October 22, 2018

Finding Gould in L.A.

In 1992, Jennifer Gould was 24, fresh out of Columbia’s graduatejournalism school, with a dream job at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Yetthe Toronto native was restless. She was eager to make a name forherself overseas and unwilling to wait the years necessary to earn aforeign post. And so, upon the fall of communism, the cub reportermade her move.

Without a job or even a rudimentary knowledge of Russian, shebought a one-way ticket to Moscow’s grim, dirty, bustlingSheremetyevo International Airport. Her Jewish grandmother had oncefled Russia, but Gould was exuberant to step off the plane. “This isthe Moment,” she thought. “This is the Story.”

And find the story she did. Gould prowled railway stations andsleazy hotel lobbies to meet the new underclass, the homeless andchild prostitutes. She visited hired assassins; trekked to an arcticgulag; and was mistaken for Princess Anne in the South Gobi desert.She huddled with Chechen fighters in a besieged garage and, in aTbilisi luxury hotel, learned the staff was used to cleaning messyblood stains off the carpet.

Gould recounts these escapades and more in her new book, “Vodka,Tears and Lenin’s Angel,” which recalls her four years in the formerSoviet Union. It could be subtitled, “Jennifer’s Romp in the WildEast” or “Fear and Loathing in the FSU.”

Past 1 a.m., in a Moscow office strewn with precious icons andplates of half-eaten cookies, Gould encounters Volodya, asunken-eyed, 19-year-old gangster millionaire. When he loses a gameof chess, he grabs a shotgun and aims at the wall, which, Gouldnervously notices, “is already riddled with bullet holes.” She thenaccompanies him to a club where he loses wads of $100 bills at theroulette table, while chain-smoking Winstons.

In another cloak-and-dagger episode, a KGB officer leads Gouldthrough icy streets to a secret office where the talk is of”sexpionage.” Between sips of champagne, a mysterious woman discussesthe training of “swallows,” beautiful women who use sex to turn theirWestern lovers into spies.

Gould, for her part, was briefly kidnapped on a Moscow street,perhaps to deter her from a story. But, she says, fear rarelyparazlyed her. Once, when a rich Chechen arms dealer spoutedanti-Semitism, she even told him she was Jewish. “There was thistense, stony silence as I sat there, in his fabulous mansion,surrounded by huge, gun-toting bodyguards,” Gould recalls. “Then hewent back to being hospitable.”

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the crazed, neo-fascist anti-Semite, was aslecherous as he was racist. Gould met him in August 1994, not longafter he had swept the parliamentary elections and had posed nude inthe shower for The New York Times Magazine. He wasn’t grantingforeign interviews for less than $15,000 — until Gould finagled herway onto his yacht cruising the Volga. She managed several freeinterview sessions before the Russian grew, er, restless.

“I’ll agree to [another] interview only if… you come intopless,” Zhirinovsky ogled. He bragged of having more than 200 womenand 10,000 orgasms. Then he demanded an orgy with Jennifer, hertranslator and a bodyguard.

Gould declined, and her legendary interview sprawled over 18 pagesof Playboy in March 1995. In the end, the reporter had the last laughover Zhirinovsky. When a politician read part of her piece to Vlad ona popular, live TV show, the neo-fascist threw his orange juice inthe man’s face. The politician then threw his juice back atZhirinovsky. “A scuffle ensued and the TV screen went blank,” thereporter recalls, with a chuckle.

Gould, who now lives in New York and covers the Russian beatfor The Village Voice, will appear Monday, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m., at theMuseum of Tolerance. (310) 553-8403. She will also have a readingTuesday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m., at Skylight Books in Los Feliz (213) 660-1175.