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.
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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