Sunday, March 22, 2015

Limonov in Prison by Emmanuel Carrere

He stays in Lefortovo for fifteen months, subject to a regime of strict isolation. Then, in a government Antonov aircraft, accompanied by a police escort so impressive it’s as if he were Carlos the Jackal or maybe the Baader-Meinof  Gang rolled into one, he’s transferred to Saratov, on the Volga, where he’s to be tried. Why Saratov? Because it’s the Russian jurisdiction closest to Kazakhstan, where he is supposed to have committed the crimes he’s accused of. What crimes exactly? It’s impossible to be ignorant of your crimes at Saratov, where on every possible occasion you not only have to state your last name, first name, and patronymic but also the articles of the criminal code that you’re imprisoned for having violated. As soon as he arrives, Eduard learns to reel off in quick succession the mantra that even today springs to his lips when he’s woken up with a start: “Savenko, Eduard Venyaminovich , Articles 205, 208, 222 paragraph 3, 280!

To explain: 205 is terrorism; 208, organization of an illegal armed group or participation in one; 222 paragraph 3, illicit acquisition, transport, sale, or storage of firearms; and 280, incitement to extremist activities.

When the investigating judge cites the charges and the heavy sentences they bear during the first hearing, Eduard is torn between pride in being accused of such serious stuff and the vital interest he has in exonerating himself. On the one hand, it’s not easy for him to admit to himself that a half dozen muddlers roughing it in a log cabin in the Altai sixty miles from the Kazakh border, with no arms other than a couple of hunting rifles, had as little chance of destabilizing Kazakhstan as they did of sparking a nuclear war. On the other hand, if he doesn’t want to get locked away for twenty years as a terrorist, he has no choice but to pass himself off as a bungling fool. The judge, however, seems ill-disposed to listen to his arguments and holds to the version presented by the FSB, according to which he and his six accomplices constitute a serious menace to the country’s security.

To top it all off, the FSB’s version is graphically illustrated by a TV film aired by Channel One Russia just as he arrives at Saratov. While he was in prison, 9/11 happened, and you can sense it: the film presents the National Bolshevik Party as a branch of Al-Qaeda, the hut in Altei as a secret camp training hundreds of fanatic fighters – which was in fact his dream and which, as he knows, is a far cry from reality. Everyone in the prison has seen The Ghost Hunt (the name of the film), everyone knows that Eduard’s a hero, and everyone starts calling him “bin Laden” – which is of course flattering, but also dangerous.

Saratov is the opposite of Lefortovo: there the risk isn’t isolation but overcrowding. Although the cells are built for four, often seven or eight inmates crammed into them. When Eduard enters his for the first time, all the beds are occupied. Without protesting, he rolls out his mattress on the ground; it seems right that the last to arrive should be the most uncomfortable. This humility is surprising, and it works to his advantage. He was preceded by his reputation as an intellectual, a political prisoner, and a celebrity, three reasons for his fellow inmates to consider him a pretentious pain in the ass; three reasons things might not work out for him. But he shows right away that he’s a simple, straightforward guy who wants nothing more than to sidet spokoino, that is, to wait things out without making waves, without shooting his mouth off and without getting himself or anybody else into trouble. And everyone appreciates the wisdom of an experienced prisoner; at the same time, everyone senses that he’s a tough nut under his placid air. He’s not the kind of guy who stupidly asks, “Can I help” when he sees someone cooking or repairing something; instead, he figures out what has to be done and does it. He avoids useless words and gestures, doesn’t shirk chores, shares with everyone when he gets a package, and respects the unwritten rules that govern life in the prison without them having to be explained. Which isn’t to say he takes courtesy to extremes either; he imposes his own way of seeing and doing things with calm authority. Initially, the other inmates are a bit surprised when he refuses to play cards or chess because he thinks they’re a waste of time, and instead spends this time reading or writing on his cot. But they quickly see it’s got nothing to do with snobbery: that’s just the way he is, and it doesn’t stop him from readily lending a hand when someone needs help writing a letter to his girlfriend or even completing a crossword puzzle. It only takes a week for everyone to reach the same conclusion: he’s a good guy.

His cellmates are ordinary criminals, condemned to long sentences for serious crimes. Most of them have been charged under Article 105, paragraph 2: murder with aggravating circumstances – and, having always respected gangsters, he’s proud now to have commanded their respect. Proud that they consider his party not a pack of young idealists but a gang (“You’ve got seven thousand men? Holy Shit!”; proud that they call him – if not bin Laden – “Limon the boss”; and proud above all that a godfather asked him one day, discretely, the way you’d let a man know that there’s nothing stopping him from becoming a member of the Academie francaise, if he’d like to be welcomed into the brotherhood of the vory v zakone, the thieves of the law, that aristocracy of the underworld that had been the source of so many of his adolescent dreams. All this impresses me without surprising me; it’s Eduard through and through. What surprises me more, and proves Olga Matitch right*, is that in the three books on his time in prison he writes far less about himself than about others. Eduard, the narcissist, the egotist, forgets himself, forgets to pose, becomes sincerely interested in how his cellmates ended up where they did.

One of the prisoners he gets along with best is a guy named Pasha Rybkin. At thirty, this colossus with a shaved heads has already spent ten years in prison, and, as Eduard charmingly sums it up, he “is surrounded by crimes the way forest dwellers are surrounded by trees.” That doesn’t prevent him from being a peaceful man, always in a good mood, half Russian holy fool, half Asian ascetic. Summer and winter, even when the temperature in his cell drops below zero, he walks around in shorts and flip-flops, he doesn’t eat meat, he drinks hot water (not tea) and he does impressive yoga poses. It’s not a very well known fact, but a huge number of people from all walks of life do yoga in Russia, even more than in California. Pasha very quickly recognizes a wise man in “Eduard Venyaminovich.” ”They don’t make people like you anymore,” he assures him. “At least I’ve never met any.” And he teaches him to meditate.

People make a big thing of it if they’ve never tried it, but it’s extremely simple. In fact you can teach yourself in five minutes. You sit down cross-legged, as straight as possible, stretch your spine from the tailbone to the back of the head, close your eyes, and concentrate on your breathing. Inhale, exhale. That’s all. The difficult thing is precisely that that’s all there is to it. The difficult thing is to do nothing else. When you start out you overdo it and try to chase the thoughts away. Very quickly you see that that doesn’t chase them away, but if you watch your thoughts on their carousel as it turns, bit by bit you’re carried along with it less and less. Your breathing slows. The idea is to observe it without modifying it, and that too is extremely difficult, almost impossible, but with practice you progress a little, and a little is enormous. You catch a glimpse of a calm, zone. If you’re not calm for one reason or another, if your mind is racing, no problem: you observe your agitation, or your boredom, or your desire to move, and as you observe them you put them at a distance, you’re a little less held hostage by them.

I’ve been doing this exercise for years. I don’t talk about it because I feel uncomfortable with its new-age valence, let’s be Zen and all that stuff, but it’s so effective and it does you sop much good that I have a hard time understanding why everyone doesn’t do it...

In any event, as soon as the good, wise gangster Pasha Rybkin explained to him how it worked, Eduard, with his customary pragmatism, immediately saw its utility and fit spells of meditation into his rigorous schedule. At first he sits in lotus position on his cot, with his eyes closed, but once he’s gotten the hang of it he discovers he can do it anywhere, discretely, without having to adopt this somewhat showy posture that advertising campaigns- whether for mineral water or for insurance policies – have abused so badly. Through various double doors, metal cages, and paddy wagons that punctuate the prisoner’s journey from his cell to the office of the investigating judge, amid the barking of police dogs, the suffocating odor of piss, and the morning cures of the security guards, he learns to retreat within himself and reach a zone where he’s calm, beyond reach. Again, if there’s one person I’d never have imagined giving himself up to this practice, it’s Eduard. . .

How to tell what I have to tell now? You can’t. There are no words to describe it. If you haven’t experienced it you don’t have the first idea, and I haven’t experienced it. Apart from Eduard I only know one other person who has. That’s my best friend Herve Clerc. He recounts the experience in a book that’s also an essay on Buddhism, called Les choses comme elles sont ( Things as They Are). I prefer his words to Eduard’s, but it’s Eduard’s experience that I’ve got to write about here. Let’s give it a go.

He remembers very well the moment that preceded it. An ordinary moment, like the ones that make up ordinary time. He’s busy cleaning the aquarium in the office of a senior official. All the offices of senior prison officials have aquariums in them. Do they all like fish? And if they don’t, could they ask to have the aquariums removed? Most likely they don’t think about it. As far as he’s concerned, Eduard likes cleaning aquariums, it’s more fun than cleaning toilets, and not as dirty. He’s transferred the fish to a bucket with a net, removed the water pail by pail, and now the tank is empty and he’s scrubbing the sides with a sponge. As he gives himself over to this task, he’s focused on his breathing. He’s calm, concentrated, attentive to what he’s doing and feeling. He’s not expecting anything in particular.

And then without warning everything stops: time, space – but it’s not death. Nothing around him has changed in any way – not the aquarium, not the fish in their bucket, not the office, not the sky outside the window – but it’s as if all of that was just a dream and only now has it become absolutely real. Raised to the second power, revealed, and at the same time erased. He’s sucked into a voids that is fuller than all that is fill in this world with its presence. He’s no longer anywhere and he’s totally there. He no longer exists and he’s never been as alive as he is now. There’s nothing, there’s everything.

You could call it a trance, a rapture, a mystical experience. My friend Herve says its an abduction.

I’d like to go on longer about this, in more detail and more convincingly, but I see that all I can do is string together oxymorons. A dark brightness, a full emptiness, a still vibration, I could prattle on for awhile without either the reader or myself getting any further along. What I can say, bringing together their experiences and their words, is that Eduard and Herve know with absolute certainty that they have, the one in his Parisian apartment thirty years ago, the other at Penal Colony 13 in Engels, in the office of a prison official whose aquarium he is cleaning, attained what the Buddhist call nirvana. Pure, unfiltered reality. Sure, from the outside we can always object: okay, but what proves to you that it wasn’t a hallucination? An illusion? A sham? Nothing, apart from the most essential thing: namely that when you’ve been there you know it’s for real, that that darkness and that light can’t be imitated.

They say something else too: that when you’re taken, carried away, lifted to that place, you feel, to the extent that there’s styli someone there to feel, something like immense relief. Gone is the desire, the anxiety that are at the basis of  human life. They’ll return, of course, because unless you are one of the illuminated – and according to the Hindus there’s only one every century – you can’t remain in this state. But you’ve had a taste of what life is like without them, you know first hand what it means to be in the clear.

Then you come back down. In a flash you’ve experienced the entire duration of the world and its abolition, and then you fall back into time. You return to the old yoke of desire and anxiety. You wonder, What am I doing here? After that you can spend, like Herve, the next thirty years thoughtfully digesting this incomparable experience. Or, like Eduard, you can go back to your barracks, lie down on your bunk, and write in your notebook: “I was expecting that of myself. No punishment can reach me; I’ll know how to transform it into bliss. Someone like me can even find pleasure in death. I’ll never return to the emotions of ordinary men.”

                       .   .   .   .   .   .

One day in September 2007, we went out into the country together. I though it was for a meeting, but in fact it was to have a look at a dacha situated a couple of hours outside Moscow that his wife of the time, the pretty actress, had just bought. Actually it was much more than a dacha: what’s called an usadba, a veritable manor. There was a pond, meadows, a birch forest. Abandoned and vandalized, the old wooden house was immense. It must have been magnificent once, and if it were renovated it would be magnificent once more, and that’s why he’d come. As soon as he arrived he started talking with a local craftsman, the way someone who’s done manual labor himself knows how to talk to a contractor and not get ripped off. I wandered away while they were talking, strolling through the gardens overgrown with tall weeds, and when, coming to the end of a bridle path, I saw his little black silhouette from a distance, gesticulating in a pool of sunshine, his goatee unkempt, I thought: he’s sixty-five, he’s got and adorable wife, an eight-month-old child. Maybe he’s had enough of war, of bivouacs, of the knife in his boot, of police breaking down his door at dawn, of prison bunks. To come and settle here, in the countryside, in this beautiful house, like the landed gentry of the old regime. That’s what I’d have wanted, in his place. That’s what I do want. It’s exactly the old age that I wish for Helene and myself. There would be big bookshelves, deep couches, the shouts of our grandchildren outside, berry jam, long conversations in Chaise longues. The shadows grow longer, death approaches softly. Life was good because we loved each other. Maybe that’s not how is going to end, but if it were up to me that’s how it would.

Coming back, I ask him: “You see yourself getting old in this house, Eduard? Ending your days like one of Turgenev’s heroes?”

That makes him laugh, but not with his dry little laugh this time: heartily. No, that’s not how he sees things. Really. Retirement, a life of calm, that’s not for him. He’s got another idea for his old age.

“You know Central Asia”

No, I don’t know, I’ve never been there. But I saw photos of it when I was very young, taken by my mother when she went on that long trip during which my father looked after me with an awkward tenderness – in those days fathers weren’t used to taking care of little kids. Those photos weighed on me, and made me dream. For me they represented the remotest places on earth.

It’s in Central Asia, Eduard goes on, that he feels best. In cities like Samarkand or Bukhara. Cities parched in the sun; dusty, slow, violent. In the shadow of the mosques, over there, under the high crenellated walls, there are beggars. Whole groups of beggars, gaunt, tanned old men without teeth, often without eyes. They wear tunics and turbans that are black with dirt; they place a scrap of velvet before them and wait for someone to throw a few small coins. And if someone does they don’t even say thank you. You don’t know what their lives were before; you know they’ll end up in a communal grave. They’re ageless, they don’t have any possessions any longer –assuming they ever did- they hardly even have names. They’re castoffs. They’re wrecks. They’re kings.

That, okay, he’d be fine with that.

 *( “God knows I’ve met writers, and above all Russian writers. I’ve me them all. And the only really good man among them is Limonov. Really, he’s one of the most decent men I’ve  met in my life.")

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