From Russia With Lust

In between snorting lines, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi discuss the new book version of eXile, their raucous biweekly tabloid in Moscow

Matt Taibbi attends Huffington Post 2010 "Game Changers" event at Skylight Studio in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Matt Taibbi attends Huffington Post 2010 “Game Changers” event at Skylight Studio in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

On a Saturday night in May, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi were drinking Pepsi and smoking American Spirits in a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise near Times Square. They took turns leaning over a plastic compact disc case, snorting lines of speed. I declined their offer, and instead popped a tranquilizer I sometimes take called Soma. I just had a feeling I was going to need it.

Mr. Ames, 34, and Mr. Taibbi, 30, are Americans who for the past several years have been living in Moscow, where, since 1997, they have edited and published a raucous biweekly tabloid called eXile and have been doing their best to introduce Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” style of journalism to 25,000 Moscow readers.

They were in the U.S. on a book tour; their first book, The eXile: Sex Drugs and Libel in the New Russia, had just been published by Grove Press. New York was the last stop. They’d driven a Lincoln Continental 10,000 miles around America, appearing at bookstores, classrooms and think tanks. Average turnout: 25 people. They’d borrowed the Lincoln from Mr. Taibbi’s father, Mike Taibbi, the Emmy-winning NBC-TV reporter. The low point was a talk they gave at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

“We realized that all these people were future careerists, ” said Mr. Taibbi. “They just stared mute at us the whole time. When they realized we weren’t going to help them get a job, it was all over.”

“This place is death,” said Mr. Ames, referring to America.

“Mark and I both left America for pretty similar reasons,” said Mr. Taibbi. “Being here makes us have panic attacks. It’s hard to explain, I guess. There’s just no sex and no nothing, you know?”

“When I’m here, it’s like I’m taking a very cold bath,” said Mr. Ames. “I don’t think I’ve had a hard-on since I’ve been here. You don’t even think about jacking off anymore here, it’s just so vile. What’s nice about Russian girls is you don’t have to talk too much, you can pretend that you don’t understand Russian. And they’re usually so drunk. They like to have fun, they like adventure and they like doing things that are reckless.”

“They like to live while they’re still young and attractive,” said Mr. Taibbi. “They look at their mothers, who turn into nose tackles at age 30.”

Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi are fairly typical men of their generation: raised in upper-middle-class

Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi have been editing and publishing the raucous biweekly tabloid called eXile from Moscow since 1997
Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi have been editing and publishing the raucous biweekly tabloid called eXile from Moscow since 1997

America (Mr. Ames in San Jose, Mr. Taibbi in Boston) in the ideal-light Reagan and Bush years, they are well-educated but defeated by regular work and frustrated by American women, whom they find smug and ambitious. Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi say that in Moscow they finally found a home; a city as chaotic and as brutish as they are, a place where a man can still make a beast of himself and write about it with impunity. America was telling them to grow up; Russia let their ids run rampant. And Russia’s volatile political and economic situation gave them what all writers desperately need: a theme. In Mr. Taibbi’s words, Russia is filled with “thieves and villains of a type that the world previously had seen only in James Bond movies.” And Russian women, “the most physically attractive women on earth,” according to Mr. Ames, were more available than their American counterparts.

“I began to notice a sexual pulse that I’d never experienced,” Mr. Ames writes in their book. “The girls were stunning in their cheap, imitation Italian-style clothes, their lace see-through blouses and garish pink or purple coats, and the overdone makeup on their faces. They looked at you – actually looked at you – invitingly. No one looked at you in the Bay Area.”

Mr. Ames said he couldn’t wait to get back to Russia.

“It’s kind of a Schopenhauerian thing,” he said. “It’s the absence of the amount of pain you would feel here. You come here to remind yourself how much more painful and horrible it could be. Then you go back and like kiss the tarmac.”

There are drawbacks: They say the Moscow authorities have tapped their phone lines.

“They don’t really understand us too well, and I think that’s what saves us the most,” Mr. Ames said. “If you’re an old Soviet functionary, you can read our paper and it just doesn’t make sense.”

“We wrote a whole bunch of editorials about the size of Putin’s penis,” said Mr. Taibbi.

The cab stopped at 14th Street and Ninth Avenue. The Red Light Bistro. Mr. Ames looked disgusted. “This scene here,” he said. “No coke, when you think there’s going to be. It’s all part of the new New York, the new America. This is what it comes down to. Sitting in this totally affected, run-down place. Is irony big here in America?”

“That’s the thing about Russia,” Mr. Taibbi said. “It’s a totally unironic place. When I first was a student over there I had this girlfriend who had this mobster boyfriend, so she only saw me between 3 and 6 in the afternoon, but as a going-away present when I left my exchange program, she gave me this picture of herself naked in a bathtub. It was totally serious, like, ‘Here, for you to remember me by.’ An American woman would never do that except as a joke or to be sexy.”

“And it would be so unsexy,” Mr. Ames said. “You’d burn it the minute you got home. You get Russian girls giving you studio pictures where they’re trying to look like stars from the 40’s, and it’s very touching. If you’ve been a loser most of your life, it’s kind of nice.”

Mr. Ames grew up outside San Jose, Calif. He was a weird, smart kid who started smoking pot at age 8 and got into fights. He spent five years at the University of California at Berkeley. After college, he tried writing screenplays. He grew more miserable. “I didn’t even think of women anymore because they could just smell failure on me,” he said. Then in 1991, he vacationed in Leningrad right after the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

“It was the first two weeks of my life that I’d lived really,” he said. “It was pretty much just fuck whoever you wanted to. It was just very epic.”

“I had no idea it was going to be like that, because of all the propaganda about how repressed Russians were,” he said. “I didn’t know that basically your average Russian tried to get the maximum amount out of every minute in the day, whereas here everyone is trying to work as hard as possible to get a stock option bonus.”

He hung out with street musicians, shacked up with a prostitute and a gay guy, got gnawed by bedbugs. He went back to Moscow for good in 1993, which he found to be “the anti-California. True exile.”

“The 90’s in Moscow were a great time,” he said, “like what they say about the 20’s in Paris or the early 30’s in Berlin. It was completely hedonistic and nihilistic and full of crime.”

Mr. Taibbi, who grew up in Boston, was also alienated, as well as manic-depressive. He attended New York University, where he was miserable, and immersed himself in the work of Nikolai Gogol. In 1990, he went to study in Leningrad.

“The instant I set foot on the plane, my life changed,” Mr. Taibbi writes. “I was charged with adrenaline, alert, positive, full of plans, inner demons palliated by a need to cope with new and unpredictable logistical problems. It was a high I would have to keep coming back to, and after a while, I knew where to find the vein.”

He worked as a sports editor for the Moscow Times for five months, then went back to Boston, where he tried landscaping, only to keep returning to Moscow. During that time, he writes, he had a “howling-on-the-bathroom-floor ten-alarm” nervous breakdown and had an affair with a married woman. By 1996, he was playing basketball for a team in Mongolia. Then he came down with pneumonia, which caused some other problems. He was airlifted back to Boston and almost died.

“My first thought in the hospital was I was going to change and live a straighter life, be more careful in the future,” he said. “Then as soon as I got a little better I thought, ‘You know, God, this can all disappear in a second. The last thing I want to do is plan for the future.'”

In 1997, he went to Moscow to edit Living Here, a rival publication of the fledgling eXile, which Mr. Ames was editing. Mr. Taibbi knew of Mr. Ames. “I admired the fact that he was universally loathed in the Moscow foreign community,” Mr. Taibbi said. Mr. Ames convinced him to come over to eXile.

They say their publisher is a shady guy who pays them each $1,200 a month. He finds them cramped offices with low ceilings and flickering lights. Thanks to depressed real estate prices, Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi live in apartments in a legendary, neo-Gothic-style building. They get comped for meals at restaurants.

“People are afraid of what our paper will write about them, so they give us free shit,” Mr. Taibbi said.

They say they also take advantage of what they like to call the “white god factor” and make trips to the provinces. “Tens of millions of people live in dire circumstances, stranded in the center of the world’s largest continent, with little hope of going anywhere,” said Mr. Ames. “Which means–sexual opportunity for me.”

We walked to the Village Idiot. Beer, pool, darts. Two college girls were dancing together to Elvis, provocatively.

Mr. Ames said he didn’t like the trend toward lesbianism among American women. “Nothing coils my dick up faster,” he said. “When I was in school in Berkeley, there were dykes all over the place who hated my guts for being a tall male. They don’t like tall men, really.”

He spoke about his sex life in Moscow. “Russian women, especially on the first date, expect you to rape them,” said Mr. Ames. “They’ll go back home with you and say, ‘No, no, no,’ and if you’re an American, you’ve been trained to respect the ‘No,’ because you’re afraid of sexual harassment or date rape, and so you fail over and over. But it took me a while to learn you really have to force Russian girls, and that’s what they want, it’s like a mock rape. And then you come back here and you’re really freaked out–because you don’t know if that actually exists deep in all women’s psyches, that that’s what they all want. All relations between guys and girls is basically violent, I think. It’s all war.”

Mr. Ames looked around the bar. “This is so depressing, I can’t tell you,” he said. “I feel like I’m back home in San Jose. It’s basically like Tom Cruise in Cocktail except that it’s a little bit fringier. I never thought San Jose would take over the country like some disease, but it’s happened.”

I asked Mr. Ames and Mr. Taibbi if maybe it wasn’t America that was screwed up; maybe it was them.

“Yes, there’s no question that a lot of our problems with America have to do with our own personal problems,” said Mr. Taibbi. “Obviously we went to Russia for the very simple reason that in Russia it’s O.K. to be a loser and a failure. Everybody is. If you’re not a failure in Russia, you killed somebody, you’re driving around in a Mercedes, everyone knows how you got it. In this country, everybody is so desperate to not fall through the cracks, everyone’s so afraid of failing, of not getting ahead, of ending up living in a shitty place, of not making money. In the United States, especially in New York, if you are not doing well professionally, it’s this albatross you carry around everywhere. The first thing people ask you is, ‘What do you do? Where are you?’ Everybody in this town has a book deal. In Russia, nobody thinks about that shit! You get together, everybody gets shitfaced, and everyone assumes nobody has anything going on because who does? Nobody.”

Mr. Ames said that Russia freed their American souls. “Being a fuckup there is your right , every Russian is a total fuckup, and that’s even valued in that culture, it makes you human,” he said.

Pastis. Hottest restaurant on the planet. The last time I was there I saw Calvin Klein, Rupert Everett, Christy Turlington and Salman Rushdie.

“Oh, yeah, I think I read about this in Delta’s Sky magazine,” Mr. Ames said, walking in. He froze. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know how long I can hang out here. I mean, speed’s a pretty powerful drug. It can bring you up in the worst situations. But this is like kryptonite, this place. This defeats speed! If this is like rock, paper, scissors, Pastis defeats speed!”

We went to Marylou’s on West Ninth Street. Inside, Mr. Taibbi said, “This is fine, the atmosphere here is totally mellow.”

The two men don’t hang out much with the traditional press in Moscow. In eXile, they voted The Washington Post‘s David Hoffman this year’s winner of a “Worst Western Journalist in Moscow” contest.

“The most insidious,” said Mr. Taibbi, adding that he believes numerous western journalists in Moscow are on secret payrolls. “Virtually to the last man, they almost all make us sick to our stomachs,” he said.

Mr. Taibbi said that Mr. Hoffman might even be “a C.I.A. type.” “It’s so overt, the stuff that he does,” he said. “It couldn’t possibly come from his own mind, it’s just so uncanny how his coverage of things tends to follow the Clinton administration.”

The New York Times has just been disgraceful all the way through,” he added. Especially “around the time that Clinton came out and said Putin is a man with whom we can do business. There’s a very obvious reason why the American government would say that, because Putin is going to be the classic Pinochet-style, banana-republic dictator who’s going to protect American business interests. So it’s an investment thing, even though he’s horrible for the country.”

Mr. Ames was chatting up a woman named Debra, a 46-year-old busty blonde in a white dress. He stood up, vodka shot in hand, and said in Russian, “To the beautiful woman who is bringing light to our table.”

I asked them if they had ever fought with each other.

“There was a period when Matt was more smacked out all the time, and I was more speeded out all the time,” said Mr. Ames. “There’s just different rhythms. But I think we’re so close ideologically on things.”

Mr. Taibbi said he had a bad period with heroin two years ago. “I’d just never done it before and went way overboard,” he said. “Actually I wrote most of the book on it.”

“A lot of his prose was written on smack and a lot of mine was written on speed,” said Mr. Ames.

“Heroin is a horrible thing, there’s no question about it,” said Mr. Taibbi. “It can ruin your life in so many different ways and so fast before you even know it, but it has the one redeeming feature: being a whole lot of fun.”

I asked them if what they were doing in Moscow was just another form of hollow escapism.

“Americans are so obsessed with what is authentic and what isn’t, because they’re so insecure about whether or not anything they’re doing is authentic,” said Mr. Ames. “It’s a moot question. It’s not even the right question to ask. The fact is, we are running a paper that is dangerous, that does expound a lot of dangerous ideas, we do have death threats, whatever, and at the same time we’re actually really enjoying it. We’re not doing it specifically because of that. We can’t really do anything else.”

Later we were walking through the East Village. Mr. Ames stopped in front of a Gap store on St. Mark’s Place. But he decided against being photographed there. “I don’t know, the Gap is too ironic at so many fucking levels,” he said.

From Russia With Lust