Moscow newspapers: the story of one title's survival

Amid the tightly controlled and increasingly cowed Moscow media, irreverent English-language title 'The eXile' is a breath of fresh air. But how has the paper survived for nine years? Ed Caesar finds out

At The eXile, Moscow's iconic English-language freesheet, they have a clear editorial position. "Yeah," says the co-editor, Jake Rudnitsky: "We shit on everybody equally."

There, in one scatological sentence, is the secret of The eXile's success. In a city where, for the past six years, press freedoms have been systematically eroded - where Kommersant, Russia's last major newspaper not under Kremlin control was sold to the Putin-friendly steel oligarch Alisher Usmanov last month - The eXile is a bracing alternative.

Granted, the grubby bi-weekly giveaway is a mess. The eXile looks as if it has been laid out by a monkey on acid. The headlines are all over the place. Stories merge clumsily into one another. There is no sense of scale, or scope, or balance.

But, who cares? Every English-speaking person in Moscow has at some time been offended, or tickled, or both, by something they have read in The eXile, which is more than can be said for its staid English-language counterpart The Moscow Times. And its editorial mix - somewhere between Loaded in its prime and Viz - has proved a winning formula since two American expats, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi (now a favourite at Rolling Stone), founded the newspaper in 1997.

It has been printed continuously for nine years, and has no plans to slow down. But, in spite of 25,000 print and 125,000 unique web readers every two weeks, the newspaper is in no danger of turning a profit.

"If we were at all decent business people," says Rudnitsky, "the website would be 90 per cent of our revenue. But we've never made a dime off it. The whole thing really passed us by. We do, however, get a few ads in the paper. So we [co-editors Rudnitsky, Ames and Yasha Levine] haven't bought any houses in the South of France yet, but we make enough to keep us afloat."

The eXile was not founded, though, to become a commercial powerhouse. It was founded to give its readers a unique take on a unique country. "I think we all feel that Russia's a place that's not dead yet," Rudnitsky says. "It's not like the West, where nothing interesting ever happens. Right now, the country's doing great. There's money to burn. But who knows what happens in 10 years' time? Could the government be overthrown? Could there be rioting in the streets? Could Russia become China's northern province? Nobody knows."

To reflect the excitement of being a bright young thing in Noughties Russia, The eXile has an odd medley of content. From long, serious pieces on a scarcely-reported war in Azerbaijan to a popular round-up of the country's most imaginative demises, called Death Porn; from features on Russia's obsession with mayonnaise to club and pub reviews; The eXile is nothing if not eclectic. Some of its most memorable editions have been founded on legendary pranks, the most famous of which was convincing ex-President Mikhail Gorbachev to enter into negotiations as a "perestroika co-ordinator" for the New York Jets gridiron football team.

"We do have a lot of fun, and we do a lot of stupid, satirical stuff," Rudnitsky concedes. "But, on the other hand, we're showing Russia in a way that you're not going to see in Western newspapers. We can write about things that Western journalists are too lazy or apathetic to write about.

"I think Western newspapers have an agenda, to show that everything in Russia is related to oil prices, and that Putin's this competent but quasi-fascist leader. They don't have the freedom to go out and actually find out what's going on. What makes this country fascinating is the details, and that's something we're allowed to focus on."

With the freedom it allows itself, The eXile has at times sailed close to the wind. "Strangely," Rudnitsky says, "we've never felt heat for any of the political things we've written. The closest time we had to being shut down was when we took credit for a fake letter about Sergei Kyrienko, the former prime minister, about how he had bought property with stolen money in America. We had nothing to do with it, but we had a gap in the paper, so we printed a picture of us faxing this letter. It was taken very seriously by the authorities. One guy personally asked Putin to have us arrested, but it never happened.

"Since we're printing in English, though, I don't think anyone's going to attack us. To close down The eXile, you'd have reports from every single foreign correspondent in Moscow. It would be big news - another example of how Putin is stamping out the free media. And it's not as if we're pissing off the Kremlin. I don't think Putin reads The eXile when he goes to the toilet."

Rudnitsky is probably right to play down The eXile's impact on Moscow's mainstream media. The paper is a minnow in a sea of sharks. But its value should not be underestimated. Moscow is a place where everybody has an opinion, and where, for now at least, the good times are rolling. And in a publishing environment where newspapers are serious, and under serious pressure, The eXile persists in providing an off-kilter view of what Rudnitsky calls "the most exciting country on earth".

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