The last avant-garde artist: how a guy from Kharkov became the most scandalous Russian writer

In politics, many did not like him, but in literature his authority was almost indisputable. Secular publications were interested in his private life, and the most authoritative literary forums discussed his books. Schoolchildren remember him by a few obscene lines, and many major writers of our time call him their teacher. He lived as he wrote, and wrote as he lived – sincerely, vividly, scandalously. On February 22, Eduard Limonov would have turned 80 years old. Izvestia recalls the writer’s life path.

Teen Savenko

Eduard Savenko was born on February 22, 1943 in the city of Dzerzhinsk, Gorky Region. His father, Veniamin Ivanovich, was a communications officer, his mother, Raisa Fedorovna, worked as a technician at a factory. His name, as the writer’s father later recalled, the boy received in honor of the poet Bagritsky. Savenko often moved from place to place: from Dzerzhinsk they moved to Kazan, then to Kharkov, where they finally settled. They lived more than modestly: at first, the family was placed on an empty floor of the hospital, then they were given a room in a communal apartment. Communal life, a dysfunctional area, many former criminals… In this environment, the young writer grew up and felt at home. He himself did not differ in exemplary behavior: in his school years he got into the police more than once and was even registered there. As his comrades in childhood pranks, harmless and not very, said later, he knew how to stand up for himself and was not a weakling.

Photo: Social networks

The glory of a hooligan did not prevent young Edik Savenko from studying well and admiring reading. He himself later wrote that he devoured books, especially about sea voyages and research expeditions. The future poet wanted romance, and he, by his own admission, was preparing himself for the life of a naturalist and pioneer. After graduating from school, he was going to enter the Faculty of History of Kharkov University, but after the first exam, he changed his mind, took the documents – and went to work as a steelmaker in a hot shop, and then as a high-altitude fitter at a construction site. As Limonov himself later admitted, for equally romantic reasons, he was inspired by the film Vysota, which was popular in those years. However, their own aspirations certainly played a role here, which in the future will take shape in the main literary credo: do not go with the flow, always go across and contrary. So from the first independent steps, the future writer created a creative biography for himself.

Edik Savenko wrote poetry from his youth, but he decided to take up literature seriously in 1965. Then the pseudonym that glorified him was born. It was invented by a Kharkov friend, the artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan – the novice writer liked the idea, and from now on Edik Savenko, the young scoundrel Edichka, irrevocably becomes a character in artistic texts, and the poet Eduard Limonov enters the literary scene.

Yuri Miloslavsky, Vagrich Bakhchanyan and Eduard Limonov in their youth

Photo: Social networks

The early poetry of Limonov, who followed the traditions of the Russian avant-garde, is still highly valued by literary critics. However, Kharkov was in no hurry to print “non-formatted” verses. But the lack of official recognition not only did not disappoint the young writer – it was a challenge for him, a fulcrum, perhaps the main one in his biography. The confrontation between boring and mundane reality has become the main vector of his literary biography. Limonov was ready to enter the big literary scene – and in 1966 he went to conquer Moscow.

Young scoundrel

The capital, however, did not particularly expect a novice author. Limonov was interrupted by odd jobs and was even forced to return home for several months, in order to then storm Moscow with renewed vigor. However, he soon found a way to make money, successfully tested back in Kharkov. Limonov sewed jeans for Kharkiv fashionistas; he continued the same small personal (and not quite legal in those years) business in Moscow. Soon his name became known among the metropolitan bohemia. Later, Limonov was happy to talk about the fact that employees of the fashion magazine Smena, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and even such celebrities as Bulat Okudzhava and Ernst Neizvestny walked around in jeans sewn by him.

Photo: RIA Novosti / Evgeny Odinokov

But Limonov’s relationship with the metropolitan literary underground was by no means limited to orders for tailoring fashionable trousers. Very soon, he became his own in an informal literary get-together, attended the literary seminar of Arseny Tarkovsky, became a member of the creative group SMOG (“Courage, Thought, Image, Depth”), which united young experimental poets who opposed officialdom and sought to create new literature. Looking for a new language and style, Limonov turned out to be among his own: he was one of the brightest participants in the association, his poems, and later journalism, went around, they were talked about. Limonov became a bohemia star, and not only a literary one: he was a recognized fashionista and looked after the first beauties of the capital. One of them was Elena Shchapova, a poetess and model. In 1973, they married Limonov, getting married in a church, and a year later they emigrated to the United States.

In the States, Limonov was waiting for literary fame. It was there that he first began to write prose. But here, too, he did not look for easy ways: instead of achieving fame in the Russian-speaking cultural circle, like many émigré writers, he tried to join the local literary tradition. This was the era of gonzo journalism and “I-literature”, the arrival of the language of everyday life and everyday plots in the artistic text. Here Limonov, a master of household sketches and poetic texts, was in his element. But still much more important for him was the element of opposition to the mainstream. A fierce anti-Soviet in the USSR, in the States Limonov equally emotionally criticized the local way of life, castigated the vices of capitalism. This frightened many: for critical speeches, Limonov was fired from the newspaper Novoe Russkoe Slovo, where he served as a proofreader. Finally chaining himself to the fence of the New York Times, which refused to publish the texts of the unrecognized genius, Limonov leaves for France. Here he finally waited for literary fame: in Paris and New York, his first novel “It’s me – Eddie” is published, “The Diary of a Loser”, “Teenager Savenko” and “Young Scoundrel” are published.

Eduard Limonov during the presentation of his book “Children of Glamorous Paradise”

Photo: RIA Novosti / Ilya Pitalev

The Parisian years become the most fruitful for him: he writes several novels, numerous collections of short stories, social and philosophical works, and numerous articles. He is being actively translated and people are talking about him as a serious writer.

The fame he dreamed of finally came to him. But, probably, even Limonov himself at that time did not believe that only a few years would pass – and his scandalous novels, which caused a lot of rumors, would be published in Russia, that they would lay the foundation of new Russian literature.

The old man travels

Limonov’s literary talent was never denied even by his fierce critics. The richness of the language, the sharp eye, the attention to detail and the mastery of the word are the hallmarks of his texts, whether they are stories, articles or major works of fiction. But the main thing in his literary heritage, perhaps, was the readiness to resist any inertia, any routine – both social, political and literary.

It is not surprising that it was Limonov, who never officially taught, who did not consider himself a literary guru, did not favor students and, according to many witnesses, never sought to teach, became the founder of a whole school of Russian prose – albeit informal, but no less significant. He is called his teacher by such different authors as the multiple finalist of the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Zakhar Prilepin and the winner of the Big Book Roman Senchin. Not only they, but also dozens of other, less well-known writers, have experienced the influence of Limonov and speak about it exclusively with pride. His worldly myth-making itself has become a new literary norm.

Eduard Limonov speaks at the readings of the Russian Pioneer magazine

Photo: RIA Novosti / Vitaly Belousov

However, even having tasted the coveted fame, Limonov did not change himself: his own life still remains his main literary work, which he wrote with the same brilliance and fury in his advanced years. In 1987, he received French citizenship – only a few years later to give it up and return to Russia.

He was exactly the teacher that teenagers are looking for: he taught them not to be afraid to think and act in their own way, to go against the mainstream, to fight reality, turning it into the field of their own lifelong creative experiment. For all his opposition, he remained a true patriot of his country, enthusiastically meeting the return of Crimea to Russia and supporting the struggle of Donbass for freedom. He remained a furious, uncompromising publicist, and wrote for Izvestia.

He completed his last book, The Old Man Travels, shortly before his death. Eduard Limonov died in 2020 at the age of 78 as a result of complications from surgery. On his grave there is a monument created by the sculptor Mikhail Baskakov and approved by him during his lifetime. The last avant-garde artist of the century knew a lot about posthumous fame.

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  1. Well, Prilepin is trashing him now, My old friend trashed Prilepin shortly before his death, trying to make sure no one would follow the path of the careerist.
    This is a rather conventional bio of Edward. The only thing remotely fun is calling him “avant-garde”, that he was throughout his whole life.
    I was Edward’s friend for almost 40 years, and expected more bite.

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