“He’s a Coen Brothers Villain”

Former GQ Russia editor and Moscow bon vivant Michael Idov on Vladimir Putin’s pathetic grip on power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images.

Novelist and journalist Michael Idov grew up in Latvia before coming to the United States as a teenager. After spending several years at New York magazine, he decided to take quite the job offer: editor of GQ Russia. Idov moved to Moscow with his family in 2012 and observed Vladimir Putin’s rule firsthand. Within a couple years, he had gotten involved in the film and television businesses there, learned about the travails of Pussy Riot from the group’s members themselves, and felt a deepening gloom after Russia annexed Crimea. He has now written an extremely colorful memoir about all of these experiences, Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow.

I spoke by phone recently with Idov, who now lives in Berlin. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what the Moscow elite really thinks of Putin, why the Trumps and Putins see themselves as members of the same tribe, and compromising your principles to survive in modern-day Russia.

Isaac Chotiner: The title of the book refers to “Putin’s Moscow.” Normally, the phrase that we read is Putin’s Russia. Were you trying to say something about Moscow and how it’s different from Russia?

Michael Idov: I’m glad you caught that, because this was actually very deliberate. My experience was not an authentically Russian experience. My adventures and misadventures in Russia are specifically a Moscow experience. This is to say that I am very cognizant of being extremely privileged in the way I was treated in Moscow, the crowd I was running with, the social circles, and also the degree of relative safety that was afforded to me by my American passport and by being a semipublic person. I think it’s an important distinction that a lot of Russians immeasurably braver than myself were at the same time risking immeasurably more than I was. For me, it was a fairly low-risk situation there.

The thing to know about Russia is that it’s extremely centralized. Over 20 percent of its population, and probably far more, and probably 70–80 percent of its money, is in one city, Moscow. Culturally speaking, Russia is actually a very small country. There’s a select group of maybe 500 people that produce almost all of its cultural content. I’m talking about movies, television, books, restaurants, music. Once you’re in that group, you’re in it. It’s a very strange phenomenon for a country as vast as Russia, but it’s true. When you crack the Moscow code, you’ve pretty much gotten into the bloodstream of Russian culture, whether you want it or not.

Why does being in that central place afford the advantages you mentioned?

What I was trying to say is that Moscow is basically the face that Russia shows to the world, and Moscow is where it has decided, several years ago, to build a kind of Potemkin village of an extremely Westernized, urbanized society with all the urban creature comforts that you could possibly imagine. This sort of ultra-Westernized and modern Moscow that sprung up, just as the screws were tightened over the opposition over the last five years, is the world where the book takes place. It’s real and unreal at the same time, because it’s kind of a life-size theater set of a city. That is why it’s very important for me to identify the place I’ve been to as Moscow and not Russia.

What is Putin’s relationship like to that circle you’re talking about?

They obviously were joined at the hip. They couldn’t exist without each other. But late 2011 was the moment when it felt like the urban intelligentsia had found its franchise, in a way, and might speak up, if not at an equal volume with the authorities, then at least try to start negotiating for more freedom, more concessions, more consideration from the regime.

It changed gradually, but if you want to look at the endpoint of that, it’s of course the Kirill Serebrennikov case. Serebrennikov is Russia’s foremost theater director and one of its most brilliant film directors as well, whose latest movie my wife, Lily, and I were lucky to have written. Despite being probably the most celebrated Russian theater director in the world, right now he is under house arrest on completely trumped-up charges, since August of 2017.

What’s interesting is not the very fact of his arrest but the fact that almost every Russian cultural eminence with what’s perceived as some sort of pull in the Putin administration has vouched for Serebrennikov and/or written or signed letters to Putin asking for him to be released. We’re talking about the people who have very carefully cultivated what they thought was a relationship with the regime where, in a situation exactly like this, they could ask for a favor exactly like this, or so they thought.

It’s remarkable how completely and utterly deaf the regime was to all of these people. I’m sure a lot of them actually had to make hard bargains with their own conscience, cultivating that relationship with the regime that they thought they could cash in for saving one of their own when the time came, and so it’s remarkable how useless all of that maneuvering turned out to be. Even Serebrennikov himself, at some point, had cultivated a close relationship with Vladislav Surkov, the erstwhile great cardinal of the Kremlin, Putin’s main ideologue. He put on Surkov’s play Almost Zero at his progressive theater, the Gogol Center, in, I believe, 2012. None of this, as we now see, has had any bearing on his fate.

How do people in this circle look at Putin, and what did you learn about him?

I have to point out that this is all second hand and hearsay, because I don’t think I’ve ever been in the same room as Putin, though I have been to the Kremlin, but not when he was there. I think the thing that comes up again and again is just the faceless smallness of it all, that everything points to a portrait of a man largely incurious, and with predictable and unimaginative appetites for tacky women, and massive amounts of money spent on tacky things, but then also with the brilliant, hard-boiled instinct, like street instinct for survival. That took him from being a purposefully faceless cog in the machine to basically becoming the machine itself, devouring everyone else and becoming the machine.

I realize that Americans are tempted to give him the backstory and the motivations of this sort of grand villain, because at the very least it elevates us by having a great menace against the hero, but the truth of it is that everything points to Putin’s entire clique consisting of just very small, unimaginative men clinging to power by any means necessary. Brilliant tacticians with zero strategy, whose goal is always just to live another day without letting go of the vast riches that they’ve amassed. That’s really it. It’s very sad. He is not a Bond villain. He’s a Coen brothers villain.

How do people there see the Mueller investigation, and does what you just said affect the way you see it?

I think they see it primarily as being incredibly amusing, because finally the U.S. is as obsessed with Russia as the Russians have always fantasized that it was.* Because after spending years and hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to raise Russia’s profile abroad, suddenly they can just kick back, relax, and do nothing while the Western media do their jobs of glorifying Putin as this hypercompetent, brilliant villain for them. They absolutely don’t mind being portrayed as scheming villains, because the only thing that the Russians hate is being accurately portrayed as largely incompetent. As long as we ascribe competence to them, they will be very happy.

So you are doubtful that there was any sort of competent plan to help elect Trump?

No, of course there was. Of course there was, just like there was a plan like that in the previous electoral cycle, and the one before that, and the ones predating the internet. They’ve always been screwing with or trying to screw with Western elections, just like the West has often tried to screw with the Russian elections. Remember that in the most recent French election, the Russians actively backed three candidates that lost and missed the only one that won.

What do you mean about previous electoral cycles?

Obviously the means are different, because they figured out or they’ve begun to figure out social media. The fact that we have created enormous networks for distributing anonymous, unattributable information—it’s silly not to use them. But before that there were always strategic leaks about who the Russians supposedly preferred as the American president so that the opponent of that person could use that in order to smear that person, and that’s the person they actually wanted to win, etc., etc. That goes back to Cold War stuff.

You said in your earlier answer that all of these people in the Moscow circle had to make hard bargains with their consciences. You were involved in that circle, in both journalism at GQ and in filmmaking and art. Did you ever feel like you had to compromise your conscience, and if so, around what?

I think in journalism there were several cases where, yeah, I had to obey completely unwarranted and ridiculous orders to strike this or that story, but I did make it my last stand when I’d been told to remove the word love from a film review of Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, because according to Russia’s horrendous law against so-called gay propaganda, you can refer to gay sex, but you cannot call it love. You cannot call a gay relationship love because that creates “false equivalence” between traditional and nontraditional lifestyles. That was a moment where I said, “OK, you can fine me if you want. I’m not going to do that.” There were other cases where somebody would write a column about Ukraine, and I would be told, “This is too sensitive. You have to take it out of the issue.”

Weirdly enough, I encountered almost zero censorship in Russian television. I have been extremely lucky. Believe me, I am hesitant to even keep bringing up this point, because I almost feel like maybe I’ve been cultivated unbeknownst to myself as a Potemkin village of a man, so I could go around saying that there is no censorship on Russian television.

Mueller will be looking into you soon enough.

A lot of my friends have run into it headfirst, and I have a lot of examples of that, but both TV series that I’ve done for Russian TV were written and directed without any regard for the politics of the moment, and both in fact ended up going squarely against what the mainstream of the Russian ideology was at the time.

Putin has developed an increasingly close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church and adopted a certain social conservatism. I’m wondering to what degree you think that is something that Putin legitimately feels, to what degree it’s him using the Church for his own ends, and to what degree there’s legitimate conservative sentiment within the Russian population that Putin is trying to harness.

I believe it was done as a cynical gambit when it was politically expedient, as a way to paint the protesting demographic as “the other,” to put the protesters at the center of this weird semiotic cluster of European, Jewish, American, gay, godless, all the bad things. In order to make that stick, Russia, with its sky-high divorce and HIV rates, had to suddenly pretend to be a conservative society beholden to traditional values, the last refuge of conservative values in Europe. It was a completely cynical gambit.

It lasted while it was expedient, and then as soon as Ukraine provided a better foundation for this new Russian belligerence and patriotism, it was discarded. You heard a lot about the Russian Orthodox Church from 2012–2014, and Patriarch Kirill personally as one of the leaders. You’ve barely heard about them since 2014. It was a short-term gambit. This is what the Pussy Riot trial was all about.

In the book, I’m telling the stories of a few Western conservatives who bought into the hype about Russia supposedly being this haven for family values, and actually coming to Russia seeking this kind of idealized hard-right, parochial society. In most of the cases, they left [after] a month or two, because obviously Russia is nowhere near the image it was trying to project.

What did you make of the Russian outreach to Don Jr., and how do you view the Trump family and their circle after seeing an oligarchic elite in Russia?

I wasn’t really surprised that Don Jr. didn’t see an overture that was delivered through the manager of Emin Agalarov—the crooner, slash developer, slash another scion of another developer dynasty—as something from a foreign or an alien type of actor, because the truth of it is, Russia has been run by people a lot like the Trumps, and the Trumps recognize their kind even more, I think, than they recognize themselves in most of their fellow Americans. The Agalarovs and the Trumps and the Putins and the Kushners—they all exist in this supranational state of tacky wealth. They are absolute compatriots in that, and their allegiance to this global elite is I think, in fact, much stronger than their allegiance to America or Russia respectively.

I normally ask anyone who’s been in Moscow whether they’ve seen the pee tape, but given that you’re a filmmaker, I guess I should ask whether you had any role in producing or directing it.

No. I couldn’t have. Even as a screenwriter, I couldn’t have made it up if I tried. I think it would have been killed in rewrites as too baroque.

Correction, Feb. 27, 2018: This article originally misquoted Michael Idov as saying the U.S. is as “upset” with Russia as the Russians had fantasized. He said “obsessed.”

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.