 1943, in Dzerzhinsk, about 230 miles east of Moscow, to Veniamin and Raisa Savenko. His father was an officer in the secret police.

He changed his name to Limonov as “a tribute to his acidic and bellicose humor, because ‘limon’ means lemon, and ‘limonka’ is slang for a kind of hand grenade,” Emmanuel Carrère wrote in his semifictional biography, “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” (2014). In another account, though, a painter friend was said to have given him the name because he was “very pale, almost yellow.”

When he was still a boy the family moved to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Mr. Limonov grew up. He worked in a factory and a bookstore before moving to Moscow in 1967. There he began to write poetry and became involved with dissidents.

In 1974, he said, the K.G.B. offered him a choice — “rat out your degenerate friends or go into exile.” That’s when he left, going to Vienna and Rome before landing in New York.

The protagonist of “It’s Me, Eddie,” which is based on his early years in New York, had a down-and-out arrogance. “I receive welfare,” Eddie announces early on. “I live off your labor.”

“I have no shame or conscience,” the character says later, “therefore my conscience doesn’t bother me and I don’t plan to look for work, I want to receive your money to the end of my days.”

Mr. Limonov, though, encountered some kindred spirits during the mid-1970s.

“In New York I found the same kind of people — nonconformists, painters, poets, crazy underground musicians — that I had left in Moscow,” he told The Guardian in 2010.

Mr. Limonov’s fortunes changed later in the decade when he was hired as a housekeeper by Peter Sprague, who was co-chairman of the carmaker Aston Martin at the time. But Mr. Sprague told The Times in 2008 that “His Butler’s Story” wasn’t a particularly accurate portrayal of Mr. Limonov’s tenure with him.

“It was as if Hunter Thompson had written ‘The Nanny Diaries,’” he said.

By 1982 Mr. Limonov was living in France, where he enjoyed some acclaim in literary circles. When the Soviet Union collapsed, his Russian citizenship was restored, and he returned to his home country. For a time he was an incongruous ally of Garry Kasparov, the chess master, who advocated a pro-Western liberalism that was at odds with the National Bolsheviks. Mr. Limonov was certainly no fan of the West.

“Europeans are so timid, they remind me of sick and elderly people,” he told The Guardian, adding: “In Russia, fortunately, the people still have some barbarian spirit. But Europeans and Americans are just dying, sick invalids.”

Mr. Limonov was married numerous times. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

After long being critical of President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, Mr. Limonov supported his annexation of Crimea in 2014. His politics remained hard to pigeonhole, but that was because the wrong labels were being used, he said.

“It’s over, the fight from the right against the left,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País in 2019. “Now the fight is between the people and the elites.”

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