My Strange, Seductive Stint as the Hugh Hefner of Moscow
As a disillusioned cub reporter, I jumped at the bizarro job of a lifetime: editor-in-chief of Playboy Russia when nouveau riche Moscow was a hedonistic playground of sex, drugs, and early-stage capitalism — until Putin’s rise brought my reign to a sc
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.