Michael Idov, a three-time National Magazine award winner, became a sensation in Russia after the publication of his novel Ground Up, about a New York couple’s attempt to operate a coffee shop on the Lower East Side. The book caught the eye of the staff of GQ Russia, who nominated him as their writer of the year—catapulting him into the Russian media spotlight. He landed the gig of the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief soon afterwards—a wildly hilarious tale in Putin’s Moscow that forms the subject of his latest book, Dressed Up for A Riot—Misadventures in Putin's Moscow. Idov, a native of Latvia who moved to the U.S. when he was 16, spoke to The Daily Beast about the art of the memoir, the immigrant experience, and the lure of the “motherland.”
The Daily Beast: When you set out to write this book, did you ever think people might not believe half of the stuff that occurred was true? From duel-like face slaps outside of the Bolshoi Theater to your assistant tweeting that you were still at the office, looking pathetic, while also dissing your shoes—and this on the first day of work as Editor-in-Chief? Did you ever find yourself saying, ‘My life is stranger than fiction’—and, ‘How can this translate to a memoir’?
Michael Idov: Not really—to be honest, the above examples are pretty mild when it comes to living in Russia. (This is, after all, a country where a member of Pussy Riot, after two years in prison for dancing in a church, can start dating an Orthodox terrorist who calls in bomb threats to “satanic” rock concerts). The bulk of the book is firmly based on the diary I’ve kept my first year in Moscow—which, in retrospect, turned out to be perhaps the best decision I had made that year. The only liberty I took with the material was very occasionally conflating the events of two or three days into one. I did run into a different quandary, however. Having never written a memoir before, how do I predict which aspects of my life are legitimately interesting and which aren’t? How do I protect myself from going too granular on a topic no one cares about while glossing over something truly important? In the end, I used every anecdote that fit the overall arc of my Moscow years—my infatuation and disillusionment with first the opposition and then the “hip” Putinist elite— and cutting out everything that didn’t fit. Of course, this act of selection might itself be the book’s biggest lie, because I’ve ended up imposing a tidy narrative on something as chaotic and messy as life.
Did you ever think that your efforts to instill a new style of journalism (a more rigorous and factual one) at GQ Russia would be met with so many obstacles and so much resistance? How much of it do you chalk up to cultural differences, state influence, or simply old and very bad habits that are hard to change, especially as a newbie and outsider?
Well, I’ve been warned by Russian colleagues that this wouldn’t be easy—and, in retrospect, I was definitely too cocky about my ability to change things. (I ended up doing much better with GQ’s website, whose audience I increased tenfold, than with the magazine itself, whose circulation fell about 20 percent on my watch). Almost none of my problems had to do with state censorship, though, or dearth of journalistic talent. Russia has fantastic journalists, with many of whom I was lucky enough to work. I did fail to grasp how uninterested in the surrounding reality GQ Russia’s core audience was; they would literally buy the magazine to forget they’re in Russia. And there I was, reminding them.
There's always an aspirational quality to any fashion publication, and of course, GQ was no exception. But your experience showed something else entirely next level. You were not only expected to create an aspirational lifestyle for readers but also fabricate an illusion of the current reality—which seems to be the current attitude of Moscow and Russia at large, which your friend and author Peter Pomerantsev's book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2015), captured. Did you ever consult with him leading up to the publication of your book, or during your time at GQ did you say to him, this is a complete madness!
No, but we certainly compared notes over a beer or two.
At the beginning of the book, after you've accepted the position at GQ Russia, you have the chance to shadow the GQ American editor for a day. During your tenure at GQ.ru did you ever reach out to him to discuss the current challenges you were facing, or just figure how could he possibly understand?
Jim Nelson is a kind of hero of mine, and we’ve been friendly for years—so, yes, I had several chances to regale him with my stories. Here’s the thing, though—a lot of these stories are not unique to Russia. The crazy dance between the advertisers and the editorial side, for instance, is more like a jacked-up version of what goes on in many U.S. newsrooms, rather than some sort of only-in-Russia phenomenon.
How would you characterize the current opposition movement, and how it is evolved from your first riot to now?
The 2011-2012 protests were fascinating because they were essentially leaderless; any attempts to put a face on that movement, through various headquarters and committees, were kind of ad hoc and awkward. Over the last five years, that situation changed completely. The “authentic” Russian opposition has become almost entirely synonymous with Alexei Navalny. Navalny sets the agenda, directs the conversation, issues calls for rallies, etc. It’s debatable how this happened, but the main reason is brutally simple: Navalny is not lazy. Out of all the stars of the erstwhile White Ribbon movement, he’s the only one who’s been consistently putting in the work.
Early in the book, you mention resisting your college professor’s advice to write about your “immigrant experience.” Would you say that the anecdotes—about your parents keeping a picture of Lenin in their refrigerator, to your flashbacks of coming of age in America—are in some way your own, subversive and very original way of chronicling that experience and how it has shaped you as a writer? And in some subtle way did they influence your time as GQ Russia’s editor?
You got me! That bit in the first chapter is essentially me throwing up my hands and saying, “fine, here’s your touchy-feely immigrant story.” And then, for the rest of the book, I position myself as an American who miraculously knows Russian, as opposed to what I actually am (a Jewish guy from Latvia who grew up on Russian literature and music), but both the reader and myself are, at that point, aware that I clearly protest too much. The truth is that I feel much more affinity with that ridiculous place that I let on.
Last question: How is the current GQ Russia editor faring?
I haven’t been in Moscow in almost a year and haven’t had a chance to check, but the most recent editor (there’ve been two) is Igor, the guy who was the fashion editor during my tenure. He’s very stylish!
This interview has been edited and condensed from the original.