the eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia
Base envy is the only place to start this. It's the thickest liquid in the cocktail that comes bubbling up when looking at Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi smirk for their jacket photo.
Not his Camaro-is-so-bitchin' envy, but existential envy stewed in the knowledge that your fate was hijacked by a screed-scribbling syphilitic eight years older, fifteen IQ points smarter and two borders to the east.
The kind of envy that gives you turrets syndrome. Let me explain.
Since starting a pipsqueak xeroxed political zine at 19, I have fantasized about editing a journal and living to see it anthologized. Not a bloodless Evergreen Review, 1950-1970 anthology, but a contemporary event, a thumbprint on the culture that has the contradictory results of annoying powerful people and getting me invited to fancy cocktail parties.
This is the only kind of fame that interests me, the only kind I ever had a wet toothpick shot of nailing. Milton said fame is the last infirmity of the noble mind; I say it's the first, and a mind of common caste works just fine.
As I pumped out a continuous stream of unremarkable articles for unremarkable zines in the mid to late nineties—most with the lifespan of a wounded gnat—The Onion and The Baffler basketed book deals and sex and career inducing media attention.
Unfamous as ever, I began to look at my own writing like a self-conscious retarded child views his sad depiction of a horse. Then one day it just hit me: I'm a fucking hack—the most blistering word in the writer's dictionary—destined to watch horny-eyed from the sidelines, straining awkwardly to be bigger than my god given typewriter in thirdrate, backwater forums.
The fame, the interviews, the influence: it just wasn't going to happen. Ever. Not to me. The publication of the eXile anthology thus marks the third time in four years that, bruised green with selfpity, I will dutifully drop to my knees, swallow a puke burp, and, like some junior staffer at a yuppie alterno weekly, simply give props where props are due.
Founded 1997 in Moscow, the eXile is a smiley faced spittoon of muckraking journalism, political Jerky Boys style pranks, club reviews by oriental wild man Johnny Chen, cartoons, JFKstyle character assassinations, multiple warheaded rants, and a column by nigga 4 life Edward Liminov, a 55 year old fascist party leader with the deadest deadpan in the east and ill-fitting Russian Ambervisions.
The pranks are funny, the personal attacks relentless, and the book reviews often barely concealed excuses for releasing heavy, vitamin-rich ropes of urine onto the deserving faces of turdbrains like cybergeek Douglas Rushkoff and moron-princess Jennifer Gould.
Over the last three years the magazine has blossomed out of Moscow's cement flora to become a stout journalistic oak, influential among Foundation-ensconced 'Russia watchers' and broke expats alike.
It's a bi-purpose biweekly piss and vinegar broadsheet that goes down lemonade. There is nothing like the eXile in Prague and never will be.
Ames and Taibbi compliment each other on the battlefield. Minus either one of them and the eXile is not famous. As Wonder Twins they activate, and do what writers are supposed to do: expose hypocrisy, make you think and make you smile.
Doing that in Russia can be dangerous, of course, and the collection puts flesh and blood on that danger. They attribute their survival to the fact that as an English-language publication they are off the radar screen in Russia. Their audience is the expat community, such as it is, and while some replants fancy themselves killers in Moscow's shark tank, it is clear from this book that most are exactly what they were when they arrived in Russia.
Which is to say: very, very lame.
And the eXile paints a nasty image of expats in Moscow: business-minded careerists and flacks in the USAID community who are the human incarnations of weak-kneed Moscow Times journalism.
The women—as immortalized in the spoton comic "Expatella"—are resentful and scheming, while the men wear Dockers and watch CNN at sports bars.
Most of them seem so incredibly lame that one wonders where Ames gets off dumping on Prague expats as he does in his intro essay.
Ames and Tabbai go after fathead Americans in Moscow with admirable ferocity. The list of usual suspects include mindless propagandists for the "reform process," self-satisfied journalists who don't speak Russian and fabricate inane quotes, patriotic whores getting fat off recycled US "aid," and anyone else quietly participating in the rape and pillage of Russia and lying to the world about it.
The righteous tone of the eXile in exposing and lambasting American and Russian bloodsuckers is not born out of typical left wing rectitude, however.
They will go after the relatively innocent with a flipness that leaves you scrambling for the tiniest scrap of Judeo-Christian morality to hoist as barricade. One poor sap wrote a fan letter and got a response asking if they could fuck his prepubescent children in the ass. Howard Zinns they are not.
But this is all part of the plan.
Their message to the world is in fact: NOBODY GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE. Moscow will turn your pledge of allegiance/Sunday school values into cheap whores, cheap speed and death threats. Welcome to the terrordome, Nephew Sam.
Nor are they Madison, Wisconsin lefties by temperament. They'll protest NATO aggression and IMF ekonomics on principle, but don't look to them for Save the Children editorials. They are contrarians, and cut their teeth mocking humorless Free Burma pamphleteers as much as they did freemarket Nazis. Ames even joined the Republican Party in a particularly punk rock moment he was having in the mid 1980s.
All of which is not to say that the eXile lacks a politics. The shock jock routines do not dilute a hard core of leftwing analysis. Our narrators don't flinch when pointing out that the same Cold War intellectuals who leapt to the defense of imprisoned Soviet dissidents now sit silent in the face of police repression, saving their energy to praise the "progress being made" in prying Russia open to foreign capital and forcing her former Warsaw Pact allies to "integrate" with standard NATO hardware, as kindly provided by Mr. Lockheed and Mr. Martin.
Nor do they sugarcoat the violence that infuses daily life in a Russia where half the population has been thrown into poverty since democracy and markets came to town. The cop beatings, the nightmare prisons, the rape, the fear, the despair, the dwindling life expectancy, the diseases, the death.
Sitting in porcelain Prague, its easy to recoil from the gangrene gums of Moscow exposed by Ames and Tabbai, but it is cowardice to turn from it or deny the complicity of our own government(s).
Dismissing talk of happy democratic Russia with a sneer, the eXile scrapes away the scabs to expose snapshots of a country Tabbai describes as "so devastated and depressed, its citizens so unwilling to mate and invest in the future despite having not long ago enjoyed the benefits of life in an advanced industrial state, that you could almost say it stood as the ultimate monument to the hopelessness and existential despair of the human race at the end of the twentieth century."
Of course, you can also have a lot of fun in the shithouse at the end of the world. And in between exposing corrupt Chubiasian privatization schemes and cataloging staggeringly brutal violence, the eXile manages to get in more kicks than two hours of Jackie Chan outtakes.
Moscow isn't the best town in the world to drop acid, and no one on staff appreciates the beats pounding in Moscow's still raw techno scene, but they do seem to party a lot.
Which makes the evil grad student on my right shoulder want to raise the possibility of a tired contradiction: here are two middle-class Americans exposing the lies behind US sponsored "reform" and decrying the suffering caused by it, while at the same time milking it for all it's worth, getting famous and exploiting what Ames neatly calls the "White God Factor" i.e. using an accident of birth to nail destitute teenage Russian chicks.
Like many expats, myself included, they decry the concentric circles expanding outwardly from the Great Plastic Asshole that is the soul of modern America, and yet themselves sit comfortably upon the edge of these nasty but glittering Saturnesque rings.
Even though fluent in Russian and full of genuine pathos for the people, their passports, greenbacks and English language skills remain the overwhelming facts of a relatively comfortable expatriate existence.
Alas, the eXile comes about as close as one can to escaping this contradiction—through steely supplies of smarts and balls—but ultimately remains an AWOL soldier in wirerims typing away furiously near the front as the Disneyland-Goldman Sachs-Whermacht rolls on.
The soldier may think of himself as fragging his superiors, but if he succeeded there would likely be no magazine, no ad revenue, no glory. Just a shit job at a Russian paper, forced to make concessions, pay pipers, wear a bullet proof vest, and be poor.
But they know this.
To their credit, Ames and Taibbi will probably accept that fate rather than return to the States when Russia gets too ugly to support an ironic and decadent expat community. Remarkably, the book reveals almost no credibility gap. In fifty years time, whether Moscow looks like Orange County or a crime ridden Minsk, an aged Ames and Taibbi will be able to sip their tea knowing that they shouldered and shone a functioning mirror on Russia when few would.
They'll deserve whatever comfort they get from the fact that they came, they saw, and broke a sweat. Which is about all you can ask for in this life.
Editor: Mark Ames (above, left), 34
Code name: Assrash
Bio: Born 1965 into the pre-apocalyptic world of suburban Northern California— the psychological equivalent of the flat bloc the Karate Kid moved into, except the pool was clean. Appears to have developed a healthy rage against his environment at an early age, ultimately running with the punk set at Berkeley in the late eighties, where he busied himself not getting laid, berating flaccid lefties, and plotting against the "Beigeocracy." Hooked up with a textbook Czech émigré ho named Radka and went to Prague with her. Returned to the States demoralized and broke. Moved to Russia and worked various scam jobs in a suit; was rejected by the expat daily Moscow Times and ended up launching the eXile after a short stint at the square nightlife mag Living Here.
Weapons: Possesses the hell-fire expat intensity so common in refugees from the Republik of California. Together with a powerful strain of herpes, also has devastating rant capability. If you fuck with him from around the corner, expect a word grenade; if you fuck with him from afar, you will be taken out at long-distance. Can consume mass quantities of smack/speed/drink and run mite infested marathons with nymphomaniac teeny bopping dyevushky. Will write about anything and anyone.
Honesty quotient: Very High.
Death Wish quotient: Moderate to High.
Editor: Matt Taibbi, (above, right) 31
Code name: Danny Aingel Dust
Bio: Born in Boston to a well-to-do journalistic family, probably a Brookline or Newton boy. Did sports and read Russian literature in school, where he seems to have played well with others. After college freelanced in Central Asia, ultimately going pro in the MBA (Mongolian Basketball Association). Worked a straight news desk at the tuck-in-your-shirt Moscow Times and moved to Living Here before teaming up with Ames at the eXile.
Weapons: By nature less of an acid pitbull than Ames; possesses journalistic bullshit detectors of Chomskian proportions. His "Press Review" is coated in Semtex and in a just world would vaporize careers. Humor capability is formidable; Traditional Jschool investigative skills solid. Nice guy exterior deceiving; will drop a neutron bomb in your navel that leaves only smoking boots, Repo Man style. Can take you out in two languages with ninjitsu or an M-60.