Chapter eight of The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia--the chapter titled "Hacks"--recounts a Richard Pryor joke: "I don't know what the big deal about Russia is. I mean, if a Russian walks down the street, and he don't got that hat on, I don't know who the fuck he is."
It's an old joke, but even now, nine years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Americans don't know much about Russia--a shadow nation illuminated by flares from European History 101, cold-war spy novels, and blips on the national news. What we think we know--it's big, it's cold, it's broke, it's corrupt--is thickly mediated by the triple threat of language, distance, and a legacy of propaganda.
American reporters in Russia are faced with the daunting task of untangling one of the world's biggest social and economic messes for a generally disinterested audience--and if you believe chapter eight, most of them are doing a crappy job. The "hat" is a correspondent's trusty crutch--a simple way of explaining Ivan to the folks back home. The hat is the cup of steaming hot tea a Moscow housewife offers to a writer for the New York Times; it's the use of nesting dolls as a metaphor for everything from the complexity of Russian politics to the unknowability of the tortured Russian soul; it's the inevitable insertion of the adjective "crippled" before "Mir space station."
The purported mission of the Exile, an English-language Moscow newspaper launched three and a half years ago by American expatriates, is to take the hat off Ivan--and the piss out of Russians and Americans alike. The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, published recently by Grove Press, is a chronicle of its first year or so that weaves together essays by editors Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, clips from the paper, and letters, faxes, and death threats from its friends and enemies.
"We were going to tell the truth," writes Taibbi. "Which was that the country was being run by killers and swine who had stolen everything they could get their hands on, and sent the whole country reeling into such chaos that people in the provinces were eating each other out of boredom and desperation."
Sounds noble, but chaos is what enticed Taibbi's partner to Russia in the first place. A few years out of Berkeley, which he'd come to see as "a showpiece of dissent, a summer camp, a Potemkin village of harmless radicalism," and feeling dissatisfied, Ames took a European vacation that included two weeks in Leningrad. It was late 1991, just after the failed communist coup. "I briefly fell into a world of prostitutes, pimps, petty thieves, and high embassy officials who had to fight with the...police to extend my visa and allow me to leave the country. Several months after returning home, my slow-working mind began to process it all. I didn't yet realize, consciously, that I belonged in Russia."
In 1993, Ames moved to Moscow, where he worked a series of odd jobs in the import-export business and in 1996 lucked into the editorship of Living Here, a "rudderless" combination of nightlife guide and real estate flyer aimed at the expat community. In chapter one of the book, Ames claims to have transformed the hapless little paper into "a snipers nest from which to pick off personal enemies and an irresponsible chronicle of everything vulgar and grotesque. The one thing Living Here aggressively lacked was straight journalism. I had a prejudice against the very concept--and I was too lazy to give it a go."
By 1997, the year before the tottering economy finally collapsed, there were innumerable stories for such a paper to cover. Life in Moscow had reached now-legendary heights of hedonism: discos and clubs had sprung up all over town, and drugs and whores were easy to find. For a thrill-seeking Yank, it was a gold mine. While the mobsters were knocking each other off and the politicians were robbing the state blind, American expat bankers and business consultants were apparently running wild in the streets, screwing teenage girls, shooting pure China white, and flashing their U.S. passports with impunity.
In this climate, Ames quit Living Here and took a staff of four with him to start up the Exile, with which he planned to edge out Living Here as the default alternative to the two bigger English-language papers (the Moscow Times and the Moscow Tribune) by plumbing greater depths of spite and social irresponsibility. His replacement at Living Here, Matt Taibbi, presented such a threat--for one thing, he had actual journalism experience--that he had no choice but to make him an offer. Taibbi agreed to jump ship, and Living Here died a quick death.
The product of Ames and Taibbi's union is rude, cruel, pornographic, self-aggrandizing, infantile, and breathtakingly misogynist, with a dozen pages of news and another dozen of gonzo entertainment listings. It's also one of the biggest success stories of the tiny, incestuous world of expatriate Moscow. Just about every English speaker in Moscow now reads the biweekly--officially "Moscow's Only Alternative," though individual editions are just as frequently subtitled "Will Suck Dick for Speed" or some such--even if most of them hate themselves in the morning.
The Exile, as the name hints, defines itself by what it's not, and one of its most distinguishing traits is the editors' disdain for their colleagues in the mainstream press. The son of veteran NBC correspondent Mike Taibbi, Taibbi was briefly on staff at the Moscow Times three separate times--before freaking out and fleeing to play pro basketball in Mongolia in 1996. As he explains in one of his chapters, the Moscow-based foreign correspondent has a huge advantage over his domestic colleagues. "A domestic editor at an American paper--say, a city editor--always knows when his reporter is indulging in rhetorical excess, simply by virtue of his proximity to the story....No New York Post city hall writer will ever describe Rudy Giuliani as a gay Trotskyite who's soft on crime. That's because he knows no Post editor would ever let that through. There are no such guarantees in Russia. The foreign editor knows nothing that his reporter doesn't tell him."
Taibbi frequently writes the regular column Press Review, in which he mercilessly dissects the news coming out of Russia, stripping bare tired editorial templates such as the facile division of a rat's nest of political allegiances into "reformers" and "antireformers" or the equivocating "whither Russia" editorial that dribbles into the nonconclusion that "time will tell." These models show up in reporting on American politics too, of course, but in Russia, where reporters who don't speak the language are less likely or less willing to notice that they're being jerked around by bureaucrats and functionaries, they become more transparent. (Ames and Taibbi are fluent enough not to need translators.)
In February and March of this year--while former KGB agent Vladimir Putin was campaigning for the presidency and Grozny was being razed--Ames and Taibbi set up a "March Madness Hack Tournament," a series of round-robin eliminations to determine who was Moscow's worst English-language journalist. Every two weeks stories from the Moscow bureaus were broken down to expose sloppy research, hackneyed writing, and egregious instances of soft-pedaling and ass kissing ("Mr. Putin clearly impressed his hosts with his clarity of thought and vigour," or, according to Taibbi, by "not being a drunken zombie like his predecessor"). The winner was David Hoffman of the Washington Post, who beat out John Thornhill of the Financial Times in a last-minute upset with a piece that cast the war in Chechnya as the result of "a series of miscalculations."
Much of Ames and Taibbi's best work is funny. The paper plays frequent practical jokes on unsuspecting Russians and fellow expats alike. In the Exile's first year they planted a story in a Russian sports daily that Wilt Chamberlain had fallen in love with a Russian girl and signed with the Red Army basketball team. It was picked up and reprinted as fact in the Moscow Times--a paper that the Exile regularly derides as reading like "the Lincoln, Nebraska, Neighborhood Gazette."
They also made phone calls to businesses around Moscow to set up a fact-finding tour for Richard Nixon and had no one call their bluff; they convinced staffers at Pravda--by then a shell of its former self--that the paper had been bought by a blind Jewish dwarf from Florida; they wrote to the editor of an upstart magazine called Russian Life, and angled for a job posing as David Remnick, who'd won a Pulitzer for Lenin's Tomb three years earlier.
In the summer of 1997 they contacted Mikhail Gorbachev's people and, posing as representatives of the New York Jets, proposed that the former Soviet leader come on board as an assistant coach, with the honorary title of perestroika coordinator. "There's no better expert at restructuring!" went the pitch. "We thought maybe we could invite Mikhail Sergeyevich to give a series of speeches, and maybe perform some other nominal services for us. We think he could really help our defense." Gorbachev aide Vladimir Polyakov was receptive and confirmed his interest in a follow-up letter. Several months after the stunt was revealed in the paper under the headline "Mikhail Gorbachev Goes Deep for the Exile"--several months in which the editors nervously fretted that they were going to get their kneecaps broken--Gorbachev appeared in a television commercial for Pizza Hut.
Some pranks are sharper--and meaner--than others, but they're all conceived under a towering belief in the righteousness of the paper's mission. The Exile has kept up a holy racket, railing away against stupidity, corruption, and influence peddling in hopes that someone--anyone--would pay attention. It has covered mind-numbingly complex topics like privatization in a straightforward style that's not only comprehensible but actually interesting to a reader with no background in Russian economic history and little enthusiasm for acquiring one.
Taibbi spills a lot of ink in the book detailing, for example, the Exile's reporting on the career of deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais. As finance minister, Chubais had been hailed as one of Russia's prime "reformers," a friend of Western business interests responsible for the "success" of privatization, which in fact consolidated much of Russia's wealth in the hands of Kremlin oligarchs. In July 1997 he oversaw the auction of a quarter of the state telecommunications monopoly Svyazinvest to a consortium of buyers that included American financier George Soros and Oneximbank, a bank headed by oligarch Vladimir Potanin. The Exile broke a story connecting American banker Boris Jordan, who was key in bringing Soros aboard, to a suspiciously large book advance paid to top privatization official Alfred Kokh by a Swiss publishing company. Yet a month later, only the Boston Globe--where Taibbi had pitched the story to a friendly editor, correctly assuming it would have little credibility coming solely from the seedy little Exile--had run the story in the States. Russian-language papers picked it up from the Globe; the Western bureaus ignored it. In late '97 another scandal broke: Chubais himself had taken a $90,000 book advance from a publishing company owned by Potanin. Yeltsin sacked him as finance minister in December; by the following summer the economy of which he had been the architect had collapsed, despite a $23 billion loan from the IMF.
The paper has also turned its attention to events outside Russia, coming out forcefully against NATO's bombing of Kosovo and, more recently, adding its voice to the global chorus of protests against the IMF and the World Bank. In late April, while in the States on a six-week book tour, Ames reported on the demonstrations in Washington, D.C., opining that "the IMF and the World Bank should not only be protested, but their fat-necked leaders should be arrested, paraded through the streets of Moscow as war criminals, and fed to the malnourished citizens of such wretched cities as Izhevsk and Tomsk-7." For the same issue Taibbi wrote a piece on the Los Angeles janitors' strike that would have looked good on the pages of In These Times.
So far the Exile may not sound all that different from your typical American alternative journalism, but the editors take pains to separate themselves from that tradition too. A recent issue of the paper responded to a pitch from the guy who handles syndication for the controversial sex-advice column Savage Love. Thanks but no thanks, went the retort. "This Dan Savage guy" sounds about "as edgy as an episode of Ally McBeal." Among the Exile's contributors is Edward Limonov, punky leader of the far-right-wing National-Bolshevik Party, who writes in broken English on topics ranging from the war in Chechnya to the relative sexual merits of women of different nationalities. Early on Ames and Taibbi tried to get prominent liberal writer Alexander Minkin in the paper too, but he backed out upon learning he'd have to share space with Limonov. The Exile's politics are obscure: it's anticommunist and anticapitalist, and sometimes it just retreats to plain old groovy nihilism.
In fact, the Exile has a dark side that aligns it more closely with Jim Goad's zine Answer Me! than any established alternative publication in the States. Ames, too, has a regular forum, but its point is not nearly so obvious as that of Press Review. In Moscow Babylon, a sometimes nauseating document of his odyssey into the heart of darkness, he proudly reveals himself to be an insecure, paranoid egomaniac, and his chapters in the book only provide further evidence. Neither he nor Taibbi makes any bones about past and present drug use--one of Ames's chapters is titled "Our God Is Speed"--and both take a macho delight in Moscow's mean streak. The back of the paper, in addition to the usual ads for strip clubs and escort services, includes a weekly feature Taibbi came up with called Death Porn--a visceral send-up of the tropes of crime reporting in which recent murders (most originally reported in Russian tabloids) are detailed in grisly specificity, with pictures and jolly icons to indicate qualities like "riddled with bullets," "carved up like a turkey," or "cries for help ignored."
Most notably, the Exile nurtures a peculiarly vicious and schizoid attitude toward women. While Russian women are rhapsodically celebrated as long-legged gazelles with loose morals--"the most physically attractive women on earth, and...usually available to the highest bidder," expat women are ridiculed at length as "fat-ankled" and defensively sexless. Self-hating geeky American men are encouraged to take advantage of the perception that all Americans are rich and have oodles of condomless sex (sometimes in the ass!) with drunk, nubile dyevushkas. Ex-girlfriends are held up to public ridicule--Ames at one point chronicles his threats to kill a pregnant ex if she won't have an abortion. The club listings are rated by three factors: how cheap the beer is, how thuggish the crowd is, and how likely an expat male is to score: "Babes with nose-bleeds and their pot-bellied, cell-phone-totin' sugar dyadyas. One of the highest concentrations of beautiful chicks--and heavily armed men--in the world. (If you have an 8-ball of whiff you'll get laid.)"
It's not ironic--Ames and Taibbi explicitly scorn the bourgeois safety net of irony--and it's not just a rhetorical stance. "You're always trying to force Masha and Sveta under the table to give you blow jobs," complains their first business manager, an American woman, in chapter six, "The White God Factor." "It's not funny. They don't think it's funny." "But...it is funny," replies Taibbi. They take particular glee in trashing several former female staff members in print, taking multiple potshots at the aforementioned business manager's "gorilla ass." They're equally nasty to her replacement, who quit in disgust after they went on a four-month "brain-sucking speed binge."
And Ames's treatment of Russian teenage girls is documented with frightening glee. In the book he recounts one evening with an expat investment banker pal and what he thought were three 16-year-old girls:
"When I went back into the TV room, Andy pulled me aside with a worried grin on his face. 'Dude do you realize...do you know how old that Natasha is?' he said.
"'No! No, she's fif-teen. Fif-teen.' Right then my pervometer needle hit the red. I had to have her, even if she was homely."
After they do it, she tells him she has a three-month-old baby.
"It was hard to imagine that Natasha had squatted out a baby," Ames writes. "Her cunt was as tight as a cat's ass....I'd slept with mothers before--they're a lot wider. Sex with them is like probing a straw in a mildew-lined German beer mug."
Later he learns that she's lying--she has no baby, but rather is four months pregnant. After she has an abortion, he writes about her in the Exile, suggesting that she be sterilized and awarded "one of those cheap trophy cups with the inscription 'World's Greatest Mom.'"
Ames and Taibbi rationalize their flaming sexism with the argument that part of the whole expatriate experience is to have one's moral compass come loose. American men have internalized a sexual script that prescribes equality and respect, but "out in Russia," Ames writes, "you gain a little perspective, which can be dangerous. Deep down, even the most emasculated, wire-rimmed glasses, cigar-smoking and martini-drinking American guy fantasizes about living in a world full of...well, I'll let you guess: a) self-reliant, androgynous women who are also your friends, b) young, beautiful sluts."
Needless to say this kind of thing pisses some people off. In early 1998 Ames's column about Natasha pissed off a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun named Kathy Lally, who lobbied to get an influential Internet newsgroup about Russia to stop posting the Press Review column. This in turn pissed off the Exile boys enough that they decided to give her the treatment. They had a female friend call her and, posing as an anti-Exile sympathizer, ask her to help shut the paper down by giving a statement to FAPSI--Russia's Federal Agency of Government Communication and Information, an organization analogous to the National Security Agency that, according to Taibbi, has a reputation for being "a reactionary force on par with the old KGB." They got Lally on tape agreeing to "think about it," and of course they published the transcript. Upon hearing from a friend that they'd made her cry, Taibbi writes, "Mark and I burst out laughing.
"'Good!' I shouted.
"'Fuck her!' said Mark."
"Of course it was absurd," writes Taibbi elsewhere in the book, "that a paper which appeared to celebrate serial murder and sexual abuse would rant righteously about things like free speech and the rule of law. But we also knew that if we didn't have those conspicuous moral deficiencies, we'd have been just another 'right thinking' left leaning alternative paper--the dog of dogs in the post-End of History, post-Clinton publishing world....With all due respect to these people, nothing scares the powers that be less than an opposition of bearded lefties and nitpicking academics."
Yet by the editors' own admission, one of the reasons the Exile continues to exist in a country where a free press is still a novel concept is that the powers that be don't read it, either because they can't read English or because they don't frequent the expat-friendly bars and restaurants where it's distributed. And at times the paper's moral deficiencies would seem to compromise its serious side.
For instance, an entire chapter of the book is devoted to the Exile's crusade against an American businessman--an ex-con who ran a "modeling agency," wrote a society column for the Moscow Times, and worked as an image consultant for ultranationalist anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky. "I hesitated, beginning to feel sorry for him," writes Taibbi of one incident in the yearlong war, "but then I remembered everything I knew about him. He would promise sixteen-year-old girls trips to Europe, if only they'd blow him in his limousine. He went to clubs and rang up thousand-dollar bills and walked out. He was violent and vicious with women. And he had, of course, threatened to kill me in the spring." But the moral high ground feels a little soggy when it's claimed by two guys who use the front of the paper to champion the pleasures of teenage virgins, run ads for "models" in the back, and regularly eat for free at restaurants because the owners are scared of a bad review.
On the other hand, isn't that just an extreme version of what this paper does? Taking money from pimps (or their corporate equivalents) in the ad pages and using it to examine social ills in the news hole? The ills facing Russia are by any measure a lot more extreme than those plaguing the United States: In 1997, even before the economy crashed, the per capita annual income hovered around $3,400, and organized crime activities accounted for an estimated 40 percent of the gross national product. The literacy rate was over 90 percent, but a quarter of the population lived in poverty, and women made up two-thirds of the unemployed. Extreme conditions, extreme journalism--it sort of makes sense.
The Exile's development in many ways mirrors Russia's anything-goes attempt to construct an open society based on the American model. It's just that, as with a lot of things--from democracy to pop music--the results are always a little off. Ames and Taibbi insist that they adhere to a scrupulous journalistic code, yet because of their incessant envelope pushing, everything in the paper is suspect. Each outrageous claim forces the reader to approach the Exile with the same critical awareness it applies to its targets. It's an experiment in media education, showing as well as telling the reader how to read between the lines, encouraging him to question sources, look for conflicts of interest, and be suspicious of pat narratives. A good idea anywhere in the world, not just in Russia--but only on the lawless frontier is there still room for the Exile's scattershot approach.
The book's publication was held up by Grove Press's lawyers for two years. Some things have changed in Moscow in the interim. The economic crisis of 1998 sent a lot of expats scurrying for the border, and many of the Exile's top Russian targets of 1997 and '98 have lost their jobs or been placed under investigation. The libertine dementia of the Moscow club scene, which played a crucial role in defining the voice of the paper, has "lost its mojo," although it's still far from sanitized. And, of course, there's a new sheriff in town.
In the months since Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency, his government has cracked down on the media. The press ministry warned two Russian newspapers that their publication of interviews with Chechnya's rebel president could cost them their licenses, and a reporter for one of them, the liberal, muckraking Novaya Gazeta, was beaten with a hammer in a mysterious attack in early May. The press ministry is also moving quickly to consolidate its power over the foreign media, most recently proposing to revoke the licenses of foreign broadcasters deemed hostile to the state.
On May 11, the offices of Media Most, the parent company of NTV, Russia's only national independent television station and the only station frequently critical of the Kremlin, were raided by masked federal agents who claimed to have proof that the organization was involved in illegal wiretapping, a charge later thrown out by a Moscow court. On June 13 Kremlin prosecutors arrested Vladimir Gusinsky, the oligarch who runs Media Most; he spent three nights in jail before being charged with embezzlement and released. In the last few weeks newspapers around the world have weighed in with worried editorials about an impending return to "the bad old days" of censorship and repression. It would seem that the Exile--which, while it still flies off the radar of the Russian establishment, is funded by a Russian publisher and is gaining a stronger international profile--might come under closer scrutiny in this icy political environment. But then, how would I know? I just know what I read in the papers.
The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, Grove Press, $16.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.