So a part of the NatsBols' appeal is that they're what the Western intelligensia most loves and fears: punks who actually mean it. Limonov understood the deep aesthetic need his party serves. He went about creating a party which would cater to smart, desperate romantics, rather than the dullards who follow Zyuganov or the pitiful nerds who stand around Metro stations selling copies of Pamyat' in black wannabe-Cossack uniforms. The NatsBols are stylish in an intentionally uneasy way. Their colors are stark basic black-red-and-white, with a black hammer and sickle looking, as many a queasy Western voyeur has noted, rather like a swastika. It makes you nervous; it's supposed to.
God knows I understand this kind of fun. It's what Punk was for me -- and it's no accident that Limonov was living in NYC, listening to Richard Hell, when Punk had its brief glorious flowering. But Punk had no context in America, no base; it dissolved in the beige. Returning to Russia with a vengeance in the 90s, Limonov took what he'd learned in New York, mixed it with the Futurism of the best early Bolsheviks, dropped a few heavy hints from Berlin, and cooked up the NatsBols.
And that's why I was so uneasy, stumbling around Smolensk in the snow. Not only was there the old sense of shame at meeting the real thing -- a real dog-meets-wolf anxiety -- but I'd managed to mess up the very simple directions Limonov had given me, in his polite and careful English, over the phone. I had the home and mobile numbers of Sergei Fomchenkov, the NatsBol candidate for Smolensk's single-mandate Duma seat. All I had to do was find a hotel and call Sergei.
So naturally I ended up at the Hotel Tsentralnaya, in a room with no phone, shower or toilet. My mistake was asking the taxi driver for a "cheap" ("deshyovyi") rather than "inexpensive" ("nedorogoi") room. He took that adjective very seriously--and in Smolensk, cheap means cheap. The clerk at the Tsentralnaya tried to warn me: "It's nothing special, this room...," touching the cracked paint of her office by way of illustration. But the price was right: 230 rubles. Yup: the price of a cup of fancy tea in Moscow buys you a room for the night in Smolensk.
And what a room: two tiny beds, a radiator slightly cooler than skin temperature, a flimsy door that had recently been kicked open, and the weird acoustics you get in really cheap hotels, where you can somehow hear every word of the bitter argument two maids are having at the far end of the hall better than you can hear yourself muttering curses at them.
After listening to the maids bicker for a few hours, interest palled and I decided to have a look around Smolensk. Winter had arrived at about the time as my train, the snow was flying almost horizontally--and suddenly that famous cathedral didn't seem like a must-see after all.
Smolensk's website calls the city "the gateway to Russia," but its most famous visitors have arrived in hordes of the older, nastier kind. The city is older than Moscow, and its history is even bloodier. The Poles took and lost it; Napoleon took and lost it; the Nazis took and lost it. The result is a city rich in war monuments and museums, but gutted and underpopulated. The demographic stats for Smolensk are even more horrendous than for the rest of Russia. A century ago the city apparently had 1,700,000 people, according to one source; now there are about 350,000.
And most of them seemed old and tired, trudging up the hilly streets against the wind. Smolensk hasn't been through the sort of expensive remodeling Moscow has experienced. It's still the "hero city" remade in perfect Soviet form after being conveniently flattened during the war. The streets keep their Bolshevik names: Dzerzhinsky, Lenin, Communist. Pieces of the old city wall still stand (for all the good they ever did) and in the gaps, monuments and museums to the glorious dead of 1812 compete with others devoted to the glorious dead of 1941-43, with the living squeezed in between, endlessly exhorted by huge stone inscriptions to remember the dead. It must get on your nerves after awhile. At least the dead don't have to deal with privatization.
Taisiya winds up with her carnations as Governor Maslov winces...