End of "The eXile" era - 2008

Report on "The eXile" in Rolling Stone (1998) :

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                END OF "THE EXILE" ERA

 By Owen Matthews*

       June 24, 2008 in The St Petersburg Times

*Owen Matthews, author of “Stalin’s Children,” is Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek magazine.

   So farewell, The eXile. An era has ended, and we shall not see its like again. After over a decade of delivering caustic comment, childish pranks and more information than we perhaps wanted and needed to know about the editors’ sex lives and drug habits, Moscow’s original alternative expat newspaper is finally being shut down.

Four inspectors from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage recently visited The eXile’s offices, wanting to know about Eduard Limonov, a long-time contributor to the newspaper whose radical National Bolsheviks form the last remnants of Russia’s real opposition.

The inspectors were investigating whether the newspaper violated Article 4 of the Law on Mass Media, which bans media outlets from promoting extremism, pornography or narcotics. The writing was on the wall.

Is the paper guilty? Hell yes — at least by the puritanical standards of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The eXile was a biweekly dish of political gossip (often surprisingly incisive), grim reports from the country’s underbelly and amphetamine-fueled vitriol against Middle America. It was also heavily laced with pornography, satirical graphics and outrageous club reviews penned by a series of fictional correspondents.

This was the paper that created the “Death Porn” column, a compendium of the week’s most gruesome crimes illustrated with police photos. Its most recent issue hailed the early arrival of “snapper season,” complete with photos of naked provincial girls taken from the “Dyevscovery Channel.”

In one of their most famous pranks, the editors made a cream pie mixed with horse sperm and threw it in the face of New York Times bureau chief Michael Wines. The journalistic offenses Wines had committed are long forgotten, but the memory of the pictures of him licking cream off his fingers lingers on.

Former editor Matt Taibbi, posing as a sports promoter, once persuaded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to sign up as a motivational coach for the New York Jets.

And, in the later, darker years, The eXile chronicled Mark Ames’ epic odyssey to celebrate the paper’s ninth anniversary by sleeping with nine whores in nine hours, armed with a pocketful of Viagra, $450 in expenses and a digital camera. (For the record, he failed.)

But The eXile’s mission was more than just to shock. It ran Yasha Levine’s 2007 piece on working as a gypsy cab driver on Moscow’s nighttime streets — as powerful a piece of city reporting as I’ve read anywhere.

In addition, Taibbi’s report from the distant mines of Vorkuta in the aftermath of the 1998 crisis delivered a level of detail and raw empathy that no mainstream reporter had matched.

And an antic experiment to hire prostitutes to come and spend an hour writing short fictional stories in The eXile offices instead of their usual work — printed in the paper under the headline “Whore-R-Stories” — actually produced deeply moving, pathetic little tales of provincial despair

U.S. author and journalist Tom Wolfe said, “There are only two adjectives writers care about anymore — brilliant and outrageous.” The eXile was both. But it was also an anachronism. Indeed, it was a minor miracle that it should have survived so long.

Even before the paper’s demise, I couldn’t think of it as anything but a child of its time, vibrating to the deep, doomed rhythms of a specific moment. It could never have happened anywhere else but the Moscow of the mid-1990s.

Like the city itself, The eXile was vulgar, venal and violent. It was also manic, obscene, uproarious and mammon-obsessed. But above all, it was only by soaking up enough of the penetrating cynicism of that time that all of Russia’s tragedies could seem, on some level, darkly amusing.

Moscow, I found, seemed to attract people who were ferociously smart but often hungry and damaged, fleeing failure or trying to prove something to the world. Russia — especially the Russia that created The eXile — certainly had a definite appeal for anyone with a dark streak of gross irresponsibility and self-destructiveness. And if you had these traits, there was nothing to stop you from indulging them. It was a weird Godless world where values went into permanent suspended animation and you were terrifyingly free to explore the nastiest recesses of your own black heart. Like a traumatic love affair, it seemed to change people forever. Like a drug, it would be exhilarating at first. Then, as it wore on, it reclaimed the buzz it had given, with interest.

Despite the good times, Moscow got its revenge on its new masters, insidiously screwing with foreign psyches. You’d see how young men, who had arrived as cheery, corn-fed boys, would, within a year, adopt that hardened, taciturn look that one usually associates with circus people.

Selfish young hedonists quickly turned into selfish psychotic monsters — too much sexual success, money, vodka, drugs and cynicism in too short a time. Ames lived it and wrote about it. He described his encounters with heroin, teenage prostitutes and speed with a savage self-loathing and fueled, in his own words, by “vanity and spleen.”

The story of The eXile is the story of an earlier, pre-boom Moscow, before gourmet supermarkets and sushi restaurants sprouted on every corner. The eXile was born in a place that was dark, vibrant and absolutely compelling. The money, the sin and the beautiful people — it was doomed, apocalyptic and transiently beautiful. The incandescent energy of the pretty, deluded party kids whom the paper wrote about could have lit up this blighted country for a century if channeled into anything other than self-destruction and oblivion.

They were indeed strange and savage times, to borrow a phrase from U.S. author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. And Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi were their greatest chroniclers.

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   Exit The Exile, pursued by Russian bear

Moscow’s satirical paper faces closure 


It has survived a 1999 front page demanding that Boris Yeltsin "Die Already" and a cover photo depicting Vladimir Putin in a Hitler-Jugend outfit. But a couple of months into the reign of the supposedly liberal Dmitry Medvedev, it looks like time is finally up for The Exile.

An 'unplanned inspection' of the Moscow-based English-language newspaper and its editorial content two weeks ago has caused its Western investors to flee in terror, said Mark Ames, an American citizen who founded the paper and is still its editor.

"The investors all told me that they love the paper but that they didn't want to be the subject of a government investigation as they have too much to risk," said Ames. "The newspaper is dead."

Ames (right) was fined a measly $22 for administrative violations but there is a chance that the editorial staff could be charged on anti-extremism and pornography laws. The check was more likely a scare tactic, and it looks like it's worked.

The cult fortnightly publication was set up in 1997 and ever since has dished up excellent political analysis mixed with outrageous pranks, always pushing the boundaries of good taste. With columns such as 'War Nerd', 'Death Porn' and 'Whore-R Stories' the newspaper has always disgusted many.

It also featured unedited columns in broken English by opposition radical leader Eduard Limonov, who has previously been jailed.

"They wanted to know why we publish Limonov," said Ames.

"They also said that we mock and humiliate Russia." According to the editor, the investigators were particularly confused by the 'Recession Penis', a recurring section featuring a male gland that got bigger or smaller in line with the American economic crisis. "They kept asking what it meant," he said.

The paper has also targeted many Western correspondents in Moscow for what it sees as sloppy and anti-Russian coverage of politics here. Its journalists have even slapped a pie full of horse sperm into the face of one American correspondent, and in recent months have targeted a British journalist who they allege regularly plagiarises their articles.

The paper's last issue mocked Medvedev's words on a new, liberal era, suggesting that Russia was now so free that the publication could "urinate in the president's mouth".

What surprises most people is that it's taken 11 years for the Russian authorities to move against the newspaper. But even those who despised the publication will have to concede that Moscow will be duller without The Exile. ·