It’s been over two years now since the very last edition of The eXile came out. That’s 24 months and counting without its acerbic and brilliantly grotesque portrayals of Russian life, death and everything in between.
A mind-bending cocktail of rage, sex, violence and quality investigative journalism, the Moscow-based, English-language paper not only encapsulated the chaos, anarchy and sheer fun of much of the first two decades of post-Soviet Russia, it managed to add something of its own to the mix. It was also unflinchingly honest.
As you may have already worked out, I miss it a lot.
“Everybody read The eXile,” Mark Ames, the paper’s former editor, tells me in an email interview from the U.S., where he is now based. “Even those who hated The eXile read it - they'd sneak their latest copy into their corporate toilet to read, and ambassadors hid their copies underneath their mattresses so their wives or intelligence services wouldn't catch them reading it.”
With headlines like “101 Reasons Why Russia is Fascist" (Kremlin links with skinhead groups, more girls dying their hair blond), “Die Already!” (over a photo of a bloated President Yeltsin), and a gleefully tasteless 9/11 cover shortly after the Twin Towers came down, almost every issue of The eXile managed to upset someone or other.
“Every writer, every publication errs on the side of something, and for everyone that something means erring on the side of caution. We always erred on the side of meanness and irresponsibility,” Ames explains. “If I had to add up all the things we were accused of over time, it would probably be a tie between ‘anti-Russian’ and ‘anti-American’ In fact, we were always equal-opportunity haters.”
As Ames tells it, the 9/11 cover, which featured a Twin Towers female office worker taking it from behind and screaming “It’s so big!” as a Boeing loomed into view, cost The eXile a significant amount of expat business. The “Fascist” story, illustrated by an image depicting Putin as a midget Hitlerjugen, lost the paper “about 1/3 of our distribution points and about half of our clients.”
“As you can see, we had a pretty counter-intuitive business philosophy,” he says.
Ames started up The eXile after being rejected by The Moscow Times, a paper so anodyne and lacking in spirit that fellow columnist Daniel Kalder once accused it of “managing to make the most interesting country in the world seem dull.”
Says Ames: “The editor at the time, Marc Champion, told me they wouldn't hire me because my writing was too wild and Moscow wasn't a wild city, as he explained - my style didn't fit with what he perceived as the dull, bland reality of Moscow.
“[But] Moscow in the 1990s was one of those special moments in history that they'll be composing epics about for centuries to come. Dickens had no idea what the f**k he was talking about with his ‘best of times, worst of times’ line--that was Moscow in the 1990s.”
Aside from the controversy, The eXile also earned a global reputation for serious pieces of “proper” journalism, from predicting the Russian economic crisis of 1998 before anyone else to hard-hitting crime stories from the country’s brutal and forgotten provinces.
They also carried out some great stunts, from throwing a horse-semen pie into the face of Russia’s “worst foreign correspondent” - Michael Wines of The New York Times - to reportedly persuading Mikhail Gorbachev to enter talks to become “perestroika coordinator" for the New York Jets American football team.
It’s hard to believe that the paper lasted 11 years. The end, when it came, was sudden. In June 2008, federal officials paid a visit to the paper’s offices to investigate the publication for “extremism.” They were particularly interested in a column by radical writer Eduard Limonov, jailed in 2001 after being accused of organizing an insurrection of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Kazakhstan.
The visit, predictably, scared off investors and distributors and the paper folded shortly afterwards.
“Having Limonov writing a regular column for us from the first issue, even sneaking out columns for us from prison, was probably The eXile's biggest sin in the Kremlin's eyes, but there was plenty more that bothered them: we were too disrespectful, and if there's one thing that the current power-elite lacks, it's a sense of self-effacing humor. Or humor of any kind,” Ames notes.
Limonov has transformed in recent years into a leader of Russia’s tiny opposition movement, and plans to run for the presidency in 2012. What, I ask Ames, would Russia be like with Limonov in the Kremlin?
“A Limonov presidency would be remembered for millennia," Ames responds. "I would vote for him - anyone with a free mind and a free soul would. Limonov once quoted an ancient poet's take on life: ‘We are all corpses on vacation.’ A Limonov regime would offer the most spectacular and glorious vacation imaginable."
“The eXile,” Limonov told me when I interviewed him recently for The Observer, “was the best f**king paper ever.” He went on to suggest it survived for so long because Kremlin officials were unable to come to grips with The eXile’s deliberate refusal to recognize the artificial divide between “high” and “gutter” culture. “They all read it,” he suggested, “and laughed among themselves, but they just couldn’t believe an educated man would take it seriously.”
“Limonov is absolutely right about the Kremlin reading us,” Ames says. “I think they paid a little less attention to us in the early Putin years because they had too much on their hands and didn't speak English as well as the Yeltsin reformers - but once they consolidated power, it was just a matter of time before they targeted us.
“It's hard to imagine such a paper existing in America, too,” Ames notes. “Maybe even harder, as I've learned here over the past two years. This country has far better legal protections for journalists than Russia, and they don't murder you here the fast way, but they do have a quiet way of effectively censoring anything threatening, and murdering talent by slow asphyxiation.”
The eXile almost made it to the big screen, with Ames and fellow editor Matt Taibbi selling the movie rights to the book of their story to U.S. film production company Good Machine. But, perhaps predictably, the script that was developed bore little relation to reality - Ames and Taibbi were cast in the role of U.S. journalists who die while investigating Russian atrocities in Chechnya. The project never came to fruition.
“It’s all true,” Ames says, when asked about the abandoned movie. “We did uncover all the secrets of the Chechnya war, and we were both killed.”
I’d add a R.I.P. footnote, but peace is something Ames and co. never aimed for. Instead, here’s hoping for the paper’s resurrection. In the current climate of craven self-censorship, Russia needs The eXile more than ever.
For more Ames and co., check out www.exiledonline.com
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Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.