How dangerous is it to be a dissident in the post-Cold War era?
Judging by the case of Edward Limonov, a lot more dangerous than being a dissident during the Cold War.
Limonov has been sitting in Lefortovo Prison since April of last year. Initially he was charged with attempting to obtain illegal firearms and to form an illegal armed group. More charges were subsequently added. This past December, the FSB tacked on the amazing charge that Limonov was trying to overthrow the state of Kazakhstan! Altogether, according to Limonov's attorney Sergei Belyak, he faces up to nearly 30 years in prison.
In January of this year, a separate case was brought against Limonov's newspaper, Limonka (where I have previously published) as well as Limonov's political party, the extremist National-Bolshevik Party, on charges of terrorism. The case against Limonka and the NBP was reportedly thrown out on a technicality, but the Russian state's attack on one of its most famous cultural figures reached such hysterical proportions that it finally attracted the attention of the West. Or rather, one segment of one Western country: France's cultural elite.
"It finally became too obvious even to the French that this criminal case was purely political repression and not because Limonov posed some kind of real danger or threat to the Russian state or to Kazakhstan," said Belyak, who previously defended Duma deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky. "The authorities went too far in their repression."
Limonov is a dual French and Russian citizen. Yet it has taken this long for his case to come to France's attention -- and has yet to reach the ears of any other Western nation. In part this is due to Limonov's unsavory reputation and radical anti-Western politics, including a famous tour of duty over Sarajevo with indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadjic. Limonov has done little to elicit the Western press and diplomatic corps's sympathy. Yet this does not detract from the story: a famous dissident writer jailed on trumped up charges in an increasingly authoritarian state.
In early January, Patrick Gofman, a Parisian writer and journalist who has known Limonov since he arrived in Paris in 1982, circulated a petition calling for Limonov's release from prison.
"When we heard that Limonov was facing 23 years in prison or perhaps even more, we realized that he was not involved in a petty quarrel with the Russian government, but rather that this was serious," Gofman said. "We started a petition with three Parisian writers, and from there it snowballed into something very impressive."
The "Free Limonov" petition is a Who's Who List of France's cultural and literary heavyweights, some 70 figures spanning the political spectrum from the left to the right, from Russian emigres such as Vladimir Boukovsky, Alexander Ginzberg, and the widow of Andrei Sinyavsky to such luminaries as author Bernard Frank and Le Figaro literary critic Patrick Besson, who called Limonov "the best living Russian writer." It includes many leading publishers, including Vladimir Dimitrijevic, director of l'Age d'Homme in Lausanne, one of the West's oldest and largest publishers of Slavic literature.
"Limonov is one of Russia's greatest artists," said Dimitrijevic, whose house publishes everyone from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. "He is a great writer and a very courageous man. I will always stand by a man who suffers for the truth."
In mid-January, Limonov's imprisonment became the subject of a France-1 television news feature, but since then there has been little news -- and total silence from the French government.
When interviewed by the eXile, the French consul ostensibly handling Limonov's case, Olivier Aribe, forwarded our request for an interview to First Secretary D. Nemchinov.