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Exile and the New Russia

Posted on February 26 2010 6:47 pm
Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine.
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The latest Vanity Fair carries an amusing and appropriately graphic account of the life and death of Exile, a now-defunct, Moscow-based English language newspaper run by American expatriates that managed to piss off a lot of people – usually, but not always, for bad reasons – in its short and mostly obscure decade-long existence. As a Russian immigrant myself, I occasionally read the paper’s online version, finding it mostly crass and vulgar, which, in fairness, was rather the idea. If nothing else, the Vanity Fair piece is worth reading for the antics of Exile’s editors, the now estranged pair of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi (pictured above), and its cast of colorful contributors. Not for the squeamish:

Writer Kevin McElwee, an American expatriate, had both legs broken when he was torn from the side of a building he was scaling to escape an angry mob of Muscovites, an incident that had nothing to do with anything he’d written—McElwee, The Exile’s film reviewer, was just a rambunctious drunk. On another occasion, a deranged and slighted man sent a letter promising to kill the “frat boy” Ames. Ames in turn published an editorial urging the loon to instead off his co-editor, Matt Taibbi. True, the many death threats Ames received took less of a physical toll on him than loading up on Viagra and attempting to bed nine Moscow prostitutes in nine hours, which he wrote about to commemorate The Exile’s ninth anniversary, but that was only because Ames approached the assignment with a rigor befitting a Consumer Reports exposé—“There really was no other way to tell whether these drugs actually worked,” he recalls with sincerity and audible exhaustion.

You don’t even want to know what they did to the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent.

Seen as a kind of pseudo-journalistic lark, Exile might be considered a raunchy footnote in the history of pre-internet independent media. Alas, the paper could also be militantly self-righteous about its politics, an embarrassing combination of uniquely American self-loathing, moral relativism, free-floating cynicism, and a crude anarcho-leftism that raged against free-markets and capitalism as the root of all evil – and, more specifically, the cause of Russia’s disintegration in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Examples abound, but one in particular comes to mind: Exile editor Matt Taibbi’s long-running and astonishingly petty smear campaign against Stanford University’s Russia scholar Michael McFaul, currently an advisor to President Obama on Russia. McFaul’s grave sin was to lament the rise of Russian autocracy under Vladimir Putin and compare the current era of Russian politics unfavorably with the transition of the 1990s presided over by the late Boris Yeltsin. For all its flaws, and they were substantial, the Yeltsin era at least saw the country make some halting strides towards openness and democracy, progress that has long since been arrested under Putin’s nakedly corrupt and corporatist rule. Yeltsin was an imperfect democrat, McFaul pointed out, but the government he lead was “unquestionably more democratic than the Russian regime today.”

The point seems inarguable, but it was too much for Exile, which mocked McFaul as a clueless “hackademic” peddling myths about a past that never was. (Taibbi, with typical tastelessness, also took to falsely claiming in the paper’s pages that he had slept with McFaul’s wife.) In a country that was rapidly losing what few civil liberties it had managed to gain in the 90s, the McFaul feud might seem like a sleazy distraction from more substantive concerns. But it was Exile’s way to direct more – or at least equal – ire at Western critics of Russia’s relapse into authoritarianism as at the ex-KGB thugs who were leading the country down that darkly familiar path.

Exile’s editors realized that only too late. In one of its final issues, the paper lampooned the “election” of Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, by reporting the voting results in advance – a good gag that was not appreciated by the powers that be. Last June, the paper was visited by a Russian media regulator – one example of many of Soviet-style recidivism under Putin – and warned that it may have run afoul of Article Four of the country’s new media law. Exile’s few backers got the message, and withdrew funding. The paper closed shortly thereafter. As Mark Ames put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the time:

“If this had happened 10 years ago, people would not have been afraid to fight it. Now there’s a fear that all the power is in the hands of a few scary people who might do something very bad to you.”

The Yeltsin era, apparently, wasn’t so bad after all.

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