A Jewish novelist puts his successful literary career behind him to lead a Zionist movement that almost a hundred years later still influences Israeli politics. A Russian dissident, after allowed to leave the USSR and spending half a decade in New York City living as a vagrant, sexual libertine and finally butler to the rich and glamorous moves to Paris where he flourishes as a radical chic journalist. And if that’s not enough our adventurous Russian friend will trade the City of Light for the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia to fight with Serbian paramilitaries (and be accused of committing crimes against humanity). Upon returning to his native Russia, the new political party he helps create first attracts the attention, then wrath of Russia’s new authoritarian leadership which earns him a brief stint in prison, but also major political street cred.
Recently, I read two biographies of two very different men. Understandably, it’s easy to look at their respective lives and pick out all the things that are different. The funny thing is the more I reflected on those lives, the more similarities I saw.
Some might ask why a Gentile like me would want to read Hillel Halkin’s 2014 biography Jabotinsky: A Life. I would answer after seeing Jabotinsky’s name pop up time and time again in books on Jewish history and Israeli politics I could not resist reading it when I found an available copy through my public library. In spite of it’s relatively slim size, I’m embarrassed to say it took me forever to read it, but only because I kept getting distracted by everything else I was trying to read. That of course is a shame because Halkin has written a pretty good book. It’s detailed but not dry. I have to commend the author for producing a readable biography of what some might consider an obscure historical figure but an influential one nevertheless. (Jabotinsky’s legacy isn’t just political. Since his historical novel Sampson was adapted for the silver screen years ago, he’s probably the only founding Zionist to have an IMDB listing.)
If you’re me, and you’re lazily wandering along the shelves at the public library and you find a book titled Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia my goodness why would you NOT want to read it? Emmanuel Carrère’s “pseudobiography” (even after reading this book I’m not exactly sure what this term means) did not disappoint. Reading Carrère’s account of Limonov everything feels outrageous and larger than life, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
Born 60 years apart, one a Jew and the other a Gentile, both men could not be more different in political views, personal behavior and overall character. With that in mind you might be asking how are these two men alike? Both men grew up in the Ukraine but left to following their dreams elsewhere, with both mens’ travels taking them across Europe (Italy and Switzerland for Jabotinsky and France for Limonov) as well as across the Atlantic to New York (where Jabotinsky died in 1940 and was subsequently buried and only recently was his body reburied in Israel). Perhaps foremost, both started out as journalists and later transitioned to writing books of fiction and nonfiction. Both men briefly spent time as soldiers. Lastly, both men founded political organizations that harkened back to an imagined glorious past. (Jabotinsky looked to the ancient kingdom of Israel as a model for his modern version. He was also inspired by Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and Ireland’s breakaway from the British Empire. Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, should it ever take power would love to bring back to glory days of Stalin and dominate Eurasia. One could also argue the group has significant fascist overtones.)
There you have it, two good biographies of two very different men. Except maybe, just maybe, they’re really not that different after all.