From 2012 to 2014, American screenwriter and novelist Michael Idov was the editor in chief of the Russian edition of GQ. His book about these years, Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow (coming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in February 2018), details his blundering journey through both Russia’s anti-Putin protest circles and its high-society set — including the scene around Emin Agalarov, Moscow’s singing counterpart to Donald Trump Jr. and a figure in the Russia collusion scandal. This is an exclusive excerpt from the memoir.
As 2013 neared the end, my head swam with possibilities. One of my TV pilots, Londongrad, had begun shooting in the U.K., the first Russian-language series to ever do so. The other, an autobiographical sitcom called Rushkin, about an American writer stuck in Moscow, was in preproduction. On top of it all, I got invited to make an honest-to-goodness celebrity cameo in a movie. The film in question — called Odnoklassniki.ru, after the eponymous Russian clone of Classmates.com — was not exactly Citizen Kane. Its plot involved an aspiring copywriter who receives a magic laptop which makes every status update on his Odnoklassniki.ru profile immediately come true. Let's say he uploads a picture of a new Lamborghini with the caption “my new car,” and there it is. This, of course, leads him to become conceited and start playing God, and then learn a valuable lesson. The script, I was told, took several years to get right.
The movie’s director, Pavel “Hoody” Hoodyakov, and his wife Kornelia (who produced and played the female lead), had come to filmmaking through hip-hop videos, both Russian and American — so the movie also co-starred Snoop Dogg as a computer repairman, because why the hell not. Their political views, which slipped out in bits and pieces, were an interesting localization of the hip-hop penchant for respecting success qua success, which made Putin the ultimate hustler.
My role, if you could call it that, was a belligerent, drunk American film director on the set of a Russian TV commercial that involved women gyrating around a white Rolls-Royce. It consisted entirely of yelling variations on “I can’t work like this.” (In a sense, this was remarkably on-brand). Since dialogue in a foreign language didn’t affect the movie’s rating, I took the chance to rewrite my lines as an endless stream of obscenity. For inspiration, I studied J.K. Simmons's amazing monologue in the “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen” episode of Party Down — “I will rip off your dick and fuck your dog with it. (pause) To death.”
Also in the scene was the Hoodyakovs’ best friend Timati, Russia’s most commercially successful rapper. (The white Rolls-Royce behind the writhing women was his; its well-being concerned him greatly throughout the shoot). Timati was as cuddly as a tattooed teddy bear, a so-so rhymer, and a devoted fan of the Putin administration, a fact that popped up in his lyrics with increasing urgency. Born into brand new money as Timur Yunusov, Timati was part Jewish, part Tatar. In Russia, this combination was enough to make him “black,” a self-chosen designation he made the centerpiece of his Black Star empire, which has at various points encompassed a record label, a line of impressively derivative clothes, a barbershop, a burger franchise, an online gaming company, a soccer team, and a mobile carrier service. His biggest claim to fame outside Russia was a European dance hit called “Welcome to St. Tropez,” a greeting Timati was fully authorized to dispense: his father had a villa there.
In the interminable waiting periods that comprise 95 percent of every film shoot, Timati and I made small talk, most of which he insisted on keeping in English, and exchanged phone numbers. Then it was my turn to go before the camera and spew profanity, and amid my jitters I all but forgot about this encounter. A couple of weeks later, my phone rang in the middle of an editors’ meeting. It was Timati. He phoned to say that he had written a song called “GQ.”
At first, I thought this was a prank. It wasn’t. Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford” had just come out, ushering in a very brief era of “brand rap.” In his search for a name that would denote the same kind of sophistication to the Russian ear, Timati explained, he hit upon the title of my magazine. Now he wanted my opinion on the song. My opinion, at the moment, was roughly along the lines of Holy shit.
That night, my friend Andrew Ryvkin and I went to Timati’s studio on Leninsky Prospect to preview the track. We anticipated clouds of pot smoke, someone asleep in a corner, buxom women lolling about – you know, a rap studio. Timati’s lair turned out to be nothing of the sort. If not for a couple of massive security guys out front, it would have looked like a dentist's office. Timati, like the Hoodyakovs, was drug- and alcohol-free and demanded the same from his colleagues and hangers-on. Andrew and I sank into a leather couch and listened to a rough mix of the song. It was a brass-driven stomp, catchy as all hell. Each hook had twelve iterations of the word GQ. In fact, the word was the hook.
Real gentlemen, always fresh
GQ, GQ, GQ
Intellect attracts cash
GQ, GQ, GQ
The aroma makes the girls moan
GQ, GQ, GQ
Gonna make it all the way on my own
GQ, GQ, GQ
I composed myself and took the news back to Condé Nast. Now the company had to choose one of the three possible reactions: we could haughtily ignore the song; actively fight its release on trademark grounds; or just ride this tiger, see where it takes us, and pretend this was the plan all along. I lobbied hard for option #3. Didn’t we want a new audience for the magazine? Well, there it was, on a platter. An admittedly weird platter, but still.
Another week later, I was swinging a golf club at the camera for the song’s video, directed by — who else — Pavel Hoodyakov. Around me, dancing and vamping in black tie in front of the giant black letters G and Q, was a who’s who of the Putinist elite: Enrique Iglesias-like crooner Emin Agalarov, mega-restaurateur Arkady Novikov, TV host Garik Martirosyan, standup comedian Vladimir Vinokur (“he has Putin on speed dial!” admiringly whispered Hoody into my ear), media magnate Sergei Kozhevnikov, and movie star, producer, director, and entrepreneur Fedor Bondarchuk. Women in Gatsby-style flapper costumes licked GQ-shaped pieces of ice. Confetti rained. Timati did donuts on a tiny red motorbike. There was a pony. It had taken me less than two years to get here from covering the anti-Putin protests at Sakharov Square.
Emin, his Italianite handsomeness rendered non-threatening by modest height, was easily the most enigmatic character in that crowd. He was not just a singer but also a businessman — in this case, vice president of Crocus Group, established in 1989 by his father Aras Agalarov, the “Donald Trump of Russia.” The family did indeed share some similarities with the Trumps: they owned golf resorts, convention centers, hotels, malls, restaurants, and even a luxury watch brand, U-Boat. Emin was thus the rare musician with the distinction of regularly playing lavish shows at the venue he also owned. Despite this, he was unerringly nice; I recall him being very polite in our few brief conversations, and — unlike Timati, or for that matter Donald Trump Jr. — downright shy, which seemed at odds with his line of work. In the “GQ” video, while everyone else, myself included, mercilessly mugged for the camera, he played the grand piano.
Among a myriad other properties, the Agalarovs owned Moscow’s two Nobu locations, one of which sat kitty-corner from the GQ offices. It was always empty, but this didn’t seem to bother the owners, for whom it seemed to function as a semi-private canteen. I made fast friends with the chef, Ben Osher, a talented Californian deathly bored of slinging miso black cod to the Moscow demimonde, and became a grateful guinea pig for his culinary experiments. In May of 2013, Emin had opened his own club directly above Nobu, called Rose Bar and made to look like the interior of a megayacht, with faux portholes and teak-like detailing. The opening’s crowd was a curious mix — I saw the gravelly, mobbed-up singer Grigory Leps, soon to be blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Treasury for links with an international criminal group; but also Natalya Sindeeva of the opposition’s TV Rain. Emin made a late entrance accompanied by 2012’s Miss Universe, who had just starred in a video for his song called “Amor.” As always, he radiated aw-shucks bashfulness.
Half a year later, that collaboration had begotten Moscow’s own notorious edition of Miss Universe. The Agalarovs bought the franchise rights for the pageant like they had with Nobu, reportedly for about $20 million. On October 25, my wife Lily and I reluctantly went to Nobu (synergy!) for the Miss Universe Welcome Party. Crocus Group wanted GQ to cover the pageant; I had always found these things to be beneath any kind of coverage, and going to the Agalarovs’ events was a way of politely declining it without pissing off the hosts. (At the party, I passed the time making notes for Rushkin: “Matt Rushkin among the beauty queens. Miss Turks and Caicos is conjoined twins”). Two years into my Russian life, I was still a New Yorker; and Donald Trump was a New York joke, one I couldn’t believe had chased me all the way here to Moscow. Then again, it made perfect sense. I left early, bumping into Steven Tyler of Aerosmith on my way to the elevators.
Next day came the big dinner at Crocus City, the Agalarovs’ giant mall on the outskirts of Moscow. All 87 pageant contestants mingled in full evening dress and sashes; guests were treated to a synchronized swimming routine in an indoor fountain, which I later found out was a regular feature at this mall. At the dinner itself, I got seated at a table with Miss Latvia, which I appreciated, but still skipped out before dessert. If Trump was ever there, I missed him — and with him my chance to claim an eyewitness angle on the weirdest Russian-American story of my lifetime.
Timati’s song “GQ,” and the peacocking video for it, had meanwhile become one of the year’s biggest hits. The torrent of contempt it unleashed from my liberal former cohorts was spectacular. Everyone hated it. Everyone assumed it was a paid advertisement for GQ that I had somehow put together. And everyone couldn't stop hate-watching it, or hate-quoting the line “intellect attracts cash.” The song’s success bound me to spend some evenings with Timati and his friends, who lived in a kind of self-contained Elysium of neon lighting, low-slung cars, booming beats, silicon, San Tropez, shimmery mini-dresses, and food on sticks. I had never been a part of anything like this.
This world may have held a touristy allure for me, but Emin was fully of it, and so were the Trump kids. It made absolute sense to me that, when Emin’s publicist Rob Goldstone would approach Don Jr. to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton on the Russians’ behalf, Don Jr. wouldn’t even perceive this offer as issuing from a foreign, let alone hostile, actor. The Trumps can’t see these types of Russians as foreigners because they belong to the same global class, that of the second-rate nightclubby strivers; they are all compatriots in a supranational state of poshlust. If there is no sense that they belong to different cultures, it’s because they genuinely don’t.
On November 9, 2016, when Trump won, that entire crowd was ecstatic. Hoody Instagrammed himself hoisting up a silver-and-gold Beluga vodka bottle in front of a TV screen that showed Trump’s acceptance speech. The caption said “Congratulations Mr President!!! Start celebrating @realdonaldtrump #USA #RUSSIA," followed by the two countries’ emoji flags. Timati, for his part, later published a photo of himself at the Statue of Liberty sporting a Putin T-shirt. That was the sick joke of it all. While disadvantaged, embittered, and riled-up voters in the U.S. felt that, by electing a lewd outsider, they had finally delivered a blow to the global elite, the heiresses and coked-up club kids all over St. Tropez were the ones popping the corks. Their guys won, too.
The truth was, at that point in 2013, I felt almost fine in this crowd. Politically, Russia seemed to be normalizing after a brief fit of overreaction. Alexei Navalny had been allowed to run for mayor of Moscow, and received over 20 percent of the vote. On December 19, with the Sochi Olympics approaching, the Duma rolled out an amnesty for political prisoners that seemed to herald a new thaw. By Christmas Eve, Nadya and Masha of Pussy Riot were back in Moscow; I met them in person for the first time without a glass cage to separate us. Most importantly, Russia’s political prisoner number one, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was free after ten years in prison.
Perhaps the “bloody regime” was all in the opposition’s heads. Sure, Russia was a mild autocracy. So what? So was Singapore. And who really hates Singapore? In the grand scheme of things, it was still in the period of the post-Soviet transition, and the people were living better than ever in its tortured history. My TV projects had met no censorship or resistance. The abstract anti-Western sentiment emanating from the Ostankino TV tower didn’t seem to touch me. Quite the opposite: both Londongrad and Rushkin — one about the Russians in the West, the other about a Westerner in Russia — were going to series. One got the green light for a whopping forty episodes, the other for twenty. To cap it all off, a friend and I sold a movie treatment to the famed producer Alexander Rodnyansky. It was a kind of Cyrano-meets-Sabrina romantic comedy, half in English, set in the world of Ukrainian bridal agencies in a quirky, charming Odessa. As we were signing the deal in his office, Rodnyansky kept nervously glancing at a muted TV. It showed anti-government street protests in the center of Kiev, his hometown, where he still kept a house. The comedy was not to be. In a few more short months, Russia was at war with Ukraine.
From the book Dressed Up For a Riot: Misadventures in Putin's Moscow. © 2018 by Michael Idov, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February 2018.