From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
BLACK MARKET PARTIES
Midnight in Moscow
By BRETT FORREST
Since the Iron Curtain fell, Moscow has gone from zero nightlife to the
wildest club scene on the planet
Stalin’s yacht pushes up the Moscow River at eight a.m., and nobody
cares if you missed it. The world’s longest-running after-party just
In a shipboard ballroom, Russia’s lucky few tend to their good time.
Music like a lot of loud nothing pounds through the girls lathered in
Valentino, Gaultier, and Bulgari. Defying you with their eyes, they
throw off a kind of heat that has never burned you before. The men with
money and new style hang around the edges with satisfied smiles, their
low-vibrating calm punching through thousand-dollar sunglasses. They’ll
kiss you, they’ll kill you, you’ll know where you stand.
Over on the riverbank, the skinny fishermen decline to wave hello as
the ship glides by, its seven-foot speaker towers blasting sonar across
the whole known universe. Want to call the cops? We are the cops.
This is, in fact, Joseph Stalin’s old boat, the Maxim Gorky, a pleasure
cruiser during Communist days, which has faded into the apex of
seafaring Soviet chic, accessible only to those with the proper
connections and imaginative powers. A Stalin mannequin sits locked in a
mock-up of his office. It is a diorama, and its glass sheath vibrates
with the music, preserving a past that hangs around like a pox scar.
Stalin is at his desk, putting flame to that black pipe. Mikhail
Kalinin, chairman of the Central Executive Committee, stands beside him
in close counsel, while the writer of Soviet fiction Maxim Gorky
balances on the couch, chewing his mustache over the path of the Party.
Go ahead and chew, because this is what happened when it all fell down,
the party after the Party. Two 20-year-old women bump into the diorama
glass, losing any feeling for boundaries, devouring each other in
elapsing ether. The tops come down, the tongues and the tits come out,
and the floorboards quake with the kerplunk of the original, 1934
engine. Free at last.
Outside the window a speedboat guns along. A man with a shaved head is
standing on the bow. He smiles. It is Alexei Gorobiy, ruler of all he
surveys-which is Moscow at night. He is chaperoning a cargo of 20
girls, making a side trip from a club called Osen, his nightspot
onshore. “Osen” is the word that ignites Fridays and extinguishes
Sundays, one of a series of nightspots that Gorobiy and his partners
have turned into hell’s hottest fire.
There’s a reason you need a visa to come to Russia. Moscow has the best
nightlife in the world. Leave etiquette and moderation to everyone
else. Leave “the beauty of an hour” to the Russians, especially to
those with money, those in their 30s, the last generation raised under
the old regime, who can’t stop toasting their good fortune, all of it
with the fine style you read about in those novels the size of bricks.
They’ll crack your chest and massage your heart, and we’ll see if you
can keep up.
You could talk about it like it was a movie, and you still wouldn’t
make it halfway to the truth. Moscow is hell, and in hell you can have
a great time. Like any other place, hell has rules. No pity; that’s one
of them. And so Stalin’s boat isn’t slowing down to let the king of the
night come aboard.
Gorobiy understands. Must keep moving. This is why he and his
associates pioneered, and now own, the nightlife in a city that makes
the rest of the world’s version of going out feel like a whole lot of
money, a big waste of time. If you can make it into the highly
restricted clubs conjured by Gorobiy and his two collaborators, Mikhail
Kozlov and Sinisha Lazarevich, you will have entered a world of
guarantees. These three are the new-form Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell,
with way more muscle and a clientele with money that never runs out.
The speedboat has had enough of the chase, and it veers off and away as
Stalin’s ship continues on.
Back on solid ground, it’s another Moscow early, early morning, on the
closing weekend at Osen. The girls are always getting that taste. Big
full lips, full asses, hands on asses. The MasterCard with Delta miles
clicks along the glass tabletop. Caplets spool through the vertebrae.
The couch is finally starting to feel comfortable. It’s always some
equinox here, with the smoke sticking around and the speaker sound that
just keeps blowing.
Gorobiy backs into his sleeping chamber a few floors above Osen’s dance
hall, a white-cloud enclosure with a high-perch bed. His hideaway is
all plasma screen and low-flying chandelier, the long dawn sunlight
fighting the curtains. The time flakes off and falls away, like that
wall inside you separating right from wrong. Gorobiy wears a white
shirt and nothing else, and the girl spread beneath him has diamonds in
her eyes and pink gum in her teeth. And you get to watch.
One door down, the go-go dancers are mixing glitter and baby oil on
their palms, polishing up their $15 tans so that their skin will
reflect the light that bounces around the dance floor. They’re stepping
in and out of sheer gear, their wax jobs pencil-line or altogether
smooth. It’s not a tough formula.
Mind yourself around the eight-foot Candy Land people on the stairs. A
dozen models are moaning, “Oy, ya khochu fuck,” horse-hoofing on
knee-high D&G boots. A waitress in a black-and-orange uniform hoists a
bottle of Cristal in the air, fire spitting from the white-hot
sparklers in her other hand. She pushes open the saloon doors with the
porthole windows, and the Moscow party you could never get into begins
to singe the edges of all you can see.
Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t a single club in Europe’s largest city.
There were only a few restaurants. Think of 1991 as Year Zero. The
Soviet Union fell that Christmas, and that soon kicked everyone off the
dole. Free-market capitalism and the oligarchs’ personal armies took
over, and a country’s life savings vanished, followed by murder in
broad daylight, house music, privatization, freebasing. Yeltsin
handpicked Putin and nobody got thrown in jail, nobody who wasn’t
asking for it.
Gorobiy, now 37, says he started earning a living by trading wedding
bands. Then he found himself throwing a party at the Cosmos Pavilion of
Moscow’s VDNKh, the Soviet utopian fairgrounds. He would set up a few
lights, turn on the tape machine, and watch the dancers knock into
rocket boosters and assorted space junk.
Thousands of people came to what amounted to Russia’s first raves.
Gorobiy wasn’t making any money at it, but he had found something that
fit him better than all those wedding bands. This was a guy who had
opened his first disco when he was 12 years old, having engaged the
local scout troop as muscle.
In 1993, coming off the success of these space raves, Gorobiy and a few
associates set up Moscow’s first legit club, called Penthouse. Readers
of Russian things will recognize Penthouse’s location, the Hermitage
Garden. It’s not far from the theater where Woland, in Mikhail
Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, dressed women in costumes that
would disappear once they set foot on the street. At Penthouse, that’s
pretty much what happened. If Russia’s sexual revolution has to have a
beginning, pick this.
New promoters arrived, with new venues. Then came Titanic, then Jazz
Café, then Cabaret, then Jet Set, then Shambala, then Zeppelin, then
First. The years passed, Moscow built up and around, and the Range
Rovers and made-to-measure suits began clogging the newly paved
streets, many heading for the suddenly not-bad restaurants. Other clubs
came, too, clubs of varying quality and sustainability, and the
public’s taste began to blow with any of a dozen winds.
They weren’t Soviets any longer. Gone was state-sponsored taste. Money
had arrived to soften the cultural trauma, and it collected in very few
pockets. As the economy reformed, the aggregate income of Russia’s
wealthiest 10 percent increased by 50 percent. The richest three dozen
people in Russia had a net worth of nearly a quarter of the country’s
They had options. They could take off for Monte Carlo, Amsterdam,
Ibiza, Sharm al-Sheikh, Goa, Courchevel … whatever the caprice. Those
benefiting from the second-largest oil exports in the world, and ever
escalating prices per barrel, were concentrated in the Russian capital.
When they spent a weekend in Moscow, they expected something more,
something befitting Dmitry Karamazov and Grushenka, Dostoevsky’s
archetypes of self-destruction and malevolent flirtation. In the
process, they cultivated impeccable style, a feeling for modern design
and the right kinds of clothes, all with an overlay of their own
elegant excess. Circumstance and a dark chivalry bore a ferocious
While Gorobiy and friends were running their first club, Shambala, the
idea came to them: Don’t give a club the chance to grow cold. Design
the next club while everyone is still cramming into the current place.
Close a club after four to six months, while it’s still hot.
Next in the line for Gorobiy, Kozlov, and Lazarevich was the club Zima
(which translates as “Winter”), in late 2003. They closed that after a
few months and opened Leto (“Summer”), in June 2004. Then came Osen
(“Autumn”) that fall. It was a completely redesigned Leto that came
after Osen closed, in May of last year. This March, after a brief pause
to catch their breath, Gorobiy and his partners opened their biggest
club yet, Diaghilev, named after Russia’s turn-of-the-century ballet
These clubs have been high-style cathedrals of sensual warfare, and
Russia’s elite haven’t been able to keep their hands to themselves,
terrified of lost opportunity. If your last 100 years have contained a
monarchy, two revolutions, Communism, capitalism, and complete economic
collapse, the only thing more important than collecting money is
spending it before events conspire to make it disappear. And nothing
facilitates romance like desperation.
Stop and you’re dead. Gorobiy, Kozlov, and Lazarevich keep moving,
trailing thousand-ruble notes through the city like a line of hot piss
in the alleyway snow.
At Osen, it all became manifest before it shut its doors in 2005. It
seems like yesterday.
The coal king (or maybe it’s the electricity king) steps from his
Bentley, flashing his quarter-million-dollar watch. But even this won’t
see him through the door, through what the Russians refer to, in
English, as “face control.”
“It’s who you are,” says Pasha, who is known mostly for steadfast
denials. Over the last couple of years, a song called “Pasha Face
Control” played all across the former Soviet sphere. In Kiev clubs, in
Minsk ones too, you could hear the track, on which Pasha scolds girls
for offering sex in exchange for entry to the club.
Like Ronaldo, the Brazilian soccer star whom he once waved through the
door, Pasha goes by one name only, protecting his identity against
threats he receives from those he rejects. In a land of large men,
Pasha projects a smaller image, five feet seven, flanked at the
entrance by the flak-jacketed giants of a private security firm. But
it’s not all brute force. Some locals are known to go home after being
rebuffed by Pasha-changing outfits, putting on glasses, then
returning. “It never works,” he says. (Pasha has since become the
manager of a restaurant.)
A nother night, another party. There is some connectivity riding the
air. Easter is upon Russia, which means everyone can finally eat, 48
days of Lent now tossed off. Easter morning, President Vladimir Putin
praised the Russian Orthodox Church for “molding the spiritual and
moral climate in Russian society.” The kid with 13 pills in his sock
escorts four girls in high-necked fur straight past the wand wavers.
Marat Safin’s fluffy hair bounces as he makes his way into Pasha’s
view. The man they call the world’s most underachieving tennis player
succeeds at face control, but even he gets stuck in the bottleneck at
Karina, from Volgograd, is celebrating her birthday upstairs at the
V.I.P. tables ringing the main dance hall. “All these girls come to
Moscow,” she says, casting her eyes at the sea of women below, many of
whom have traveled great distances to hunt oilmen and those who own
banks. “They’re looking for a guy who will buy them a car and give them
$100,000.” Karina flicks her blond hair and it kaleidoscopes through
all available light. “Not me. I came here for $10 million.” In this
society, it is mainly the men who practice the commerce. The fairer sex
works the angles. It is clear from talking to Karina and others that
these girls are not cheap. Instead of fighting for the Western ideal of
gender equality, which is not an option, they have become
super-feminine, exerting all the power a brutally beautiful woman can
bring to bear, which is not inconsiderable.
“I like being taken care of,” says Dunia Gronina, who owns a boutique
shoe-and-accessory showroom that generates $5 million a year. To a
certain mind, Russian women may be laboring under the yoke of
patriarchy. But there is plenty of wisdom to go around. “Our moms, they
say to us, ‘The man is the head of the family, and the woman is the
neck,'” Gronina says. “‘Where the neck turns, the head looks.'”
As you climb the gilded staircase, Marilyn Monroe blows endless kisses
in an image projected onto a trampoline suspended from the ceiling.
This building used to house Moscow’s central banya, or bathhouse. Now
there are more girls, continuous girls, these in mummer costumes and
carnival headdresses. The bongo players from Almaty, Kazakhstan, are
making a racket on the bridge spanning the next room, and four
swan-divers in mirrored mosaic surround an awfully big chandelier. You
can almost see yourself.
Leaning against the horseshoe-shaped bar is Misha Kozlov, wearing a
silk cravat and a dark velvet coat, operating with civility held over
from the court of Czar Alexander I. His shaved head soaks in the soft
lights as he genuflects before several veterans of the aluminum wars.
Kozlov claims that his top customers earn around $15 million a month.
“I can count,” he says, before affixing that Kozlov smile and wrapping
those arms around another big-shouldered bruiser with sniper-tint
Kozlov, 40, taught history for seven years before he met Gorobiy
outside a Michael Jackson concert in 1993. Now he oversees the private
tables that can cost $10,000 to $15,000 per night, coddling the
clients. Kozlov touches the fabric of their shirts, rolls the thread
between his fingertips, concentrating on it as though he has suddenly
lost his train of thought. He manages to communicate truest love and
admiration, and everyone plays along, satisfied in the affirmation of
“The rich person always has to wonder if there’s someone richer sitting
next to him,” Pasha says. “This is a glamour club. It’s a competition.”
What the money buys here is 30 seconds of attention, and the sovereign
of such brief encounters has just turned up: Sinisha Lazarevich, 40,
the bulge-heart Serbian who came to Moscow 13 years ago and now carries
the city’s most affable reputation into every stratum of Russian
society. He shaves his head, as do his business partners, but unlike
his colleagues he is prone to wearing brightly colored scarves and
kissing men on the mouth.
Lazarevich used to run a Moscow club called Circus. He would walk the
floor, pointing his finger at the clubbers as he went. “Fashionable,”
he would declare, or, alternately, “not fashionable.” He is in the
middle of uttering his favorite word, shikarno, which means
“magnificent,” when a waiter whispers in his ear and Lazarevich fades
into the main dance hall.
The lights paint the people silver, the rich guys and the poor girls
who have to have them, and vice versa. The publicity man for Roman
Abramovich, Russia’s richest man ($18.2 billion) and the owner of
London’s Chelsea soccer club, gives his attention to the baby-oiled
shank of the lean-as-lean go-go dancer. She quivers on the five-foot
pedestal behind the P.R. man’s Kazakh wife in the Chelsea soccer hat.
One of the singers from the lesbian-tinged schoolgirl duo Tatu has
appeared wearing bug-eyed sunglasses. No one recognizes her. Likewise,
there was no fuss when Elizabeth Hurley showed up. When Will Smith was
in town, it took jumping on the tables with a microphone-at a club
across town-to get anyone’s attention. Silly things hold reduced
value in serious places.
In V.I.P.-land sits the dispute solver and TV personality Alexander
Treschev, an attorney who was once shot in the head. He has the scars
on his skull, souvenirs from his days as advocate to General Alexander
Lebed, since deceased. Treschev now stars in the daily Wapner-style
program, Federal Judge, on Russia’s Channel One.
Next to him sits Alexei Mitrofanov, Duma deputy and leading nationalist
figure. Bodyguards are everywhere in the club. They tend to trail
certain people, even to the stalls. The bathrooms cost a buck,
apparently to discourage bad behavior. Nothing can be prevented
completely, however. DJ Dam stands shirtless up on the decks, one arm
raised in the air, one hand glued to the switches. Dam says that he has
given up drugs, after the train ride last fall that is as hard to
precisely recall as it is to forget.
A few promoters commandeered the Moscow-St. Petersburg train, loading
it with 150 clubbers at two a.m. There was a D.J. car, a bar car, a
lounge car, and the rest were sleepers. Eight hours of partying to
Peter, then straight to a boat party, then to a restaurant party, then
to a full night at a club, then back on the train for eight more hours
at top speed. “When we got back to Moscow, people were still dancing
and didn’t want to leave,” Dam says. “They didn’t understand how they
got to Moscow so quickly.” A couple of people, Dam says, took it upon
themselves to pour MDMA (Ecstasy) into the drinks.
It’s not necessarily chemicals that make everyone act this way. “Moscow
is a city of energy,” says Vlad Nazerenko, editor and publisher of
Nightpeople, a flip-book of Moscow nightlife. “For strong people, the
energy can help you make a great career. For weak people, the energy
Getting your picture in Nightpeople is the closest thing to underground
celebrity in a city that places no status on anything underground.
There is no keeping it real here. There is no Williamsburg, Brooklyn,
where you can hang out on your stoop with your bulldog and your
barbed-wire tattoos, sneering at the world that will never be cool
enough for you.
They play polo here now. They’re buying yachts, even though there are
no waterways big enough to enjoy them, and wing-door Lamborghinis, in
spite of the poor street clearance. Members of the government, it is
said, receive Brioni tailors in the Kremlin twice a year. In this town,
if they’re not wearing it or driving it, they just don’t have it.
“In America, you have no glamour,” says Kozlov.
No glamour? What about Angelina? Or Marilyn?
Kozlov is certain: “Isn’t Marilyn Monroe from Germany?” They don’t
know, they don’t care, with enough happening here to damage the senses.
But what exactly is going on? “What we sell is air,” Kozlov explains.
“It’s a pipe, and out of this pipe comes smoke. Sometimes it’s white,
sometimes it’s black. It’s like the mood of a person.”
This will all end. Just not yet.
Lazarevich arrives at the table of a client who has requested an
audience. The man wears expensive fabric, his arm around a young woman
comparably priced. “I guess I need to buy a bottle of Cristal for you
to come over,” he says. “And another bottle if you sit down.” He
reaches under the table and produces a magnum in each hand.
Lazarevich leans away. “Freud said never to see a patient for more than
45 minutes at a time,” he offers. “Because after that you become
friends.” He faces the rest of the party, scanning the sea of clients.
“These people have to see me in the coolest setting with the most
beautiful girls, and see me only for five seconds. I understand the
elements of parapsychology. I know how to give people exactly what they
A man frowns in the corner of the room, Lazarevich smothers him in a
bear hug, and the man instantly recovers. Lazarevich then wipes away
the tears of a weeping teenage nymph before depositing two bottles of
champagne at the table of a frequent guest, who photographs the moment
for commemoration. Lazarevich has conceived himself as a healer, and a
city has come to believe it.
“Everybody wants us to sit with them and tell them fairy tales,” Kozlov
They’re all buying something, even the liquor and cigarette companies
that make deals to place their products behind the bar. Gorobiy,
Kozlov, and Lazarevich use this money to fund the construction of each
new club, which costs, they say, between $2 million and $3.5 million.
(This is cheap by local standards, as oligarchs are known to build big,
boring nightspots using platinum in the columns and precious stones in
the floors.) The alcohol firms sometimes allow the promoters to pay for
their booze at the end of each club’s run, essentially extending
interest-free loans. Everything operates on a tight schedule, the
closing-night invitations printed up the evening each club opens. “We
know the date of our death,” says Gorobiy. Die twice a year and Moscow
will call you king. Stick around long enough to become tedious and the
city will see to it that you disappear.
Another weekend, another prowl. Tonight pink bunnies with cottontails
tiptoe onto the Osen stage, replacing a dozen girls in their underwear.
There’s no standing on principle in Moscow; there is more lying down.
This is how Lazarevich rolls out his birthday, with tails and top hat
and another fantasy for everyone to check off the list. Igor Artukh,
chairman of the Light Metals Group, relaxes at his regular table with a
Tatar friend in a black sequined gown. A waiter tops off his cognac.
Mind you, it’s not as easy as it looks. Used to be, American guys could
land Russian girls because Americans are nice and have money. Russian
guys haven’t learned to be nice, but they have learned to be rich.
Some are still learning. At a table, a guy sits taking pictures of
himself with his gold Nokia phone. Loneliness is a commodity, much like
debt, that can be traded back and forth.
In the bathroom the sound filters down to a single buzz. You can’t tell
if that sound is the music playing through the door, or whether it’s in
your head, or whether that’s a phone ringing: someone who’s trying to
find someone to go down on for his drugs. Always demand fair value.
Roll out of the club for some pre-dawn air on V-E Day. Elderly people
are chanting, “Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus-return to the union.” A
white-haired man shambles down Tverskaya Ulitsa with a chest full of
medals pinned on a ragged brown coat. Fireworks crash against the sky,
booming like field artillery. All through the night, girls have been
sending their guys text messages over the mobile, congratulating them
on the victory of the “Soviet people over the German Fascists.”
Meanwhile, the chauffeurs stink up the sedans with their deep-sleep
breathing. A wild dog licks the dirt off a car’s license plate. The
birds caw as morning threatens, while solitary cars sweep up the
boulevard, their tires slicing through the rain from the night before.
In the club, you never hear the rain.
The mirrored doors to Osen snap open and a big man flies out backfirst.
A welt is forming on his eye and blood streams from his eyebrow. Now’s
the time to slip in smoothly, up to the go-go dancers’ dressing room.
Here is Gulliver, Moscow’s utility infielder of promoters, who had a
big hand in the nightlife trio’s clubs, sitting among a dozen dancers,
who slip very naturally in and out of their costumes. Gulliver recounts
the highlights from his recent birthday party. Someone at the club gave
him a box of printer paper. He lifted the lid, and inside was $10,000
A dancer rolls her hips and all you can hear is the rattle of her
beaded miniskirt. Topless Ksenia discusses her career as a ballerina.
Gulliver lifts a drink in front of his whispers, pointing out the women
here who have slept with him. “I still can’t get enough,” he says,
smiling in the direction of the one putting on the Marie Antoinette
wig. “The appetite comes when you’re eating.”
One of the go-go girls pulls on a pink tutu and walks toward the dance
floor through the crumbling backstage, squeezing by a woman who is on
her knees scrubbing the floor.
This will all end. Just not yet.
Follow the gold-flecked 1960 Buick Electra through the yellow
skip-light of a traffic tunnel. An Armenian beauty steers the black BMW
sedan up Leningradskoye Shosse, still dark for another half-hour. Music
like death fills this caramel interior, and Orthodox icons peer out
from the dash, from another century.
The car pulls up to the Maxim Gorky, the ship Stalin gifted to this
master of stilted prose. Standing out front with the sailors in striped
T-shirts is a man known as the General. There are many rumors about
him, but few facts. He settles all outstanding accounts for you, they
say, no matter the size or complexity.
The General is a man of fantastic range, a great lover of women and
high-quality sound equipment, and he has coordinated today’s
after-party pleasure cruise. If Osen has been Moscow’s hardest party to
crack, the General’s party is the one you’ll never know about.
And here you are, walking the plank to a world where the rules no
longer apply. There are nice rugs and big chunks of crystal, a cupola
at the top of the stairs. Girls spray cologne in the air and then walk
into it, while a thick black submarine, docked nearby, hunches in the
water beyond the windows.
The Maxim Gorky eases out of the harbor, the music goes full, and a
blonde woman who has everything you could ever want must lay her hands
on you. “I’m an actress,” she says, “but I’m a virgin inside.”
There is a V.I.P. section even here, and people are down there without
their clothes, in a room where dignitaries once passed the night.
Tamerlan from Vladikavkaz sits in the corner with a pink lady on his
lap. “I was proud to be born in the Soviet Union,” he says. “And now we
have all this shit.”
A few girls in outfits that cost as much as a car break into a nursery
rhyme: “I’m a little girl. / I don’t go to school. / Buy me sandals /
And I’ll marry you.”
Finally, there is Gorobiy, the club king, pulling alongside in his
speedboat weighed down by 20 young women. There is just one problem:
you are already on your way.
Stalin’s boat continues on its course, leaving Gorobiy and company in
its whitened tracks. The General appears at your side, grinning you
into his confidence. “When you came to town,” he says, “you found the
best people in Moscow.” You are pounding down the river, cutting
through all those who have lost and will continue losing, and you let
out a cackle. You never used to cackle.