On Monday, we mainly sent out letters. Among those was a letter to the well-known public opinion firm VTsIOM-the first ripple in what we’d hoped would turn into a media groundswell indicting new deputy premier Boris Nemtsov in a “Blimps-for-Cities” scandal.
The letter, sent on swanky letterhead we made for a fictional organization called the “Fund for the Defense of Nizhni Novgorod,” asked VTsIOM to estimate the cost of a poll gauging the level of public support for a putative sale of the territory of Kaliningrad-formerly East Prussian Koningsberg-to Germany. To add spice to the comedic soup we asked the firm to discover the exact amount of compensation ordinary Russians would expect in return for the city.
Specifically, we wrote, compensation should measured in billions of dollars, or billions of dollars in conjunction with German-made cars, food products, or “Fokker Dirigibles”-blimps.
The VTsIOM commission was only one piece of a bigger mess we hoped eventually to leak to the press- namely, that Nemtsov was planning, as one of his first acts as a major player in Moscow, to float the idea of selling Kaliningrad in exchange for money, Mercedes cars, and blimps. Except for the blimps, we thought the story was believable and publishable, but to get it rolling, we needed rumors planted in the right places. Our first target was the German embassy.
All week, we bombarded the embassy with inquiries about rumors coming out of Nizhni that Nemtsov was negotiating the sale of Kaliningrad. We started with calls from the Russian “press”-first from a “Maria Zaporozhetsa” of “Nizhegorodsky Rabochy,” who elicited mainly amazement and incredulity from the German press office. However, by the next day, when “Yuliya” of “Nizhegorod- skaya Pravda” called, the Germans were ready-and they were angry.
eXile: Hello, I’m calling from Nizhegorodskaya Prav-
FRG: You called yesterday! We told you, we don’t know anything!
eXile: No, we didn’t ca-
FRG: Yes, you did! You called about this story that Nemtsov is planning to sell Kaliningrad to us!
eXile: We didn’t call, but that is what we’re calling about now.
FRG: (furiously) Who are your sources? You can’t publish this!
eXile: Our sources are in Nemtsov’s administration.
FRG: They’re lying to you! I don’t know why, but they’re lying!
As always with Germans, these press office types seemed game for an escalation of hostilities. We complied by calling the next day in the guise of a “respectable” Western reporter. A new, top-level, English-speaking press officer was put on the line:
eXile: Hello, my name is Vijay Maheshwari. I’m a free-lancer, an American. I write for the Dehli Wanker.
FRG: Yes, yes, hello. What is your question?
eXile: Well, I was just in Nizhni Novgorod and I heard this story that Nemtsov was considering negotiating the sale of Kaliningrad to Germany-
FRG: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
eXile:And I thought I’d just confirm-
FRG: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
We liked this officer better when he was laughing. When he calmed down, he started to scare us with his creepy insider political knowledge:
FRG: No, it doesn’t make sense. This is not Nemtsov’s kind of move- politically or geographically, it’s not his kind of thing. He’d do something else.
FRG: It would be a shame if this would come out, because there are many politicians here-shall we say (laughing ominously) some of the not so smart politicians-might think we are again trying to reclaim zees territory, ha, ha, ha.
eXile: Well, we didn’t believe it either.
FRG: Of course, this is a crazy country, and anything is possible, but I don’t think they’re planning anything like that.
Meanwhile, VTsIOM took us seriously, with an “Alexander Grazhdankin” responding with a cost proposal that included some free political advice-namely, that the inclusion of blimps and cars in the survey might detract respondents from the seriousness of our intentions, and that we should instead include debt credits as compensation. We were now ready to take aim at our main target-the Western press.
To our amazement, we found that their fantasies were more forgone than ours. Since we had to find an agency with a healthy disdain for facts, we decided unanimously to call a TV bureau. We called WTN, pretending to be a disgruntled VTsIOM employee who had decided to disclose the content of a “sensational” survey. We were blown away by the response:
WTN: But we know all about this. It’s a done deal.
eXile: But all these rumors about Nemtsov in our office, I mean, they can’t be true-
WTN: No, we were on to this long ago. We’ve been planning something on it.
eXile: But all this business about the blimps, and the Mercedes cars-it just seemed so unbelievable to me. Maybe if you called the German embassy, tried to find out what’s going on…
WTN: Pointless. They’d lie. Like I said, it’s a done deal. We’re going to run with it eventually, it’s just we’re busy now.
Similar responses in other bureaus forced us to temporarily shift our focus to other matters. eXile “humor machine” staffers- by now all equipped, unnecessarily, with pagers-composed a letter from Donald Trump to his good buddy Alexander Lebed, with whom he’d actually (in the real world) met last fall. In the letter, Trump sought the General’s advice on a public relations idea he’d had to go along with his actual plans to purchase the Hotel “Rossiya.” The Donald, the letter declared, was prepared to purchase the troublesome Tsereteli statue, thereby relocating it from a place where it was condemned to a place where it might be appreciated-Trump’s Taj Majal complex in Atlantic city:
“Americans,” the letter read, “love huge works of art and would no doubt flock to see the statue. Furthermore, my architects at Taj Majal say the statue, photographs of which they have examined, could easily be converted into a water-slide during the summer months. Spectators would pay a small entrance fee, climb the statue, and then jump off the crow’s nest onto the slide; the statue would in this way almost pay for itself. Of course, all this would be done in such a way as to respect the time-honored tradition of Russian artists.”
We shopped this story around to various Russian newspapers, pretending to be the Russian translator hired by Trump’s underlings to write the Russian version. It was poor fishing for a while, but then, finally, we got a bite at, of all places, Pravda. A correspondent there with the attractively Gogolian name of Igor Igorovich Semyedvornikov went ape over the story:
Semyedvornikov: Don’t talk about this on the phone. They’ll steal the story!
eXile: Well, I…
Semyedvornikov: Are you far from my office? Can we meet right away? Where are you, physically, right now?
eXile: Well, that’s not important, really. I mean, I’d rather stay anonymous for now…
Semyedvornikov: This American who gave you the letter, do you remember what he looked like?
eXile: Just an ordinary guy. Tall, maybe a little Jewish-looking…
Semyedvornikov: Mmm, sure, I see, I see…
We sent Igor the letter, but he explained to us that staff at Pravda had been cut, meaning he had to do the translation himself, word for word, with a dictionary. In fact, for all we know, he might be the only person left working there. At press time, he was still actively working on the story-and unless an eXile reader tips him off, he might still run it. So Ne Boltai!
A third joke came through in the midst of preparations for the eXile‘s self-aggrandizing coming-out party on Thursday, March 27. The new mentality of corporate wacky-ness had taken hold: staffers could be heard screaming into phones, demanding prompt deliveries of whiskey, vodka, and propeller hats. Meanwhile, another letter was in the works.
This one was from “Jerry Steinblatz,” a sports agent working for the Santa Monica-based “International Sports Manage-ment,” to the CSKA Red Army basketball team. Steinblatz explained that he represented Wilt Chamberlain, and that Chamberlain wanted, “amazingly, and against my recommendations,” to make a comeback in Russia.
The “Stilt,” Steinblatz explained, had for the first time renounced his womanizing ways and fallen in love with a Russian girl, who wanted to bring him back home. Furthermore, he said, “Larissa” had managed to convert “the Big Dipper” to Russian Orthodox Christianity. As a gesture of his love of God and woman, he would return to sport-for the Red Army.
We had the letter sent from California, then called CSKA a few days later in the guise of a reporter checking the story. Again, we were surprised to find the joke shot down from an unexpected direction- Chamberlain’s lack of basketball qualifications.
eXile: Hello, my name is Mahi Vijayshwari. I write for the Moscow Times.
CSKA: A pleasure. Zemlyakov, Yuri, director of press relations.
eXile: I’m just checking on a story that came out in the Californian press yesterday. Apparently the great basketball player Wilt Chamberlain has decided to make a comeback. He wants to play for your team.
CSKA: We got something about this. Who are we talking about?
eXile: Wilt Chamberlain.
CSKA: Who is he? Say it again.
eXile: Cham-ber-lain…he, uh, used to play in the NBA. He’s considered the greatest player of all time, I guess. Sort of a Shaquille O’Neal type-
CSKA: Big guy?
eXile: Big, and he slept with 20,000 women, and also played pro volleyball…has a sort of a beard…I think he’s about 58 years old now.
CSKA: 58? Wait. (Aside) An American reporter on the phone. Some Californian basketball player wants to play for us…Wilt Chamberlain. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. No, I don’t either. (returning to phone) Listen, I’ve got the president of the team here. We’ve never heard of him, okay? But send us the article and we’ll get back to you.
We complied by composing an article from the “Santa Monica Daily Bugle” which quoted Steinblatz and friends Elgin Baylor and “World B. Free” (“Wilt’s serious about the religion thing. I went to his house and he spent an hour showing me the icons.”). Of course, we wouldn’t expect an ordinary Russian to know who Wilt Chamberlain is. But the director of one of Europe’s best basketball teams not knowing him was something on the level of a New York ballet company director not knowing Rudolph Nureyev. We were stunned. Anyway, we tipped off the Russian daily Sport Express to the story. At press time, they hadn’t run it-maybe they hadn’t heard of him either.
Friday, after the party, was a tough day. In keeping with our new commitment to professionalism, however, we came to work, pagers loaded, bright and early. We had one more joke to pursue, a classic which we decided later to name “Paul Richardson, Your Investment Is In Good Hands.”
Paul Richardson is the publisher of a fledgling English-language magazine called “Russian Life,” which came to our attention by the extremely notorious route of one of its employees calling us for a job. Flipping through the glossy, aspiring-to-be-serious magazine, we took immediate note of the letter from the editor, Mikhail Ivanov. Next to Ivanov’s striking tie-and-grimace portrait was the headline to his obligatory cliche “whither Russia” editorial, which limped sadly across the page to read: “Don’t Pooh-Pooh This Bear.” Within minutes we had a letter composed to Ivanov in which we represented ourselves as overpublicized liberal-establishment Russia guru (and Lenin’s Tomb author) David Remnick, looking for work. If Ivanov’s own staff was sinking so low as to call us for work, it would be interesting, we thought, to see how high he himself thought his magazine’s standards were.
In what in retrospect was obviously an expression of contempt for the low-tech nature of Ivanov’s approach, we didn’t even bother to create new “Remnick” letterhead, simply placing the writer’s name against the utterly incongruous skyscraper background we’d designed for our Trump letter. In the letter we had Remnick propose a series of “compare n’ contrast” editorial
pieces that would be written by Remnick and his buddy, Marshall Goldman. “Russian Life seems to fit the format I’m looking for,” we wrote. “Of course, it is a new publication, but I don’t think newness is any reason to ‘pooh-pooh this bear!'”
After we sent the letter we had Remnick’s “secretary” call, explaining that “Dave” was away on business in Volgograd but wanted to know Ivanov’s answer. Ivanov’s answer was that he was “interested,” but that he “didn’t want” Goldman-he thought the other writer should be Russian!
That was too much for us. We had “Dave” come back from Volgograd ahead of schedule and, despite a fictional yet terrible case of diharrea, call Ivanov personally to go to bat for his unexpectedly-downtrodden buddy Marshall. The transcript of the incredible telephone conversation which followed should serve as a warning to Goldman-judging by the lengths we had to go to sell him to Ivanov, his career must be in serious trouble.
eXile: Hello, this is David Remnick. I sent you a letter the other day.
Ivanov: Yes, I spoke to your secretary.
eXile: Yeah, I got a message from her. I was out of town. I just got back from Volgograd.
Ivanov: Oh, yeah? How was it?
eXile: It was interesting, but I’m not feeling so well. I’ve got a nasty bug…
eXile: A really bad case of the runs, you know…
Ivanov: Right, so we spoke…
eXile: Running back and forth, if you know what I mean. The runs…Jesus.
Ivanov: So we spoke with the publisher about you, and I had my own ideas about your possible [possible! -ed] involvement with Russian Life. I think it makes sense for us to meet.
eXile: Right, you did say something about that to my secretary, to the effect that Goldman-Jesus, the pain in my stomach, it’s just awful. Ouch!
eXile: Anyway, I understand you’re not interested in working with Marshall.
Ivanov: No, it’s just that I think it would be better to have a sort of Russian-American exchange, instead of two Americans.
eXile: Yeah, but the thing is, I know Marshall pretty well, we like to do this sort of swinging-back-and-forth thing…
Ivanov: Yes, but I think it would be better, from a contrast point of view, to have somebody, you know, else.
eXile: But we do contrast. I mean, I guess Marshall’s more of…more of a hard ass. And I was looking forward to doing a sort of Remnick-Goldman thing…
Ivanov: Well, that’s an idea. We could do a sort of hawks-and-doves thing-not that you’re, ah, one of them. [!] But still, I’d like to do something more with someone else…
eXile: Maybe a right-left thing.
Ivanov: Exactly. Right-left, hawks-doves, something like that. Maybe it would be better with somebody like a Solzhenitsyn.
eXile: Yeah, Solzhenitsyn would be good, I guess.
Here Ivanov tried to steer us into an intellectual discussion, but we weren’t having any of it:
Ivanov: By the way, did you see Solzhenitsyn on Itogi Sunday?
eXile: No, I didn’t. How did he look?
eXile: Yeah, I mean he looks so good for a man his age.
Ivanov: I guess he looked good.
eXile: Gosh, what’s his secret? I mean, really, a man his age.
Ivanov: I don’t know…So listen, why don’t we meet?
eXile: Sure, we should meet. And we’ll talk about Marshall.
Ivanov: Sure, but we should meet.
eXile: Okay, let’s say next week. And hopefully these damned cramps of mine will be gone by then. Ow, Jesus!
Ivanov: My God, what did you drink there in Volgograd?
eXile: God knows what I drank in Volgograd!
Ivanov: Did you drink the tap water?
eXile: No, actually I try to drink only French mineral water.
Ivanov: (pause) Uh…okay. So we’ll talk later.
At press time, we hadn’t arranged the meeting. Somehow we don’t think it will happen. So Mikhail, Igor Igorovich, Mr. Grazhdankin, Mr. Zemlyakov, Mr. [name of German press attache deleted on insistence of attorney], we’re sorry if we can’t make our meetings this week. We’ll do it some other time. And maybe next time, you’ll take us for a ride. Until then-April Fool!
This article was published in Issue #4 of The eXile, April 1997.
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