I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life and career. Like most people, this was due to a lack of adequate information. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, or in this case when more facts become available, I change my position. I know this is unfashionable, and that the trend today seems to favor doubling down on your assertion in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but I guess I’ll play the backward old curmudgeon in this case.
Long time readers know I have always hated The eXile. I saw it as a trashy newspaper that romanticized the “Wild 90’s” in Russia. At the same time, I’d started reading the work of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi before I’d even learned they were associated with that rag (in my early years in Russia I tended to avoid all trappings of the expat life like the plague). I have almost always enjoyed the independent work of Matt Taibbi and I even found myself agreeing with a lot of Ames’ work before he went full-on Putin defender. I’ve now read three of Taibbi’s books and found them to be both entertaining and informative. So naturally, having also been exposed to the accusations against both Ames and Taibbi, it created an awkward feeling for me.
It was easy to dismiss Ames, who continues to write smear jobs of Putin critics, constantly invoking the 90’s even where it has no bearing on the topic, but Taibbi, who took a different trajectory, was a little bit more disappointing. But now, especially in light of the new evidence I’ve seen in the past few months, I have to admit that I have been wrong about not only Taibbi, but also Mark Ames as well.
Based on two articles, one recently published and another by my friend Natalia Antonova, I think it’s safe to say that both Ames and Taibbi were telling the truth when they claimed the things they wrote about in The eXile and their book were in fact “satire,” or better said, they didn’t actually happen. It is not right to call either of them rapists or sexual harassers.
Having got that out of the way, it doesn’t mean we can’t make valid criticisms of The eXile. As Antonova points out in her article, the image promoted by The eXile was taken as fact by thousands of men who flocked to Russia in search of desperate, pliant women who would do anything for a ticket out of the country. Ames and Taibbi may have wanted their audience to react with disgust at the expat lifestyle, yet it seems the opposite occurred.
There are valid criticisms of the satire as well. First of all, if your satire causes people to believe you were literally rapists, you might have fucked up somewhere. Now granted, I think their book publisher also owns some responsibility for this by declaring the accounts to be authentic, but at the same time nobody thinks Sacha Baron Cohen is really from Kazakhstan. At the same time, The Onion is a satirical newspaper but you don’t see them constantly writing stories glamorizing rape, prostitution, and yes- sexually assaulting young girls. In short, if your “satire” causes people to think you were literally a kiddie rapist, well, bro, I think you suck at writing satire.
Another thing that is annoying about this claim of satire is that it is somewhat dishonest, and satire works best when it is truthful. Ames and Taibbi routinely characterize their work as satirizing the lifestyle of expats who came to Russia peddling neo-liberal advice, ostensibly to transform Russia into a prosperous democracy, but by night those same men were enjoying the benefits of the economic ruin their recommendations were inflicting on the country, usually in the form of prostitution. I totally get this too; in both Russia and Ukraine I’ve come into contact with people who in public are staunch defenders of the Russian or Ukrainian people, yet in private conversation you learn they have utter disdain for Russian or Ukrainian women. In the case of Russia this can describe both pro- and anti-Putin expats. But there’s something wrong with the way Ames and Taibbi treat the issue, as the more recent article I referenced shows:
“The paper was to be a mirror of the typical expatriate in ‘exile,’ who was a pig of the highest order,” Taibbi explained. “He was usually a Western consultant who made big bucks teaching Russians how to fire workers or privatize markets in the name of ‘progress,’ then at night banged hookers and blew coke and speed. The reality is most of the Westerners in town were there to turn Russia into a neoliberal puppet state by day, and get laid and shitfaced by night. So the paper was a kind of sarcastically over-enthusiastic celebration of this monstrous community’s values.”
This comes from Taibbi, but it could just as easily come from Ames, who also portrays the 90’s as some kind of colonial conquest of Russia by the evil West. There is no agency for Russians in this story. Yes, the West played the role of an enabler for Yeltsin and a lot of the corruption that occurred during the era, but if they really wanted to humiliate and destroy Russia there was a lot they could have done differently. They looked the other way as Russia set up puppet pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. They disarmed nuclear-armed republics like Ukraine and transferred those weapons to Russia. They never recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and they let Yeltsin have a free pass to do as he pleased there. They also never lent any support to Tatarstan’s independence bid. As for the horrible economic advice they were pushing on Russia- it was the same bullshit economics they’d already been pushing in the West for years. Why expect them to say anything different in Russia?
But more importantly, this “colonial” narrative also ignores Russian agency, such as “red managers” stripping enterprises’ assets for cash, duping their fellow citizens out of their vouchers to take control of companies, etc. Black markets existed pretty much throughout the entire Soviet period, and they were quite active around the time of Perestroika- the simple fact is that there were plenty of Russians and other Soviet citizens who thought imported clothes and fancy foreign cars were worth exploiting and even killing their fellow citizens, and no Western consultant planted that idea in their heads. Another failure that can be laid at the feet of Russians is the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other authoritarian tendencies which became quite popular around the time of the Soviet collapse, especially among Yeltsin’s opponents. Many Russians could have chosen to rationally assess the problems facing their nations, but instead they chose to blame Jews or foreigners and thus they failed. No Western consultant made them do that.
Of course as I’ve said plenty of times, contrary to the claims of people like Ames and other Putin apologists, Putin never actually resolved any of these problems. He, or more accurately his “political technologists” just found ways to manage them, and the oil boom of the mid-2000s helped alleviate some of them or at least made them less in your face. Of course that has been starting to change in recent years. Things like gunfights in public and raiding on small businesses have gradually returned to Moscow. Poverty is rising. All these problems can and will come back in full force the more living standards drop toward 90’s levels. But this time, there won’t be any Western consultants to blame it on- no “neo-liberal colonial project.”
The “Wild 90’s” were a terrible time for Russia and many former Soviet Republics- this is indisputable. The West, while also sending needed aid, also dumped a lot of garbage in the form of neo-liberal economists and far-right losers like David Duke. But the 90’s were also a reckoning for the errors of the Soviet Union and the Russian colonial imperialist ideology, which we have seen fully revived under Putin. Trying to protect Russians from their own responsibility does them no favors. And I also find it hard to believe there wasn’t a much better way to satirize the Moscow expat lifestyle so that audiences got the right message- that it was horrible.
So that’s it- that’s my actual criticism. I still admire Taibbi’s post-eXile work and now I feel a little better about it because of what I’ve learned. Mark, if you hate read this blog regularly, I sincerely apologize for insinuating that you did those things you wrote about in The eXile, and I will try to correct whatever I wrote along that vein in the past wherever I should find it. I acknowledge that it was, as you both said, satire. Really fucked up satire to be sure, but satire and fictional nonetheless.