From Russia With Lust
What aren't we hearing about the new Russia? Sex, drugs, predatory Americans, and the Elevator Killer.
By Mike Miliard
MAY 1, 2000: Mark Ames didn't move to Moscow to create a reputable newspaper; he went to 1) escape America and 2) get laid. Once there, he teamed up with Boston native Matt Taibbi and managed to create a viciously funny biweekly called the eXile, a newspaper he openly admits is fueled by "vanity and spleen."
In its tabloid-style pages, Ames, Taibbi, and their contributors take on the new Russian oligarchy, hack reporters, and the expatriate Americans who've shown up to make their fortunes, bringing with them the worst of the US. They also rank Moscow bars according to the probability of leaving with a hot young dyevushka, or of leaving on a stretcher.
The two have just published a book that is both a compilation of the paper's writings and a chronicle of its creation. The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia (Grove Press, $16) is a dense paperback with some serious reporting (the eXile has scooped the major US dailies more than once) interspersed with sordid tales of sex and drugs (sample chapter title: "Our God Is Speed"). The Phoenix reached Matt Taibbi in Los Angeles and Mark Ames in New York and spoke to them about the paper, their adventures, and the news we aren't hearing about Russia.
Mark: I was definitely going the postal route for a while. You just can't be a failure in the Bay Area. It drove me to go to the one place in the world that was the most opposite from San Francisco. I was going out of my mind. . . . It's tough when you're trying to cultivate the aesthetics of punk and Blade Runner and you go outside and it's sushi and sunshine. Moscow was a bunch of depressed, fucked-up people who were worse off than I am. And they didn't judge me.
Matt: I also had that general feeling of being a loser and being unsuccessful professionally and sexually. There's a real pressure in the US to not wear that frustration on your face. In Russia it's your guaranteed right to fail.
Mark: In Russia, people fail all the time. If you're successful, they know you're a criminal.
[Both laugh uproariously] Mark: Absolutely not!
Matt: If we're the fruit of the literary scene, that's pretty fucking sad.
Mark: I think Moscow in the '90s was its own thing. I'd compare it more to Berlin in the early '30s, without the aesthetics, of course. Just a lot of energy, sex, drugs, and easy money.
Mark: I can't really say there were big goals, except to be able to write what I wanted and what others wanted to read: vicious satire, investigative reporting, anything non-mainstream.
Matt: I'd written for the Moscow Times, the AP, the Boston Globe Magazine. And then I had a near-death experience while I was playing professional basketball in Mongolia. I decided I didn't want to go back to a straight journalism career.
Matt: Most of the writers who live over there don't speak the language, and they don't care about the culture. Because they're all from different cities, the reporters aren't competing against each other, so there's no motivation to get a news story. The press community hang out in the same restaurants, and they share ideas.
Matt: The major papers send people abroad who have worked their way up through the organization. And they look at it like they would a watch: "Three years here, then I'll head back to the States and get a better job." The ultimate example of this is Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post, who wrote the foulest garbage for three years, and then went on to edit the editorial page of the Post, which in the States makes you more powerful than a congressman. The opposite of that would be someone like David Filipov of the Boston Globe, who speaks fluent Russian and has a Russian wife. He's an excellent reporter, and his coverage is effective. We estimate that only about 20 percent of the press corps here speaks Russian, which is ludicrous.
Mark: The only thing I'd add to that is that the neo-liberal ideology has so defeated every other way of looking at things. Every reporter came to look at Russia in the same way.
Matt: They were only looking at macro-economic indicators. Y'know, what percentage of the agriculture industry had been privatized, what the rate of inflation was. As soon as numbers came in that indicated that things were picking up, most didn't even bother to leave Moscow and venture into the provinces to see that most people were living as fucking indentured servants. It had reverted to actual feudalism, and no one even cared about it.
Matt: Well, one of the first things that struck us about their propaganda: how come we never knew that Russian girls were so beautiful? [Laughs] But yeah, Russia has been misinterpreted throughout. Now there's access to information, but people don't want to bother with it. Editors are not interested in printing bad news about a government that the US is friendly with, and there's the xenophobia of the bureau reporters who don't want to go out and deal with the real poverty in the provinces.
Mark: It's physically very difficult to leave the perimeter of Moscow to go out and do a story. Especially, of course, if you don't know the language. The hotels aren't comfortable, the transportation is unreliable, the food is bad, and the people are poor! They're not like the people you'd normally dine with at a swanky restaurant in central Moscow! When you go out to do a story like that, you really have to spend all your time with the poor. The masses of people have been left in complete poverty by reform. It's depressing.
Matt: Plus, the format of modern journalism just doesn't allow it. There's no way you could possibly describe these people's despair in a 700-word piece.
Mark: American big business wants Russian natural resources. [Russia] has a third of the world's natural gas, tons of platinum, gold, and diamonds. In an ideal situation, the Evil American Corporations would want it to be a toothless banana republic. And, basically, that's exactly what it's become after the reforms were dictated.
Matt: One thing that's under-reported is the phenomenon of Western companies buying stakes in Russian military factories that then stop producing. Siemens, for instance, bought a stake in a submarine factory. Now it doesn't produce anymore. Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, all those military-industrial-complex companies are all over Russia.
Mark: That's why America tolerated Russia being an oligarchy and a kleptocracy. That weakens the infrastructure, which works to our advantage because we can then get cheap natural resources.
Matt: In essence, Russia's a big breadbasket for us.
Mark: And local industry gets destroyed.
Matt: He's a petty dictator. He could easily be dressed up in a Latin-dictator uniform, with the mirrored sunglasses and everything. He's a thug.
Mark: He's the worst of both worlds. He's not even a brilliant and dynamic thug. His old boss at the KGB called him a mediocrity.
Matt: He won a bronze medal from the KGB for his work in East Germany. That's basically like getting slapped in the face with a rubber chicken.
Mark: He spent all this time collecting information in East Germany, and basically what he did over there was to count the number of punk rockers. And all the local Germans knew he was a spy! He was put in power by the oligarchs and Yeltsin's people in order to protect their interests.
Matt: Well, we know the Kremlin pays attention to us, because they were making inquiries back in '98 about what would happen if we were to be shut down.
Mark: This is when we were writing like crazy about the impending financial collapse.
Matt: But we were on TV and radio doing a lot of high-profile protests against the war in Kosovo last year, which they like. Then again, we've written three straight editorials about the size of [Putin's] genitalia. He can't like that stuff.
Mark: And we put an ad in the paper offering a free T-shirt to anybody who could find where his daughters went to school in Germany and seduce them. They're, like, 15.
Mark: It's absolutely incredible. Serial murderers can barely get on the front page.
Matt: Forget the front page! They can barely get two paragraphs on page eight. Some guy, the "Elevator Killer," recently killed 10 women in the center of town. He killed 10 women in three months, and it wasn't until the 10th murder that he made a three-paragraph story. It's pretty hard to stir Russian interest.
Matt: We were both in New York for a while when we first got here. And what's really striking is the way people are so paranoid and terrified of screwing up if they don't work 60 or 70 hours a week. That they'll be a loser. And there's just this mania for money. It seems like six-year-old kids are e-trading! Nobody's chilling out. If they spend time with friends it's because they feel like they have to.
Mark: In the US, there's this fear of slipping through the cracks that's enforced on every level. People need to realize that it's okay. You don't fall forever. You can take chances and risks. People here feel that failing is a fate worse than death.
Matt: And even the curricula of high schools are determined by what employers want. There's no emphasis on learning just for the sake of learning.
Mark: In Russia, Communism and liberalism failed so miserably that Russian kids, unlike Americans, are the least brainwashed human beings on earth. They're much more open to anything.
Matt: And it's interesting to note that in Moscow all the major moves to boycott or censor our paper have come from Americans. . . . Plus, we never get laid at home.
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