I have never taken The eXile very seriously (perhaps arguably, neither do the editors), but it appears that the Kremlin sure does. The English-language cult magazine is currently undergoing an “unplanned audit” of its editorial content as described by founding editor Mark Ames, as government authorities comb over the newspaper’s past articles looking for anything of loosely defined illegality, along the lines of extremism or libel. The harassment of The eXile is quite peculiar for a number of reasons. It isn’t exactly some type of aggressive ideological press organ, and more often than not, their most sharply snarky pieces are focused on lambasting foreign coverage of Russia which the writers feel is unfair to the state. Yes, Eduard Limonov is a columnist, the paper is also a trenchant opponent of Russophobia. In the past, this paper has been an disproportionately hostile critic of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As far as I can tell, its primary mission had always seem to achieve maximum insult through social and political lampoon. Also, we have all those nice things Medvedev said last week about protecting the practice of journalism from state interference. Strange timing. Ames has published a very amusing and dystopic account of his experience undergoing the “unplanned audit” in Radar. Recommended reading. Welcome to the fringe, Mark.
In all my years I’d never heard of an “unplanned audit” of editorial content. 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.
(…)After all of the nervousness and fear in the buildup to the meeting, when the three hours were up and they got up to leave, we felt fairly confident. Too confident, in fact. Because today, I’m starting to think differently. I’m thinking this:A: I live in a gangster police state that’s hell-bent on being respected.B: These people are now auditing my articles to see if they’re extremist, pornographic, or if they humiliate Russia.C: Before they left, they took our most recent issue, in which I wrote that the Exile “farts in Russia’s face” and that Medvedev is so liberal our paper can “urinate into the president’s mouth without any fear of consequences,” and he’s so small he should be “zipped up in a squirrel costume and put in a Habitrail.”THEREFORE, D: The California suburbs are sounding pretty nice to me.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, the Russia of fanatical consumerism and materialism and vile conformism. This is a country where two separate magazines launched proudly billing themselves as the “New Yorker without political reporting.”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.And if you do fight the law, then … well, just this past week there have been two examples of what can happen. The opposition webzine ingushetia.ru was closed by court order, and its lawyer had his apartment raided last week (I was planning to use him to help the Exile until that happened); and one of Russia’s largest radio companies was raided by armed police, leaving it temporarily off the air.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? Just as a single controversial article in Russkii Korrespondent led its rather brash billionaire backer to immediately shut it down last month, so this single audit means that the Exile is now, after 11 years, dead.