“Dressed Up For a Riot – Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow,” by Michael Idov, 2018
This journalistic memoir by a New-York centric author and editor is by turns funny, self-aware, perceptive and politically clueless. As they say, why do partially blind politics happen to ‘smart’ people?
Idov is a middle-class writer who brings the strengths and weaknesses of that class position to his writing. He grew up in Riga, Latvia, learned Russian, then left with his parents to live in the U.S. He still had a jones for Russian rock and roll and wrote a novel that few read except the people that count. Through it he got a job as the editor of GQ Russia – an upscale fashion magazine catering to wealthy Russians, especially in Moscow. Conde Nast publishes GQ, Vanity Fair and Glamour and its pages are beholden to ads for over-priced couture from Gucci, Prada, expensive watches and expensive liquor. And the joke is, he doesn’t even dress that well.
|GQ Russia - Soccer, Fashion & Manliness|
Idov arrives in Moscow in late 2011, during the height of what he calls demonstrations by the ‘new Decembrists” against the Putin regime. That designation is perhaps more true than he knows. In December 2011 a large Facebook-organized demo in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square happened, with slogans opposing corruption, censorship and electoral fraud by the Putin government. This culminated in a 100,000 strong demonstration in Moscow’s Sakharov Square against the government, the largest demonstration in Russia in many years. These December demonstrations were organized by the sons and daughters of notables in the Moscow intelligentsia and cultural milieu. This is where Alexei Navalny, a lawyer by training, first made a name for himself. Idov details how, over time, the Putin government responded with various levels of repression, jailings and deaths.
Idov spends about two and a half years in Moscow editing GQ, first attempting to ingratiate himself with the opposition to Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party. But since he edited a glossy upscale magazine dominated by advertisers, no matter how many critical and clever pieces he ran, he eventually became distanced from the isolated and ultimately cynical middle-class rebels of Moscow. At one point, he even raised funds for jailed members of Greenpeace, and that still wasn’t sufficient. He tried to make GQ face Russia, using Russian writers, pictures and topics instead of being a wealthy memo from a glorified New York. Idov finds out that the ‘opposition’ so despise Russia’s situation that they mostly yearn for London and New York, not Moscow or St. Petersburg. Many became exiles later, both because of government repression and Russian economic hard times due to the fall in the value of the ruble and oil prices. Many of their magazines and internet sites closed or were closed.
The book is full of Russian cultural name-dropping, rappers and ridiculous figures. Idov ultimately becomes a celebrity himself (the Russian-American Jewish editor slot…) and goes to parties, hobnobs with other celebrities and meets some of Russia’s major cultural figures on both sides of the Putin fence. Then he gets to work on what he is really good at – TV scripts for various Russian-language productions that are on a higher cultural level than most Russian TV. One is ‘Londongrad,’ about Russians in London and another, ‘Rushkin,’ that seems to be a copy of his own life in Moscow. At a certain point he can no longer put up with the contradictions at GQ Russia and gets hired to work on some terrible Conde Nast magazine in Azerbaijan connected to the Azeri dictator’s daughter. (Really?!) He now lives in Berlin and realizes New York is not the center of the world.
Idov actually believes that the U.S. and NATO had no role in the anti-Russian coup in the Ukraine, in spite of the large amount of documentation which contravenes that position… (can you say 'Victoria Nuland'?) (https://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/05/chronology-of-the-ukrainian-coup/)
The coup basically replaced an elected pro-Russian billionaire oligarch with an unelected pro-EU/US oligarch hostile to Russia and Russians. Or that the involvement of Right Sector and other Ukrainian fascists in Maiden Square was peripheral, and their role in western Ukraine still is. He toes the U.S. government line in thinking the overwhelming secession vote of the heavily Russian-populated Crimea was wrong Or that the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels are evil as they fight those very same fascist militias. After all, is there a problem with EU missiles on the Russian border? He calls anyone to the left of conventional 'liberal' Democrats the ‘tinhat left.’ He lumps in Trotskyists with monarchists and religious zealots. But then he also realizes there might be a touch of Russiaphobia in the U.S. Do you think?
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is barely mentioned, except as a wimpy fake opposition to Putin. Yet the CPRF nearly won the 1996 election and might have really won except for massive U.S. ‘meddling’ to support Boris Yeltsin. (Speaking of ‘election meddling,’ academic statistics by Don Levin show the U.S. has interfered in 81 foreign elections since 1946…) The CP’s elderly leadership voted for the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, which shows how bureaucratic and weak it had become. But recently younger people are trying to turn it into a real working-class opposition to Putin, not a ‘loyal opposition.’ The CPRF is still the second largest party in Russia, bigger than Navalny’s organization the Progress Party by far. However, their presidential candidate, Pavel Grudinin, is a millionaire, so they have not had any effect at the top of the party. The only workers Idov must have met are bin cleaners, bartenders, waitresses and chauffeurs in his travels around Russia, which is typical.
|Punk, Feminist, Atheist, Anarchist|
Idov focuses, like most of the bourgeois press, on the trial and jailing of Pussy Riot in 2012. (Does the hypocritical bourgeois press like punks in the 'west'? No...) Given his love of Russian rock and roll, this makes a certain cultural sense for him. But their 45 second performance in one of Moscow’s Orthodox cathedrals is not the biggest issue in Russia, even though the Russian government also tried to make it so. Putin is certainly opposed to atheist feminist anarchism, and many reactionary anti-gay laws and censorship laws have now been passed, as well as bans on foreign adoptions and EU food. But Pussy Riot is only the tip of the iceberg. What Idov could have looked at was also how this connects with the status of ordinary Russians, unions, organizations and political parties outside the approved “Western” circle. Perhaps how the Russian economic crisis affected normal Russians after the drop in oil prices.
Because after all, Putin and Medvedev are capitalists, even though they now parade around as the alt-right version of ‘strongmen’ in the tradition of the Czars and Stalin. Idov and Putin both agree on propping up capital. One supports an authoritarian nationalist version of capital, with significant state involvement enriching certain individuals and the other supports a liberal imperialist version centered around identity, enriching certain individuals. There are ‘oligarchs’ in both systems, but one is still covered by a better and thicker veneer of democracy, though fading. The multi-billionaires in the U.S. have another name too: “oligopolists.’ Idov pointed out that Medvedev made some noises towards a more liberal democracy, which fooled some members of the ‘new Decembrists.’ But after Putin’s crackdown on dissent, no longer.
Given Idov is a first-person journalist, his travels through Moscow society have the ring of truth. But if you look at history, something else rings a bell. The December 1825 revolt of Russian army officers against the new Czar Nicholas I took place in St. Petersburg. It occurred on Peters Square in front of St. Issac’s Cathedral on the southern bank of the Neva, where the ‘bronze horseman’ statue of Peter the Great now sits. Yet these Decembrists were impotent to bring about an overthrow or an adjustment in the monarchy without the involvement of the then small St. Petersburg working class and the vast Russian peasantry. Sound familiar?
Other books reviewed below on Russia: “Absurdistan,” “Russia, Snowden, Stoli and the Gay Movement,” “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” “US/EU Meddling Attempts to Make Ukrainians Pawns” and others. Use blog search box, upper left.
And I got it at the Athens, GA, USA library!
March 16, 2018