From Russia With Malice
the eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, New York: Grove Press, 256 pages, $16
At the height of the Kosovo war, with the U.S. embassy in Russia besieged by bazooka-carrying, bottle-throwing Slavic nationalists, two maverick American journalists based in Moscow publish a detailed map directing anti-NATO activists to nine Western military contractors' local branch offices, just in case anyone might wish to ransack them. A year later, during the "historic" election campaign that would see Russia's first ever "democratic" transfer of power, the danger-loving duo court the Kremlin's wrath by aggressively promoting a shutdown-the-vote campaign to sabotage President Putin's inevitable self-coronation.
Flush with cash from their first book deal, the serial provocateurs then offer a $1,000 reward to anyone "who helps bring about the arrest or firing" of various enemies guilty of "crimes against human decency." Leading the luminaries are drug czar Barry McCaffrey, accused of invading Americans' civil liberties, and the U.N.'s chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, flagged for the statistical offense of "8,892 counts of fictional murder."
Such deliberate provocations are almost unthinkable in the staid environment of American political journalism, but they are the stock in trade of the eXile, a controversial biweekly tabloid (circulation 25,000, plus a big Web audience) published in Moscow since 1997 by two angry Americans, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi. Their new book might best be described as the joint memoir of two guerrilla commanders emerging unscathed from a series of bloody raids on the media establishment. The book blends new commentary with features and artwork reproduced exactly as they first appeared in the tabloid. The result is not always easy on the eyes, but it is an excellent introduction to Ames and Taibbi's brand of writing. That is to say, it is partisan, cruel, and often side-splittingly funny. I do not recommend it for the easily offended.
Ames and Taibbi have carved out a singular niche for themselves. American libel lawyers can't touch the paper in Moscow, and Russian censors pay little attention to a tabloid that reaches only the minuscule Anglophone minority of voters. In this legal no-man's-land between two governments, the eXile's editors enjoy virtually unheard-of license to write and say what they want about prominent figures, without fear of retaliation.
They have a lot of fun with this freedom, playing pranks that take advantage of politicians' pretensions. The eXile's most famous stunt saw no less than Mikhail Gorbachev entering negotiations to secure a paying position as "perestroika coordinator" for the New York Jets. Self-promoting former World Bank bigwig Charles Blitzer, head of that organization's Moscow office, could not resist the urge to pontificate when Ames, posing as a reporter for a fictitious newspaper called Moskovskaya Svoloch (in Russian, Moscow Bastard), left a message on his machine asking for comments on a precipitous one-day drop on the Russian stock market in 1997. By calling back, Blitzer revealed that he had not bothered to learn the language of the country "whose economy he had once more or less administered for years." He also tripped on the first question he was asked, explaining that Mongolia's exchange had followed Moscow's down because of the recent Asian crash. (In fact, the Mongol market rose 6 percent the same day Russia's f ell by 20.) Here was a world-renowned economic guru, the eXile crowed, who "couldn't even predict events that had already happened."
Besides tweaking the powerful with practical jokes, Ames and Taibbi do some real damage with their political reporting. Years before anarchists took to the streets of Washington, Taibbi was painting the World Bank as a bustling den of thieves that lent money to Russia only if it would hire teams of high-priced foreign consultants–while simultaneously insisting that "excess" staff of Russian state enterprises such as farms, hospitals, and schools be axed. One remarkable pyramid scheme in which World Bank loans disappeared involved an "Investor Protection Fund" set up precisely to give aid to Russian victims of previous pyramid schemes. The eXile discovered that the purported beneficiaries never saw a kopek of the money collected for them, which instead ended up lining the pockets of the Western advisers hired to administer the fund.
The ubiquity of such Yeltsin-era outrages committed in the name of "reform" has lately become conventional wisdom among the Western media, but you didn't hear much about such shenanigans back in the euphoric days of 1997, when most newspapers were naively trumpeting the venal lies of Russia's "Young Reformers." Nor has The New York Times really owned up to how much damage self-promoting Western consultants and financial advisers did to Russia's economy. (The Times' 1999 mea culpa "Who Lost Russia?" was widely praised, but as the eXile pointed out, it took Russia's "oligarchs" to task while letting American aid profiteers off the hook.)
Whoever was ultimately most at fault for the Russian debacle, the eXile's unfettered editorial independence allowed Ames and Taibbi to break the story first. That's something that has become a familiar event for them. The financial collapse of August 1998? They predicted a liquidity meltdown and government default weeks before it actually happened. The troubling moral balance sheet in Kosovo? Read through "101 Reasons Why NATO's War Sucks," published just days after the war began. The incessantly hyped Y2K bug that never appeared? The eXile laid odds on the impending catastrophe on December 29, 1999: "Tchya, right. And our butts might fly out of monkeys."
Ames and Taibbi are often prescient, but their flair for obscenity has undermined the extent to which their missives are taken seriously. An American reading the eXile for the first time in Moscow (or on the Web, at www.exile.ru) is bound to be offended. The paper's sophomoric club reviews rank Moscow nightlife haunts on a "Fahkie" factor, which unapologetically instructs horny foreign men where best to go to find some easy action. The editors serenade three-star hot spots with vulgar, topically updated slogans. Thus, after the financial crisis of 1998, they advised patrons that visiting a bacchanalian bar such as the Hungry Duck was "like parking your life savings in a Russian bank account: you're gonna get faaakhed whether you like it or not."
Ames and Taibbi do not merely violate the standards of political correctness. They browbeat and bludgeon them, stomping so sinfully on contemporary pieties that there really isn't a chance for critics to reply. The eXile's defenders customarily claim that such obnoxious antics are "redeemed" by the paper's serious political reporting, but that strikes me as a cop-out. I am not sure the eXile's freewheeling obscenity and its frequently lethal muckraking can be so easily disentangled. Taibbi's widely feared "Press Review" column does not mince words: In the brutal "Moscow's Worst Journalist" competition, a series of commentaries he created this year to coincide with the successive rounds of the March Madness NCAA basketball tournament, the eventual winner's profile piece on President-Elect Putin was likened to a porn film called 500 Blowjobs.
By systematically exposing the mutual back scratching and plagiarism in foreign correspondents' lazy reportage, Taibbi is able to show why the establishment media so often get the big stories wrong. Had well-paid reporters at America's newspapers of record paid any attention to the evidence of economic corruption all around them, instead of swallowing the lies of Russian government spokesmen (and copying each others' half-baked pieces), the Russian financial collapse of 1998 would not have shocked the Washington policy making establishment as if it had happened out of the blue. Instead, the press corps wrote glowing profiles of the thieves who–often on the strength of their ties to the U.S. government–were cynically robbing Russian taxpayers of their nation's crown industrial jewels. This deserves only one name, and Taibbi has not been afraid to deploy it: pornography.
The unflinching use of obscenity also makes Mark Ames' dark, deliciously amoral "Moscow Babylon" column well-nigh irresistible. Ames is like an X-rated Camille Paglia, taking her favorite theme–Mother Nature's crushing tyranny over all of us–where she has never ventured to bring it, because Ames draws his conclusions not from literature but from his own often ugly experiences. In a typical column he might casually toss off a mock epic poem chronicling the adventurous journey of a hungry young microbe from his sexual partner to himself. By the final stanzas Ames will have worked himself up to a lyrical post-coital climax in which he is at last forced to unleash an army of industrial strength antibiotics to repel the little monsters now gnawing on his own pubic hairs.
Aside from such confessions, much of what Ames says in the new book is rather banal–but then, it's the kind of stuff few others have the guts to say in public. Take his retort to the stentorian rhetoric of America's drug war. "PEOPLE DO DRUGS," he deadpans, "BECAUSE THEY'RE FUN." Speaking from long personal experience, he assures the uninitiated that "it's no different from alcohol or roller coasters, except that drugs are A LOT BETTER."
Ames's gushing odes to heroin and speed could make even fellow indulgers blush, but to understand his obsession it helps to consider the wiles of his rhetorical enemy: The Clinton administration, after all, has been surreptitiously inserting its anti-drug propaganda into prime-time TV programming, as revealed recently in Salon. Taibbi, although in his personal life rather less hedonistic than his co-editor, all but fell on his sword in a column excoriating The Washington Post for trying to hush up the Salon story. He unleashed a brave but inevitably futile cry for the eXile's mostly apolitical readers to join a petition drive to prosecute members of the Clinton administration for violating the payola laws.
The argument animating the pair's shared outrage over American anti-drug propaganda may be somewhat difficult for those who never experienced the decadence of 1990s Moscow to follow, but it goes roughly like this: Communist Russia may have lost the ideological battle, but her resilient losers, far from becoming productive clones of workaholic, pleasure-deferring Americans, have instead tumbled into self-destructive orgies of sensual satisfaction. From its macabre mafia violence to its innumerable dens of debauch, Moscow is not for the faint of heart. Once-unobtainable drugs such as cocaine have been taken up with the same exuberance Russians have always displayed while downing vodka. Previously unknown holidays with party-going potential, such as Halloween and Valentine's Day, have been embraced one after another with almost ludicrous abandon. Ames and Taibbi defend their beloved hedonistic turf against those imperious avatars of cultural correctness, from the World Bank to President Putin, who are trying to tame it.
Though Ames and Taibbi are often explicitly anti-American, there is something uncannily American about their mixture of brutal intellectual kickboxing and shameless self-promotion. Instinctively they must realize that only the America they love to hate has ever really enjoyed the unabashed freedom of expression they continually abuse with malicious glee. That they venture so far beyond the pale of public decency should be seen as a sign of their desperation over what they consider America's increasingly rigid orthodoxies.
Ames and Taibbi often remark that their paper would be shut down in a minute if it were published in New York or Washington, if not for unlawful slander then by armies of enraged feminists, anti-obscenity activists, and sexual harassment lawyers. In light of the heat generated by the eXile just among the expatriate community of Americans in Moscow–where the editors have repeatedly endured blackmail, petition drives to boycott the paper's advertisers, and even death threats–such a scenario is not hard to imagine.
In Moscow, by contrast, Ames and Taibbi are free to go on smearing rhetorical mud pies over the Clintonian New World Order. Fleeing the unwritten speech codes of their native America, Ames and Taibbi have found a First Amendment haven in the former capital city of International Communism, of all places. Small wonder, then, that their rhetoric is so extreme. Only by shouting fire in a crowded theater, the eXile would have us believe, is it possible to wake up the numbed, complacent citizens of our once-vaunted democracy.
Whether or not Ames and Taibbi are justified in this bleak assessment of American civic life, their explosive new book is sure to stampede its way into the argument one way or another. And for politically incorrect Americans longing for an antidote to the bland, unquestioning triumphalism of our current national consensus, I have a feeling the eXile will go down like an ice-cold glass of lemonade–laced with vodka and a melange of potent narcotics–on an unbearably humid summer day.