Banned under communism, Playboy magazine became a legend among Russians. Artyom Troitsky, rock critic turned editor-in-chief, tells how the new Russian Playboy is shaping upby Artyom Troitsky / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
In the bad old days Playboy magazine-along with the CIA, Hollywood and rock ‘n roll-was a cherished target of Soviet propaganda. It was depicted as the ultimate embodiment of western decadence-which is why it became by far the most desirable printed item in the Soviet Union, the definitive forbidden fruit on paper, much juicier than any political samizdat. Twenty five years ago, thanks to my “golden youth” connections, I was among the lucky few who had not only heard or read about Playboy, but had actually seen a copy. I enjoyed every bit of it.
In November 1994, when Derk Sauer, publishing supremo of Independent Media, suggested that I become the editor-in-chief of a new, Russian Playboy, these fond memories and the chance to work inside the legend led me to accept at once. Shortly afterwards I found myself with a small staff and a deadline.
Independent Media is unusual among the few big magazine publishing groups in Russia. It started out as neither a nomenclatura-privatised old communist venture, nor as a money-laundering mafia enterprise. In fact, there is no Russian money in it: it was a Dutch investment group which launched the company’s first publishing project, the Moscow Times, in 1992. Following the success of this daily English-language newspaper, Independent Media joined with Hearst publishing to launch the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan a year later. It was a phenomenal success: the print run rose from 60,000 copies for the first issue to nearly half a million in 1995. The story of the Cosmo triumph reached the US, where Playboy Enterprises had been looking for a Russian partner. Despite several offers made by assorted Russians, it chose Independent Media.
Unlike in the US, Playboy in Russia wasn’t a pioneer in the men’s magazine market. The first was Andrey (still struggling, with about one issue a year and a tiny print-run); then came Penthouse. Luckily for us, they had gone into business with some dodgy partners. Despite initial interest in the project this quickly drove the magazine downmarket-and into bankruptcy in 1995. Penthouse was poor quality and slobbishly sexist, it did not attract advertisers and cost too much for the average working-class punter, let alone a masturbating school kid. What this type of client?le can afford, and buy in frightening quantities, is a publication called SPID-Info (Aids-Info). It was launched in the early 1990s as an anti-Aids news bulletin, but soon turned into a soft porn monthly tabloid with a circulation of 3.5 million copies. It is similar to the UK’s Sunday Sport-but without the sport and with few pictures. Stories include “intimate” interviews with pop stars, seedy gossip, and fictitious “research” stories-there was a recent one about a secret whorehouse in Moscow where all the prostitutes underwent plastic surgery, almost on a weekly basis, to meet the clients’ demands to have sex with Madonna or Catherine the Great. But it’s not the editorial which makes SPID-Info so popular-it is the readers’ letters. These occupy a substantial part of the monthly, telling, often in a very explicit way, all kinds of sex-related “real-life” stories: a young couple describe their first experience in group sex, a frustrated, married father-of-two confesses to secret copulation with his shepherd dog, and there are endless revelations on incest, sado-masochism and kinky sex.
Russia has half a dozen upmarket glossy men’s magazines, with titles such as Amadeus, Imperial, and Medved. All of them seem to be modelled on either Arena or GQ/Esquire-heavy on arts, fashion and consumer issues, desperately trying to be trendy and youthful, but always one year behind what is really fashionable.
Russian Playboy is produced on the understanding that we can use all the materials syndicated from the US headquarters and enjoy their advice and know-how-but we retain an independent editorial policy. The Americans insisted only on retaining some “trademark” Playboy features, such as “The Interview” and “The Playmate.” I was only reluctant to accept “Party Jokes” because I did not always find them funny-nor in tune with the Russian sense of humour.
My basic editorial ethos has been simple: to use top-quality material of Russian origin and fill out the remaining space with the most interesting pictures and copy available, courtesy of the international Playboy family. From the very beginning I made two things clear to both Derk Sauer and Playboy International: first, that the Russian Playboy will be light on sex and minimal on nude pictorials (the fate of the Russian Penthouse served well as the argument); second, that the magazine will not be focused on the “new rich” as the target audience-simply because everything which is done in Russia today seems to be done for the sake of this small and rather peculiar class. The magazine bosses agreed.
Within a short time we have managed to get nearly every famous Russian writer (with the exception of Alexander Solzhenitsyn) to contribute to the magazine: Aksionov, Bitov, Kabakov, Voznesensky and Yerofeyev. We have also attracted the best graphic artists, cartoonists and painters in Moscow. I can confidently say that Russian Playboy has by far the best writers among the country’s periodicals (although good erotic photographers are still a problem). The impressive quality of writing is not too hard to achieve, considering the high fees which we pay the authors-(still peanuts by US standards).
Some other things were less easy. In the first issue we published an interview with Yevgeny Kiseliov, Russia’s most popular and influential political television commentator. In the second, we set up the “candid conversation” with the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, but he called it off at the last minute, following an incident in which Vladimir Zhirinovsky threw a glass of water in the face of an opponent who quoted from a famous Playboy interview during a live television talk show. Later, other political and cultural celebrities refused to be interviewed for Playboy, saying that it was a “scandalous and pornographic magazine.” Although all the professionals, from critics to advertisers, reacted favourably to the first issues, the response from the “common man” was rather mixed. As one taxi driver put it: “When I hear Playboy I can think of only one thing-sex. Yeah, you have some of it, but not enough.” The magazine also came under attack from local vice squads, first in St Petersburg and then in Krasnoyarsk. Although Playboy is officially registered as a lifestyle magazine, the defenders of morality have insisted that it is pornographic and therefore may only be sold in a few select places. “Instead of fighting real crime, police forces prefer to chase the Playboy bunny,” said the biggest Russian quality daily, Izvestia. When sorting out this problem with the authorities, I came to appreciate the value of SPID-Info’s cunning trick of publishing hard-core texts with hardly any illustrations. “We don’t care what you write about,” I have heard from various executives. “We only check the pictures.”
With half a year and three issues behind us, Russian Playboy seems to be a success. The circulation of over 100,000 makes it the third biggest selling Playboy in the world (after the US and Brazil), and the biggest selling glossy men’s magazine in Russia. Judging from our first readers’ poll, our readership is 100 per cent urban, entrepreneurial and fairly well educated. We have the lowest average age of readers (26) and the highest percentage of female readers (27 per cent) of all the Playboys in the world. I am especially proud of the latter figure, because it was I who insisted that we drop the traditional Playboy logo “Entertainment for Men.” What will I replace it with? “Food for Thought-And Fun for All.” n