An interview with National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov

Eduard Limonov: “Most people are essentially conformists. They will always support whoever is in power at any given time. Anyway, I don’t think that regime change is a job for the people as a whole. It’s a task for political parties. Ordinary citizens always support the winner after the event.”

Eduard Veniaminovich Limonov, world-renowned author and National Bolshevik Party (NBP) leader, visited our office recently for this tough and candid interview.

Question: What do you think of the outcome of the recent regional elections, which experts describe as a dress rehearsal for the Duma election?

Eduard Limonov: Yes, there’s a lot of discussion about the election results, tallying up fractions of percentage points. In my view, however, this is an entirely pointless imitation of politics. These elections were unlawful right from the start. That’s clear enough, even without any vote-counting.

Question: For what reason?

Eduard Limonov: A simple reason: access to the election race was entirely controled by United Russia – that is, by one of the participants. And I agree with the NBP activists who organized protests in six cities, denouncing these elections. “The elections are a farce” was the slogan they used. A mockery and a farce, in my view.

Take the NBP. It’s a full-fledged political party. It’s been around longer than many official parties. It’s as old as the Communist Party (CPRF) – our Moscow region branch was founded in 1993. But ever since 1998, when we reached the size of a nationwide party, our very existence has been denied. The Justice Ministry refuses to register us.

And we’re not alone. The Republican Party of Russia was denied registration recently. There was also the drama of Liberal Russia – that party was simply smashed. The United Civil Front, led by Garry Kasparov, and the People’s Democratic Union, led by Mikhail Kasyanov, and Labor Russia, led by Viktor Anpilov – these organizations have very different ideologies, but all of them are denied permission to participate in the political process. This is arbitrary and unlawful. Thus, ballot papers with a restricted list of parties are simply invalid.

I’m outraged by this whole crowd of political scientists and analysts – dream-interpreters – who keep commenting on something or other. They ought to be raising an outcry: these elections are a malicious farce, an insult to all of us. Who are we – citizens, or a crowd of prisoners in a labor camp, allocated to separate barracks? And the LDPR barracks, for example, are allowed to participate in elections, while the adjacent barracks are not.

Question: But most people don’t feel insulted by this at all, and they aren’t taking to the streets in protest.

Eduard Limonov: This isn’t a job for the masses. It’s up to the intelligentsia to explain how things really are. That’s why I’m outraged by all these political analysts who continue engaging in their vile trade, producing justifications for election fraud.

Question: Well, so much for the regional elections. And what do you expect from the parliamentary and presidential elections? How does the radical opposition intend to respond to those?

Eduard Limonov: An even more malicious and inept performance will be staged for the Duma election. Staged to pacify the masses and the West.

The presidential election is a different matter. That’s truly important, because it concerns real power.

Putin has already indicated two potential successors, and I don’t think anyone else will emerge. The Kremlin’s plan is that Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev should get the most votes in the first round of the election. Both are extremely close associates of Putin. Ivanov has been Putin’s friend since their student days, and Medvedev is his “political son.” Medvedev even imitates Putin in many ways.

Then the two of them will compete in the second round of voting. And if Putin is asked which candidate he prefers, he will decline to express a preference, saying proudly that he doesn’t want to put any pressure on the people’s choice. And everyone will be happy. Even the West will agree that everything is outwardly democratic.

But this plan carries a certain amount of risk. There’s also the Other Russia, after all, and Mikhail Kasyanov as a presidential candidate.

Question: An odd choice for the NBP.

Eduard Limonov: Why am I talking of him, even though our political views are so far apart? It’s very simple: as a pragmatist, I can see that he’s a real contender. He has already served as prime minister. And I saw how senior police commanders looked at him during the Dissenter March. I’ve seen how officials and bureaucrats respond to him. They would never accept Limonov as a presidential candidate, of course – but Kasianov is one of their own. He’s from their circles. And that would be a safeguard against unnecessary upheavals.

What if the second round of voting doesn’t include the two successors, but one of them versus Kasyanov? What would happen? All he needs to do is get 18-19% of the vote in the first round. That’s not impossible.

Question: But his voter support rating is very low at present.

Eduard Limonov: So what? Putin’s rating was equally low in 1999. And Kasyanov is already well-known for having been a successful prime minister.

I have analyzed all the options, but I can’t see any other candidates with a realistic chance. Stanislav Belkovsky has suggested Viktor Gerashchenko, for example – but he would burn out after a few fiery press conferences. He couldn’t handle the presidency.

Of course, many say it would be better to have a candidate whose views are more left-wing. But there’s no such person. CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov has run for president and lost, repeatedly.

A clash between Kasyanov and one of the successors could be most interesting. I think the Kremlin dismissed the Other Russia project too lightly at first, but now it’s starting to realize that this coalition could become a real force. It will be interesting to see what the Kremlin does on April 14, when a Dissenter March is scheduled in Moscow. I’m expecting another attempt to ban the march and arrest the protesters. The mindset of our authorities is very old-fashioned, by its very nature. Out of touch with the modern world.

Question: Well, that depends on your perspective. It might be described as traditionalist. Traditional for Russia.

Eduard Limonov: That’s debatable. But we certainly don’t need the use of force and rigged elections now. Governance can be based on different principles.

In any event, I’m sure that the opposition will make an attempt to take power in the presidential election. I’m not expecting any horrific confrontations, although there might well be some incidents that go too far. But we won’t initiate them. After all, the opposition is not an armed force.

Question: You have a good point about the bureaucracy regarding Kasyanov as one of its own. Far more so than Putin, in fact. But the bloated and corrupt bureaucracy is Russia’s greatest problem. So why would Kasyanov be any better than Putin or Putin’s designated successor?

Eduard Limonov: We are now working toward the same goal. Kasyanov wants to repeal all the recent amendments to electoral legislation – and all obstacles to free elections. We support that. It’s in our party’s interests. We have been barred from elections for over eight years. Unless we can get that access, we simply won’t survive as a party.

And if we’re talking of Russia’s fate, Kasyanov supports the same slogans we do – compensation for the savings people lost in the shock therapy era, and changing economic policies so as to avoid being the West’s raw materials appendage. A working group of experts, headed by Georgy Satarov, is preparing a policy program. The NBP has submitted about twenty suggestions for that.

Question: But it sounds like this policy program is being written by the very same liberals who were once responsible for shock therapy, or made excuses for it.

Eduard Limonov: There aren’t any classic liberals left. Everyone, including the Kremlin’s imitation parties, is using socially-oriented slogans.

The main goal at this stage is to destroy the climate of force and election fraud. Let there be free elections, and then we’ll see who ends up in the parliament. I’m sure there would be many parties. Kasyanov believes that the representation threshold should be reduced to 3% of the vote.

Question: And the result would be chaos, like in the Ukrainian parliament.

Eduard Limonov: No it wouldn’t. A coalition government would be formed on the basis of a free and fair parliamentary election. Besides, I don’t see conflict as a problem. Conflict means life. The absence of conflict is death.

Question: And what if your candidate doesn’t win the presidential election?

Eduard Limonov: As Garry Kasparov puts it, we intend to insist on dismantling the present regime, which is based on a practice of imitations. It fabricates parties from the top down – one after another. That’s outrageous.

Question: All the same, opinion polls – including some done by entirely liberal researchers – indicate that last year, for the first time in many years, the overall mood of our society switched from negative to positive. Optimists outnumbered those who take a gloomy view of their future.

Eduard Limonov: We’re not talking about any kind of mood. Let’s talk about exactly how many citizens voted for Putin. Most people don’t vote. So his famous majority support doesn’t really exist.

In fact, most people are essentially conformists. They will always support whoever is in power at any given time. Anyway, I don’t think that regime change is a job for the people as a whole. It’s not the people’s role in history. I repeat: it’s a task for political parties. Ordinary citizens always support the winner after the event.

Are most people satisfied with the way things are? But most people don’t even read books, or look beyond the path between their bed and their workplace. The state should not be based on the world-view of these people.

Our political philosophy has been damaged by decades of Soviet rule, when the majority was held sacred. But it has never been sacred, anywhere in the world. The people – that concept is more than an arithmetical majority.

Question: And what do you see as the right future for Russia?

Eduard Limonov: The state needs to be put in its place. It’s supposed to exist for citizens. Citizens should not exist for the state. Our people have lived a very hard life over the past 90 years, and it was even worse before that. So let’s give the people a break. Let’s pass some populist laws. Let people enjoy themselves. The authorities keep saving all the money for a rainy day – and meanwhile, they’re stealing it.

Question: All this sounds interesting, and many might find it attractive. But let’s face up to the truth. Only the Kremlin and the oligarchs – those in Russia and those who have fled abroad – have enough money to fight a serious political battle these days. And naturally, you can’t expect any support from the Kremlin.

Eduard Limonov: We’re not even seeking it.

Question: Excellent. Then your only option is to hope for some money from the oligarchs. But if they give you money, and if the opposition wins its hypothetical victory, the people won’t get any of those nice things you just described. We would see the power of the oligarchs restored.

Eduard Limonov: Organizing Dissenter Marches isn’t all that expensive. And we are getting by on money collected by coalition members.

Question: But making it into the Duma would require an entirely different level of spending.

Eduard Limonov: Succeeding in a Duma election requires substantial sums of money. And we are involved in some campaign funding negotiations, of course.

But our party has never received any money from oligarchs. And the people who have helped us – not very wealthy people – have never imposed any conditions on their donations.

And when it comes to campaign funding – well, if the Kremlin has no scruples about spending public funds on the Nashi movement’s idiotic rallies, why should we be ashamed to take money from oligarchs? Especially if it’s for a good cause.

Question: You say that the state should be put in its place. But the oligarchs don’t just want to put it in its place or dismantle the regime. They want to dismantle the state as such, to prevent it from obstructing their corporations as they saw away at Russia’s natural resources.

Eduard Limonov: I have no information to that effect. And I’m in favor of restrictions on large fortunes – imposing a luxuries tax. It would even be worthwhile to nationalize the oil companies.

Question: But how could your sponsors agree to that?

Eduard Limonov: That’s probably why we still haven’t had any donations from oligarchs. We have always upheld socialist views. And no one asked us to abandon our views when we joined the Other Russia coalition.

Question: Of course not – the Other Russia has an interest in you now. They need the NBP as a strike force.

Eduard Limonov: But we need them as well. Were it not for them, the police would soon reach the point of simply shooting us. We need each other.

Once our common goals are achieved, the coalition participants may well split up and follow their own paths. At any rate, we won’t abandon our left-wing views.

Question: You talk of giving the people a break. But will external forces allow us any respite? We have some overt enemies as well as competitors. How would a person like Kasyanov respond to external challenges? Or take a situation like Shamil Basayev’s incursion into Dagestan. Putin’s response was entirely appropriate. But I fear that if Kasyanov had been in his place, we would have seen Chernomyrdin-style negotiations like those we remember from the Budennovsk hostage crisis.

Eduard Limonov: I can’t answer for Kasyanov – though I have no doubts about his prideful Great Russian inner convictions. Whereas Putin, for example, was really trying to curry favor with the foreigners at the G8 summit.

Question: He didn’t do that at the Munich conference.

Eduard Limonov: Getting back to Kasyanov – I’m not a close friend of his. We have a businesslike political relationship.

Question: And do you think he is an honest man?

Eduard Limonov: Indisputably.

Question: But could an honest man have risen so high in the Yeltsin era? Could the notorious Family promote an honest man?

Eduard Limonov: I’ll put it simply. Back when Kasyanov held those senior state positions, I thought he couldn’t be honest. But this is the first time I have discovered a person of such high caliber from a state service background. I’ve never met anyone like him before. Well, I’ve met Andrei Illarionov – and many foreign leaders, including Milosevic – but this is the first time I’ve worked with such a great man in Russia.

I’m a writer. I’m what used to be called an engineer of human souls. I’m very inquisitive about people. I evaluate their external images, and whether they have behaved unethically. Thus far, I haven’t seen anything to make me apprehensive about Kasyanov. At the Other Russia congress, Kasyanov was the first to admit that he had been wrong. And he offered to shake hands with me.

For a long time, we sought an alliance with the Communists. It would have been more logical, of course, but it didn’t work out. And we can’t afford to sit around and wait for the Communists to become mature enough for more resolute action. That’s why we are moving forward with those who are our fellow-travelers at this point. Common goals can sometimes serve to unite diverse forces into large coalitions. A party should move forward and develop – make mistakes sometimes, perhaps – but it shouldn’t remain at the level of a debating club or hobby group.

Question: How many NBP activists are in jail?

Eduard Limonov: As at March 10, 20 of us were political prisoners. The number has risen to 23 in the wake of protests during the regional elections.

Question: Some say that while rank-and-file activists go to jail, Limonov scores political points from their plight.

Eduard Limonov: I’ve served a jail term myself. The prosecutor requested a sentence of 25 years for me, plus 14 years concurrently. But the times were slightly different then, in 2003, and they were unable to prove me guilty. Otherwise I’d still be in jail.

I have never sought to evade responsibility, but these shrill demands from my enemies – that I should go to jail along with the activists who take part in direct action protests – are absurd. Then again, a leader should share all the dangers, of course. And if anything does happen, I’d be the first target. In St. Petersburg before the Dissenter March, the first thing they did was detain me.