What is canon?

The following is a long overdue post about two OGs, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames.

Last fall, Matt Taibbi departed Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media before the launch of his much anticipated new web journal, Racket. The unexpected departure prompted rueful tweets from Taibbi:

TaibbiTweet

https://twitter.com/mtaibbi/status/537340415997771776

And some surprisingly tame finger pointing about who was to blame for Racket‘s failure to launch.

From NY MAG: link

From Pando: link

And the ‘inside story’ from First Look itself: link

Was Omidyar to blame, a new media oligarch with poor management skills? This would be unsurprising, as it is a theme we have seen over and over again (hi, Chris Hughes)

Was it Matt Taibbi, an abrasive celebrity journalist? Or maybe it was a little bit of both?

Then, tagging himself into the ring, Mark Ames threw his version of a haymaker: Taibbi’s pal came to his fellow The Exile alum’s defense by directly linking Omidyar to funds allocated towards alleged neo-fascists at the vanguard of Ukraine’s post-Maidan counterrevolution. Here are some money quotes:

Zalishchuk was given a choice spot on the president’s party list, at number 18, ensuring her a seat in the new Rada. And she owes her rise to power to another oligarch besides Ukraine’s president – Pierre Omidyar, whose funding with USAID helped topple the previous government

&

Earlier this year, Pando exposed how eBay billionaire and Intercept publisher Pierre Omidyar co-funded with USAID Zalishchuk’s web of nongovernmental organizations

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This latest twist in Omidyar Network’s murky, contradictory or two-faced roles raises more disturbing questions about what the tech billionaire is up to. On the one hand, Omidyar plays the “adversarial” watchdog of the US National Security State, having privatized Snowden’s NSA files, the largest national security secrets leak in history, for his startup publication The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the only two people entrusted with the complete Snowden cache.

On the other hand, Omidyar and his wife have been among the most frequent visitors to the Obama White House, intermingling with members of his National Security Council and State Deptartment. Meanwhile, in just the past year Omidyar Network has co-funded Ukraine revolution groups in Ukraine with the US government, and directly financed far-right, pro-business political actors in both Ukraine and in India, where a former top figure in Omidyar Network, Jayant Sinha now serves in theultranationalist BJP Party and as close advisor to its controversial far-right leader, Narendra Modi. Previously, Sinha had served in a powerful BJP Party think-tank, the India Foundation to elect Modi, while simultaneously working as head of Omidyar Network India Advisors, and serving on the five-member global Executive Committee of Omidyar Network.

This week, Omidyar Network’s “investment lead” for Ukraine, Stephen King, accepted an award for Omidyar Network’s role in a major new USAID-backed project, Global Impact Investing Network.

There is truly nothing like Omidyar’s contradictory roles – fighting the empire, leaking the empire’s secrets, while also working hand-in-glove with the empire’s agencies to make the world more pliable to US government and corporate interests. Perhaps it reflects the multibillionaire’s bizarre Howard Hughes-like schizophrenia; perhaps it’s deliberate, a co-optation of the dissident activist wing. Perhaps there’s no rhyme or reason, only the effects – an eerie silence from nearly the entire activist community when it comes to holding Omidyar or his many endeavors accountable.

Depending on what you think of USAID, Omidyar, and Ukraine, this either represents a valiant defense of a long-time friend and colleague, or it represents baseless bloviation in bad taste.

But this post is not about First Look Media or about what happened with Racket.

It is about looking past the recent events surrounding First Look Media (and Pando) to remind readers where Ames and Taibbi belong in the canon of post-Soviet writing (hint: they are first ballot hall of famers). Because elsewhere on social media there has been an ad hominem backlash against Ames & Taibbi, especially after the Pando salvo cited above. Sifting through some of this backlash, it is easy to see where it comes from: their work on Russia is vulgar.

I am not a fanboy of The Exile. For a hagiography, read James Verini’s 2010 Vanity Fair article.

I am not a fanboy, but I firmly believe that the work that Taibbi and Ames did in Russia, long before Pando and First Look Media, is canon for any student of Russia. To be contemplated, critcized, and contextualized in order to understand where Russia is today.

While those of us working in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were maybe tangentially exposed to the filth, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the depravity of the early- to mid- Post-Soviet years, Taibbi and Ames immersed themselves in that filth and illuminated it for those who were too blind or too spineless to admit what was going on. Give me Taibbi and Ames every time, instead of the British journalist who keeps a secret second wife and kids in Moscow, or the American banker who enriched himself by essentially stealing from the Russian people. What we see in The Exile is the ugly truth of what was happening in Russia.

In my humble opinion, the strongest piece of writing by the OGs on that period is Matt Taibbi’s 2007 obituary of Boris Yeltsin, containing hard truths such as the following:

He has been dying for at least twenty consecutive years now — although he only started dying physically about ten years ago, he has been dying in a moral sense since at least the mid-’80s. Of course, spiritually speaking, he’s been dead practically since birth. … I once visited Boris Yeltsin’s birthplace, in a village in the Talitsky region of the Sverdlovsk district in the Urals, a tiny outhouse of a place called Butka. I knocked on the door of the shack where Yeltsin was born and stepped in the soft ground where his room had once been. Boris Yeltsin was born in mud and raised in shit….

As a teenager he only knew two things; how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher.

And, for further edification, who could forget their satirical Field Guide to Moscow (personal favorite: Trophia Minigarchia)

Their work is offensive but relevant, even today. After all, the people skewered on the pages of The Exile remain influential even today.

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