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A Rootless Cosmopolitan
My parents, Mark and Yelena Zilberman, who live in the suburbs of Detroit, keep a little portrait of Lenin inside their fridge. It’s made of tiny beads sewn onto a napkin-size cloth and resides in an old Ziploc, in the covered dairy bin next to the eggs. Through these two layers of murky plastic, the leader of the proletariat is meant to observe the plenty that the Zilbermans are enjoying here in the United States, and presumably bawl his beady eyes out.
This, in short, is the crux of my family’s identity: less American than no longer Russian. Their escape from Russia’s orbit in 1992 was the bravest and most radical act of their lives, and it defines them still. Like every other immigrant child, I grew up quite aware that this sacrifice—of home, language, career, context—was performed in large part for my benefit. I owed them America.
So here I was twenty years later, in my Manhattan home on New Year’s Eve, about to dial them up as 2011 flipped over to 2012 to tell them that I was moving to Moscow.
I ran through my reasons again. For one thing, I wanted my infant daughter, Vera (When should I mention that I’d be taking my kid there, too?), to have native fluency in Russian—something my wife, Lily, and I, who speak a sort of macaronic Nabokovian jumble when no one else is within earshot, might not have enough discipline to provide. For another, the job was a huge promotion—from a staff writer directly to editor in chief of a major magazine. And I would still be working for a U.S. company: specifically, Condé Nast, one of whose flagship Russian properties—GQ—I had, in a bewildering turn of events, been invited to run.
There was another factor, too. I wasn’t sure if I should include it in the list. Russia, I felt, was on the verge of something fascinating. Just a month earlier, Moscow had seen its first middle-class protests against the Putin regime, protests gaining in volume and size with each passing week—seven thousand people in the streets, sixty thousand, one hundred thousand. A wave of global unrest was toppling regimes around the world; Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square could be the new Tahrir. What’s more, the people organizing and leading these protests were media folk like me—editors, columnists, bloggers—quite a few of whom I counted as personal friends. Some had stayed in my apartment, played with Vera, professed inevitable awe of New York. Well, it was my turn to be awed. I was writing dry municipal-interest stories for New York magazine; they were rewriting history. A part of me already wondered what job I could wangle if they got to run the country—or what book I could write if they didn’t. Moscow was the place to be. And it just handed me a reason to be there.
Sure, the previous American to move to Moscow to edit a magazine, Forbes’s Paul Klebnikov, was shot dead there in 2004. (Best if that didn’t come up in the conversation.) But, in post-Soviet Russia’s wildly sped-up timeline, 2004 was already the distant past. That, in fact, was the most exhilarating thing about Moscow: it seemed to always barrel ahead, making up for lost time by repackaging itself half-blindly after whatever coolness it espied in other cities. It wanted to be London, Paris, and Rome at the same time—but, above anything, it wanted to be New York. Boy, did Moscow in 2011 ever want to be New York—and for a New Yorker like me, this made it into a veritable playground of wish fulfillment. The starving-hysterical-naked 1990s, when a pimply student’s flash of the U.S. passport at a club’s feis kontrol instantly gathered a harem, were gone, and certainly for the best; but American work experience still bestowed upon the bearer a kind of magic authority. To anyone whose ambition outpaced their patience, Russia was thus a space-time shortcut, a wormhole to success. Wildcat start-ups found funding, third-rate musicians became adored household names, things got done—badly, more often than not, but done. In return, as wormholes are theorized to do, it changed you on the atomic level. The “you” emerging on the other side might just be a little different.
* * *
I had never lived in Russia proper. My family came to the United States from Riga, Latvia, a Baltic republic affixed to the westernmost edge of the U.S.S.R. in 1940 as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Thanks to its tiny size—and perhaps to a similarly sounding “Latveria” in the Marvel Comics universe—Latvia is a kind of go-to place for sitcom jokes when one needs to quickly connote Eastern European obscurity; in reality, Riga is rather more Germanic than Slavic—a city of prim boulevards and frothy Jugendstil architecture, presided over by a trio of rooster-topped Gothic spires. Throughout the rest of the Soviet era, it managed to preserve a self-image as an occupied entity (provincial tourists were sometimes unsure if their rubles would be good here). My grandparents settled in Riga as schoolteachers after the war, which would technically make them part of the occupation. By the time my mother was born, however, Latvian Russians had already developed a kind of in-between identity. When the U.S.S.R. broke apart, remarkably few of them would take Russia up on its limited-time offer of citizenship.
Then there was the matter of our Jewishness, which the Soviets treated as a strictly ethnic affiliation. Being Jewish meant zip in the way of religion; it meant a funny last name (Zilberman—check), a funnier nose and/or hair (check and check), and the stigma of “rootless cosmopolitanism,” a sticky Stalin-era formulation guaranteeing that no Jew would ever be considered fully Russian. For a college admissions board, an employer’s HR department, or even a Communist Party membership committee, the word evrei on the notorious “ethnicity” line of the internal passport might as well read flight risk. (The essence of state anti-Semitism is to accuse Jews of wanting to leave until they want to leave.)1
My childhood thus may not have been a typical Russian one, but it was certainly Soviet enough. Most of it took place in the same dreary communal apartment at 6 Karl Marx Street where my mother had lived since she was a kid, watching the neighbors’ boy go from a listless fifth grader to a frequently jailed alcoholic whose preferred mode of operation after a day of drinking was to launch tentative ax attacks on his own father. His prone bulk, still and huge like a felled tree, sprawled along the hallway next to shelved skis and shrouded bikes, forms one of my earliest visual memories. Another neighbor, an elderly madman, had long ago convinced himself that the other denizens of the apartment were out to poison him. So he would hover in the communal kitchen waiting for other cooks to leave, then thrust his hands into their boiling soups, fish out piping-hot gobs of meat, devour them bent over the pot—the logic being that the neighbors wouldn’t poison their own food—and toss the bones back in. My mother and grandmother would find their cooking violated so many times that they started putting out decoy soups.
Here’s where I wish I could write that I found escape, salvation, and a sense of belonging in the great works of Russian literature. But that would be a complete lie. In truth, the Soviet schools force-fed kids the classics far too early, and through the rusty funnel of collectivist ideology at that (“Eugene Onegin as a ‘superfluous man,’” etc.)—so those books just felt like a distilled essence of boredom, at one with the chalky walls around and the strobing fluorescent lights overhead; the only place to which a Russian adult escapes by picking up Anna Karenina is the Soviet classroom. I didn’t learn to love Tolstoy until much later, and I detest Dostoyevsky to this day. Instead, my first real connection to the Russian culture ran through its glorious, inept, heroic rock music.
When Russian rock ’n’ roll first got going in the 1960s, it was a straight-up copy of the real thing, or its daintier aspects anyway—the Beatles were everything, the Rolling Stones meant little. (Incidentally, Latvia led the charge: a Riga rockabilly purveyor named Pete Anderson was by consensus the first Soviet rock performer.) The 1980s, however, brought an explosion of a radically new kind of music, mostly coming out of Leningrad. This was “Russian rock,” as it became known: New Wave–y instrumentation, minor-key melodies, and ambitious lyrics that shied away from the themes of love and sex in favor of abstract poetry. Imagine a culture where Joy Division somehow usurped the place of Wham!, and you have 1987’s U.S.S.R.
The Soviet rockers’ preferred pronoun was we, not I: song after song, album after album, wrestled with the identity of the country itself, imagined as a train on fire, an abandoned temple, and even “an ancient reptile dying / with a new virus in its cells.” The chorus to the latter song, by the band Nautilus Pompilius, deceptively titled “Striptease,” exhorted its female subject to disrobe—but as an act of protest performance art, not titillation:
Go out into the street naked
And I will stifle my jealousy
If our mission requires it
Be insultingly sober
They love ’em drunk and crazy
They deserve to be pitied
It took twenty-five more years until a new kind of rock band—Pussy Riot—puzzled out an actual strategy from this premise. For the time being, I and my two best friends—Alexander Garros and Alexei Evdokimov, who after my departure would form a writing duo and pen several Russian bestsellers together—devoured all of it. We dubbed tapes for one another, memorized and recited lyrics, and, after August 15, 1990, scratched Tsoi Lives into our school desks: on that date, the twenty-seven-year-old lead singer of the megapopular Kino died in a car crash, oddly while vacationing near Riga.
Between March and May of that year, the three Baltic states—Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia—one by one declared their independence from the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall the prior November, which the United States still tends to treat as the official V-Day in the Cold War, had in fact flashed by us as a largely local German matter: the Soviet state was too busy fracturing to notice the renovations in the neighbors’ yard. In a paroxysm of half-justified vengeance, the newly free Latvia immediately turned on the “occupants”—anyone who had arrived after 1940, their children, and grandchildren. Russians were stripped of citizenship, denied education in their language, and barred from holding public-sector jobs in a purge that included firemen, pharmacists, and, in my mother’s case, librarians; her flawless command of Latvian, rare among her set, did nothing to help. Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, swooped from the state level down to the street; when my great-aunt died the same year, her funeral had to be postponed for fears of a pogrom. Just the previous summer, the entire Zilberman family had stood in a “human chain” that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn, holding hands with strangers in an affirmation of all-Baltic unity in the face of Soviet oppression; now, my father and I were getting jumped by street hooligans for looking Jewish. The family, which had resisted the idea of emigration for decades, finally applied for refugee status in the United States. I packed away my cassette tapes and, in my imagination, a brilliant literary career (a month earlier, a local newspaper had published a sci-fi story of mine). I had just turned sixteen.
On August 20, 1992, the Zilbermans arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, where, within two weeks, I was flipping burgers at McDonald’s and getting called a “commie” at Mayfield High School. My English, while more functional than most Soviet newcomers’, thanks to eight or so years of after-school lessons, was cramped and airless, and comically formal for an Ohio teen whose family was on food stamps; I had been taught to answer a “thank you” with “not at all.”2 I must have sounded just as stuffy in Russian to the fellow immigrant kids, who mostly hailed from provincial Ukraine and were a bit on the rough side. It was my first encounter with blue-collar Jews: back in Riga, I didn’t even know this type existed outside Isaac Babel stories. Their music of choice was a mix of Russian prison ballads and West Coast rap. Since I had as little desire to associate with them as they did with me, even less to join the religious community (despite, or because of, its pushy courting of fresh arrivals), and felt no real affinity with the United States yet, Russian rock remained the focal point of my cultural identity.
E-mail was still three or so years out, and so Garros and I spent small fortunes exchanging reams of typed-out lyrics: I would mail him homemade rhymed translations of my new discoveries, like R.E.M. and Suzanne Vega, and he would keep me up to speed with DDT’s or Aquarium’s latest. At Mayfield High, for a multimedia presentation in speech class, I subjected my poor classmates to Nautilus Pompilius’s “Like a Fallen Angel” and submitted Boris Grebenshikov’s “Rock ’n’ Roll’s Dead” for the school poetry almanac.
These quixotic fits of proselytizing continued into college. I went to the University of Michigan and took dramatic writing, on the logic that my English wasn’t yet good enough for prose but just sufficient for mimicking dialogue. Other immigrants of my vintage were busy studying things like computer engineering and economics, leaving me to play catch-up to the putatively cooler film-student crowd. Even as I discovered the music of, say, Will Oldham or the Silver Jews, and with it a comfy new identity as a corduroy-wearing, Williamsburg-prefiguring Midwestern indie kid, I was obsessed with making my indie-kid peers admit that Russian rock was just as good. I would draw mostly imaginary links between DDT and the Pixies, or compare Auktyon to Pavement. I tortured my first American girlfriend with this nonsense, shuffling CDs in and out of a car deck to point out some minute similarity between a noisy passage in Aquarium’s “Fighter Jet” and Sonic Youth. “Why are you so insistent that I like this stuff?!” she finally snapped. “I don’t even like Sonic Youth all that much!”
“You don’t get it,” I said. “I don’t need you to like it. I need you to acknowledge that they both exist on the same plane.”
“Why is that important? What do you care?”
“What do I care?! Um, let’s put it this way: the day a Russian rock band has a hit song in the U.S., I will run through the streets naked, singing that song out loud.”
“So wait,” she said, “am I standing in for the entirety of the U.S. here?”
I paused. “Well … yes.” She was right. Somehow, my entire sense of belonging had gotten snagged on this one dumb kink. I needed validation that my former self wasn’t a waste of time—and then and only then, for some reason, could I retire it and move on with the business of being a new American.
As school went on, I fell in with a tight group of fellow film students, wrote my first play and script in English, and began to review movies for the Michigan Daily; slowly, gradually, any need to maintain a separate Russian self was receding. The play was about the young Orson Welles putting on The War of the Worlds, seen through the prism of his fraying friendship with John Houseman; the screenplay took place in the greenroom of a fictitious late-night variety show. That was where my fascinations lay—in the seams and stitches of the American pop culture. On occasion, I would drive to a bootleg Russian CD store in Southfield and pick up the latest records, but outside validation for that habit was no longer required. If anything, my tic had reversed itself: now, when I listened to the sleek Britpop of Mumiy Troll, Zemfira’s crypto-lesbian anthems, or the nascent, naive hip-hop of Bad Balance, I was fishing for hints of, respectively, Blur, Ani DiFranco, or Wu-Tang Clan.
Time and again, a professor would gingerly ask why I never drew on my “immigrant experience” or wrote a Russian character: But your life must have been so colorful! The very idea infuriated me. All immigrant literature is essentially two plots, I would sputter in response: “my first hamburger” (where the hero is seduced away from parochial values by postmodern America) and “my last babka” (where the second-gen hero loses his way and has to re-ground himself in the authentic shabbiness of the old country). I thought both were crap, for two reasons. One, they obliterated the specificity of the culture being discussed: you can be Finnish or Vietnamese, it’s the same fucking narrative. Two, they treated American whiteness as an absence of background—where, to my relatively fresh eyes, it was as specific as anything, with its own complicated codes. The idea that being from anywhere else was automatically dramatic felt to me patronizing and orientalist.
The Zilbermans, meanwhile, were crossing off every line on the American-dream checklist with an almost alarming swiftness. My father had found work in his field at Ford Motor Company, testing new cars for noise and vibration; the family’s cream-colored ranch house stood at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. The only missing part was a doctor or a lawyer for a son—but, to their endless credit, my parents never once tried to steer me toward anything more lucrative than my vague ambition, at the time, to become a film critic.3 In May 1998, I graduated from Michigan a would-be city sophisticate with a head full of movies. By August, I was occupying a friend’s couch in Brooklyn and interning at the Village Voice. For all I knew at the moment, my entire history with Russia had been successfully relegated to trivia status: a factoid I might trot out at parties, an accent I might lean into to charm a girl. Nothing more.
* * *
At the very same time, in August 1998, a rash of black-and-white billboards popped up over Moscow, all bearing a severe inscription: IN RUSSIA. AT LONG LAST. They were heralding an event that, in the barely emergent post-Soviet story line, felt like a milestone: the launch of Russian Vogue. Condé Nast—the world’s grandest lifestyle upseller, the publisher of Vanity Fair, GQ, and Glamour, and, through its London-based Condé Nast International silo, their countless localized editions from Paris to Tokyo—was coming to Moscow. Russia, it seemed, had officially arrived.
These days, it might take some effort to understand how so much social significance could attach itself to the arrival of a fashion mag. For one thing, you’d need to consider the since-diminished role of the print media, which, perhaps, has nowhere been more outsize than in the Soviet Union in its last years. The so-called thick magazines—essentially, literary journals—were the wellsprings of glasnost, publishing not just crucial condemnations of Stalinism, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind, but samizdat hits like Vassily Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea and cutting-edge foreign stuff like A Clockwork Orange—in an interesting translation that replaced the droogs’ Russian-derived Nadsat slang with English. As a result, for instance, the drab monthly Novyi Mir’s circulation hit 2.7 million copies in 1990. (The magazine still exists; its print run in 2015 was 3,000.)
Even more important was the Yeltsin-era Russia’s touchingly anxious impatience to acquire the trappings of a “normal country.” Normal, the key word of the era, meant anything and everything, and was being applied with the same pleading intensity to every facet of life, from crucial to mundane; normal was WTO membership and daily deodorant use and a professionalized army and good pizza and a functioning parliament—and, yes, fashion magazines. One can argue that if 1990s Russia had gotten the bigger things on this wish list more readily, the world might be spared its current foreign policy. As things stand, it got Vogue.
It would also be useful to remember how profoundly not normal Russia was at the moment. The crumbling empire that my family left in 1992 was no more; among the ruins, new species scurried. Out of crooked privatization auctions that had redistributed the Communist state’s riches to the redistributors themselves and their cronies, a class of oligarchs rose within months. Smaller business swelled in a grotesque symbiosis with a criminal underworld feeding off it, and a security apparatus feeding off that. The top predators in all three categories soon needed a place to stash the gains; Russia became the land of short-lifespan banks and even shorter-lifespan bankers.
Most industry, science, and culture stopped cold or thrashed around in mad disarray. Those without entrepreneurial and/or criminal proclivities felt left behind; their discontent swelled the ranks of the Communist Party, now presenting itself as a scrappy underdog, back up. By the time of the 1996 presidential elections, the threat of an across-the-board Communist comeback became so great that Boris Yeltsin had to rely on oligarchs’ collusion, mercenary American advisers, tightened media control, International Monetary Fund loans illegally funneled to his campaign, libel against the other contestants, voter intimidation, and finally good old ballot-stuffing to keep his job. The original sin of the new Russia—placing stability over democracy—had been committed, invisibly paving the way for Putin and, in the long run, providing a moral-equivalence justification for Russia’s own meddling in the U.S. elections.
But for now, in the summer of 1998, the worst seemed over. The party was back on. And a good party needed organizers, stylists, and chroniclers. There was no one better suited to all three roles than Condé Nast.
The company’s top executive in the new market was a colorful East German named Bernd Runge, who had previous experience running glossies in France and the reunited Germany. Like many born in the DDR, Runge spoke Russian and had been to the Soviet Union before—in fact, he had studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), a storied diplomat mill. A few years later, Der Spiegel would reveal Runge as a former agent of Stasi, the East German secret police. Code-named “Olden,” even as a student he would report back to Berlin on his MGIMO classmates. So, ironically, the man charged with spreading the gospel of cosmopolitan glamour came from the same stock as the men who would recently jail you for same. Runge’s pick for Vogue’s first editor in chief, the brash and worldly Aliona Doletskaya, came with her own plume of KGB rumors; though she denies them, her biography certainly had a touch of the Bond girl about it, complete with diamonds (once married to the Soviet ambassador to Botswana, she had worked as a media consultant for De Beers).
Condé Nast’s two nicknames in Moscow’s media circles were Condensate, a pointless play on words, and the Fur Fridge. The latter alluded to the publisher’s headquarters at Bolshaya Dmitrovka 11, which sat atop a huge cold storage for furs. The largely windowless building was one of the very few Moscow establishments to have stayed in business since the czarist times, persevering through wars and revolutions: the merchant grandes dames, the Stalinist inner-circle wives, the gangster mistresses—all needed someplace to stow their minks for the summer. The newest iteration of that elite tribe were the women Vogue would now target. The location was wickedly perfect.
On August 17, 1998, with the magazine’s premiere issue at the printers, Russia defaulted on its debt obligations. The ruble cratered overnight, falling to one-third of its dollar value. Fortunes were wiped out, banks mobbed and then shuttered. Foreign goods, to which the Russians had just grown accustomed, vanished from the shelves. The country reentered crisis mode; Vogue’s lush launch party underwent a hasty scale-down. Those AT LONG LAST billboards now acquired an ironic ring. The Moscow Komsomolets tabloid predicted that Vogue’s first Russian issue might become its last, and that the entire publishing house would pull out of the market it had barely begun to crack.
The Fur Fridge, however, survived. If anything, the crisis made Vogue even more of an aspirational beacon, and its dazzling editor into a huge celebrity.
In the loosey-goosey world of Moscow media, where half the people were winging it half the time, Runge’s Condé Nast acquired a mythical reputation as the place where German discipline met ruthless Manhattan ambition. Doletskaya was said to turn away anyone “spoiled” by previous Russian magazine experience. All intra-office e-mail correspondence was supposedly conducted in English. Rumors spread of employees going crazy from overwork and Byzantine intrigue.
By 2000, the magazine was riding high enough to test out a supplement called Men’s Vogue: the newly monied Russian businessmen, after all, needed as much acculturating as their wives and mistresses. The experiment was so successful that, just a couple of issues later, Men’s Vogue spun off from the mothership. In March 2001, with a cover featuring Monica Bellucci’s hard nipples above the slightly odd exhortation TO BECOME A WINNER, GQ Russia was born.
GQ’s original editor in chief was the mysterious Ram Petrov, whose name sounds like a Dolph Lundgren character from a straight-to-VHS movie. Petrov had put out only a few issues before being sacked by Runge and replaced by his deputy. No one in today’s Moscow appears to know what he’s up to now.
The deputy was a corpulent, red-bearded intellectual punk named Alexei Zimin, who couldn’t be more different from the Fur Fridge stereotype of a high-strung workaholic. He and his gang of friends were young and talented, and had no fucking idea what they were doing. Zimin decreed that a real Russian “men’s magazine” (a novel concept at the time; its only real competition was Artemy Troitsky’s highbrow take on Playboy) should champion a kind of aestheticized dissolution. His crew were fans of the rising rock band Leningrad, which plied the same trade—boorishness with a meta wink. A representative early lyric of theirs: “Damn right I’m a wild man / Balls, tobacco, vodka fume, and stubble.” Calculatedly naughty and cynical to the core—even the band name was a fuck-you—it was as far removed from the earnest, romantic Russian rock of the 1980s as the country itself had become.
Zimin’s men took not just stylistic but also behavioral cues from Leningrad. They’d roam the halls of Condé Nast swigging whiskey from the bottle. The staff music writer played occasional percussion in the band itself. Leningrad, for their part, proclaimed themselves to be “gentlemen of the new millennium.” The two sides finally consummated this relationship when Zimin declared Leningrad’s vocalist Sergei Shnurov GQ’s Man of the Year. At the party, the band smashed their instruments and pissed into a potted ficus. Upon witnessing this, the English overloads from Condé Nast International had Zimin swiftly removed. The entire staff walked out with him. Zimin went on to edit a cooking magazine, co-own a wildly uneven restaurant named Ragout where I would get food poisoning twice, and finally open a vodka bar in London, called Zima, which would become a smash success.
A third editor, Nikolai Uskov, was brought over to clean up the place. Under him, GQ became professional, properly glossy, breathlessly enamored with wealth, crypto-gay in its fashion pages, and closer in tone to Vanity Fair than to the American GQ. Uskov reigned over the magazine for eight years, running it competently enough for the Fur Fridge brass to look the other way as he sucked up to oligarch after oligarch in search of a better gig. In late 2011, he would strike gold and depart to take over Snob, a rudderless media project lavishly funded by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Uskov’s first Snob cover was a portrait of Prokhorov.
The event that would make me his successor had meanwhile already happened: I published my first novel, Ground Up. It was a slight satire about an obnoxious yuppie couple who destroy each other’s lives when they open a coffee shop on the Lower East Side. Once again, as I had in school, I was writing in specific defiance of the idea that people should write about their own heritage. And, once again, the editor suggested I make the male protagonist a Russian immigrant. This time, I grudgingly complied. It was a three-page, one-day rewrite.
At that moment, an entire wave of immigrant writers were being loudly feted in the press for what I increasingly felt were very wrong reasons. In the ancient Saturday Night Live skit “Toonces the Driving Cat,” a couple put a cat at the wheel of their car (“Look, he’s driving! He’s driving!”), which the animal then proceeds to crash off a cliff. The punch line: “Toonces: he can drive, just not very well.” These first-gen novelists were now getting the same fawning treatment for the very act of writing in English. Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, Irina Reyn: Look, they’re writing! They’re writing! For Ground Up, I prohibited the publisher to mention in any press materials that English was my second language. To me, getting reviewers to not notice this fact was the highest honor I could achieve. I didn’t want to be Toonces. I wanted Ground Up to be judged on its merits. And so it was, and was found perfectly average.
There was, however, one place in the world where a book conceived as a strident disavowal of Russianness could become a bestseller. You’ve guessed it. In the summer of 2010, I got a call from Uskov. GQ Russia was naming me its Writer of the Year.
* * *
Had I bothered to put “walk through Moscow in a tuxedo” on my list of things to do in this life, I could now safely check it off. The side street in front of the theater was a static maze of Benzes and Bentleys, with no place to pull up. The jam gave me a face-saving chance to get out of my regular taxi around the corner and hoof it to the red carpet from there.
GQ had rented out the theater, a hideous 1990s-built edifice glowing at the side street’s end, to hold its Man of the Year awards: “the unofficial start,” in the breathless tabloid formulation, “of Moscow’s social season.” In New York, I didn’t get into such events without a reporter’s pad.
A few months earlier, Ground Up had come out in Russian, translated by my wife and myself and rechristened The Coffee Grinder for want of the needed pun in the language. It sold only a few thousand copies at first, but they seemed to have been the right few thousand copies. New York–obsessed young Muscovites glommed on to the book’s yuppie couple and their Lower East Side misfortunes like it was Sex and the City—a guide in the guise of a novel. Given the demographic, the ratio of readers to reviews was nearly one to one.
The other nominees in the Writer of the Year category were Serhiy Zhadan, Roman Senchin, Mikhail Elizarov, Aleksandr Terekhov, Pavel Pepperstein, and Andrei Astvatsaturov (whose last name I, in case I got the chance to thank the other nominees from the stage, had practiced for hours). They comprised a remarkably accurate cross-section of modern Russian literature.
Though I had lost track of the state of the Russian belles lettres in my Midwestern 1990s, I had been making up for it lately, especially after I got the notion to translate Ground Up into what still sort of qualified as my mother tongue—it would have felt a little strange to release a book into a cultural context I knew nothing about. To my surprise, as I read on, I discovered that there were two kinds of serious novels in the new Russia: “extreme” and phantasmagoric. The first kind dealt with the most wretched dregs of society, who by implication stood in for society as a whole. The reader, trained by decades of Aesopian Soviet satire, knew that if the novel’s action took place in a mental ward, that mental ward was Russia; if it was in a prison, the prison was Russia; if it was in a tiny Siberian village populated by, say, cannibals, the village was Russia and the cannibals were the government.
The second kind was a conspiracy fable, devoted to the thesis that the world is run by shadowy magic forces. Supernatural cabals figured in a staggering percentage of post-Soviet highbrow prose—Pavel Krusanov’s Angel’s Bite, Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice, and just about everything by the bestselling Viktor Pelevin, whose 1999 satire Generation P (published in the United States as Homo Zapiens) explained that the world leaders were CGI cartoons. In Pelevin’s three subsequent novels, the world government was revealed to be, respectively, a gay mafia, werewolves, and vampires. This mode of thinking had a rather touching teenage tinge. Earlier that week, when the culture portal OpenSpace.ru had asked prominent Russian intellectuals to respond to Osama bin Laden’s killing, half of them dutifully answered that bin Laden had never really existed, or was a projection of the “naively dualist American consciousness.”
Pelevin and Sorokin (whose prose qualified as both extreme and phantasmagoric) were seen as the top of the heap. A popular theory about the Russian ruling class divided the government into “the Pelevin guys” (drugged-out nothing-is-real types) and “the Sorokin guys” (preaching a heavier, gloomier kind of postmodernism). Interestingly enough, neither of the two literary superstars participated in Russia’s civic life in any appreciable way, ceding the “public intellectual” mantle to lesser authors such as Boris Akunin, a merely competent writer of stylized detective stories. Sorokin refused most interviews; Pelevin, for his part, led a fully Pynchon-like existence, living, per rumors, either in Thailand or in an anonymous apartment block in southern Moscow.
Making up for their reticence—and then some—was Eduard Limonov, a scandalous and sometime brilliant author of Henry Miller–esque confessional novels, for whom books had long fallen by the wayside and public activity became the main means of artistic self-expression. In the 1990s, disgusted, like many in Russian bohemian circles, with the creeping conflation of “freedom” and bourgeois normality, he put together the National Bolshevik Party, an exercise in reflexive contrarianism and shock iconography that was as much a political movement as an art project. The party members were supposed to greet one another with the words “Yes, Death!” For a while, the NBP actually became a valid voice of the nationalist left, or at least the part of it that loops all the way around into hard right, until their Baader-Meinhof–lite high jinks got them banned in 2007. Limonov’s literary output had since dwindled to slim and increasingly weird essay collections, but his dashed-off shock-jock columns were everywhere—including GQ.
Earlier that week, I had reconnected, after almost twenty years, with Alexander Garros—my childhood friend and now one half of the Garros-Evdokimov writing duo. While my big debut wrung comedy out of croissant prices, his and Alexei’s, a psychedelic tour de force called Headcrusher, was about a man whose life morphs into an ultraviolent computer game: a pretty wide thematic split for erstwhile best friends brought up on absolutely identical literary diets. I couldn’t help asking Garros about it. How, in his opinion, did this happen? Why, instead of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, or even our childhood idols Aksyonov and the Strugatsky brothers, did the Russian writers in the twenty-first century find bedrock inspiration almost entirely in Gogol?
Garros and I were standing with our drinks on the rickety balcony of his Stalin-era apartment building, overlooking a dark bight of the Moskva River. “I mean, don’t you want to write a novel,” I pressed, “about, jeez, I don’t know, some group of idealistic Muscovites slowly getting corrupted by the 1990s’ crime and the 2000s’ money?”
“Sure I do,” said Garros. “But you see, when you start writing out the details of everyday Russian life, the absurdity just overwhelms you. At some point, you give up. Your characters start flying around, they sprout fangs and tails. Because that’s the only way to stay true to the material. Russian reality is too phantasmagoric to fit into realist logic.”
My fellow nominees for Writer of the Year provided a good illustration of his thesis. Senchin and Elizarov were realists, but only in the Russian sense. Elizarov once wrote a novella called Nails, which culminated in the main character (an adolescent mental-hospital patient) eating his dead friend’s (another patient’s) fingernail, and dying from cadaveric poison. In interviews, he and Senchin showed a brutally nationalistic bent and were considered “fascists” in the more genteel literary circles. “For instance, I hate gays,” said Elizarov in an interview. “I’m not going to stand up and cheer when the TV tries to convince me that they’re good and talented. My job is to uphold the right of the people to say the same. But since I’m craftier than our government, I can do it in craftier ways.” Pepperstein was also “anti-American,” but in the kind of sniffy French fashion that tends to mask a total obsession with the United States. He was as famous for conceptual paintings of Uncle Sam and Pepsi cans and American flags as he was for his avant-garde novels, which bore titles like Mythogenic Love of Castes and The Swastika and the Pentagon and jumbled fairy-tale, propaganda, and pornography archetypes. (His contribution to OpenSpace.ru’s bin Laden discussion: “I listened to Obama’s speech. Charmingly childish. Very Lion King. I didn’t like it. It could have used more gags, like The Simpsons.”) Terekhov, for his part, wrote an eight-hundred-page historical novel about a Stalin-era murder case that one reviewer called “fantastically unpleasant, not to say revolting.” It was meant as praise.4
Among this bunch, The Coffee Grinder looked like a city dandy arrested for jaywalking and thrown into a holding cell with hardened criminals: skinny, overprivileged, and profoundly hateful. This is probably why it won, too.
I had known about the results for three months. The Man of the Year winners were supposedly decided by readers’ online votes right up to the day of the ceremony; the vagaries of the long-lead publishing cycle, however, meant that in order to get the winner’s photo and profile into the right issue, the magazine needed to interview and shoot him well before the official end of the voting. “You have a commanding enough lead,” the magazine’s marketing director had told me. She sounded a little embarrassed.
I tried to play along, but judging by friends’ winking commentary, the cat had been completely out of the bag for weeks before the awards. It thus felt crushingly fake, the whole thing—but, as I was quickly learning, this was the way a Russian felt about every public surface of life: politics, media, table manners. In the Russian mind, and more often than not in Russian reality, things like awards and elections were mere paper plastered over a yawning chasm, lies to distract from the Real State of Things, which was unspeakably tragic and accessible only by chucking social convention (and thus accessed nightly, through drink and cocaine and hash, by everyone around me). This, perhaps, was what my accidental competitors were writing about, and what Garros meant. They were right—and, pretty soon, I would reap the benefits of my collusion with the absurd. I may not have been about to grow fangs, but I’d already sprouted tails.
* * *
“Now Yuri is a real star,” said someone loudly. A big black Mercedes behind me had just disgorged Yuri Nikolaev, the wizened former anchor of a Soviet song-and-dance program called Morning Mail. “Anyone can roll up in a Benz nowadays. Yuri had one twenty years ago”—when it required staggering amounts of financial, political, and social juice. The platoon of red-carpet photographers turned around to snap Yuri, and I was able to sneak inside the theater unmolested.
The vast foyer crawled with what I assumed were celebrities. The women were dressed impeccably; the men, forced into tuxes, looked miserable. I imagined them clawing at their bow ties when nobody was looking, like a cat in a new flea collar. The bar proffered a muddy “exclusive” variation on the Bramble cocktail, called the Black Tie. I took one and watched the crowd. Every once in a while, a ghost of my Soviet childhood would flit by—a face half-remembered from television or an LP cover, plus twenty years of hard living, minus the same in plastic surgery.
The rest were someone’s children. Sofiko Shevardnadze, the socialite granddaughter of the last Soviet foreign affairs minister, strolled in a scarlet dress past Ksenia Sobchak, “Russia’s Paris Hilton” and the daughter of the Leningrad mayor who’d given Vladimir Putin his start. Sobchak waved to Fedor Bondarchuk, the actor-producer-director who happened to be the son of Sergei Bondarchuk, the Soviet filmmaker who’d once been given a blank Kremlin check to shoot War and Peace. Here we were at the tail end of 2010, with Russia rounding up its second decade of capitalism, and every diamond in every earlobe was still traceable back to the great big trough of government connections.
I was relieved to see Valeria Gai Germanika. A wildly talented young filmmaker, she was a nominee in the dubious Woman of the Year category.5 Germanika was much more interesting than all the heiresses and scions around her. Hailed as a genius after her very first picture—the minimalist, shaky-cam high school film Everyone Will Die Except Me—the twenty-four-year-old was feted so much that she immediately went into full diva mode, throwing tantrums and walking off sets and dressing like Lady Gaga before even starting her second film. In a way, she would not even have to start it now: she had fully found herself as an all-purpose celebrity. That night, Germanika came in massive diamonds and a baggy metallic dress that showed off her bicep tattoo of a treble clef. She brought along a shivering Chinese crested named Moni. The dog wore a casual denim ensemble.
I came up to Germanika to tell her that I really wanted her to do It’s Me, Eddie. This was, I knew from interviews, her dream project: a film adaptation of the 1976 novel that made a celebrity of Eduard Limonov. Eddie was a chronicle of New York a-go-go decadence as experienced by a Russian outsider. The main character, a broke and horny poet living in a grim SRO, mostly details his sexual conquests. It culminates with a scene forever seared into every reading Russian’s brain: a tussle with a black street robber that somehow turns into oral sex. (In France, the book’s title was Le poète russe préfère les grands nègres; the Germans published it as Fuck Off, America.) It wasn’t a coincidence that the book came out the same year, and wallowed in the same milieu, as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: in Eddie, Russians had their own Travis Bickle.
And it was a perfect fit for Germanika’s sensibilities. But ever since Limonov had become a political outsider, no producer in Russia would lend a kopeck to a screen version of one of his novels. This detail hadn’t even occurred to me: the faraway prancing Eddie of 1976 and the National Bolshevik blowhard Limonov hardly even seemed like the same person. The novel was thirty-four years old, and Limonov wouldn’t even get paid for the rights—he waived his fee for Germanika so she couldn’t be accused of enriching him. And still she couldn’t find the funding.
“Take me to New York with you!” Germanika cooed as soon as I told her I was from the city and I really wanted her to shoot it there. “Marry me and whisk me away from here!” She had a manner about her, grande dame inching toward drag queen: a kind of ironic hyperfemininity at the edge of the vapors. It was a fun performance. “I’ll do anything! I will wash your floors! I will babysit your children!”
“Well, maybe not that last one,” I said. “But I’d love to help out somehow. I’m a big fan. I’d tell you all sorts of compliments, but I suspect compliments are not your thing.”
“My thing,” said Germanika, “is black bogs of despair.”
At this point, not a second too soon, we were ushered from the hot lobby into the somewhat cooler theater itself. The awards got under way.
The opening montage, set to a live suite conducted by Vladimir Spivakov, was a quick refresher on the main events of 2009–2010. It was an idiosyncratic mix of the tragic and the trivial, and a pretty handy document of what the Russian view of the year was. President Medvedev’s first tweet; James Cameron’s Avatar; a militia officer slugging a protester in Triumfalnaya Square; an Icelandic volcano belching smoke; the Gulf Coast oil slick; smog over Moscow.
Ivan Urgant, the event’s young, slightly Middle Eastern–looking emcee, started with a bit that merited transcribing. “We have gathered here tonight to celebrate,” he began, stumbling on the magazine’s title, “the whatchamacallit—I forgot. And why, come to think of it, should I remember? All these ceremonies have melded into one in my mind. Same two hundred people in every auditorium. You’re all showing up in my dreams by now. I know everything about you, and you about me. Must we keep this up? I didn’t go to college for this crap—I’m an artist! Uskov,” he continued, addressing the magazine’s editor in chief in the front row, “aren’t you a historian by education? And what have you done with your life? Why are we lying to each other right now, acting like we don’t know who’s going to get these awards? Everyone knows everything! Do something genuine for once. Skip a shave. Buy a shirt from Zara. Christ.”
The laughs were scattered and tentative. Just when I thought Urgant’s scripted freak-out was over, it revved up in earnest. “Enough! Admit it, we’re all sick of this! Let’s all get up and march out of here! Come on! Do it!” he bellowed, pacing up and down the stage and eventually descending into the audience to grab a female plant’s designer clutch and tear it apart. (The punch line: a Federal Security Service officer’s ID tumbled out.) The bit ended with a rotund older sidekick stepping from the wings to remind Urgant how much he got paid for his appearance. “There, there,” the sidekick cooed. “Think of your country house. Think of your BMW.”
If the routine wasn’t very funny, it wasn’t really meant to be. It was disgust masquerading as a bit masquerading as disgust, and it infected the entire evening. The first two presenters, actress-director Renata Litvinova and ballet star Nikolai Tsiskaridze (“the only ones who would get on this stage for free,” Urgant said, belaboring his point), caught the same bug and could barely make it through announcing the nominees. Their derisive snorts and blatant eye rolls accompanied every name.
The second duo, announcing TV and cinema categories, was a stranger one: Sergei Selyanov, a big-time movie producer, and Irina Khakamada, an opposition politician. Ironically, Khakamada had been blacklisted by the state-owned Russian TV since 2002. “Television doesn’t like me,” she deadpanned when Urgant asked her whom she liked out of the five nominees in the category.
“I would like to add that I’m also working for free tonight,” she then ad-libbed.
“I got paid for the both of us,” said Selyanov.
It was that kind of night. But then again, every society night in Moscow was like this. The air thrummed with collective self-loathing, the only remedy for which was cynicism: one could fully relax only when everyone around was impugned equally and there was none left to judge. The meshing gears of contempt and complicity, with me a passive cog.
* * *
My category’s presenters were Igor Krutoi, a shaven-headed pop composer and impresario with the look of a retired thug, and Ksenia Sobchak in a fire-red dress. Sobchak’s last name put her as close as the new Russian society got to old money, and her exhibitionist streak did the rest: she was now a self-perpetuating tabloid fameball, covered today because she was covered yesterday, her every dalliance and feud spelled out in smeary block type. Instead of pop celebrity, however, Sobchak’s ambition ran to more complicated ends. Her dream was to be taken seriously, in any medium. She gave public talks. She hosted TV shows. A month or so earlier, she had put out a book called The Encyclopaedia of the Lokh, a satiric taxonomy of the titular creature. (Lokh is a Russian slur whose meaning resides somewhere between “sucker” and “loser.”) “The sweet lokh,” she wrote, in not-bad prose, “is the main ornament of our social skyline. It is in him, for the lack of anyone better, that our nubile kind finds an inexhaustible wellspring of genuine and unmediated experience.” She also flourished as an ace interviewer, coming on as a naïf and then asking sharp questions. (It is admittedly easy to be fearless when your dad gave Putin his first job.) Still, intellectual Moscow was wary of her and eyed her as a weird intruder, like a group of high-school misfits unsure why the prom queen wants to sit with them at lunch. Once, while trying to say the word “existential” on air, Sobchak had tripped up and said “existentional.” This innocent malaprop caused squalls of mirth. In a way, the bohemians were as nasty to Sobchak as the tabloids; she was dead stuck between two worlds. “I consider her a tragic figure,” Andrei Loshak, an opposition TV reporter, once told me, without a trace of irony.
Even knowing the award was mine, when Sobchak announced the seven nominees for best writer, I experienced a combo of goose bumps, sweats, and dry mouth. I wasn’t afraid of a last-minute switch; I was more worried about what I was about to do myself. The thing was, minutes earlier I had decided to use my time onstage to lobby for Germanika’s It’s Me, Eddie. Why the hell not, I thought. Might as well make this memorable. Plus, the venue seemed receptive to mild dissent. The evening’s opening montage had included shots of the Triumfalnaya Square protests, which was far more subversive than what I was going to do.
“And the writer of the year is Mi—” said Krutoi with zero enthusiasm.
“You look like you’ve read all of those books, Igor,” interjected the emcee.
“Oh, yeah, right,” scoffed Krutoi. “So, anyway, the writer of the year is Michael, uh, Michael Idov.”
I trotted onto the stage, accepted the Plexiglas letters G and Q and an expensive watch that came with them, and launched into my spiel. At first I concentrated on one task: thanking all six other nominees, one of whom, I repeat, was named Astvatsaturov. “And finally,” I said, breaking out in sweat once again, “I’d like to think that there’s a person in this room with enough bal—uh, guts, to finance Valeria Gai Germanika’s next movie, It’s Me, Eddie. Thank you all.” Hey, that went well! I turned to leave the stage with my loot.
“Wait, where are you going?” said Sobchak. “Haven’t they told you?”
“Michael, it’s a trap,” said Urgant. “Go. Go now. The dragon has chosen her victim.” Little puddles of laughter were pooling in the crowd. I knew I was walking into something, a skit of some sort.
“As many are aware, Michael,” continued Sobchak, “I have a certain tradition here at the GQ awards. Every year I pick the best-looking man and bestow upon him my kiss. This year, I have picked you.”
With these words, Sobchak grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth. Dozens of cameras snapped away, ornamenting the periphery of my vision with silvery flashes. The center, meanwhile, was taken up by a red-and-blonde blur with tongue. It was not unpleasant. In fact, she initiated the withdrawal, as this lokh kind of got into it. The whole thing lasted seven or eight seconds.
“Well,” I said into the microphone, catching my breath and rather unphotogenically wiping my mouth, “at this point I think I should also thank my wife, Lily.” The line killed. I happily retired backstage to pose for a line of photographers with my prize and, as a courtesy to the evening’s sponsors, a bottle of French vodka. Then I came back to watch the rest of the show, which for some reason ended with a live reggae musical number.
As we pushed toward the exits in the narrow aisle, Alexei Kazakov, an executive at the channel that would be broadcasting the awards later in the week, slapped me on the shoulder. It was not a friendly slap.
“Thanks a fucking lot, man,” he said. “Thanks a whole fucking lot for the Eddie thing. You really fucked me on this one.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea,” I said.
“Limonov’s name is one of, like, five taboo words on TV.”
“I didn’t say Limonov’s name!”
“Doesn’t make a difference.”
“You can cut it out of the broadcast.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to cut it. But you’ve put me in the position where I have to be the asshole and cut it.”
An hour later, though, Kazakov cheered up. From the afterparty chatter, it was fast becoming clear that the Sobchak kiss was the highlight of the entire evening. The crowd, whittled down to fifty or so of the luckiest invitees, had moved over to a restaurant called, with remarkable simplicity, Meat Club. Before me stood a plate with a filet mignon the size of a fez; sitting across the table was Sergei Minaev. He was the first Russian author to wangle a million-dollar advance. I knew this because he had just told me, between bites of steak.
Minaev’s novels were about Moscow nightlife: cocaine lines off toilet bowls, that sort of thing. They all had half-Cyrillic, half-English titles, which must have telegraphed worldly sophistication: ???less (Soulless), The ????? (The Chicks), Video?? (a pun on Idiots), etc. Before becoming a bestselling writer, he was a successful businessman, and he immediately parlayed his fame into a small empire of media properties: Minaev owned a publishing house and hosted talk shows on television and radio. Throughout it all, he had kept his day job, which was importing cheap liquor and marketing it as high-end. (Come to think of it, this appeared to be his literary modus operandi as well.) The award, and Sobchak’s kiss, had clearly elevated me to a whole other stratum. Forget Astvatsaturov and Pepperstein. Now I got to hang out with writers like Sergei Minaev.
“You know, Misha, right now you have a chance to make a very decent career,” Minaev said with a godfatherly inflection. He wiped his hand with a napkin, finger by finger. Then he gave me his business card.
The next morning, a hungover Yandex search for “idov + sobchak” netted seventeen hundred hits. The kiss was everywhere. The morning after that, it reached print. “Ksenia Throws Herself on Married Man.” “Ksenia Sobchak Pushes Writer to Cheat on Wife.” “Sobchak Kisses Another Woman’s Husband.” “Sobchak Seduces Married Writer in Front of Spouse” (my wife was two thousand miles away). For some reason, today’s two trashiest and most vicious Moscow tabloids used to be Young Communist publications in the Soviet era: the Komsomol Truth and the Moscow Komsomolets. Neither has changed its old title (Komsomol un-portmanteaus into “Union of Communist Youth”) or logo, which in the case of the Truth incorporates an Order of Lenin. Except now Lenin, in an ordeal somewhat similar to the one my parents’ fridge has put him through, presides over such items as “Fresh Pix of Planet’s Hottest Butt.”
The Komsomolets even included a fabricated quote from me. I supposedly told them, “in an exclusive interview,” that my wife was intelligent and reasonable and she’d understand. I suppose that’s how tabloids get away with it: by having you say things you’d feel idiotic refuting. Was I going to claim that I never called my wife reasonable?
* * *
The establishment was embracing me as a sort of plaything. I was invited to an event thrown by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s “gray cardinal” who famously liked to keep tabs on “culture.” An FM station called Love Radio nominated Sobchak and me for Kiss of the Year; we lost out to Lady Gaga and Harry Potter (kissing their respective partners, that is, not each other). I went to a channel called TVC and taped a groggy interview for their morning show. “No questions about Sobchak, please,” I overheard my publisher’s PR woman instruct the segment’s producer.
My friends, meanwhile, were uniformly disgusted. In the circle of young New York–obsessed liberals who formed The Coffee Grinder’s initial readership, people like Minaev were deemed nerukopozhatnyi—a great synthetic word that means, literally, “unshakehandswithable.” Shakehandswithable people ate at Mayak Café, not Meat Club. TVC was a despised channel: a slush fund, someone indignantly explained to me, for the Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his buddies. My new patron Nikolai Uskov, the editor of the Russian GQ, was suspect, too, for reasons unknown. In short, Sobchak’s toxic aura had rubbed off on me. I was doing everything wrong. Back in New York, my wife, Lily, while every bit as understanding as the Moscow Komsomolets had presumed, was not exactly delighted either, objecting less to the hoopla itself than to the horrifyingly fake aw-shucks attitude I had adopted in response to it. In short, everyone agreed that it was a good idea for me to lay low for a while.
So I did just that. I even went off social media. Before I did, however, I wrote one Facebook post that only I could see, as a kind of confession into the void. “If I were to be absolutely honest with myself,” it read, in Russian, “my entire Russian persona is based upon the idea that I don’t need a fucking Russian persona. But the farther I go, the less convincing this pose becomes. Because when you start getting career advice from Sergei Minaev, you can, of course, keep pretending that it’s all one big art experiment, but only for so long. By even tangentially brushing against that whole scene, I am afraid I’m risking the friendship of dozens of likable people, most of whom exist in direct opposition to the ‘glamorous Moscow.’ So, resolved: from here on out, I focus on English-language work only. Let’s consider this chapter of my life closed.” And, with that, I suspended my Facebook account.
This turned out to be a terrible idea. Because, a year later, the very same dozens of likable people would use the very same Facebook to start a revolution.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Idov