In 1992, Michael Idov left his native Latvia with his family and resettled in Cleveland. Two further moves shaped his career as a writer: At the University of Michigan he lost himself in “the seams and stitches” of American pop culture and wrote scripts and screenplays; after decamping to Brooklyn, he went on to write a New York-set novel called “Ground Up.”
That book became something of a bible for young Manhattan-obsessed Muscovites. Despite its success, Idov was surprised when, in 2010, GQ Russia named him its Writer of the Year. The following year he was stunned when the magazine invited him to Moscow to become its editor in chief. Two decades after escaping “Russia’s orbit,” Idov agreed wholeheartedly to move to its very hub.
“Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow” is Idov’s insightful and entertaining account of the tumultuous three years he spent dazzled by the glare, energized by the drama and buffeted by the chaos within the rarefied realm of the Russian media.
Idov sets the tone with a sketch of a haphazard awards ceremony, where he comes away with more than he bargained for. From here, we watch as a culture-shocked Westerner and veteran of Manhattan media acclimatizes to a whole new way of life.
Half of Idov’s book focuses on his experiences in “the loosey-goosey world of Moscow media, where half the people were winging it half the time.” The other half comprises coverage of the wave of political rallies that gripped the city in the aftermath of a rigged election. Idov gathers together a team “optimized for craziness and change” but soon finds himself in a bind: hobnobbing professionally with pro-Putin establishment grandees while socializing and sympathizing with protesters.
Idov’s “misadventures” are certainly colorful. He acts in a Russian movie with Snoop Dogg, meets members of punk-activist outfit Pussy Riot, watches a televised biker show celebrating the annexation of Crimea (“Russia’s answer to redneck culture”) and takes part in a shambolic protest — which turns out to be “the strangest night and day of my life.”
Eventually, Idov’s honeymoon-period astonishment gives way to terminal disillusionment. The rough proves as interesting as the smooth. His job, he discovers, consists of “glamorous-looking tedium that belied various marketing obligations.” He upsets advertisers by sending back outlandish gifts (including rhinestone-encrusted sneakers), grows annoyed with readers who have no time for Russian celebrities and loses his faith in an opposition that cannot rise up when the Kremlin clamps down.
“Dressed Up for a Riot” contains several amusing episodes, but otherwise Idov plays it straight. This is no Gary Shteyngart memoir — but then neither does it purport to be. Instead of laughs we get acuity. Rather than relying on scrapes and blunders, Idov prioritizes perceptive observations and acerbic commentaries.
The result is a fascinating book that illuminates the hard reality — and absurdity — of modern-day Moscow.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Dressed Up for a Riot
By: Michael Idov.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 275 pages, $26.