Thu Jun 12th, 2008 at 01:53:39 PM EST
This is dedicated to the one я люблю...
Anyone who has read almost anything I've ever written here, especially those diaries that are no longer with us (may they rest in peace), will know that I rely on The eXile for a significant portion of my content. Without The eXile, one wonders if the Odds & Ends would ever have existed at all. And not simply because of my copious reproduction of their feature stories. At a vulnerable time in my life I began reading the eXile, and it has shaped my entire philosophy of writing, which is ... give me a minute ... uhm ... that the only requirements of good writing are that one be smart and have some sense of humour about one's self. Or ... maybe it is that it is effective to use humour when tackling serious subjects. Or maybe that tackling a serious subject now and then should get you off the hook for flying in the face of all that is decent and dignified the rest of the time. ... Or maybe it is this: just write whatever insanity you want. It's a free country. Someone will read it.
The eXile showed up on the scene after I came back from Moscow. I'd been in America a few months and reeling from culture shock and homesickness. I was living in a town of 2000 people. No one I knew there had been to Russia, let alone through the chaos that was 1990's Moscow. It was like coming back from Nam, without the parade. Then my mother (may she rest in peace), who ran a computer lab for disabled students at the local university and was therefore several years ahead of the technology curve than I (who did not "believe in" the Internet - true) came home one day with this stack of printouts. She'd been worried about my transition back to civil society, and found this site where they were talking about all of the lawlessness and hedonism I'd been trying to make some sense of myself. These were Americans living in Moscow and writing about it. My mom read Playboy for the articles back in the day, right, so she became a fan of The eXile even before I learned of its existence.
The eXile is notorious for its misogyny and lewd frat-boy humour. I voted for Hillary Clinton, despite disagreeing with her on a number of issues, because she was a woman. My inner feminist kicked my inner everything else's ass. I'm one of those people Kos refers to as "the womens' studies set." In fact, I not only took some womens' studies classes, I excelled in them to the point that my TA was trying to bribe me to take over her job. And yet, here I was, looking forward to each new disgustingly misogynistic issue of The eXile like it was a cracker and I had not eaten in two weeks. Why? Because it was a validation that I had not just hallucinated the previous year. Seriously, every MSM news item on Russia was all about how totally super and just like us everything was there. These journalists were either lying outright, or there were two countries called Russia. This was about a year before the economy TANKED. The eXile was ostensibly the first to "break" that story, but like the current situation in the US, anyone who'd been living there recently knew it was only a matter of time... Also, reading The eXile assured me that even if Russia had permanently messed up my head, I wasn't alone. These guys were certifiably insane. Mad. Maybe even evil... Certainly brilliant. And you know how I dig the crazy/evil/brilliant combo. Hot. Plus, they were good writers, impressive journalists when the mood caught them, and unbelievably funny. Like, make you writhe and shed tears irreverent. And you know how I like irreverent. Hot.
Worth noting, perhaps, is a curious, if not petty, animosity between 2 classes of expats in Russia at that time, and perhaps even to this day. I sense it in the fora I invite myself into. There were the establishment types, usually conservative, people seriously concerned about resumes and reputable professional employment. People who worked at the embassy or Moscow Times. They had a Very Good Reason to be in Russia, took appropriate interest in historical matters, and went to the Bolshoi. Then there were people who probably should never have been let in to the country to begin with, who had some vague reason for being there amounting to a general disdain for America and an obsession with Russian lit. Who, in addition taking appropriate interest in historical matters and the Bolshoi, also partied like the world just might end tomorrow. In a city where vodka cost less than water, gangsters were mowing down people in public and a recent bombing of the US embassy was material for jokes, this did not seem like a far-flung possibility. We were just riding the wave. No one knew what the laws were from one day to the next, so why fret over doing things you were pretty confident were not legal in most civil societies. You were just as likely to be arrested just for standing at the bus stop and looking foreign as you were to be for partaking of actual crimes. Anyway, when was the next time you were ever going to be able to get high with a famous Georgian artist? To such people, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi were simply more genuine characters than those people who always smelled way too clean to be part of the "real" Russia.
So, all this brings me to something I've been cursing about in the Open Threads. Something I think deserves a diary. Particularly since the only interesting thing Putin has done recently is being mistaken for the President of Germany by quite possibly the next leader of the free world. So I'm short on material. Which makes the possible termination of The eXile even more dire!
It all began a few days ago with an article in The Moscow Times in which Mark Ames, editor of The eXile, was whining about being audited and painting a picture of imminent doom for the paper.
Investigators Target eXile For Possible Violations.
Mark Ames, editor and founder of The eXile, was scheduled to meet Thursday with inspectors from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage, he said by telephone Wednesday.
Ames said he did not know why the service had taken a sudden interest in The eXile, which just celebrated its 11th anniversary.
"It could be one of the many people we've pissed off over the last months or years," said Ames, a U.S. citizen who launched the newspaper in 1997.
The eXile's staff received a letter from the service last week announcing an "unscheduled inspection" to check whether the newspaper had violated media laws or its license, Ames said.
A four-person commission must reach its conclusion by June 11, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Moscow Times.
Repeated calls to a phone number listed on the letter were not answered Wednesday, and a spokesman for the service did not answer repeated calls to his cell phone.
An official initially said the paper would have to provide Russian translations of all its back issues, Ames said.
Told it would be impossible to translate "zillions" of issues, the official said inspectors would meet with the editor instead and have him explain "different articles," Ames said.
Ames said he did not know which articles were of interest to the inspectors, but he suggested that one possibility were columns by Eduard Limonov, founder of the banned National Bolshevik Party and a vehement Kremlin foe.
He conceded that many other eXile editions could have riled the authorities.
The eXile, which publishes Gonzo-style journalism on topics such as drugs, prostitution and Moscow nightlife side-by-side with political analysis, has often pushed the limits of decency -- not to mention libel law.
Ames said he feared that this could mean the end of The eXile.
"I get the general sense that they have decided it's time to shut us down, that they're not going to tolerate us anymore," he said.
Suffice it to say I freaked out, which I assume was the desired effect. I thought the timing was odd. Why now? Why not earlier? Wasn't Medvedev just signing a freedom of the press bill or something? I saw it on the BBC - it must be true. I also had trouble believing the truth of anything printed in The Moscow Times. A paper The eXile is notoriously loathsome of, btw. Why the hell is Mark Ames over at The Moscow Times with his sob story? Is it a ruse? A prank? A true story? These are our best witnesses?
So I went over to the experts and asked about. No one seemed to know anymore than I did. This is a pattern with experts and non-experts. Which may say more about Russia than its experts...
BTW, "Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage." Am I the only person who gets a kick outta these names?
Soon after, Ames began posting status reports on Radar Online. (Hat Tip: Sean's Russia Blog)
A Troublesome Visitor
In my opinion, this is the real reason they're moving to shut us down. What offends the Russian elite more than anything about the Exile is its aggressive refusal to play by the "serious" rules. The authorities can deal with serious print-media criticism of the Kremlin--so long as that media outlet makes everyone look serious and respectable, with serious dull language quoting serious dull think-tank analysts. These days, Russia is all about getting serious and respectable. And it's also in the grips of a national persecution mania, in which grievances and complexes about the West have exploded into a kind of mass grievance obsession, a frenzied Easter egg hunt for evidence of Western disrespect or unfairness in order to feed this grievance jones. The fact that our paper has also exerted a lot of bile in savaging the West's Russophobe industry is irrelevant to them, even annoying; all they care about is sifting for evidence of humiliating Russia.
In the current climate, the authorities don't need to jail or destroy you; all they need to do is notify you that you've earned their attentionAt one point in the three-hour audit, they started leafing through our February Barack Obama issue, in which we posted a comparison chart of Russians and African Americans in order to tweak Russian racism (examples: "Blacks: Freed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863/Russians: Freed by Tsar Alexander II in 1861"; "Blacks: plastic covering on furniture/Russians: plastic covering on remote control").
The lady-bureaucrat, who headed the audit team, leafed through the issue ... and stopped when she saw a bad drawing of a semi-limp penis.
"What's this?" she asked, putting her glasses on.
"It's a column called 'The Recession Penis,'" I explained. "You see, the Recession Penis reacts to America's economic crisis, so every time American banks default and housing prices collapse, the Recession Penis gets more excited. It's, uh, humorous, you see."
She folded up the issue and handed it to her subordinate to bring back for the inspection.
From there, much of the meeting focused on all of the newspaper's petty administrative fuckups: missing addresses, missing license number, something should be in Russian here, a registration number there. In all, the violations led to a $25 fine, which was levied on me personally as editor-in-chief.
The official with the mullet took over one of our computers and typed up a "protocol," which essentially summed up our three-hour meeting. I signed it, only afterward wondering if in fact I'd signed some sort of confession admitting my role in a Trotskyite plot.
After all of the nervousness and fear in the buildup to the meeting, when the three hours were up and they got up to leave, we felt fairly confident. Too confident, in fact. Because today, I'm starting to think differently. I'm thinking this:
A: I live in a gangster police state that's hell-bent on being respected.
B: These people are now auditing my articles to see if they're extremist, pornographic, or if they humiliate Russia.
C: Before they left, they took our most recent issue, in which I wrote that the Exile "farts in Russia's face" and that Medvedev is so liberal our paper can "urinate into the president's mouth without any fear of consequences," and he's so small he should be "zipped up in a squirrel costume and put in a Habitrail."
THEREFORE, D: The California suburbs are sounding pretty nice to me.
Now it's like I have the Ebola virus. Longtime friends won't call, contributors want their names expunged from the online record. Even the American media is eerily silent about this story, despite the fact that one of their own is being attacked--could it be because we've spent 11 years savaging the Western media here? Or because we once threw a pie filled with horse sperm into the New York Times bureau chief's face? Just as a single controversial article in Russkii Korrespondent led its rather brash billionaire backer to immediately shut it down last month, so this single audit means that the Exile is now, after 11 years, dead.
The biggest fear of every foreigner in Russia is becoming the focus of Kremlin attention. Any attention. Russians fear it as well, but they've internalized it since birth and deal with it differently. Foreigners here operate with a kind of looter's mentality: On the surface is overconfidence derived from the general sense that there is no authority over us because we think that the Russian authorities would never mess with a Westerner, but underneath that arrogance is a constantly bubbling terror of being stopped at the border, turned back, and subjected to Russia's arbitrary and brutal state. It's such an alien country to Westerners that it's easy think you operate in some kind of H.P. Lovecraft-like parallel plane with the Russians: In one reality, the Westerners as the humans; in the other parallel reality, the Russians as those flying fanged eels. Now that my paper is being examined, it's as if everyone around me suddenly grew a giant pituitary gland, and all they see are Lovecraft's fanged eels orbiting around my head, snapping at anyone who comes near me.
Meanwhile, I'm still here in Moscow, waiting for the Kremlin's experts to audit my dead newspaper's articles.
"In my opinion, this is the real reason they're moving to shut us down. What offends the Russian elite more than anything about the Exile is its aggressive refusal to play by the "serious" rules. The authorities can deal with serious print-media criticism of the Kremlin--so long as that media outlet makes everyone look serious and respectable, with serious dull language quoting serious dull think-tank analysts. These days, Russia is all about getting serious and respectable."
This is why they are being shut down.
Then the next Radar posting:
The End Of The Exile
The Exile is shutting down. Last night I met with my Russian publisher to "put one in its brain," as George Romero's humans would say. Except that putting this paper down is not so easy--imagine if Romero's zombies had things like tax bills that can't be ignored, debts to pay off, favors owed to other important zombies--because you never know when you'll run into that zombie again.
The partners who'd financed us fled for the hills, leaving my publisher and me holding the debt-bomb in our hands. This is not an easy situation. As a rule, my publisher is unusually easy-going for a Muscovite, but he's also quite large and intimidating--I mean Baltimore Ravens defensive end large. He also runs a massive nightclub, and, well, let's just say that my publisher knows a lot of people, including a pal of his who runs the Rasputin Gentlemen's Club, a multi-floor fleshpot that is everything a male wishes the Winchester Mystery House would have been: rooms that lead to everywhere, to desires and fantasies that you never even knew you had, and that you'll never admit to the following morning. Rasputin is more than a strip-club and more than a Moscow institution: It's the apex of a flesh-network, involving scores of smaller, lesser strip clubs that feed into Rasputin like minor league teams feeding into the major league club. For nearly five years, from 2002 to 2007, my newspaper's office was located in the back of Rasputin's sex club; when we'd order business lunches during work hours, strippers in see-through negligees and glass high-heels brought Borsch and Kotleti to our offices for a mere 40 rubles ($1.50), leading one American former editor to spasm in dangerous palpitation sweats.
Point being: These are good friends to have, but bad enemies to make.
So when my publisher told me last night, "As far as I see it, the Exile's debts are yours as well, Mark," my little saga took a very unforeseen and unpleasant turn
"tax bills that can't be ignored, debts to pay off, favors owed to other important zombies"
This is why they are being shut down. Slightly modified story from that of the previous day.
Which is not to say that cannot both be true. Sean, as always, has some solid analysis of this meltdown at his blog. (If you are looking for less narcissistic, more reality-based coverage of these events, you should go read his blog instead.)
It is possible, probable, that the People In Charge would be happy if the The eXile went away forever. I imagine a lot of people would. But between "serious threat to government agenda" and "owe dangerous people a lot of money I don't have," one seems a slightly more plausible a reason for having to throw a fundraiser and leave the country asap. If the government really is trying to shut them down, citing decency laws and the like, shame on them. Not just for not respecting freedom of the press, but for being so utterly short-sighted about it. The eXile had been one of the few English language outlets pointing out how perverse and unfounded the "New Cold War" against Russia was. Great, so now Ames goes to California and publishes diatribes against Russia. In what way exactly is that helpful? I know what you are thinking. Uhm, Ames isn't going to have as much serious influence anywhere he goes. Precisely. Were Russian citizens waking up and reading The eXile and turning against their government? No. This paper was not a threat, even with Limonov writing in it. Limonov and Ames themselves may indeed be threats to society. I'll give them that. So why not revoke Ames's visa? And really, how much does it cost to run a paper like that? We're running this joint for ... well, I'm not getting paid anything ... Hey, maybe Jerome can finance The eXile! Problem solved.
This, well, actually, the previous, Administration(s) had a habit of using the old "forgot to pay your bills" strategy to shut down or take over any number of businesses that stood in the way of their agenda. Except those businesses were, usually lucrative or headed by people who posed a viable threat to their power. Maybe they are moving on to more lameass hostile takeovers, bored with pushing Oligarchs about. Maybe they are drunk on power and just did this cuz they can. Maybe they have nothing better to do. They see all those Politkovskaya books and are pissed off and want to take it out on someone, and they can't take it out on her because someone already did. I don't know. It's certainly much more fun to talk about conspiracies than unpaid bills.
Don't get me wrong!
If there is one thing Russia knows how to do well, it is invent obscure, random and scary laws and then use them to scare the bejeezus out of you. They don't even need to convict you with anything to accomplish this. All Americans have an innate fear of Russia; it is in our blood. Or maybe it is in one of those vaccines they give every infant. Even those of us who passionately love Russia experience this fear. Especially so, because having been there, we're more likely to have been on the receiving end of scary Russian bureaucracy. Most people think Russia's most dangerous weapons are nukes and poisoned tipped umbrellas. But really they are visas. Or guns. And in my case, visas and guns in tandem. Americans are also born with an innate belief in the freedom of speech. Or maybe it is in one of those vaccines they give every infant. We'll lay down our lives fighting for the right to say unbelievably stupid and offensive things. So any American who catches the Russia bug has my sympathy. You are fucked, my friend. It's poetically tragic. It's like Romeo and Juliet, only if Juliet had scorned Romeo. It's that pathetically sad! Trust me, I feel for Mark. I really do.
Here's another post-mortem from The Moscow Times (where I imagine they can't get enough of this story as it both supports their agenda AND provides endless hours of Schadenfreude.)
After 11 Years, eXile Closes Amid Financial Worries and Government Probe.
One of the federal inspectors, Irina Pavlova, said Wednesday that the inspection was complete but declined to say what conclusions the inspectors had reached.
Asked for her personal impressions of The eXile, she simply said, "It's a normal newspaper."
If inspectors uncover violations, they could issue The eXile a warning. A second warning within the next year could result in the paper's license being revoked, effectively shutting it down.
Without the support of investors, however, it appears the newspaper has shut down already.
"This is sad," said Andrei Richter, head of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, when told about the closure.
Richter expressed surprise that investors had pulled funding for the paper, saying that the inspection was not that serious.
"There was nothing to be afraid of," he said. "Inspections by [the service] do not lead to prison sentences or serious fines. The maximum they can do is to issue a warning, and then after several months, to try and shut down the media outlet in court."
In previous interviews, Ames has said he had no idea what motivated the government inspection.
"It's kind of a strange feeling to be the subject of a government audit of your articles," said Ames, who added that he had been busy taking calls from journalists since the story broke.
Still, Ames did not hesitate to declare the newspaper a martyr for freedom of speech, choosing his words in typically sacrilegious fashion.
"The eXile is the Jesus Christ of English-language publications," he said.
This is very upsetting. They wait until they shut down to come up with that motto!?!? They are brilliant even in death.
The Exile's Future Is In Your Hands
Because the government audit has scared someone somewhere forcing the paper to close shop, the fine folk at The eXile are ... holding a fundraiser. Get your bakesale on, people.
From the little devil on my shoulder:
"Did you believe the paper had shut down? Did you believe the author-i-tays were after them for their gratuitous use of T&A? Did you believe the Kremlin has personally targeted Mark Ames because of his dangerously independent reporting? Then you are JUST the person who believes you can save this paper by donating to their PayPal fundraiser! This way, they can take your money and if they stay in business, they can thank you and go party with it, and if they are shut down forever, they can blame the MAN and go party with it. And you get the satisfaction of having defended freedom of speech by paying the bills they never did. Sweet delicious freedom of speech!!!"
DONATE! Now. Or I'll sic the President from Germany on you. Rawr!
From someone who has a much better seat at this show than I and my little devil:
I'm calling in an urgent request for reinforcements, before we're overrun. The eXile, my HQ since I started this column, has been sucker-punched by a bunch of squeamish bureaucrats and anonymous complainers. You know the type, the kind of people who'll poison your dog but don't have the guts to come to your door. Looks like this Fifth Column is winning, and we'll be forced to retreat from Moscow. And you know how messy retreats from Moscow can get. Ask the Little Corporal; he left the Kremlin with half a million men and came home with about enough for a high-school marching band.
Well, the Bible gives clear instructions on what to do if the locals spit on you for trying to help'em out. It's right there in the Book, in fact the Book of Mark, Chapter 6 if I recall, makes for a nice Mark-Ames tie-in, huh? Here's what the Bible says:
"And whosoever shall not hear you, when ye depart, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily, It shall be easier for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for them."
Ya hear that, Moscow, ya ungrateful place? We're shakin' your dust from our 'Nam boots and setting up a new site somewhere not so allergic to truth, boobs and gory jokes. Maybe we can get Eritrea to give us a home. I volunteer to be the eXile's Eritrean rep right now.
The thing is, it takes money and we have none, zero, aren't even getting paid any more. We need help. That's what this mayday is about. You want us in the foxhole with you, fighting against all that's good and decent in the name of all that's funny and honest? Then cough it up, soldier!
--Gary Brecher, The War Nerd
Give thee verily to the martyrs, ye good people of freedomistan.
Don't even make me reference that "First they came for the Communists..." poem. Rarw!
I would actually give them some money, if I weren't in debt to my own scary zombies, known in America as the "Federal Student Loan Administration." How mediocre, huh? Why can't we have something called "The Ministry of Education and Extortion" or something fun like that? If you're going to be evil, you should at least have a witty name. Own it.
"Ahem. Poemless," you inquire ... verrrrrrry gently, "does this mean your days as a Putin apologist are numbered? Since he's shutting down your favorite paper and all?" dramatic pause "Does this mean you are forced to admit they have some freedom of speech issues like in the Soviet Union like everyone's been saying?"
I know. A crisis of faith, that's what this is. Someone get me a tissue. sniff. Thanks.
Look, if I had supported Putin because of his valiant struggle for the freedom of the press I would never have supported Putin. In fact, I dig him for pretty much the same reasons I dig The eXile: he's crazy, brilliant, irreverent, maybe a little evil. Moreover, he has some fabulous biceps. And when he's not busy standing up to threats like Mark Ames (cough), he is standing up to the Bush Administration or our own wackos in the media. Have you seen his arms? And crime is down and the economy is up. And who can blame him for being fed up with people wanting to make Russia look bad? Russians are still the bad guys in the movies! They have their work cut out for them. No, this changes nothing. Against all logic, I remain a fan of both our protagonists and our antagonists. And frankly, I'm not sure who's who in this matter.
Besides, looky here!
RIA Novosti: Putin pledges support for Russian-language press abroad
MOSCOW, June 10 (RIA Novosti) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged on Wednesday the government's support for Russian-language foreign press.
"We plan to provide every support for Russian-language press while respecting their right to independent coverage, including that of events taking place in Russia... and respecting the legislation and sovereignty of the countries in which they work," Putin said.
Speaking at a reception organized for members of the International Congress of Russian Press, which took place in Moscow earlier on Wednesday, Putin also said media produced in the Russian language were capable of taking leading positions in global journalism.
"Russia is a major newsmaker in the modern world," the premier said. "I am sure, this is a good chance for the whole big Russian media 'family' to take a leading position in the global information market."
Putin invited journalists and press representatives from some 70 countries to contribute to promoting trust between nations and shaping a positive image of Russia.
Did I mention there was a freedom of the press conference in Russia yesterday? Well, I've got my "what's up with the timing of this?" question answered. Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe Ames just looks like an opportunist for no good reason at all... He's not having a good week either way.
Wait, according to this article, all he has to do is move to California, publish in Russian, and he'll have the full support of the Administration? Besides having to live in America and publish in a language no one in American can read, what's the problem here, exactly? Sheesh. BTW, someone should probably inform Putin of the fact that no one abroad really understands Russian. You can take all the leading positions you want, darling, but mostly, people just see Cyrillic and think of Scary Russians. Perhaps what we are witnessing is a government which is simply entirely ignorant of the concept of journalism. Let us not attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. Be it ours or theirs. Although, as I survey the landscape of my own great country, I am forced to admit, they are sooo not mutually exclusive. Whatever the reason, it sucks if Ames &Co. have to leave Moscow. This is not really the best time to decide to up and move to America. I sure hope they are putting some of their fundraiser earnings aside for a Gitmo bail fund.
Best. Epitaph. Ever.
Former editor Matt Taibbi has said that operating a periodical in Russia was much easier without the burden of American libel laws. Similarly, Ames asserted in his article "Democracy Sucks" that "we'd be sued out of existence within a few weeks of appearing in any Western democracy, but here in Russia, in the so-called kleptocracy, the power elite has been too busy stealing and killing to give a fuck about us, allowing us to fly around the capital beneath their radar, like a cruise missile. A real democracy would never let us get off the ground."
Hahaha! Maybe Freedom of the Press has gone to the dogs in Russia, but Democracy seems to be alive and well! And here you were thinking they had something to do with each other. Silly people...
OK, thanks for reading! Have a lovely weekend, mes amis!