Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin's Moscow

Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin's Moscow

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Overview

A memoir of revolution, reaction, and Russian men’s fashion

In this crackling memoir, the journalist and novelist Michael Idov recounts the tempestuous years he spent living alongside—and closely observing—the media and cultural elite of Putin’s Russia. After accepting a surprise offer to become the editor in chief of GQ Russia, Idov and his family arrive in a Moscow still seething from a dubious election and the mass anti-Putin rallies that erupted in response. Idov is fascinated by the political turmoil but nonetheless finds himself pulled in unlikely directions. He becomes a tabloid celebrity, acts in a Russian movie with Snoop Dogg, befriends the members of Pussy Riot, punches an anti-Semitic magazine editor on the steps of the Bolshoi Theatre, sells an autobiographical sitcom pilot that is later changed into an anti-American farce, and writes Russia’s top-grossing domestic movie of 2015. Meanwhile, he becomes disillusioned with the splintering opposition to Putin and is briefly attracted to a kind of jaded Putinism lite—until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thoroughly changes his mind.

In Dressed Up for a Riot, Idov writes openly, sensitively, and stingingly about life in Moscow and his place in a media apparatus that sometimes undermined but more often bolstered a state system defined by cynicism, corruption, and the fanning of fake news. With humor and intelligence, he offers a close-up glimpse of what a declining world power can become.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538163
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,133,504
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Michael Idov is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter, and the author of the novel Ground Up (FSG, 2009). From 2006 to 2012, he was a contributing editor at New York magazine and won three National Magazine Awards for his writing; he edited GQ Russia from 2012 to 2014. Born in 1976 in Riga, Latvia, Idov moved to the United States in 1992 and currently lives in Berlin.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

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:

Undress Go out into the street naked And I will stifle my jealousy If our mission requires it Undress!
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." 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.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Dressed Up for a Riot"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michael Idov.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 A Rootless Cosmopolitan 3

2 The New Decembrists 35

3 The Lokh 61

4 The One-Two Punch, Part One 91

5 The One-Two Punch, Part Two 119

6 Anatomy of the Protest 145

7 My Name Is Matt Rushkin 187

8 Zavtra 225

Acknowledgments 263

Index 263

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