«Literature in Exile»

John Glad, William Gass, Yury Miloslavsky, Jan Vladislav, Jiří Gruša, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Horst Bienek, Edward Limonov, Nedim Gürsel, Nuruddin Farah, Jaroslav Vejvoda, Anton Shammas, Joseph Brodsky, Wojciech Karpinski, Tomas Venclova, Yuri Druzhnikov

Literature in Exile

/ edited by John Glad
/ based on a conference held on Dec. 2–5, 1987
in Vienna and organized by staff of the Wheatland Foundation
// Durham and London: «Duke University Press», 1990,
hardcover + dusk jacket, 192 p. (XVI+176),
ISBN 0-8223-0987-4,
dimensions: 235⨉159⨉19 mm


Thirteen Studies on Exile

Edward Limonov

[1] In Russian the word «exile» has such a pompous ring to it that I haven't got the chutzpa to apply it to my own modest six-year existence in New York, and my seven further years in Paris. That stolid, bourgeois, fat-assed word «exile» might have been applicable to the nineteenth-century nobleman Alexander Herzen, and certainly fits Solzhenitsyn, the family man, who even managed to bring his furniture out with him. As for me, I've always felt like a poor student or a member of the working class, someone who lives in rented rooms—like a character in a novel by Dostoevski.

I was first «exiled» in 1967, from Kharkov to Moscow, just as I later «exiled» myself from New York to Paris. Anyone who gives any thought to the word «exile» will come to the conclusion that contemporary Russian émigré writers (and I include myself here) have no right to call themselves exiles. We are what might be called self-exiles.

Neither do I consider myself a «political refugee» from the Soviet regime. My fellow émigrés have the political pull of their rich American uncles to thank for that status. When push came to shove, I fled from that Paradise too, with its smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken and greasy cholesterol. I emigrated.

Being a modest type, I consider myself just a writer living in Paris. Like Joyce. Like Hemingway. Like Scott Fitzgerald, Saroyan, Baldwin . . . and many others.

[2] Life abroad is a lot more interesting than in the country where you were born and grew up, if only because the newness is so stimulating. If I had my druthers, I would like to live many lives, each in a different country. Despite the petty inconveniences involved, I am fascinated by the process of getting to know a new country, its ways, language, mores, the primitive or sophisticated brainwashing methods used by those in power to keep the rebellious masses under control. And having lived now in three countries—the USSR, the U.S.A., and France—I really am unable to answer the question: «Which is best?» All of them have become part and parcel of my own personal history. From a professional point of view, France is more to my liking than the U.S.A. or the USSR, inasmuch as France has a traditional respect for the text, the written communication, the book. I perceive the text of a novel to be just that—a text, with no ideological riders clinging to it (contrary to the view of the ruling philologists in the U.S.A. and the USSR). But we shall see what we shall see. I am now writing a book, the action of which takes place in France. Let's see if the local authorities will be as offended by this foreigner as were the American authorities.

[3] If I'm not mistaken, I am the only Russian writer who has carved out a writer's career for himself without the aid of anti-Sovietism after leaving the USSR. It's not for me to judge the quality of what I write, but I take pride in having done it myself, without the assistance of any political party or any other groups.

Even the cult of Brodsky-the-decadent-poet rests on the foundation laid by the trial of Brodsky-the-parasite. The profession of «poet» was not recognized by the judge as a legitimate occupation in his case. He became a celebrity thanks to the (not so much cruel as stupid) conduct of the authorities, who forgot that the West scrutinizes what goes on in the USSR under a magnifying glass. Solzhenitsyn-the-mediocre-writer ought to divide his royalties with the Soviet authorities in gratitude for the colossal publicity campaign they provided for him by sending him into exile. Even if he were to do so, however, it would never be enough to reward adequately the Western press and Western circles hostile to the USSR for the publicity they showered on his tardy, unjust, and hysterical criticism of Soviet society.

Russian literature has, in a sense, been force-fed with politics. The Russian writer is automatically expected to be either exclusively Soviet or exclusively dissident. If a Russian «exile» writer turns out to be more complex than the Soviet/anti-Soviet model, his life and the fate of his books become more complicated in like proportion. I had to survive seven years and thirty-five rejections from American publishing houses to see my novel «It's Me—Eddie» in print in the United States. And even as the rejections rolled in, all sorts of «exposés» of the Soviet Union made their way to an American publisher without any difficulty. Soviet publishing houses manifest the same delight in regurgitating a novel about the life-style of the American unemployed.

[4] It is, in some ways, uncomfortable to find yourself forced into the role of a Russian writer in exile. The entire world, in my view, pays far too much attention to the activities and internal policies of the USSR. Every random philistine who's read his share of cheap newspapers imagines himself to be a Kremlinologist and irritates the Russian writer in exile with vituperations over the KGB, the Gulag, Siberia, Afghanistan, Poland, and God only knows what other sort of rot. I can't stand that sort of attention; I feel as if I were a Roman, and as such responsible for everything that Rome did, or did not do. Not infrequently, you are liked or disliked simply because you are a Roman (Russian), and therefore a son of that powerful state, albeit it a prodigal one.

Once, in a discotheque in Nice, someone learned that I was Russian and called me a pig. Graciously, I forgave this untypical representative of the French people his barbarity. Sometimes I use English as camouflage and pass myself off as an American. Still, that's a tricky game because, if roughly one-half of the world's population doesn't like Russians, the other half is hostile to the Yankees. Nowadays I try to pass myself off as an Albanian writer in exile.

[5] Having been through the struggle for existence in three countries (and not in the form of package tours or diplomatic junketing), I do not share the multiplicity of prejudices, phobias, and myths extant in the world. I do not, for example, perceive a great difference in the life of ordinary people in most countries. Under any political system the working man (I was a working stiff for twenty years) puts in his eight hours a day. The social system has yet to be invented which will free him from these eight unpleasant hours of daily slavery. Both in the USSR and in the U.S.A. millions of people wolf down their breakfasts and rush off to work. Perhaps the Soviet worker is more poorly dressed and his breakfast less nutritious than that of his alter ego in the U.S.A., and perhaps he travels to work in a bus rather than in his own car, but such differences are hardly sufficient cause for two peoples to fling atom bombs at each other.

And what about the Soviet threat to the West? I don't believe it exists. The U.S.A. and Europe, together, are twice as strong as the USSR. The two world wars were launched by Western democracies, and not by the USSR. No Soviet soldier has ever occupied one inch of U.S. territory, whereas in 1919 the United States sent an «expeditionary force» into Soviet territory. The USSR has never used nuclear weapons, whereas in 1945 the United States introduced a sinister era by dropping atomic weapons on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If we dig deeper into history, we will uncover other invasions of Russia by the West: 1812, 1855, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1941 . . . Any objective observer would have to conclude that it is Russia who should fear the West, and not the contrary.

I believe it would be useful to send future heads of state (incognito, of course) into exile for a few years into the supposedly hostile country. This would liberate them from provincialism, phobias, and prejudices.

[6] I did not find the freedom to be a radical opponent of the existing social structure in the country which pompously calls itself the «leader of the free world,» but neither did I notice it in the land which represents itself as «the bright future of all humanity.» The FBI is just as zealous in putting down American radicals as the KGB is with its own radicals and dissidents. True, the methods of the FBI are more modern. They don't arrest dissidents, for this would transform them into celebrities by the next morning. All glory to the FBI! The KGB, however, is studying the techniques of its older brother and is successfully modernizing its own methods.

As an exile, I had occasion in 1977 to visit the FBI's New York headquarters on 69th Street and to answer questions put by «Special Agent» Ronald Hebert—questions almost identical to those put to me (just as politely) four years earlier by KGB Agent Anton Semyonovich at KGB headquarters on Moscow's Dzerzhinsky Street. Not being a radical and not belonging to any party, I am, as always, the inquisitive foreign writer who pokes his nose into everything and evidently is equally doted upon by his new Big Brother. Over the years, the FBI has questioned dozens of my acquaintances about me. Recently, I was mistakenly (but with great honor) called «Lermontov,» instead of «Limonov»: «So how is your friend Lermontov doing in Paris?» an FBI agent asked my friend Gennady Gum (in Russian) . . . and then blushed when he realized his mistake.

[7] Every country has its own customs, and these determine the interpretation of events that occur in the exile's life. On the evening of January 26, 1981, in Paris, the automobile in which I was riding (on the back seat) was shot up by some poorly dressed persons. Directed, at the end of a revolver barrel, to get out of the car, I learned that I had been arrested by the French police. It turned out that the local fuzz had taken to dressing up in filthy clothes and shooting at cars which ran red lights. I remember being released to the Parisian sidewalk after eighteen hours behind bars, alive, in one piece, happy, and thinking what an incredible hullabaloo would have been raised in the Western press if the Moscow police had fired on the car of a foreign or dissident writer!

Later, in 1981, I was in the throes of a different kind of exile—at an international literary conference in Los Angeles. When my friend Sasha Sokolov (author of the novels «School for Fools» and «Between the Dog and the Wolf») checked into the Hilton, where they put up conference participants, he was handed his own room key together with a note from FBI agents who wanted to talk to him. The conversation took place the next day and lasted several hours. Among other things, the agents confided to Sokolov that they were investigating the cases of five Soviet émigrés who had married engineers from Silicon Valley (very suspicious) and, in addition, my case. After the meeting Sokolov complained to «Washington Post» correspondent Bob Kaiser, who was at the conference, and asked him to mention the unpleasant episode in his paper. True to his word, Kaiser mentioned Sokolov's interrogation in a May 18 article. But a few weeks later the same two agents phoned Sokolov, who was living at the time in the California city of Pacific Grove, and asked him for a second meeting. It was a friendly request. In American exile, freedom of the press does not mean unfreedom for the FBI. An American citizen has the right to demand his FBI dossier through the court. Usually, he receives it several years later with many names and lines blackened out. But he does not have the right to demand that no dossier be compiled about him in the first place. The FBI even had a dossier on Hemingway.

[8] I recently became a French citizen, having existed for thirteen years as an apatride. While not unpleasant, it's awkward not to have citizenship. For some reason I received my American residency papers after five and a half years, instead of the customary two. But then I keep forgetting that I am a nasty foreigner and that I write books whose action takes place in America.

July 29, 1983, was the official publication date of the English translation of my long-suffering novel «It's me—Eddie», published by Random House. On July 26, the New York office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued me a new reentry permit—No. 1037378—to replace the old one, which was no longer valid. In this curious document the official stamp was placed . . . beside my photograph, rather than overlapping it. Anyone could have taken such a document and affixed his own picture to it. A half year earlier I had seen a similarly unusual document in the hands of another «bad Russian'»—Valentin Prusakov, a journalist and author of the book «Neither the USSR, Nor the USA». Before leaving the INS office, I pointed out the improper stamp in the passport and asked that my reentry permit be given an authentic appearance. «We won't change anything. The permit is entirely proper. Take it or leave it.» So I took it; I had to fly to Paris.

As might have been expected, on August 2, in Charles de Gaulle Airport, a young customs official with braids on his shoulder noticed the strange appearance of my passport. I was asked to step out of line and, justifiably, taken to an inner room. There, only thanks to two other more detailed I.D.s, I was able to prove that I was who I purported to be. I was told to be sure to visit the U.S. Consulate to have my reentry permit put in order. When I went to the consulate, my request was denied. Permit me to quote, literally, the words of the refusal, as contained in a letter from Consul Caroline Higgens to the Publishing House «Ramsay»: «The Embassy contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Frankfurt, Germany, about Mr. Limonov's Reentry permit. We were advised that we could make no alterations or changes to the permit, and that Mr. Limonov would have to resolve the matter with INS in New York.»

The passportless exile has to have a heightened sense of humor. I do. After that, however, I had no further desire to return to the United States of America. I was afraid that the Immigration Service would confiscate my reentry permit No. 1037378 and take as long as they liked to issue me a new one, and that I would thus have to remain in the U.S.A. against my will. Any sort of pretext would do, such as, for example, a «lost» folder. It is entirely possible that I was issued this improper reentry permit with precisely this purpose in mind (as well as a fully understandable desire to make my life more complicated). I swear by the heavens that I have never been arrested in the United States, never been mentally ill, and never been a member of the hated Communist Party. Nor do I suffer from a persecution complex. For a long while I lived in France with my «false» document, and was even obliged to turn down an invitation from the Bert Bakker Publishing House to visit Holland. On another occasion I refused to travel to England when my book was published by Picador.

[9] As you can see, all this hindered me in moving about the planet before I received French citizenship, but no one ever interfered with my writing. Both in Moscow and in New York I followed my own inclinations. As for politics, political parties, and politicians, I have always viewed them as a cancer on the body of humankind.

I cannot make the unqualified statement that I did not enjoy freedom to publish in the USSR. Before 1973 I never made any really serious attempts. Inasmuch as my verse manner is marked by an intentional primitivism (in Russian poetry I am the equivalent of Customs House Official Rousseau), I always took it for granted that my poetic production would not be to the taste of Soviet publishing enterprises and would be rejected. In 1974, however, to my amazement, the magazine «Smena» accepted for publication several of my poems. Only my departure from the USSR that same year prevented their publication.

Now that nine of my books have appeared in French translation and my first novel has even been published in half a dozen languages, I believe I have the right to consider myself a successful writer.

I have now lived for several years exclusively on income from literature. True, the majority of French and American writers would find it impossible to exist on the more than modest sums that literature provides me, but their needs are greater than mine. After twenty years of all sorts of odd jobs (tailor, stockman, steel worker, bookseller, stone mason, common laborer, painter, butler, etc.) in the USSR and the U.S.A. I am happy to have the opportunity to be just a writer.

[10] «How do you like the French?» my Russian and American friends now ask me. I don't see that this question has any meaning. I pick my friends and acquaintances, and—as a rule—their national peculiarities are not their most important qualities. In Paris I found the same number of lunatics, and I need lunatics, as I found in Moscow or in New York. My French friends are just as unusual and unique, in their own way, as my American or Russian friends. As for the crowd on the street, all I require of it is that it does not attack me.

[11] I neither like nor respect Soviet dissidents, any more than I liked Party and Union types in the USSR. Motivated by usually selfish or vengeful interests, the dissidents stir up public opinion and Western governments against the USSR. The second cold war has been, in many ways, the fruit of the efforts of the dissidents and their rhetoric, which is rich in phrases like «the blood-drenched Soviet regime.» To curry maximum sympathy in the West, dissidents—like fishermen and hunters—have considerably dramatized their own tales of woe. Since the sixties, for example, I have been watching the number of people estimated to have perished in the camps grow steadily. Khrushchev spoke of thousands; the dissidents at the time spoke of hundreds of thousands. Now they claim the astronomical figure of seventy million! Historians cannot agree on the number of casualties in World War I (there are about a hundred estimates!), but the dissidents throw around figures in the millions, using their own vengeful emotions and masochistic ecstasy as their source. Their statement, «Our former homeland is the absolute worst!» is another Russian claim to distinction—though in reverse.

The Gulag has long ago entered into the tragic pages of Russian history, but a good two-thirds of the world—most of the countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa—are now undoubtedly trampling human rights far more energetically than their colleagues in the USSR. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of Soviet dissidents, the USSR has retained position No. 1 throughout the world. Alas, this is not all so innocent.

Unfortunately, I have no choice but to share exile with the dissidents, and to struggle as a writer for my place in the sun—and it is a struggle to find publishers and readers. Former Soviet writers, who cannot conceive of themselves without a boss, have managed to slip into the sphere of ideological service in their new homelands. Vladimir Maksimov, Vladimir Voinovich, Anatoly Gladilin, Georgy Vladimov, Vasily Aksyonov, and numerous other more minor figures diligently serve their new masters in radio broadcasting, cascading propaganda over the entire Soviet Union, and also in émigré newspapers and magazines—once financed directly by the CIA, but now by the U.S. State Department. From time to time these dissidents are permitted in the «Washington Post», «Newsweek», «Time», etc., to beat their breasts in public paroxysms of loyalty to the new order. In exchange for their good conduct they earn such epithets as «outstanding,» «major,» and «famous.» Right from their first visits to the West, they have managed to establish excellent contacts. For example, when Patricia Blake, an editor for «Time», wrote a survey of Russian literature, the most important Russian writer was not Solzhenitsyn or Sinyavsky-Terts, but . . . Vasily Aksyonov. Unfortunately, «Time» readers do not suspect that Patricia Blake is a personal friend of Aksyonov and his wife.

I want to note here that the profession of dissident in the USSR has long since ceased to be that of a sapper, who errs only once. Neither Maksimoyv, Nekrasov, Gladilin, Vladimov, or Aksyonov ever spent a day in prison. After celebrating their departure by an expensive drunken party in a Soviet restaurant, the very next day they celebrated their arrival in the West with an expensive drunken party in a restaurant in London, Paris, New York, or (at the very least) in Vienna. «How is it your dissidents feel no shame in posing as martyrs?» the reader will exclaim. And he'll be right.

[13] The reader must by now have realized that I am a mean person. This meanness explains precisely why I prefer to live among the quiet, nice peoples of the world. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these quiet, nice peoples, and more and more of the nasty variety. The Armenians started killing Turks because, at the turn of the century, the Turks had butchered them. Evidently, the Jews and the Arabs will never stop killing each other. The Salvadorans are real artists at assassinating each other, while the Afghans slaughter each other and the Russians who came to their mountainous land to kill the bad Afghans. The Americans, a very civilized nation, permitted 250 of their soldiers to be killed in Lebanon. Then, to compensate for their loss, they landed in Granada, knocked off a few Granadians and Cubans, and—proud of themselves—left. The English sated their inflamed national pride by killing hundreds of Argentineans at the other end of the world, and that during bad weather.

On Rue des Rosiers, just a block away, in the Goldenberg Restaurant, they killed six people, and on my street—Rue des Ecouffes—brawling increases all the time. If Le Pen, who doesn't like foreigners, comes to power in France, I will flee into exile again. But to where?

Horst Bienek I would like to comment on Limonov's remarks, some though not most of which I agree with. While I personally found the subject fascinating, I think it would be best not to dwell on the internal quarrels of the Russian émigrés and dissidents. I am well aware that the most mortal enemy of a Russian exile is another Russian exile, but we are here to discuss the general problems of exile. We have among us Rumanians, a Turk, and even a token woman, and we should keep to our main topic, and not be distracted by internal Russian frictions, which are fully capable of swallowing up all of our attention. It's not that I want to strangle the exchange of experience, but I would like to keep it within certain bounds.

Notes on Contributors


Edward Limonov was born in 1944 in Dzerzhinsk, USSR, the son of a military officer. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Kharkov. He wrote his first poem at the age of fifteen.

In 1967 he moved to Moscow, where he lived until emigrating to the West in 1974. He settled in New York City in 1975. In 1980 he moved to France, where he now lives.

Limonov has had a long and colorful list of occupations: thief, construction worker, mover, tailor, painter, steelworker, busboy, cook, butler, and poet. Since his first publication in France in 1980, he has worked as a professional writer.

Limonov's books include «It's Me, Eddie» (1983); and «His Butler's Story» (1987), based on his experiences working as a housekeeper for a New York City multimillionaire. To date his work has been translated into eight languages. In addition, he has contributed to such publications as «Liberation», «Playboy», «Globe», and «Le journal littéraire».


^ up