The trial of Edward Limonov, the 59-year-old former eXile columnist and one of Russia's most famous writers, has been going on for nearly two months now, and the English-language press has still all but ignored it. While there has been plenty of press about the state's attacks on two other, far less talented writers, Vladimir Sorokin and Bayan Shiryanov, Limonov's case remains almost completely unknown.
Limonov, as chairman of the extremist National-Bolshevik Party, is charged with attempting to buy arms, raise an army and invade Kazakhstan. The weapons and the army were never found, but the trial in Saratov is going ahead anyway. He was arrested in April of 2001, held for over a year in Lefortovo, the former KGB's prison in Moscow, then transferred to Saratov this summer for trial. He faces up to 25 years at hard labor.
I arrived in Saratov, an 80 minute flight south of Moscow, last Tuesday evening. The prosecution was still in the middle of calling its witnesses. It plans to call some 26 witnesses in all, in a trial that should last at least until the end of the year.
The courthouse is located in a nondescript five-story building, hidden by a row of sidewalk birches, next to a large private high school. When I arrived, five workers in blue overalls were struggling with a white ATM machine at the courthouse entrance. I couldn't tell if they were taking it away or putting it in.
In the sunken lobby on the first floor was a branch of O.B.I. bank. O.B.I. half-collapsed after August 1998, and is said to be owned by Almazexport Group, a scary diamond export company. What the hell its bank branch and cash machine were doing inside the highest court in Saratov is anyone's guess, but the grotesque scene seemed apt: Limonov faces life in prison, while Putin has yet to jail any of the oligarchs who stole everything of value in Russia and sent millions to early graves. A crowd of glum O.B.I. bank depositors or moneychangers sat in chairs waiting their turn. In most countries, a bank branch located on the first floor of a state court house would raise a lot of questions; in today's Russia, it's one of the few signs that the bank may just be strong and connected enough not to steal all of its depositors' money the way most banks did a few years ago.
I had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer. The cops told me I'd have problems bringing a video camera upstairs. When I told them that I'm an American journalist coming to see the Limonov trial, they suddenly got nervous, turned away and let me pass, pulling a classic Sergeant Schultz "I see nu-zink!" move.
I'd been given the wrong time for the start of the trial, and had to wait in the hallway until the lunch break. I sat in something like a grammar school desk chair, next to one of the goons in camouflage fatigues. Across the hall were three skinheads, all young and thin, in bomber jackets, one with a Confederate flag patch. (That idiotic Confederate flag is something I never understood about skinheads -- why support the side that not only got its ass kicked, but was also responsible for the fact that there are so many angry African-Americans in America in the first place?! Then again, the skins also support Hitler, who murdered more of their beloved white people than anyone in history.)
With them was Arina Koltsova, the 21-year-old press secretary for the National-Bolshevik Party who had moved from Moscow to Saratov a few months earlier with her boyfriend to better coordinate food and medical donations to Limonov and the five other National-Bolsheviks on trial. The three skinheads standing with her were waiting to be called as witness by the prosecution. Two came from Krasnoyarsk, one from Rostov.
"They've been sleeping on the floor of our studio apartment," Koltsova told me. "It's been crazy at our house. We've been letting all the prosecution's witnesses stay with us for free. Yesterday we had a crazy journalist from Cheboskary here, an old alcoholic who was drunk from the time he arrived until he left. When he took the stand as a witness, he couldn't even tell which one of the defendants in the cage was Limonov. The prosecutors were shaking their heads. It was hilarious."