Sep 15, 2015 ยท 16 minutes

Previously: Part Two

Robski agreed at last to meet, naming the five-star National Hotel, across from Red Square, as her choice for venue. “In the lobby?” I asked. She snorted contemptuously, “Nyet! In the restaurant, of course.” To prepare for my face-off with the tsarina of Moscow pafos, I wore one of the two Zegna dress shirts I’d bought over the years, and a leather blazer which I bought from a hippie in San Francisco. 

Bad move, that leather blazer. Before I could open the National’s restaurant door, marked “VIP,” a six-foot-tall hostess-babe stepped in front of me and demanded I remove it — the leather blazer, that is. Suddenly it hit me: my swarthy Sephardic features, the black leather coat — to them, I looked like a lowly “black-ass,” a gypsy cab driver, a limitchik from Azerbaijan or Armenia, whose very presence was likely to drive down prices and drive out elite diners. If they’re letting black-asses in… 

In situations like these, when the barriers go up, I’ve learned that in Russia the best response is to better them at rudeness: ignore whoever’s trying to stop you, barrel right through them as if they don’t exist. It’s a god-bluff, and it usually works, unless the other person comes from the godclass… in which case, you’re fucked. Robski was already seated at a massive, heavy-wooden round table meant for an entire Politburo. She was alone, with two cell phones on the table and another to her ear, helping herself to a plate of marinated bell peppers, which she daintily skewered with her utensils. An elevator music version of “My Way” was playing overhead, and somehow, this absolute worst version of the world’s absolutely worst song was the perfect soundtrack. 

When Robski spotted me walking in, pouring sweat, her facial expression betrayed such pure contempt that even if she wanted to hide it — which she clearly didn’t — it wouldn’t have been possible. For the next 30 minutes after I walked in, Robski didn’t look up at me once — it was as if she didn’t want to sully her eyes on my likeness. I wondered how long it could go on — long, very long, I learned. Instead of looking at me, she stared at her different cell phones, typing in text messages into one then the other, answering every call in the middle of my questions, carrying on ten-minute conversations with friends while I sat there slowly steaming in rage. 

Me: You had a bodyguard agency? 

Robski: Yes. [Manicured-nail-tapping out a text, then spearing another bite with her fork as dramatically contemptuous as she could make it.] 

Me: When?… When did you have your bodygua— 

Robski: [interrupting] Seven years ago. [annoyed sigh] 

Me: I see. How long did that business last? 

Robski: [Scrolling down her messages. Not listening.] 

Me: Uh, how long did — 

Robski: [Sighing.]: A year. 

Me: One year? Ok. So what gave you the idea of starting it? 

Robski: [Pause, she’s reading the three new text messages on her phone. She pauses, taps a message back.] 

Me: Did you start the agency because you were — 

Robski: It was just… fun. [She used the English “fun”— to emphasize how little it really mattered to her.] 

In my dictaphone recording of our lunch, at this moment both of Robski’s cell phones blared at once — each with its own annoying dance club ringtone. Which would she answer first? 

“Alo? Yes…. Yes…. Hold on. Alo? One moment — Yes, alo. We saw it already… We can only do very late at night…” 

When I transcribed that interview a few months later, I could hear myself seething and stewing during the eight minute- plus stretch that Robski spent talking on her two phones. Finally, I switched off my dictaphone to save on battery power. Then a garbled fumbling sound, and our interview, such as it was, resumed. 

Me: So you opened the bodyguard agency just for “fun” or also as a business, or…? 

Robski: [Pause] I was just opening up a boutique clothing store and so the women’s bodyguard agency was a publicity stunt. And it worked: every journalist wrote about it — [cell phone rings] 

Alo?… Another five-minute phone call, not even the pretense of courtesy. 

Me: So if it was a PR stunt, did you really run a bodyguard agency? Or did you just pretend to? 

Robski: [Pause, reading an SMS. Pause again. Really, really long pause.] We recruited girls, yes. 

Me: You recruited girls? As in bodyguard girls? [No answer.] Where did you find them? Were the girls real assassins or jujitsu experts? 

Robski: Athletes. 

Me: But I’ve looked into this, and the only female bodyguards I’ve seen here or Petersburg, you wouldn’t exactly call them models. 

Robski: [Suddenly paying attention.]: That’s exactly why I couldn’t make the business work, you see! Because when a rich man asks for a female bodyguard, he imagines he’s getting a movie star bodyguard. But then when he gets a real woman, a real female bodyguard, and she’s the type who wants to be more like a man — then he doesn’t want her anymore, he wants a male bodyguard. "

The waiter brought Robski another dish — khachapuri, a popular Georgian cheese-bread, and she stopped answering me with anything beyond grunts: a yes-grunt, or no-grunt. Then her second cellphone rang. To while away the time, I asked for the menu — and nearly shat in my pants. Her khachapuri, which usually costs maximum $10 dollars at the fanciest Georgia restaurant (a buck or two on the streets), here at the National VIP restaurant cost 70 dollars. Seventy dollars! And her kharcho soup — a lamb and cilantro-based Georgian version of our chicken noodle soup — cost 40 dollars for a bowl. How would I ever expense this to an editor back in the US, assuming they’d still want this story? Given my not-safe-for-expensing reputation I’d earned — all my own fault — any American editor would look at my receipt for 40-dollar soup, and assume I was full of shit. 

In between Robski’s phone calls and text messages, I learned a few things about her. I learned that her favorite city is New York, because it’s “delicious… and cheap.” That was a barely-veiled dig at my rapidly declining country after eight years of Bush, a decline that pafosny Russians like her, or Putin, loved to twist into Americans at every chance. But I was already so humiliated from everything else that I barely noticed her contempt for my motherland. 

Robski also revealed that she owns a second home (or was it a third?) in Miami, or “Jade Beach” to be exact — she emphasized “Jade Beach” twice, but like that fancy wedding ring she planned to buy, I had no idea what “Jade Beach” meant, and even now I don’t want to know. 

Jade Beach was an important detail, Robski let me know, because she found every other part of Miami repulsive: “There are too many Spaniards there,” she said. 

“My grandfather was born in Gibraltar,” I blurted out, thinking I might shame her. But she ignored me, and started scrolling through her Blackberry again. Not even a top-price Blackberry model either, I realized — which itself was kind of strange, considering all the wealth she supposedly had, and that she flaunted. Finally I came to the question I really wanted to ask her, about Anna Loginova. 

As I saw it, Oksana Robski was the antimatter twin to Loginova: Robski was from the center of Moscow, born rich and privileged, and she was all but guaranteed by that privilege to grow richer and more entitled with each new husband. Everyone knew Robski’s name and face. Everyone knew everything about her, including bodyguards who knew she owned a bodyguard firm years earlier. And of course, Oksana Robski owned what passed for the brass ring itself in the High Putin Era: a Rublevka mansion, an address in Moscow’s Beverly Hills. Oksana Robski was Rublevka; whereas Anna Loginova came from the provinces, was treated contemptuously by her elite pafosny men, and cowered like a mouse in the dacha she borrowed for her magazine photo shoot. And now I was coming to the conclusion that Anna Loginova never even owned a bodyguard agency to speak of, her one big claim to fame, the one area where she should at least have bested Robski. Even murder ended up profiting Robski, and destroying Anna, as murder tends to do for most people. Murder increased Robski’s celebrity and riches; murder left Anna a corpse on a sidewalk curb, a punchline for the newspapers to play with before moving on and forgetting about her. 

After I broached the subject of model bodyguard agencies, before I could drop the name of Anna Loginova, Robski cut me off: “I don’t mix with models,” she told me. “Why should I, if only three percent of models have a sense of dignity? One must have dignity.” Again, you could hear my voice getting increasingly annoyed. 

I asked her, “How difficult would you say it is for a young woman from the provinces, with no money and no connections, to come to Moscow and find success? Can you relate to that in any way?” 

“It’s the same for anyone,” Robski answered, taking a bite of her $70 khachapuri cheese bread. “It all depends on your character, not where you’re from or what you’re born into. Character. And luck helps. I’ve been lucky, of course — I’m a star. I am.” 

“Okay, so which part of Moscow do you come from? Where were you raised?” I asked. 

“The center,” she answered, as if it should be obvious. 

Robski told me about her first business venture — a glossy magazine about dogs, launched in 1994, just after she graduated from college. “It was Russia’s first glossy pet magazine,” she recalled with pride. It was proof of her entrepreneurial acumen: She, Oksana Robski, had identified a market for people who want to read glossy magazines full of dog photos. That wasn’t luck, that was character. 

“So how did you get the money for a glossy dogs magazine as big and expensive as that? It must have been hard to find an investor, especially in 1994,” I said. 

“I’m from this city. My idea was obviously fantastic. My investor was from this city. What’s so difficult about finding a business partner in Moscow?” 

“Well, but not everyone can find an investor here, a good business partner with money. It’s…just a bit difficult…” My words here trailed off, and then there is a long 20-second pause on the tape. It wasn’t a phone call or an SMS — it was just that her contempt had reached a new level that I found myself unable to think of any words to break through it. I’d been marked as a nobody, the type who worries about money problems. At that point, I could have walked out and saved my dignity, but I didn’t have the complete interview, and I’d already invested more than I’d ever planned into this story. The quickest way to end this was flattering her about her book, and getting it over with. 

“‘Casual’ has been translated into 13 languages,” Robski bragged — including an American edition. 

“Which languages was it translated into?” I asked. 

“Different ones. European languages.” “I see. You must be so proud.” 

“It is an achievement, to express to so many people about my life on Rublevka, to see a life they can only dream about through me.” 

I came back again to the question of the Russian provinces, the fatal chasm that divided Robski’s existence from the rest of Russia. 

“Do you have any friends today who came to Moscow from the provinces?” 

“No, not really, because as a rule they have a different mentality. Seventy percent of the people I know come from the same background as I do — it’s much easier to understand each other when we do.” 

Robski took yet another five-minute phone call. Again, I burned, silently raged. I kept thinking of the provinces, of Moscow’s black humor, the black humor that helped me and other journalists in Moscow frame what was otherwise unbearable poverty and misery in the provinces without taxing our emotions or shame. 

The story that bothered me most was what happened to Maria Viricheva, an 18-year old provincial girl who moved to Moscow right around the time as Loginova had in the early Putin years, found work selling stationery in one of Moscow’s grim outlying districts, and fell in love with a young Muscovite who got her pregnant. The girl Maria, “Masha,” thought she’d made it in Moscow; her Muscovite boyfriend saw things differently, abandoned her, and everything came crashing down. Maria didn’t know how she’d make ends meet. Pregnant and desperate and alone, Maria fell victim to the 21st century’s worst serial killer, Alexander Pichushkin, who lured her into a park in the south of Moscow, then threw her down a 25-foot sewer manhole, where she was swept up by the current in narrow sewage canal, carried away in a torrent of Moscow’s shit and piss… 

An hour later, half-drowned and nearly dead from hypothermia, she clutched onto a manhole ladder handle, pulled herself up, and eventually was rescued and hospitalized. While recovering, the local police investigator sized up the halfdead, pregnant 19-year-old limitchik, saw that she had no money, and calculated that there was nothing in it for him but time-consuming paperwork. 

So he did what any Moscow cop would do in this situation: he forced Maria to sign a statement confessing that she’d lied about having been attacked by a maniac in Bitsevsky Park. The cop made it clear that if she didn’t sign the confession admitting she’d lied, he’d have her deported from Moscow and back to her dead-end provincial hometown. After all, she didn’t even have the proper stamps and papers allowing her to live in Moscow. So she signed the statement in her hospital bed, and disappeared from sight. 

About four years and 50 corpses later, Alexander Pichushkin was finally arrested by Moscow’s finest — not because of any ace sleuthing, but because one of his victims grew suspicious, and scrawled a big giant note that even a cop could read and left it in her apartment, a note that stated as clearly as possible, “If you find me dead, Pichushkin did it!” 

Obviously Oksana Robski wouldn’t know anything about Maria Viricheva’s horrible story — Russia’s elite finds these endless stories of murder, abuse and serial killing embarrassing — but I held out hope that she had an opinion, any opinion, on Anna Loginova, who was, after all, a covergirl and a minor celebrity. I hoped Robski’s response would reveal something about the relationship between their two worlds: perhaps she’d show some real Rublevka venom at the mere mention of Anna Loginova’s name… or some unexpected envy? Or awe?… Instead, Robski asked me to repeat the name. 


“Anna Loginova,” I repeated. 

“No, I’ve never heard of her. And who is she?” 

It was the first time she showed any interest in what I had to say. I told her the capsule story about Anna’s life and murder just two months earlier. Robski showed a moment of something approaching pity, calling her death “awful,” and repeating that this was the first she’d ever heard about it. I don’t know where the pity came from — it wasn’t an affectation, it wasn’t for my story. I still don’t understand it, but it was there. Then Robski started on some homily about something else, something about wisdom or Russian culture — I couldn’t listen anymore. 

Not even knowing who Anna was — the flicker of genuine pity — it was somehow worse than contempt. Just then, the restaurant maitre’d appeared and offered Robski a glass of Limoncello, which, he emphasized, was “off the menu.” Robski politely declined, noting that it was still afternoon and she had many things to do. But after a few more obsequious entreaties, Robski graciously accepted. The tiny nose-dropper of Limoncello tacked another $35 to my bill.

And just like that, Robski stood up from her seat and said she had to go. The waiter appeared as if on cue, holding the $120 lunch check out in front of my face like some bad 3-D horror prop. Robski gave me a contemptuous look, like putting the final bullet into my brain, and she dashed away to her chauffeured car, while I stayed inside waiting for my credit card to validate. As soon as the waiter came back with my card, I hurried outside as fast as I could. In front of the National Hotel entrance, across from the Kremlin, I saw a bodyguard in a camouflaged Interior Ministry uniform, holding a machine gun, darting around a black Mercedes CL 600 with curtained rear windows, parked just behind a black SUV, the bodyguard escort. I didn’t get a chance to see if Robski was the one they were protecting — whoever it was, they’d already been safely sealed off. The camo’d machine gunner darted around to the Merc’s front passenger’s door, slammed it shut, and the two cars sped away in tight unison.

Next: Part Four


Editor's Note: This article also appears in NSFWCORP: A Long Fucking Story, an oral history of NSFWCORP including interviews with former writers and previously out of print long-form features.