Monday, June 9, 2008

A RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER'S UNPLANNED AUDIT

MARK AMES, RADAR Thursday morning, Moscow time, four Russian government officials came to the office of my English-language newspaper The eXile, and conducted an "unplanned audit" of our editorial content. They are carrying out an inspection of my paper's articles to see, in their words, if we have committed "violations." And they specifically asked to question me, since I'm officially listed as the founding editor-in-chief.

I started up The eXile 11 years ago with a Russian publisher, and it grew into a kind of cult phenomenon with an online readership of 200,000 visitors per month, launching the careers of Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi and "The War Nerd" Gary Brecher, but ensuring that anyone who sticks with the paper is condemned to a life of poverty and paranoia. . .

The insiders whom I contacted all said, "It's. . . strange." That's how my Russian lawyer reacted, it's how an American official reacted, and it's even how the head of the Glasnost Defense Fund reacted, even though his NGO focuses on problems between the Russian media and the Kremlin.

"As far as I know, there has never been a single Moscow-based media outlet which has been audited like this," Glasnost's lawyer told me. "We've seen a few of these in the far regions, but never Moscow. But really, don't worry about it, Mark, I don't think you're in any personal danger at this point."

Whenever a Russian tells me, "Don't worry, Mark" or "It's no problem," I start to sweat. I first learned of the government audit last week while I was out in California dealing with a family illness. I was already in a heightened state of paranoia at the time-one week in my native suburbia is all it takes to trigger panic attacks-so when the government sent the notice of the "unplanned audit" to our office, my first thought was, "Can an American get political asylum in his own country?" Then I remembered some of the articles I'd written from Moscow-for example, my post-2004 U.S. presidential election editorial titled "Gas Middle America" and how former U.S. Congressman Henry Bonilla (R-TX) once used his office to pressure the Russian authorities into arresting me because of a prank I'd played-and the next thing I knew, I was rifling through my mother's medicine cabinet looking for something strong to steal.

Eventually I calmed down and flew back to Moscow in time for the audit. At 11 a.m., four officials from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications and the Protection of Cultural Heritage arrived-the men in shabby Bolsheviki suits, and a squat middle-aged woman with pudgy arms and hands that pinched the seams of her wrists. On the advice of a Russian attorney, we greeted them with a box of dark chocolates. It was solid advice, and probably did more to protect us than a hundred attorneys' briefs could have. . .

The varied emotional responses to the meeting were interesting. The Westerners, who until last week supported our paper and kept it alive, immediately cut all ties with us, so they weren't there. The younger Russians on our staff were relatively calm about it. But when our Soviet-era accountant opened the office door and saw the four squat figures in bad official Soviet outfits, she turned white, and vanished, the door closing on its own. When our middle-aged courier arrived, she too turned white, stopped, then put her head down and walked past us, crossing herself three hurried times in the Orthodox Christian fashion, before locking herself in the design room. . .

What offends the Russian elite more than anything about The eXile is its aggressive refusal to play by the "serious" rules. The authorities can deal with serious print-media criticism of the Kremlin. . . so long as that media outlet makes everyone look serious and respectable, with serious dull language quoting serious dull think tank analysts. These days, Russia is all about getting serious and respectable. And it's also in the grips of a national persecution mania, in which grievances and complexes about the West have exploded into a kind of mass grievance-obsession, a frenzied Easter Egg hunt for evidence of Western disrespect or unfairness in order to feed this grievance jones. The fact that our paper has also exerted a lot of bile in savaging the West's Russophobe industry is irrelevant to them, even annoying; all they care about is sifting for evidence of humiliating Russia.

In the current climate, the authorities don’t need to jail or destroy you; all they need to do is notify you that you’ve earned their attention. At one point in the three-hour audit, they started leafing through our February Barack Obama issue, in which we posted a comparison chart between Russians and African-Americans in order to tweak Russian racism (examples: "Blacks: Freed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863/Russians: Freed by Tsar Alexander II in 1861"; "Blacks: plastic covering on furniture/Russians: plastic covering on remote control").

The lady-bureaucrat, who headed the audit team, leafed through the issue. . . and stopped when she saw a bad drawing of a semi-limp penis.

"What's this?" she asked, putting her glasses on.

"It's a column called 'The Recession Penis,'" I explained. "You see, the Recession Penis reacts to America's economic crisis, so every time American banks default and housing prices collapse, the Recession Penis gets more excited. It's, uh, humorous, you see."

She folded up the issue and handed it to her subordinate to bring back for the inspection. From there, much of the meeting focused on all of the newspaper's petty administrative fuck-ups: missing addresses, missing license number, something should be in Russian here, a registration number there. . . in all, the violations led to a $25 fine which was levied on me personally as editor-in-chief.

The official with the mullet took over one of our computers and typed up a "protocol," which essentially summed up our three-hour meeting. I signed it, only afterwards wondering if in fact I'd signed some sort of confession admitting my role in a Trotskyite plot. . .

The Russians I consulted with before and after the audit all came to the same conclusion: the authorities are planning to either tame us or shut us down. There's no more room for The eXile in the new serious/respectable Russia. . .

In the current climate, the authorities don't need to jail or destroy you; all they need to do is notify you that you've earned their attention, and if you're on their radar screen, then you immediately comply with whatever you think they want you to comply with, and you get abandoned by everyone around you who doesn't want to get sucked into your vortex. . .

Now it's like I have the Ebola virus. Longtime friends won't call, contributors want their names expunged from the online record. Even the American media is eerily silent about this story, despite the fact that one of their own is being attacked-could it be because we've spent 11 years savaging the Western media here? Or because we once threw a pie filled with horse sperm into the New York Times' bureau chief's face? . . .

The biggest fear of every foreigner in Russia is becoming the focus of Kremlin attention. Any attention. Russians fear it as well, but they've internalized it since birth and deal with it differently; foreigners operate here with a kind of looter's mentality: on the surface, overconfidence derived from the general sense that there is no authority over them because we think that the Russian authorities would never mess with a Westerner . . . but underneath that arrogance, a constantly-bubbling terror of being stopped at the border, turned back, and subjected to Russia's arbitrary and brutal state. . .

Meanwhile, I'm still here in Moscow, waiting for the Kremlin's experts to audit my dead newspaper's articles.

1 Comments:

At June 10, 2008 6:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This happened in Russia?

It sounds just like George Bush's USSA.

 

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