Bright Lights. Red Square

Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi chronical Post-Soviet Moscow parties in their controversial newspaper

The show/concert 'our old capital' in Red Square is part of the festival celebrating the 850th anniversary of Moscow in 1997. Credit: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

ON A MOSCOW STREET CALLED STARAYA BASMANAYA, THERE'S AN ARMENIAN RESTAURANT. Above it, on the second floor, there's a cluttered office where every other Sunday you will find Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi brainstorming. Floating on the mass of litter that covers their desks are Pringles tubes, bottled water, Marlboro Lights and amphetamines – essentials of the overdrive diet that will see the two Americans through to deadline, sixty hours away. By then they need to churn out a twenty-four-page issue of The eXile Moscow's biweekly alternative English-language tabloid aimed at the 100,000 or so expat Westerners living in Moscow. Ames and Taibbi have been crashing deadlines since February 1997, holding a mirror up to the metropolis that Ames calls "manic, nihilistic, grostesque, horrible; and yet, in its own way, far superior to any other city on Earth."

Not that Moscow looks superior. Gloomy rows of Stalin-era apartment blocks are now absurdly crowned with billboards for Coke and Christ. The broad boulevards, built to accommodate columns of Red Army tanks, are now choked with Bangkok-like gridlock. On the sidewalks, young soldiers beg for change, kiosks peddle hypodermic needles, and grandmothers lurk in the shadows beneath bridges, selling drugs. This city of 10 million has, by some estimates, leeched off eighty-four percent of the former Soviet Union's wealth, leaving the country in such a sorry predicament that stories of cannibalism don't even make the front pages anymore and the life expectancy of the average Russian male has dropped from sixty-eight years in 1985 to fifty-seven today. This August's near total meltdown of the Russian economy delivered the crushing blow to what had already statistically crunched out to be the worst depression any in dustrialized nation has suffered this century. Since 1989, Russia's gross domestic product has fallen by fifty percent.

In the weeks following the surprise devaluation of the ruble, trading was halted on the Russian stock exchange three times, the currency lost half of its value, and the government could not pay off foreign creditors. Prices on consumer goods shot up thirty-six percent, and the world was treated to images of Muscovites pounding on the locked doors of their banks, hoping to empty their accounts while the money still meant something. For Ames and Taibbi, who months earlier had predicted and even supported a Russian default on foreign loans, it was a depressing vindication of their prognoses; but it also marked the beginning of the end of an era that The eXile had captured as no other paper had.

But through it all, the newly rich Muscovites and arriviste Westerners have been feeding at the nation's carcass to create a desperate, nonstop party. Seventy years of communism have succeeded in in obliterating any notion of saving for the future: Money is worth only what it will buy right now, and a whole industry of bars, clubs, casinos and whorehouses has sprung up to relieve the new rich of their American $100 bills. Ames and Taibbi take the raw material of this decadent new Moscow and convert it into 25,000 instantly snapped-up free issues of The eXile, consisting of misogynist rants, dumb pranks, insulting club listings and photos of blood-soaked corpses, all redeemed by political reporting that's read seriously not only in Moscow but also in Washington.

In their year and a half as co-writers and -editors, Ames and Taibbi have developed a routine: "research" anything to do with nightclubs, intoxicants or messy death for ten days, then panic for two days, then write for two. This is what they sound like in the panic phase, sweating out ideas against time and blank pages: "How about we drive around in a car with a corpse, put piano wire around its neck and see how many bribes we have to pay the police to keep driving," Taibbi suggests.

Ames giggles, "Fuck the corpse, just the head."

"By the way, we got another death threat today."

"Tell them to take a number."

LAST APRIL, WHICH TO MOST AMERICANS LIVING IN MOSCOW SEEMS A Life-time ago, I stood with Ames and Taibbi on a slushy street, hailing a cab. They're a menacing pair – both are well over six feet tall, broad shouldered, with all-day five o'clock shadows. Taibbi, 28 has a round face, small teeth and a laugh loud enough to turn heads in restaurants. Ames, 33, is psychologically and physically the darker of the two – the Sephar-dic part of his heritage makes him stand out among the pale Slavs, and in Moscow anyone darker than a Slav gets targeted for a shakedown by cops. "The last time, I didn't have change, and, of course, the cunts wouldn't break a hundred," Ames complains.

Finally a battered Lada swerves out of the passing stream of Mercedes, Toyotas and Volgas, and Ames and Taibbi slip across midafternoon Moscow on bald tires, headed to the Ostankino television studios. They've been invited to guest on a Russian talk show called Pro Eto, which means "about it." The it refers to sex. Ames and Taibbi, who speak Russian well enough to talk on television, will be prodded to reveal how making it with Russian women compares with love American style. The invitation to appear on the show was prompted by an article Ames wrote called "Army of Darkness: Moscow's Ugly Americans," published in Ptyutch, a hip Russian magazine. A sex life that might seem normal to a Russian, says Ames, "is for us forbidden and unheard-of, and laced with a lot of guilt. I was trying to let Russians into the mind of the average American nerd in the bar scene in Moscow, what happens to nerds when they come here and they're suddenly given the opportunity to live like Slash or something, like a second-tier heavy-metal guitarist playing at the Whisky-a-Go-Go and then being able to choose from teenage girls afterward." Ames grew up in the "bland and stultifying" suburbs of San Jose, California, tried his hand at grad school and then enrolled in a creative-writing program at Boston University. A Czech girlfriend brought him to Prague in 1992, but don't get him started. "Prague?" He compresses his dark, heavy brows and drops his voice into a snarl that's pretty much second nature. "Prague is a bunch of American English teachers sitting around in cafes, using the word Kafkaesque a lot. There's nothing Kafkaesque about it – nothing strange ever happens there. Moscow isn't Kafkaesque, either. Moscow is Dahmer-esque."

Because it caters – and panders – to a narrow expat subgroup (American male twentysomething bankers and brokers), The eXile enrages many other readers – not least of all the tight circle of American media correspondents. Still, Andrew Meier, Time's Moscow correspondent, says that "no one describes expat life in Moscow better than The eXile. They hit it right on its ugly head." Another American reporter told me, "They're Beavis and Butt-heads, not journalists." But love it or hate it, The eXile has become a must-read for Moscow's Western press corps because in every issue, Taibbi – under the pen name Abram Kalashnikov-serves up a savage critique of the ways American journalists misreport the stories they file for audiences back home.

Most issues of The eXile also present a feature-length portion of Taibbi's reporting, some of the toughest, angriest, out-on-a-limb investigative journalism to come out of the new Russia. Where Ames' obsessions are darkly sexual, Taibbi's are political. In college, Taibbi volunteered on one of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. His father is longtime NBC reporter Mike Taibbi. "I grew up with a dad who raked muck and loved it when rich guys got fucked," he says.

Taibbi's pieces portray the way the wealth of the former Soviet Union has been snatched up by the same elites who ran the country under communism. He is one of the few Westerners whose stories are regularly picked up in the Russian media. His two biggest scoops include an expose of corruption in a World Bank-sponsored investor-protection fund overseen by Western advisers and an explosive allegation of bribery involving an American banker. "The Russians picked up that story all over the place," Taibbi says. "But the Western papers were all talking about how it's just shady reporting and doesn't prove anything."

On our way to the TV studio, Taibbi talks about why he came to Russia. "When I started reading Gogol, I decided I wanted to be a comic writer," he says. "I wanted to be the great pain in the ass of American history. The eXile is the perfect starting point." He arrived in Russian as a student in 1990, started stringing for Western newspapers, learned Russian and eventually ended up at the Moscow Times, the city's English-language daily. Four years later, he quit to play pro basketball in Mongolia for seventy-five dollars a month, where the broadcast of pirated NBA-playoff videos had created a basketball frenzy. "The Mongolian Basketball Association is the only other league in the world playing NBA rules," Taibbi says. "Even that goofy thing where you can call a timeout as you're flying out of bounds." Eventually he developed complications from pneumonia, dropped thirty pounds, nearly died, returned to the States for a lifesaving operation, recovered and ended up back in Moscow, hired to edit a weekly called Living Here.

Mark Ames was Living Here's previous editor. He had split acrimoniously with the publisher and had just launched The eXile. When Taibbi's first Living here and Ames' third eXile came out on the same day, the two covers were nearly identical: blondes in leather. Ames phoned up Taibbi to suggest that they stop competing and work together.

At The eXile, they set out to break every taboo going. Each issue carries a column by Ames' idol, novelist Edward Limonov, often called the Henry Miller of Russia, whose seminal 1970s novel, It's Me, Eddie, is a benchmark in skank lit. "It's the bravest, sickest, most honest thing I've read – raw and totally amoral," Ames says. Here's an example: Limonov, who is fifty-five, explains how to stay healthy in middle age – "Throw away your old wife, never even look at overweight, wrinkled woman. Find yourself a pretty teenage girl and fuck here as often as you can." Most issues carry a feature called Death Porn, a look at Russia's natiest blood crimes, replete with snide captions tacked to photos of hacked-up corpses. Ames has defended Death Porn as a legiÈimate reflection of some innate Russian inability to be shocked by gore. "Murders so gruesome and shockingly stupid that they would plunge a Western nation into months of self-examination are, in Russia, as common as ... well, the common cold," he says. "Three family-hour TV shows are dedicated to Russian faces of death: You can watch naked rape-murder victims splayed in the blood-stained snow, severed heads and charred corpses while Junior studies his Pushkin."

Post-Soviet Russian has seen an explosion of a so-called yellow press, and many newspapers play recklessly with their facts. The eXile takes that freedom to another level, playing pranks on Russia's new rich, on Western PR firms and on other journalists. Their greatest coup in the art of getting powerful people to agree to really stupid ideas was the time Taibbi and Ames convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to enter into negotiations to become assistant coach in charge of perestroika with the New York Jets. But The eXile's bread and butter, the reason it turns a profit for its publisher, is the nightlife listings. Cruel, caustic and funny – not to mention sophomoric and obvious – the listings rate each club according to the three F's: the Foam Factor, the price of a beer; the Fahkie Factor, estimating your chances of getting laid; and the Flathead Factor ("Will you walk out alive?"), measuring the presence of Russian mafiosi.

One night, Ames took me to a club called Titanik, located in a bunker under the stands of a soccer stadium. Titanik has the most powerful roof in Moscow – roof being the term for the protection offered by an interlocking partnership of organized crime and public officials. The eXile gives Titanik the highest Flathead Factor – three stars – meaning, "If you so much as flinch, you're a dead man." At four o'clock, as Ames watched some models sponsored by a new Russian magazine called Cash and Fashion strut the stage above a dance floor jammed with what The eXile's listing describes as "babe-o-litas and their flathead keepers," he shouted to be heard above the generic house music: "I saw the ultimate flathead duet here one time – two guys dancing with handguns at each other's throats." It's the kind of Moscow moment that makes Ames feel like he's living in GoodFellas, a movie he's seen fifteen times.

The club's PR man, Stan, came up to take offense at The eXile rating of the place and also to complain about a recent sample of Ames' regular eXile column Moscow Babylon, which could be described as a lonely, angry rake's progress through an urban hell of whorish indulgence and sexual, emotional and physical violence. In the column that upset Stan, Ames recounted threatening to strangle a girlfriend if she didn't have an abortion. "I know that girl," Stan chided. "You should have at least changed her name. You're too cruel for Moscow." Ames shrugged it off but later said, "He's right. I should have changed her name."

A few minutes later, he was talking to a cute American girl who worked in marketing. He invited her back to his place to snort heroin. Another night, we were in a bar called the Hungry Duck, a big, oval-shaped, rough-planked drinking den, and Ames picked out a willowy Latvian blonde who'd joined the legions of other drunken, pretty things in clambering up to dance on the bar. She had the kind of "porcelain-pale, heroin-thin Russian vixen" beauty that Ames obsesses over in his column. Before long he had his head tilted back so she could lower the crotch of her leather pants onto his face. He asked her to go home with him. She declined, blaming an inconvenient moment to her monthly cycle. Ames' response: "That's all right, I'll fuck you in the ass." He's compelled, both in life and in his writing, to say these things for effect, to shock. As a consequence, he's not terribly successful as a lady's man.

AS THE CAB TO THE TELEVISION STUDIO passes a circular steel-and-glass structure, Taibbi points out the window and says, "See that building? It waÈ privatized for sixteen dollars. Some deputy of Gorbachev's got it."

Ames says, "There used to be a disco in it. I know a girl whose man was shot to death in there." Every young Muscovite has a similar story of direct contact with strange mayhem, he says, offering as an example one from an ex-girlfriend he calls Julia the Jail Girl. "They found her first husband's body without a head," Ames says. "She thinks he's still alive, that he absconded with a bunch of money, found some homeless person, cut off his head, put his clothes on him and dumped him in the river. To this day she suspects he split, and she's very hurt about it too. She feels he should have at least called her to tell her he was cutting somebody's head off and he wouldn't be seeing her anymore."

"We're gonna be late," Taibbi says.

"Fuck 'em, We're stars."

In the makeup chair at ProEto, the boys hear that they'll be sharing the stage with Jean MacKenzie, who writes a column called Confessions of a Russophile for the Moscow Times. Her column is a mainstream American single woman's take on Moscow and is frequently and ruthlessly parodied in The eXile.

"I feel so bad for Jean," says Taibbi.

"Never feel sorry," Ames shoots back.

"But the point of this show is that American guys come over here and Russian girls are just hotter than American women and have fewer complexes, and there's Jean, taking the other side – she's a middle-aged woman with anger lines."

She doesn't show for the taping. In the absence of a feminist foil, Ames does his best, at first, to be provocative. "It's like being in a porn film, having sex with a Russian girl," he says. Taibbi, on the other hand, suggests that Russian girls are "more passive in bed. Not more passive, more servile. No, that's not the right word, either" – he gets frustrated that his Russian is not up to the subtleties of describing intimate matters. Ames, much more practiced with the sound bite, concludes that "sex in America is like an ideological competition. It's unnatural, and it's not very interesting."

For the sake of balance, Pro Eto brought Jean Mackenzie into the studio the next day for the expat woman's point of view. "I understand that Mark and Matt swept the hall with their diatribe against American women," she tells me over the phone. "If they think we're disgruntled because idiots like them are trying to get laid by eighteen-year-olds, they're wrong." Saying she doesn't read The eXile because she doesn't want to be subjected to Ames' stories, she then refers to one about "spontaneous miscarriages and smeared fetuses on the walls."

The next day, I realy this comment to Ames. He starts digging through The eX-ile's files, which amount to a ragged computer box stuffed with random copies. Finding the back issue with the offending paragraph, he reads it aloud, as if expecting to be misquoted. Nope. Mackenzie is pretty close, except that she left out the "accompanying geysers of vomit" part. But he defends it on the grounds that the toilet miscarriage in a bar he's describing actually happened. "Writers like Jean ignore or censor anything that upsets their safe view of the world: that it's following a positive moral evolutionary graph," he says. "I tend to see things as moving backward morally. I've been hanging out with non-elite Russian youth on and off since I got here, and I still don't think I'm getting to the heart of the savagery." "Mark Ames should

move to New York and live under a bridge," Jean MacKenzie says. Accusing Taibbi of reporting "rumor and half-fact as fact," she concedes that he has" all kinds of potential, but he has to stop burning bridges."

Taibbi responds, "Without Mark, I'm inclined to be more cautious. With him, I have no choice but to burn bridges. His columns offend so many people that my association with him automatically makes me a pariah. I'd be upset about that except that the people who condemn Mark are closed minded and wrong."

"Jean says Matt is burning bridges," Ames says later. "She couldn't say, 'I admire the risks he's taking.'"

"When I left to go play pro basketball in Mongolia," says Taibbi, "the editor of the Moscow Times sat me down and told me, "You're ruining your career.' I said, 'By what possible standards can you say that going to play pro basketball in Mongolia is a worse move than staying here rewriting wire copy? What kind of a mind do you have to have to say that?"

"I think our generation is the worst of all, as far as groveling up the career ladder," Ames muses. "I don't know what the hell happened," says Taibbi, "In the Seventies it was All the President's Men – can you bring down the president? In the Nineties it's Up Close and Personal – can you get the vapid anchor job?"

"In a way it's kind of good that these beige types control so much," Ames suggests. "It leaves a lot of territory open for me and Matt."

AMES AND TAIBBI COUNT AMONG the "beigists" most of the corporate American press corps in Moscow. Before the big crash of August 17th, most Moscow correspondents were still clinging to the notion that to report on Russia, you needed an us and a them, good guys (pro-American free-market reformers) vs. bad guys (Communists in the Duma and anti-democratic nationalists). Taibbi and Ames have been using their paper to argue that the real story in Russia is the free-for-all clash within a small elite of corrupt oligarchs, who were usually called reformers because they mouthed platitudes about embracing the West.

Taibbi's disgust with the pro-reformer slant of the Western media reached its peak in March of this year, when he phoned Op-Ed writer Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post and asked him if he'd been paid off to write what Taibbi calls a "blow job" piece extolling thirty-seven-year-old "baby billionaire" Vladimir Potanin. Hiatt had called Potanin "one of the world's most influential businessmen, with interests in banking, oil, mining, newspapers and more."

Potanin, who ten years ago was a low-level Communist bureaucrat, now runs – among other things – the massive mining company Norilsk Nickel, which controls thirty-five percent of the world's copper reserves. Taibbi claims that Potanin acquired the company through a rigged auction and paid for it with state funds meant for workers and pensioners. "Basically, it was a direct handover of a billion-dollar company to one person for nothing," he says. "And this is what was done all across the board when all these Russian industries were privatized. We're talking billions of dollars that were just stolen from the Russian people. This is nihilism on a level no writer can even dream of."

Fred Hiatt says his piece wasn't intended to make value judgments about Potanin "as a person, or whether he came by his money honestly." Rather, he says, it was an analysis of the future of Russian foreign policy, with Potanin used as an example of a Russian who wants good ties and greater integration with the West. "I was seeking to show that not all Russian robber barons are the same," he says.

While Western correspondents reserve judgment on new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Ames calls him a "total Sovok," a term conjuring up the worst of Soviet-era bureaucratic musti-ness. "He has absolutely no program, no chance at all of saving this fucked country," he says. "He's an interim figure. The truth is that the entire country was ready to fall into Communist Party hands if they'd wanted to give it a little push, a tiny flick of the finger. However, cowards that they were, they settled for Primakov. Now they're already distancing themselves from him to avoid blame as the country slips into the abyss."

The eXile takes the point of view that anyone worried that Russia is ready to slide back into communism should be calmed by this simple fact: The Communists don't want it. This summer, under the headline BULLSHIT! THE MYTH OF THE COMMUNIST-DOMINATED OPPOSITION, Taibbi described the Duma's Communist majority aÈ "a bunch of half-bright fat flunkies who couldn't cut it as major players in the Soviet Union, only rising to captain the Communist ghost ship when the real crew bailed to become filthy-rich bankers and power-wielding Democrats after 1991. These are guys whose goals in life during Soviet times were a couple of foreign-tailored suits, access to lingerie boutiques and a new grey Volga, and now that that's what they're getting, they're happy as clams." While many right-thinking Westerners dismiss The eXile reporting, it has, ironically, found supporters among the isolationist wing of the Republican Party. The paper's political writings are regularly distributed to Republican congressional aides by J. Michael Waller of the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington, D.C., conservative think tank. "I found The eXile to be helpful, with its unorthodox spin," says Waller. "Taibbi has had some interesting perspectives on World Bank loans and the frauds and ripoffs that we're funding over there."

Waller sent The eXile a congratulatory e-mail that Ames and Taibbi published in March. That was before Walker had ever seen a complete copy of The eXile. "I hadn't seen the more disgusting stuff or I wouldn't have praised it that much," he now says. "The investigative stuff is very useful, but if you were to look at the whole paper, it's garbage."

REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS ALIKE may soon be offended by The eXile on a regular basis. This fall, Taibbi returned stateside to explore starting an eXile in Washington, where there's avoid for a truly nasty nonpartisan magazine willing to go for the jugular. Ames stayed behind in Moscow, getting The eXile to press despite raids from the Russian tax police and serious cash-flow complications after the paper's bank shut down and never reopened, all part of the larger collapse of that big pyramid scheme called the Russian banking system. At the end of October, The eXile threw a "Party's Over 1992-1998" party in the unfinished shell of what was going to be an "elitny" club for ultravulgar new-rich Russians.

The Party's Over party was to be a wake for departing expats, who are leaving in droves – Ames predicts that eighty percent of them will be gone by Christmas, back to what Ames calls "the land of sunshine and sushi." The clubs that these expats favored are hemorrhaging, but the scene as a whole shows signs that it will survive. Ames predicts a shift back to apartment parties: "fewer imported drugs, more vodka, roughly equal amounts of unbridled, unprotected sex." (Speaking of sex, some of the prostitutes who advertise in the back of The eXile have offered to pay both editors by barter.)

In the gloom of the crisis, The eXile ran dark advice columns for expats on how to survive a winter outdoors. Only the ultra-nationalist Limonov seemed happy. In his eXile column, he warned expats of a coming anti-foreigner backlash, suggesting that they prepare to be rounded up and shipped by cattle car to Siberia. It reminded me of something Ames said months ago: "Russians call democracy 'dermocracy', Dermo means shit. I think the Russians have been too passive lately. If you look at Russian history, they're passive for a long period of time, then they go far more violent and extreme than anyone could have imagined. I wouldn't be surprised if that happened again. It wouldn't surprise me if I'm nailed to a flagpole somewhere."