It was getting hot and sweaty from all the bright lights in the photo studio downstairs at the central Moscow offices of Playboy, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. We’d been struggling all morning to photograph voluptuous Sofia, our top choice for October’s “Playmate of the Month,” but the pose wouldn’t come out right. Sofia was a tall and gorgeous blonde with jade green eyes and a sensual figure that perfectly matched Hugh Hefner’s idealized 36-24-36 hourglass body type. Sofia was a perfect Playboy bunny, except for one rather crucial detail: She wasn’t photogenic. Her olive skin was oiled and shining beautifully under the studio lights, but her poses were stiff and unnatural. She squirmed and pouted in front of the camera and sometimes even frowned. We couldn’t get her to relax, even after Slava, the bald and gregarious Playboy photographer, gave her a hit of his joint. Eventually, we just gave up and called it quits for the day. The October print deadline was looming, and we’d have to find another Playmate soon.
I’d somehow become the boss here, so I was the one who had to break the news to the gorgeous Sofia, still naked and oily from the shoot. I dreaded the task. I was new to this and still nervous around stunning women with symmetrical faces and flawless skin. They were almost painful to gaze at — especially, well, when they were naked. Whenever I had to talk to the models, my palms got sweaty and I occasionally stuttered.
I steadied myself for the task, and although I was nervous approaching her, Sofia took the news well — before blurting out, “Do you think I have big shoulders?” apropos of nothing.
“No, they’re beautiful,” I answered, and she smiled at me in gratitude. Her obvious deference to my opinion was flattering, and it killed the fear. I stared straight into her hypnotic green eyes for a long while before kissing her goodbye on her sharp Slavic cheek.
Nothing in my life had remotely prepared me for stepping into this bizarre and thrilling position. For a brief year that intersected with the dawn of the millennium and the inauguration of Vladimir Putin, I was the editor in chief of Russian Playboy, and by extension a minor celebrity in the freewheeling, post-imperial Moscow of the 1990s. I had VIP access to the city’s most glamorous parties, dated gorgeous women, and had successful and eccentric friends. I was top of the hill, king of the heap. It felt great. And I was perhaps the least likely person in the world to end up there.
I grew up in Hyderabad, India, and moved to New York when I was 18 to study at Columbia University, with big dreams of becoming a physicist and creating a new unified theory of space and time. Instead, like so many New York collegiate imports before and after me, I ended up on the finance track. By 22 I was a financial analyst with a small cubicle in a big Wall Street firm, with nightmares of being trapped there forever.
I knew finance wasn’t the life for me, so I quit to become a journalist. That life was somewhat more fulfilling in a spiritual sense, though not so much in a financial sense. I enjoyed writing but didn’t enjoy being a starving artist in money-mad New York City. After a few years, I was exhausted of being broke and sharing a Williamsburg loft with a bunch of other angst-ridden bohemians. On top of that, I still had a strong accent, which sometimes made me the butt of racist jokes, which usually revolved around stereotypes like “Indians are all doctors” or “Indians are stingy.” This was the era of Apu on The Simpsons, and casual racism was much more pervasive in the America of the 1990s than it is today.
I had taken a few semesters of Russian at Columbia and had even visited Russia briefly a few years earlier. The most memorable experience from that trip, by far, was having drunken sex with a schoolteacher on the train from St. Petersburg, then arriving hungover in Moscow to the sound of gunfire and explosions. I had somehow arrived in the middle of a violent constitutional crisis, with President Yeltsin sending the army to storm a hostile parliament that wanted to turn the clock backward. It was like being in a John le Carré novel. The drama and the sense of history being made forged a deep fascination with Russia in me. I was struck by the freshness and unpredictability of the region as it rapidly emerged from the Communist era.
So, when I saw a job advertisement looking for a reporter for The Moscow Times, I answered it, not thinking anything would likely come of it. Apparently, being an English-language reporter in the capital of the former “evil empire” wasn’t the hottest ticket going, because not only did the position pay well but also, after just one brief phone interview, I got the job. I jumped at the opportunity to spend more time in Russia, to observe history being made as the country leapfrogged from decades of Communism into Western-style democracy and a market-based economy.
In the summer of 1995, at 25 years old, I bought a one-way ticket to Moscow. I had no idea that my life was about to explode.
Russia in those mad days was an empire in collapse, its factories shuttered and its great dreams of glory smashed by a humiliating defeat in the Cold War. President Yeltsin was often drunk, as so many were during those turbulent years when everything was upside down and hedonism felt cathartic. People drank in offices, in trains, on the streets — everywhere. There were drunk people in the metro, and the parks, and the entranceway to my apartment. Vodka had sustained Russians through the bland horrors of Communism, and now it was helping them adjust to a brave new world.
I wasn’t immune from the siren song of distilled alcohol. Work interviews inevitably turned into drinking sessions, with the interviewees raising endless toasts to “the friendship of nations,” or “the cosmos,” or just “women,” until one or both of us passed out. On one overnight train ride from Moscow to Minsk, I shared a compartment with a Russian man who’d spent time in prison. After buying a contraband bottle of vodka from the conductor, we spent all night talking about fascinating topics like the prevalence of dog-eating in Russian prisons. It’s no wonder that the average male life expectancy in Russia during those days was just 57, and cardiovascular disease was the number one killer. President Yeltsin had a weak heart himself, and his failing health was a metaphor for his motherland. Like him, the country was on its knees and could implode at any time.
At the same time, there was always excitement in the air. Moscow was transforming from a gray and impersonal capital to a gay and friendly Soviet version of Las Vegas. There were brightly lit casinos everywhere and strip bars and 24-hour American diners and pizza joints and sports bars and rock concerts in Gorky Park. Many of the Western joints were set up by adventurous young Americans who flooded to Russia in those heady years, people like me, keen to experience history firsthand and transform the evil empire in America’s image. They were cheered onward by Russians who embraced their former archenemies with the passion of the Bolshevik Revolution. The gods of Communism had been smashed and the logos of American brands were signposts for the future. The new zeitgeist of an aspirational Russia was like the Wild West version of America, and we donned our cowboy hats and acted the outlaws with glee.
I too had grown up deprived of Western goodies and hedonism in the socialist, sexually conservative India of the 1970s and ’80s. I too had never felt truly free. And I took to the crazy energy of the times with a passion matching — or, more honestly, exceeding — that of the wide-eyed Russians emerging from 70 years of Communism. Even in mad Moscow, I was crazier than most.
I was proud to be the sort of gonzo writer who would fly to Siberia to interview a former general and drink for a week straight in the white nights of the remote provincial capital. Or go straight from landing in Moscow to the Miss Russia pageant, where I’d spend the evening hanging out with coked-up models. Or pop ecstasy on the way to a wild gay bar where Boy George performed and danced with a Russian cross-dresser. Or pour drinks behind the bar at the infamous Hungry Duck, where college girls were given free shots and often ended up dancing topless.
I was channeling Hunter S. Thompson in those days, and Moscow was my Las Vegas. I learned to speak Russian pretty well within a year of living there, and Russians embraced me in a way that New Yorkers never had. For them I was a special breed, a man who straddled the two intriguing worlds of spiritual India and the capitalist West. Moscow quickly became my city, a living embodiment of my personality. I felt like I owned it, that it was my private Idaho. I was more home there then than I had ever been anywhere.
Within three years of my arrival, I had written for The New York Times and Newsweek and was helping edit Living Here, an outrageous expat rag, with Matt Taibbi (who would later gain a large following for his award-winning political writing for Rolling Stone) and a few other American writers. Living Here was founded as an English-language real estate guide by a rakish Dutch techie named Manfred Witteman, and it proved popular among the city’s growing expat community. Manfred later brought me on board in an attempt to broaden the publication’s scope to include nightlife, restaurant reviews and columns about expat life in Russia. I had never been involved in the birth of a new publication, and I enjoyed the challenge. Manfred gave me free rein to indulge my literary aspirations, and the writing there was freer, funnier and more honest than at The Moscow Times.
Mark Ames, an American editor at the paper, soon founded The eXile, a raunchy, hard-hitting tabloid that spoke to American expats in Russia with a transgressive and playful tone. He poached Matt Taibbi, who’d been offered the top job at Living Here after Mark left, to join his new team. Mark wanted to pry me away from Manfred for his new venture as well. We met for curry at Maharaja, one of the best Indian joints in Moscow at the time, and he picked up the tab.
“You’re one of the best writers here now,” he said, while humbly serving me a portion of spicy chicken tikka. “We’d love to have you on board.”
He was sweating from the spicy curries and looked nervous and uneasy. He was a big, muscular lad, but he sat hunched over on the divan and barely made eye contact the whole time. I was competitive, and refused the offer, choosing instead to replace Matt Taibbi as Living Here’s editor in chief.
I bet wrong — Living Here eventually went under, while The eXile became the dominant voice of the priapic Moscow of the ’90s. It celebrated the expat bro lifestyle and glorified sleeping with sex workers, treating Russian girls like scum, and doing tons of drugs. Mark Ames famously once said that “Russian women, especially on the first date, expect you to rape them.” The eXile boys were mean and aggressive six-foot-tall louts, and they loved playing pranks. They once burst into The New York Times offices in Moscow and slammed a pie stuffed with horse semen into a correspondent’s face after he had won their award for “worst foreign correspondent of the year.”
But The eXile also ran hard-hitting articles about corruption (a cover story called Yeltsin “the bribefather”), religious cults, International Monetary Fund shenanigans, Russian prisons and other issues that burnished its intellectual credentials. It was even read by diplomats and foreign correspondents. I would have been glad to put the past behind us and attend their legendary parties, but Mark wasn’t one for reconciliation. He used The eXile to settle scores and belittle his opponents, and he wasn’t going to play nice now that he was on top. He and I had developed a rivalry that bled into print. I blasted him for his poor sartorial taste in my Living Here column, and he returned the favor, dissing me in The eXile. We’d both hired the same maid, and one time when our laundry got mixed up, I managed to work a reference to his torn underwear into print. We saw ourselves as rival publications, hyperlocal Moscow expat versions of The New York Times and the New York Post, and our playful personal rivalries were part of the editorial game. I was still friendly with Taibbi, but our relationship had cooled since he jumped ship for The eXile.
But I did have a suitor. Artemy Troitsky, the founding editor of Russian Playboy, sought me out at the glamorous launch of Russian Vogue in the summer of 1998. I remember an entire pig roasting in the dining area, as well as the American guest of honor Sharon Stone walking past in an emerald-green Givenchy dress, her white back as bare and straight as an ice pick, her golden locks shining in the glare of cameras like gold. Her bold role in Basic Instinct had titillated Russians and she was the demigod of the moment.
Artemy was a larger-than-life personality, a handsome dissident who had promoted rock music even during the Soviet era and was now one of the country’s leading cultural voices. Playboy was one among his many projects: He also hosted a music show on television and mentored Russian rock bands. He was in his late 40s but still wore black leather jackets and exuded a confident, intimidating rock-star swagger. I had seen him at events, where we had nodded to each other in passing, but this time he greeted me with a bear hug and quickly escorted me to the VIP area, where champagne flowed freely. He clinked his glass against mine and stared at me with arrogant blue eyes until I was forced to look away. He was sizing me up, but his motives were unclear.
“So, you helped found Living Here?” he asked at last.
When I nodded, he continued.
“It’s a courageous publication. You young Americans have spirit. Let’s drink to that.”
He ordered two shots of vodka and we toasted to the brotherhood of nations. It was a hot summer night, and the air was thick with the smell of sweat and roasted pig.
“I might have a proposal for you,” he confided with a wink. “I’ve heard you have a wild side. You might find it interesting. I’ll call you next week.”
The proposal was, of course, to become the editor in chief of Russian Playboy. After a brief interview with the Dutch publisher, Derk Sauer, a short and earnest former Maoist who walked around the offices barefoot and brought up my supposed reputation for “laziness” (based on slander by a former colleague, I assured him), I was hired for the job. Artemy, freshly shaven and buoyant, wearing a patterned Arafat scarf, showed me around the editorial offices right away. He confided over masala tea in the cafeteria that he had chosen to hire me on the advice of his Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba. He proudly showed off the gold Omega watch that the guru had conjured up for him. “Sai Baba said that I needed an Indian editor to run Playboy,” he confided, leaning in closer, his eyes gleaming with the pleasure of sharing a secret. “He blessed my marriage too, so I trust his judgment.
“Who’s your guru?” he asked haughtily.
My mother had been fascinated by Sai Baba, and we had visited his ashram in South India in my college years. I remember him walking around with his big Afro-like hair and trademark saffron robes, picking out eager pilgrims with a wave. He’d then conjure up a watch or a golden box from the loose folds of his kurta and hand it to them with a flourish. I hadn’t liked the guru, whose heavenly gifts were just cheap magic tricks, and in retrospect Artemy’s credulity toward that outlandish character should have been a warning. (Later, allegations emerged that Sai Baba, who died in 2011, was a pedophile.) But I was too excited then about the glamorous job to be cynical or paranoid. I didn’t second-guess a thing.
Running Playboy felt like a dream come true, a portal to a life more decadent than anything I had ever experienced. I felt like the luckiest man alive.
I gathered my friends, who were all extremely jealous, for a celebration at Night Flight, an infamous Scandinavian-run nightclub a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. The club was perpetually filled with sex workers; some of the women there were physics PhDs or engineers who had turned to this in the chaos of the new Russia. We partied the night away among the club’s gorgeous clientele. One of them, a tall brunette in a red miniskirt, offered herself for free upon learning of my new job. “You’ll put me on the cover of Playboy, and I’ll never have to work again,” she joked, while running her long fingernails through my hair. It was my first real taste of the sweetness of fame and power.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was a mere pawn in a sinister chess game, and a single wrong move could easily lead to decapitation. I was a young, naive and reckless writer who had no talent for office politics. But it was a time when anything seemed possible — and for the moment, I was on top of the world.
And I stayed there for a while. I realized that I had a talent for conducting the orchestra of editors, writers, photographers and others who helped midwife each issue into the world. The magazine was printed in Russian, but most of the content was copied and translated from American Playboy. Its design aesthetic also hewed close to the original, its cover busy with bright primary-color headlines. Unlike the American version, Russian Playboy featured topless models but no full-frontal nudity. Even with strip bars on every corner and sex workers in every disco, porn was still mostly taboo in Russia, and because Playboy hoped to appeal to “family men,” they chose to play it safe.
Overall, Russian Playboy was as derivative and cliched as a rock ’n’ roll cover band. I set about to change that. I hired a new art director, Sasha, who had worked at the more current British men’s magazine FHM, and who modernized the retro design with bold headlines, black borders and edgier photography. I also assigned zeitgeisty writers like Victor Pelevin, a biting satirist of post-Soviet Russia, and reprinted classic Playboy interviews like the 1964 one with Vladimir Nabokov. Fashion was the passion in those hyperbolic times, so we showcased young Russian designers to boost our cool credentials. Soon, young intellectuals could be seen perusing copies of our magazine on the metro. Russian Playboy started to feel like part of the counterculture.
I became close to the photo editor, Manana, a bubbly short-haired Georgian girl who had moved to Moscow from Tbilisi for university. We both liked Joy Division and the Smiths, and we’d lip-sync to their tracks while working together, then pop out for lunch at the nearby Georgian spot for cheesy bread and thick red wine. She was dark like me and had a love-hate relationship with Russia, with more hate than love. She admired their culture but found them arrogant and calculating. As a fellow outsider, she saw me as a compatriot and always came to my side in any arguments with the other editors, who were all Russian.
Manana would come over for drinks on weekends, and Victor Pelevin, the zeitgeisty up-and-coming writer, would join too. He was a big guy with a buzz cut and a cheeky grin, a sweet person who was more vulnerable than the fans of his tough-guy persona realized. And he turned out to have even more talent for partying than writing. He’d come over with vodka, hashish, bags of cocaine and speed, all of which he’d consume over the course of a single weekend, spouting Zen riddles like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and blasting the Moody Blues or Uriah Heep on my cheap Sony speakers. He liked Manana and would always make a pass at her on his second bottle of vodka, but she wasn’t game.
“You drink too much,” she rebuked, “like all Russian men.” And he did. And he snorted too much. But we all did then. I had worked on Wall Street, where cocaine was everywhere, but I hadn’t indulged much. I was a good Indian kid back then. In Russia though, it became a lifestyle. The mood in Moscow was all about excess and hedonism and throwing off the shackles of the oppressive Soviet past. Cocaine was the new sacrament, the allure of the West packed into one very expensive white line, the stardust of success that brought everyone closer together, made everyone happier, more open, and, crucially in the case of the models I met at raging parties, more up for crazy coke-fueled sex back at my place.
I had gone from being an outsider expat looking in at Russia to falling through the looking glass and becoming part of that world. I was on television and got profiled in other glossy magazines. And boy did I take advantage of that status to the maximum. I partied at the VIP tables in the best clubs in town, had front-row seats at Moscow Fashion Week, and slept with some of the most beautiful models in town. My insatiable appetite for partying and drugs and sex and beautiful women — for being a real-life playboy — was Herculean in its ambition. One memorable night, I took Playboy bunny twins to a strip bar called Monica Lewinsky and put a still-warm Cuban cigar in places that made them blush. Rebelling against my conservative Indian upbringing, I was convinced that endless alcohol and sexual excess were keys to understanding the human soul. It felt cathartic to break free and swing to the other extreme. I fantasized that I was making up for a thousand years of prudishness in India, since the Kama Sutra had become taboo. It was a matter of pride among my close expat friends that we would not to settle down and become “boring” with a girlfriend.
But no matter how hard we partied, it was always Monday morning soon enough, and the hangovers were getting worse as problems at Playboy began to mount. When the buzz from aping Hefner all around town faded, it slowly began to dawn on my overstimulated mind that I was no Hefner to my hostile colleagues.
Their golden boy, the previous editor in chief, Zhenya, had been unfairly ousted by Artemy in an internal palace coup after Zhenya had grown too close to the team and threatened his authority. The staff saw me as a usurper and made fun of me behind my back. One morning I walked into the office to the Bollywood hit “I Am a Disco Dancer” playing loudly on the office speakers. Everybody giggled when they saw me, and the song was quickly muted. I heard later through Manana that they had made a racist joke about me showing up in a turban and dancing to Bollywood tunes.
My deputy, Vlad, a tall, muscular, all-American-looking guy with an angular face and blue eyes, had been close to the former editor and was particularly hostile and uncooperative. He often planned features or shoots with the other editors, leaving me out of the loop and then presenting them later as faits accomplis. He would also accept paid articles that were disguised as editorial copy. It was an easy way for editors to pad their salaries with some dirty cash on the side. Vlad and his boys had been doing these dodgy deals forever, and I didn’t approve, but they disguised their tracks, and I didn’t interfere. Vlad spoke fluent English yet insisted on speaking only Russian around me. He would rustle up the disgruntled ones for secretive cigarette breaks in the stairwell, and they’d all slouch back to the office buzzing from nicotine and shooting me evil eyes.
Then there was the emerging Artemy problem, which outweighed Vlad’s pouting because Artemy wielded far more power in the organization. I was too high on my own power and the glory of the moment to realize it at first, but Artemy was growing tired of my wild man-about-town antics.
“Someone asked me whether I still work for Playboy,” he remarked icily one morning. “They said they met a foreigner that now runs things.” He poked me in the chest and clucked with displeasure, adding reproachfully, “You’ve been going out even more than I do. I had expected a more serious Indian editor. But you’ve strayed from your roots.”
Things were tense with him after that. We barely spoke to each other in the office and talked across each other at editorial meetings. He’d pass notes to the other editors criticizing my ideas, and he demanded to sign off on everything.
I tried for a while to set things right. I cut down on partying and drinking for a while. I needed a break, anyway — I was having day sweats from the cocaine and my heart seemed to skip a beat sometimes. I had become overweight and felt lethargic a lot.
Artemy noticed and his attitude softened somewhat. He even raised a toast to me at the company’s lavish Christmas retreat at a ski resort outside Moscow. The resort was a bit infamous at the time because opposition politician Boris Nemtsov (who would later be assassinated on a bridge near the Red Square in 2015, assumedly because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine) had recently been filmed frolicking with underage models in the hotel’s spa. We had a Playboy photographer shoot us making erotic poses in the resort’s white marbled interiors. Some of the editors were already drunk and mooned the camera. The weekend was busy with optimistic PowerPoint presentations, endless toasts, saunas, skiing and long walks on the snowy grounds of the beautiful resort. The mood was joyous and ebullient. Subscriptions were growing and advertising revenues were on the upswing. Russia felt like part of the future for Western media.
None of us guessed then that we were all living in a Russian version of Weimar Germany, that all this was only a short interlude between two dark eras — that America would once again be the enemy, and that the past would sweep away the dreams of the future soon enough.
The turn of the millennium passed without a global Y2K meltdown, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We didn’t yet know that it was the end of an era in a different way. Vladimir Putin had just become president of Russia, and many Russians were hopeful that he would bring order and stability after the chaos and lawlessness of the 1990s. While my friends and I had been partying like it was 1999 in the glitzy corners of Moscow, things were different in the rest of Russia. The return of a former KGB man to the Kremlin was a sign that Russia’s flirtation with the West hadn’t brought prosperity to most people across this vast country. The hasty privatization of state assets had created a greedy oligarch class, while the rest were struggling and angry. I had seen this poverty and desperation in my travels across Russia as a journalist. Factories had been shut down and tax revenues dried up; salaries sometimes weren’t paid for months, and the government even missed pension payments. Crime was rife and the mafia controlled large swathes of the economy. The little money in Russia all flowed to Moscow, where the oligarchs and the emerging middle class enjoyed the fruits of capitalism, while expats like me were mostly interested in partying in the ruins of empire. I began to see that Russia was more like India than I had realized, with its huge contrast between the rich and the poor. But to be honest, I was comfortable in that upside-down world, cynically choosing to ignore the obvious problems and eat cake with the rich.
Putin did rein in the oligarchs and break the power of the mafias, while rebuilding a gutted and humiliated country. Moscow got brand-new airports and highways, and the entire infrastructure of the big cities was revamped. He was popular in those years. He quickly whipped Russians into a nationalist fervor with his brutal war in Chechnya, where he bombed the rebels into submission and emerged victorious. He was Russia’s Rambo and his swashbuckling militaristic style energized Russians who had felt powerless. He railed against a unipolar world headed by America and called for Russia to become a great power again
It was no longer an ideal time to be an expat in Moscow. The Canadian owner of the Hungry Duck, the iconic expat bar, was forced out by a mobster from the Caucasus who paid a paltry sum for his stake. Paul Tatum, an American businessman who ran the upscale Radisson Hotel near the Kremlin, had been gunned down in cold blood on the streets of Moscow a year earlier. Many whispered that the Chechen mafia was responsible for his assassination.
There was a new chill in the office toward foreigners. The English editor of Harper’s Bazaar quit, or more likely was fired, and replaced by a vain Muscovite who had just returned after finishing her degree in London. Americans everywhere were being replaced by Russians. There were fewer expatriates around and going-away parties happened almost every weekend. There was even more of an emphasis on speaking Russian in the office. I came back from a lunch with Artemy one afternoon to find stories marked up in Russian on my desk.
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
Vlad came forward smiling haughtily. “Our features editor, Zhenya, is on holiday for a few weeks. We thought you could step in and edit some stories.”
“But my Russian is not that good,” I protested.
Vlad smirked and, pointing at the other editors, shot back: “You’re an editor at a Russian-language magazine and can’t make excuses,” before sashaying victoriously back to his desk.
I could see now that an Indian-American editor at the Russian edition of Playboy was a historical aberration that would soon correct itself. It made more sense to have a Russian run the magazine, and I did feel like an imposter sometimes. But I was also good at my job. My earlier decision to boost Russian content and redesign the magazine had been ahead of its time and was now reaping dividends. Playboy was the number one men’s magazine in Russia, with a circulation of almost a quarter million. I wasn’t going out without a fight.
I had a small crew that consisted of Manana; the new graphic designer I had hired, Slava; and a few others who were solidly behind me. But the pressures were building everywhere. One night I was invited to the fabulous opening of a nightclub in central Moscow, with a red-carpet ferrying VIPs from their Mercedes and black Range Rovers to the VIP room on the rooftop of Hotel Ukraina, a building that symbolized the historic friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow’s glitterati were present in full force, and tall Amazonian models in tiny skirts and high heels walked around offering champagne. The DJ had been flown in from London. There were rumors that the Rolling Stones, who had just played a historic gig in Moscow, might stop by. (They didn’t.) When I arrived, a Playboy photographer dressed in a Superman costume hugged me warmly before whispering that he’d like me to meet someone important. I was whisked to a back room where big bald men with shiny Rolexes were lounging with their model girlfriends. There were bottles of champagne and vodka on the table, alongside bowls filled with fresh grapes and watermelon slices.
A bearded man in a loud Gucci jacket and large rings on his manicured fingers turned to me with a big smile. “So, you’re the famous Playboy editor from New York?” he asked loudly, while ordering his girlfriend to pour me a glass of Veuve Clicquot. “Why don’t you put my beautiful gymnast girlfriend Nadja on the cover of Playboy?” He reached over and placed his ringed hands on mine. “You’ll be rewarded for the favor, of course.” He then rudely unclasped his girlfriend’s golden Versace blouse to show off her magnificent breasts and tall erect nipples. Nadja just smiled and giggled, while somebody gasped.
“Playboy doesn’t work like that,” I replied forcefully. “It’s an American brand and editorial is independent.”
He laughed and squeezed hard on Nadja’s slim waist until she squirmed.
“But this is Russia, Vijai. Here, everything is possible. And even you can become a rich man.”
I always refused offers like that, and while I’d ignored little deals by our editors in the past, they’d started getting more brazen. I’d discover that our newest Playmate was one of these guys’ girlfriends, and the photographer had set up the whole thing behind my back. I was left with no other choice but to move forward, because pulling the model out at the last minute could be dangerous.
Maxim Maslakov, my successor at Playboy, found that out the hard way. He got shot in the stomach in the parking lot outside the offices after work one evening. Nobody knows the exact reasons for his shooting, but Manana told me it had been because of a cover deal gone wrong. He had promised the cover to the girlfriend of a dodgy businessman and taken money in advance — but then failed to deliver. Supposedly Derk, the publisher, had found out and ended the deal. Maxim had already burned through the cash and couldn’t pay them back in time. He survived the hit job but never worked at Playboy again. (When I was back in Moscow 20 years later, nobody wanted to talk about this dark chapter from a disquieting time.)
I thankfully avoided any such violent encounters. Instead, as it became clear that my job was in jeopardy, I was working hard and went back to partying harder than ever. I sometimes did a bump in the office to give the workday that extra zip, and there were many photo shoots that turned into drinking sessions. I was still staying up all night before deadlines, but it was becoming harder to stay focused.
As Russia turned more nationalistic, not only did the expat scene lose its edge — there was also more infighting and jealousy within it than before. The eXile guys, who hated me for choosing the wrong team years earlier and resented my perch at the top of Playboy (there had been a girl involved, too) decided to take me down. This time the rivalry was more vicious than before. They began running club reviews using my name and a generic photo of an Indian guy. The reviews made me sound absolutely ridiculous, portraying me as a superficial loudmouthed Indian womanizer. Here is an excerpt from one of them:
“I move among a higher plane of devilishly decadent Lycra-clad dyevushki, whom I spot the moment they arrive with their foreign cars glistening under the orange Moscow streetlamps in front of clubs with names like Tsirk, Garazh, Club XIII and Galereya. If anything, I am battling with a Maheshwari-made virus of over-satiation … the Kuma Sutra had an indelible impression upon me while I twirled through the innocent adventures of youth.”
It was flattering, in a way, to have enemies like them — and their need to create an Indian alter ego to slander me could be interpreted as snickering admiration. That’s how I chose to view their snarky impersonations at first. But others didn’t see it that way. Some mistakenly thought that I was freelancing for them to make an extra buck. Even Derk Sauer misunderstood the situation.
“So, I see you still writing for that expat rag,” he said one morning, his singsong voice at a higher pitch than usual. “You’re not busy enough working for Playboy?”
When I explained the situation, he didn’t offer a lawyer. He just shrugged and advised me to sort it out.
“We don’t like our editors to be seen in a bad light in the community,” he warned. “You understand that, don’t you?”
While my relationship with The eXile founder Mark Ames was beyond repair, I’d previously been friendly with Matt Taibbi, so eventually I cornered him at the birthday party of a mutual friend. I thought I’d find a sympathetic ear, but he was hostile and avoided eye contact.
“It’s Vijay spelled with a ‘y,’ not ‘I’,” he retorted. “Plus, you crossed us, and we don’t forget that shit.” He closed with: “Good luck trying to sue us in Russia.”
The slanderous nightlife columns continued weekly. My reputation took a beating in some circles, among which Derk obviously moved. Sometimes he’d give me strange looks and shake his big head in regret. The staff were still unhappy and had launched a formal complaint with the publisher, demanding a Russian editor. The times are changing, they said. Derk hinted that he was considering the idea.
The incident that brought everything to a head involved Hugh Hefner himself. We received an invitation to the Playboy Mansion in California for an annual party of all the heads of Playboy editions from around the world, alongside the world’s top Playmates. Naturally, I was gagging to be chosen for a naughty weekend of Californication. I thought I had earned it with my hard work over the past year. Unsurprisingly, Artemy wanted to go too. He had met Hefner and his daughter, Christine, before, and he claimed they had invited him personally, which I didn’t believe. He added that he would also visit Burning Man afterward and write it up for the magazine.
“It’s a completely radical way of doing festivals,” he pontificated in his usual bombastic style.
I was livid. I sensed that the end was near and had wanted that trip to the mansion as a final coda. But it was Artemy’s magazine and he got to do whatever the f**k he wanted. So instead, our brouhaha over the Playboy Mansion was the final straw. In retrospect, I behaved badly, choosing to risk my job for a glamorous party. A wiser and older me would have bided my time and waited for the right opportunity to accept an invitation to Hefner’s mansion in California.
Just before Artemy left for California, Derk called me into the office. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically. “We both tried hard, and you did a good job — but there were too many strikes against you.”
I thought of arguing but realized that he was right: Too many things had gone off the deep end in the past year, and I was physically and mentally exhausted at this point anyway. I wished that I had done things differently, been less impulsive and selfish.
I was crushed. I had no plan B and my sudden loss in social status was dispiriting. Girls who had always answered the phone were now busy most of the time. I went on an insane bender with Victor Pelevin one last time, where we smoked Cohiba cigars and drank tequila in a Cuban restaurant, and he then invited his new actress friends for an afterparty back at mine. He encouraged me to stop playing this soul-crushing game of office politics and write a novel instead.
“Be true to yourself,” he advised, embracing me in a tight bear hug. “And write and tell the world your story.”
That’s certainly what he did. Today, he’s a literary legend in Russia, his works performed to sold-out crowds in Moscow nightly and his novels turned into blockbuster films. Empire V, a Russian film based on his novel about human vampires competing for glamour and status in Russia, premiered in Moscow just weeks after the start of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. The film’s eerie parallels with the horrors of Russia’s war and its revanchist imperial ambitions are likely no accident: Pelevin always sensed the darkness that lurked everywhere in ways that I never did.
I left Russia for Tallinn, the snowy and meditative capital of Estonia. I felt then that my life had become too fast-paced, and I had become brutish and desensitized. I needed to be somewhere calm and learn to smell the roses again. I did write a novel, The Maharaja of Estonia, which was never published and has now been lost. I was not destined to become a novelist just yet. Instead, I took as job as a Financial Times correspondent for the Baltic states. Many of my expat friends also left Russia as it became more repressive and less open to the West.
In the years that followed, I visited Moscow sometimes and found it more oppressive than I remembered. On one visit, I was stopped by the police for documents more than five times in a single day. And I couldn’t find a way back into being socially relevant. Moscow once again felt like a foreign city.
In 2002, I moved to Berlin for a year and worked as a freelance journalist for European magazines. I then moved on to Amsterdam, where the vibrant graphic design and trend magazine scene inspired me to create a provocative Vice-like magazine about Eastern Europe called B.East, which I ran from Prague. It became a cult favorite, and I was invited to London Fashion Week, where the organizers called B.East the “best new magazine in Europe.” I had another excuse to live extravagantly and hedonistically, and I felt like was back in the swing of things. A Russian oligarch even flew me to Moscow to negotiate a potential sale of the magazine, but talks fell through — Putin’s fault, once again; he invaded Georgia in 2008 and the Russian economy was hit hard.
The magazine collapsed during the financial crisis of 2009, and I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, where I stumbled into my most bizarre business endeavor yet: selling virgin Russian hair. Kyiv then was a cheaper and more relaxed version of Moscow, chaotic in its own special way. I settled down and had a five-year relationship. When we broke up, I felt like a divorcé and wanted a fresh start on life. And I wanted to relive the madness of my twenties one last time.
In the fall of 2018, I moved back to Moscow. It was lovely and cosmopolitan then, with cafés and cozy wine bars, not brutishly nouveau riche as it had been in the 1990s. I was glad to be back. But a few years later, the senseless war in Ukraine broke out, and I left again. This time for New York.
Russia, like me, has come full circle: from tyranny to freedom and back again. I still think fondly of the time I lived there, when everything seemed possible. I do wish sometimes that I had worked longer at Russian Playboy, that I’d had the chance to eventually settle down and build a home in Moscow. My life might have been much more accomplished and grounded if it hadn’t been for that forced breakup with Playboy. I still blame Artemy for the decision and haven’t spoken to him since. It’s ironic that he now lives in Tallinn with his family. He left Russia after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and is now one of Putin’s fiercest critics. He has a lot more integrity, grit and honesty than I gave him credit for.
But within the context of this mad war with Ukraine, the Playboy exit might have been a blessing in disguise. Through my travels and work with B.East, I developed networks of friends across the world and can be at home almost anywhere. When Russia turned inward and totalitarian after the onset of the war, I was shocked at having to leave, but it was a relatively easy adjustment to life back in New York. It would have been more shocking had I spent the past two decades in Moscow. Some of my friends (both Russians and expats) who stayed there all those years are now unmoored, depressed and unsure about their future. That could have been me: a man who invested his entire life in a sinking ship.
That brief time at Playboy changed me forever. It made me infinitely more confident, giving me the experience to launch my own business and build my own life. On the other hand, it’s perhaps the reason that I never got married. After that Hefnerian experience, I could never focus my energies on one woman for more than a few years. I took to heart writer Charles Bukowski’s fierce pride in the solitary lifestyle: “And yet women, good women, frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul … and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep.”
But more than the success and the women, it’s Russia that made me the man I am. It can be a tough, cynical, brutal and unpredictable country, and you have to become as tough as the Siberian permafrost to survive its rigors (not to mention the frigid winters). I learned to handle drunk and dangerous Russian cops and to keep my cool in the face of vicious racism that would have traumatized many others. I’ve survived more bar fights than I can remember and have learned not to back down easily. Russia was also so corrupt that it opened my eyes to the corruption and lies elsewhere, including here in America.
Russians embrace their suffering and sometimes enjoy wallowing in their melancholia; I too have learned to seek refuge in my occasional depressions, rather than view them as an illness that needs to be treated. I feel like a Russian these days, ready to face any calamity with stoicism — and joke about it later.
I feel privileged to have been able to return to Moscow and experience those last few years of relative freedom in a cosmopolitan capital that already belongs to an ancient past. I realize now what could have been had the Kremlin decided not to quash dissent and wage war. Moscow could easily have been transformed into an inspiring global city. And it still might, after the Putin regime finally collapses.
I’ll never forget those madcap youthful years in Moscow. I’m older and wiser now, but that way of grabbing greedily at life and taking what you can has never left me. I’m still foolish and hungry. And I’m still a playboy at heart.