Faxed to the offices of the newspaper late on a Friday afternoon the spring before last from somewhere within the bowels of Rossvyazokhrankultura, the Russian Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and Cultural Heritage Protection, it announced the imminent “conducting of an unscheduled action to check the observance of the legislation of the Russian Federation on mass media.” The Exile, a Moscow-based, English-language biweekly, stood accused of violating Article Four of that legislation by encouraging extremism, spreading pornography, or promoting drug use. The letter scheduled the unscheduled action to take place between May 13 and June 11. This being Russia, it wasn’t faxed until May 22.
An Exile sales director, about to leave for the day, received the fax and phoned an editor, who called the real target of the letter, Exile founder and editor in chief Mark Ames, at that moment a world away in Los Gatos, California. Ames in turn promptly called a few lawyers in Moscow, who warned him he might be arrested if he returned. Someone, apparently, had it out for The Exile.
But who? Ames likes to indulge a grandiose paranoia whenever possible, and did. A functionary? An enraged oligarch? Someone on President Dmitry Medvedev’s staff, or, more to the point, in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s circle of spooks? (The Exile’s first cover story on Putin, in 1999, grafted the man’s head onto the body of a latex-clad dominatrix over the headline putin commands mother russia: kneel!) Egotism aside, the possibilities were in fact endless. Since its debut, in 1997, The Exile, which read like the bastard progeny of Spy magazine and an X-rated version of Poor Richard’s Almanack, had pilloried, in the foulest terms possible, almost everyone of importance, and no importance, in Russia, and had made a point of violating not one but all of Article Four’s provisions. But everyone knew that.
So why now?
No one seemed to know that.
The one thing that Ames did know: he was going back to Moscow. Putin’s Russia is an infinitely more dangerous place for journalists than the crumbling country that had drawn Ames 15 years before from the same suburban town where he paced about now, but still it was Russia, and not America, that was his spiritual home. It was not for nothing he’d named his paper The Exile.
Several days after Ames returned to Moscow, the dour Federal Service officials, three men led by a woman, arrived at the paper’s office. When they walked in, a staffer old enough to remember some of the worst parts of the Soviet era, crossed herself and simply ran from the office, Ames says. The officials questioned Ames for more than three hours, going through issue after issue of The Exile, by turns offended, disgusted, baffled. Ames suppressed his urge to start cursing at the officials in mat, Russian’s profane slang, as he watched them thumb through his life’s work, but his restraint meant little: news of the interrogation soon got out, and stories appeared in the Russian press, The Wall Street Journal, and Reuters. Ames’s investors broke off contact. The distributors stopped sending trucks. “They worried that everybody would be sent to Siberia,” Exile sales director Zalina Abdusalamova says.
Just like that, The Exile’s era was over.
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