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14 November 2018

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by Emmanuel Carrère (FSG, $30)

From the outside, the life and adventures of an audacious, charismatic personality like Eduard Limonov – radical, poet, drifter, National-Bolshevik – seems attractive, interesting, intriguing. And even if people don’t agree with his politics (few do), “they like his fiery personality, they admire his talent and audacity...”

Born on the Volga just days before the German surrender at Stalingrad, Limonov was the son of a Chekist, and at various points in his colorful life: a street punk, a radical underground poet, an émigré, a lionized writer, a notorious fighter alongside heinous Serbs, and a jailed faux revolutionary. Today he is a more or less tolerated radical oppositionist. He has lived 10 lives in the space most people reserve for one, yet has never attained the power and notoriety that he sought. He wanted to be a soldier or lead a revolution. Instead, he was merely a colorful sideshow.

Limonov’s life has unfolded alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the authoritarian petrostate that is modern Russia. His life is in part a reflection of that narrow, tortured reality, but even more so it is an echo of our world more generally, of our modern obsession with celebrity and power, charisma and audacity, even if it is in pursuit of bankrupt ideas.

Carrère, a gifted writer and journalist, seeks to find out what Limonov’s world looks like from the inside, what this larger than life character thinks of the world and his place in it. Indeed, Carrère calls his work a novel, because he repeatedly tries to imagine himself inside Limonov’s head, to speculate what he must have been thinking at the time. Working from memoirs, interviews and direct access to Limonov, he delivers a fascinating biography. The book is as interesting for how well it is written and told as it is for the bizarre, seemingly fictional character it chronicles.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2015