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Bear Essentials

Jack Smith

It was 3 am in Moscow, and dawn was a lipstick streak across the horizon as our limo arrived at a drab, warehouselike structure in an outlying district of the city. A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk out front, and the face control, as the Russians call it, was intense: A gaggle of thick-necks in dark suits stood blocking the doorway to ensure that only a select few—the drop-dead gorgeous, the superrich, the famous—entered Soho Rooms, the latest club to keep Moscow’s young fashionables in a hyperkinetic state until dawn.

A half dozen more thick-necks moved through the hopefuls on the sidewalk, scowling as if dismayed to find themselves surrounded by anyone but supermodels and celebrities. A few of the club-goers, hard-eyed men in their 50s and 60s, had brought their own security, but this was mostly for show. As my new friend Lada explained, nobody really worries about being kidnapped anymore; this is not the 1990s.

Fifteen minutes passed, and my enthusiasm for clubbing began to ebb. Then the club’s door swung open, casting the street scene in a neon glare. Lada grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the light. At the door, a barely perceptible nod from the chief face controller admitted us into the realm of the surreal. Clouds of fog billowed around me, and rap rhythms assaulted my senses like stun grenades. Strobe lights and laser beams flashed through the blackness, while overhead, female dancers daubed in body paint appeared to move like spiders across the walls. A hundred more Russian lovelies pressed onto the dance floor, where they gyrated around me like aerobic zombies. Men of varying ages stood on the fringes of the dance floor, just watching, drinking, and grinning like frat boys.

"Isn’t this fun?" yelled Lada, who apparently possessed an inordinate capacity for enjoying a good time. So, too, did her friends Sergey and Victoria. The former, a PR executive in his 30s, was dressed in tailored threads, spoke flawless English, and had the rugged looks of an Olympic decathlete. Victoria, with dark curls cascading over her eyes, was sultry in a gypsy blouse and jeans. An architect, Victoria had helped design the club, which seemed like a cross between Dracula’s castle and a fun house. Without Victoria’s influence, I would be either standing outside with the masses—a victim of face control—or tucked away soundly in bed at my hotel.

I had met Lada, Sergey, Victoria, and a few other young and fashionable Muscovites several hours earlier at O2 Lounge, the Ritz-Carlton’s open-air penthouse bar. From O2, I could look down over the rim of my vodka glass and see into the Kremlin and Red Square. There, too, was St. Basil’s, the cathedral with ribbed, multicolored cupolas that spiral to points like a tray of frozen custard cones. Across the square from St. Basil’s stood GUM, the mammoth, state-run department store that once displayed barren shelves and now brims with upscale boutiques and cafés. Just around the corner was Lubyanka, the headquarters of the dreaded KGB from 1918 until 1991.

The walls of the Kremlin glowed like embers in the deepening sunset as Lada leaned forward with her drink. "Russian women are not like American women," she said, getting no argument from the other young women in our group. "We do not want to be equal. We want a man to be the leader. But we are high-maintenance."

Is it true, someone asked, that in the United States, some men are feminists?

Lada shuddered at the thought. "A man cannot be a feminist," she declared, "like a dog cannot be a cat."

Lada and her friends spoke English with a heavy Russian accent—is there any other kind?—making me feel like Rocky the Squirrel among multiple Borises and Natashas. Between drinking and talking and watching the cityscape darken, I had lost track of the hour. Then Sergey stood and announced it was time to go—not home, but clubbing.

We had not been at Soho Rooms long before one of the club’s managers, a blond woman shrink-wrapped in a black catsuit, plopped down on the couch next to me and asked if my friends and I might prefer a VIP table upstairs. It cost $10,000 but included dinner for four. If only I had known, I explained, but I had just eaten.

"Other clubs cost more," said Victoria, as the club manager moved away. "A table at Club Raj costs $20,000. But it comes with its own bathroom."

Even more expensive was the Diaghilev Project, the first of the super-clubs, where a table cost more than $40,000 a night. "They were notorious for giving young, attractive Russians personal invitations and then not letting them in, to assure a crowd out front," Victoria said. Thus nobody was surprised to hear that the club’s chief face controller regularly received death threats. Nor was it a shock when the Diaghilev Project burned down last February, allegedly torched by rivals.

"Face control is what Moscow is all about these days," said Lada as we pushed our way through the crowds on the club’s second and third floors and moved out onto a balcony. Below, the street was crowded with AMG Mercedes-Benzes, M Series BMWs, limousines, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis. "It’s image," she said. "It’s status. It’s sex appeal. It’s the new Russia."

It was also late, and reality suddenly intruded as Lada looked at her watch. "Oh, my God, it’s 4 am. My husband isn’t going to let me in. What will I do?"

I saw my limo on the street below.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a tanning salon. Here, too, people were lined up outside waiting to get in.

 

Two decades ago, a meeting called the Emerging Leaders Summit convened in Philadelphia. The event brought together Russian and American leaders from the fields of art, economics, medicine, science, and politics, and from the countries’ militaries. The Russians—some 180 of them, not counting their handlers—were to be entertained in the homes of prominent Philadelphians, who eagerly awaited their guests. But the Russians, in those early days of perestroika, were not quite what their hosts expected.

First, however cerebral and refined, they smoked—one cigarette after another, spewing fumes into their hosts’ drapes, rugs, and clothes, and grinding their butts into the china and potted plants. The Russians also demonstrated a fondness for American women of all ages, whom they were given to pinching and propositioning with boozy abandon. For some of them, "Are you divorced?" was their idea of an icebreaker.

Most of all, the Russians drank. Vodka, beer, wine, gin, bourbon, scotch, sweet vermouth, Campari, grappa—it didn’t matter; whatever they were offered, they eagerly imbibed. Sometimes things became a little messy, as when a Russian would relieve himself in his host’s carefully tended forsythia or pass out beneath the Steinway in the drawing room. When the weeklong summit came to an end and hosts and guests waved good-byes to each other, at least one of the Americans wondered, "What if the Russians had money?"

Now they do. According to Forbes’ 2008 tally of the superrich, Moscow is home to 74 billionaires—more than any other city in the world—and multimillionaires too numerous to count. The new money is literally reshaping Moscow’s landscape and pushing the boundaries of normalcy. The city’s 879-foot-tall Naberezhnaya Tower, which became the tallest building in Europe when it was completed in 2007, could soon be eclipsed by as many as six other buildings under construction in Moscow. These include the Federation Tower complex with its 1,660-foot-tall spire, set for completion in 2009, and the 2,009-foot-tall Russia Tower, which is scheduled to open in 2012.

On the outskirts of the city, the Moscow Medical Centre will soon offer its wealthiest clients state-of-the-art medical care, along with the ambience and amenities—lavish, 750-???square-foot suites with flatscreen televisions and Internet access—one expects from a five-star hotel.

The Russian Golf Association, foreseeing a boom in demand for the sport, has plans to build 500 golf courses throughout the country by 2018; the Moscow Leisure Guide currently lists only five.

In November 2007, some 40,000 of Moscow’s new elite turned out for the third annual Millionaire Fair, where must-have items included a white Mercedes sedan covered with Swarovski crystals, a Christmas tree made of gold, and a set of tires covered with diamonds that came with a Bentley.

According to the head concierge at the Ritz-Carlton, hiring a bodyguard in Moscow is as simple as renting a car for the afternoon. Would I prefer mine armed or unarmed? How many languages should he or she speak? Would I also want body armor for myself? And how about a supermodel?

A supermodel?

"Supermodel bodyguards have become popular in the past few years," he explained. "They are quite accomplished in the martial arts and with firearms, but they don’t stand out the way a big, heavily muscled male bodyguard does. You can even take them to dinner, and nobody suspects anything."

 

However one feels about suborbital skyscrapers, VIP-only hospitals, buying cars by the carat, or hiring a muscle-bound brute or gun-toting supermodel to discourage autograph seekers, no one can deny that this once gray, lifeless city has become a dizzying metropolis. Moscow is a hotbed of spending with a new breed of superrich Russians—the oligarchs—leading the way.

Russia’s original oligarchs (see "Enter the Oligarchs," page 144) rose to prominence in the early 1990s. They were entrepreneurs who, through their connections to Russia’s democratically elected government, became the heads of newly privatized corporations. During the country’s rocky transition from communism to a market-based economy, these businesses functioned much like medieval fiefdoms, with the oligarchs acting as lords.

The most famous of the latter-day oligarchs is Roman Abramovich, who is known not only for his wealth but also for the way he spends it. The oilman, worth an estimated $24 billion as of early last year, bought England’s Chelsea soccer team in 2003. His other baubles include three of the world’s 10 largest yachts (one with two helicopter pads, an escape submarine, and anti-paparazzi lights); numerous jets and helicopters; and a $36.37 million mansion in Snow?mass, Colo.

Abramovich typifies Moscow’s new superrich, says Martin Cruz Smith, author of the best seller Gorky Park and other novels set in Russia. For them, fantastic wealth is rarely enough. Instead, they are driven by seemingly contradictory compulsions: the need for exclusivity and the need to be seen. "Russians love to show off and talk about how much they’ve paid for something," says Smith. "There is a joke about the new rich Russian who is showing a friend an expensive watch. ‘I paid 20,000 rubles for this watch,’ he says. Whereupon his friend says, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Right across the street you could have paid 30,000 rubles.’"

While Abramovich and others flaunt their wealth, the reminders of a more stoic time are slowly disappearing from the Moscow cityscape. Gone are the 3,200-room Rossiya Hotel, the 430-room Hotel Intourist, and the 1,000-room Hotel Moskva, whose image graces the label of Stolichnaya Vodka. These widely maligned, but inexpensive, hotels have been torn down and replaced by some of the world’s priciest lodgings.

The new paradigm is evident at the Ritz-Carlton, which opened in 2007 on the site of the Hotel Intourist. Here a suite can cost $16,500 a night and a bottle of Champagne $35,000. Of course, it is a very rare bottle of Champagne—one of 2,000 salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast of Finland. (The cache had been bound for the Russian imperial family.) In keeping with this theme of exclusivity, the hotel’s restaurant serves a $3,000 Tsar’s Breakfast, which comprises a bottle of Cristal Champagne and a Kobe-beef omelet, truffles, foie gras, 56 grams of Beluga caviar, and quail eggs.

A few blocks away from the Ritz-Carlton stands the Ararat Park Hyatt, where the amenities include a banya—a traditional Russian bathhouse complete with birch switches—and an open-air penthouse lounge, the Conservatory, that is considered one of the world’s best bars.

As a whole, the city’s restaurants present a no less dramatic picture of social change. "In 1989 we had maybe 70 restaurants in all Moscow; today we have maybe 10,000," said Larissa Mahotkina, a bubbly, 50-ish woman who owns a travel agency that specializes in exotic journeys. Mahotkina is also an enthusiastic member of Moscow’s newly formed chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, the Paris-based confrérie of gourmands that dates to the 13th century. People did not go to restaurants during the Soviet era, she explained, because they did not go out, period. "Why would we?" she asked. "There was no place to go, and we had no money to spend once we got there. There were as many monuments as Russians in the squares. If you saw anybody in the streets you would guess it was a tourist." Nowadays, she says, "when we go out to dinner, we’ll go to two, three, maybe four restaurants in a night."

The most striking examples of Moscow’s new culinary ethos are Café Pushkin and Turandot, the handiwork of artist Andrei Dellos, who owns eight restaurants in Moscow. Café Pushkin, named for the 19th-century Russian poet and playwright, is set on three different floors of a restored 19th-century mansion. Around the clock, waiters dressed like the servants of Pushkin’s day serve traditional Russian cuisine and a staggering array of pastries stuffed with meats, fruits, and cheeses.

Though Café Pushkin has a devoted following, Turandot, Dellos’ re-creation of a Baroque palace, is the most breathtaking venue in town. The restaurant’s main dining room is lit by a glittering crystal chandelier that plunges from an intricately painted domed ceiling. The dome sits atop marble columns and walls adorned with tapestries and frescoes. On some nights, a trio of musicians in powdered wigs and brocaded waistcoats plays chamber music in the dining room, beneath a tree with a mechanical peacock in its branches. In keeping with its opulent chinoiserie decor—and its name, which honors Puccini’s opera set in the Forbidden City—Turandot serves Chinese cuisine. I had the spring roll and was not disappointed.

 

Yves Gijrath, the founder of the Millionaire Fair, detects a pattern in the seemingly random tastes of Moscow’s new rich. "It starts with the cars, and then the watches, and then the fashion," he says. "And then the art collection comes."

Several of those collections are of museum quality—and quantity. "I have 20 clients in Moscow who have built or are building their own private art museums," said Natalia Kolodzei as she led me through Red Square to see Igor Markin, one of the best-known of these museum builders. Markin, 41, made a fortune with his plastics firm before founding Art4.ru, Russia’s first private museum of contemporary art.

The impetus for Art4.ru, said Markin—whose sport shirt and jeans belied his status as one of Russia’s most influential collectors—was simple. "At one point I became sick and tired of business," he said. "I had some success in it, and it gave me the cash flow necessary for collecting. But most of all, I am a born collector. And I like art."

Markin apparently is fond of colorful works of whimsy. His collection includes an incredibly lifelike sculpture of a muscular female tennis player in mid-serve; children’s wheeled toys in the forms of armored knights on horseback; and a photograph of a naked man riding a horse past the Kremlin.

After an oligarch becomes an art collector, said Kolodzei, another evolution takes place. "Russia’s new rich typically begin by buying sofa art, like landscapes and portraits—decorative art that looks nice over the sofa. Then they might migrate to 20th-century avant-garde Russian art, contemporaries of Picasso, like Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin. As they gain more confidence in their own taste, they move on to the Nonconformists—art produced from the mid-1950s to 1989."

Once a collector reaches this last stage, the person to know is the 34-year-old Kolodzei, one of the most influential of Russia’s young cultural figures. She and her mother, Tatiana, rank as the leading figures in the world of Soviet Nonconformist art. "It is hard to define this kind of art," said Natalia. "It is easier to say what it is not."

With its often dark, tortured themes, Nonconformist art bears no resemblance to Socialist Realism—the only school of art that Stalin approved—which typically depicted utopian scenes of heroic farmers astride tractors, and muscular laborers building dams. Even after Stalin died in 1953, Soviet artists seeking public recognition had to conform to Socialist Realism’s suffocating aesthetic. "Anyone found with this kind of [Nonconformist] art was arrested," said Kolodzei.

Consequently, said Tatiana, the demand for Nonconformism was virtually nil. "In the 1980s I could buy a painting by Ilya Kabakov, one of the most influential of the Nonconformists, for 20 rubles—the price of a cheap pair of shoes," she said.

This is no longer so. At a recent auction in London, one of Kabakov’s works, a 1982 painting titled Beetle, fetched $5.8 million. Kabakov aficionados include Abramovich, who sponsored a Kabakov show in Moscow in September.

But nobody owns more Nonconformist work than the Kolodzeis. Their collection, which now comprises some 7,000 works by 300 artists, is one of the most massive representations of any art period, and it defies appraisal. "It is priceless," said Tatiana, who has exhibited parts of the collection around the world but refuses to sell a single piece. The Kolodzeis will, however, advise clients on what to buy, and on this day, after visiting Markin, Natalia took me to see Oleg Kulik, the most famous and controversial of the new generation of Nonconformists—and a man I recognized as the horseback rider from Art4.ru. When I arrived at his studio, I was happy to see that he was wearing clothes.

A tall, rangy man with a scruffy beard and an amused glint in his eye, Kulik works—or perhaps conceptualizes is a better word—in a space strewn with knickknacks, crayons, mismatched pillows, old tapestries, dirty dishes, and other forms of domestic detritus. "The people who like my art are very different people," Kulik said with a grin as he poured cups of tea for Natalia and me. We sat on a dilapidated sofa. "These are people who don’t like tranquility in art."

To be sure, there is nothing tranquil about Kulik’s works. He is best known for his "dog period," during which he adopted a canine persona and went about naked—in parks, on public streets, in museums—on his hands and knees while an assistant recorded his performances on video or in photography. Occasionally the artist would bite ?people—presumably non-art lovers—for which he was arrested in Stockholm and Milan. While Kulik and his work may not be for everyone, he has a devoted following who are willing to pay $50,000 or more for a performance photograph and $600,000 for one of his large-scale sculptures or installations.

 

The next morning, Natalia accepted my invitation to join Sergey—the PR executive with whom I had gone clubbing—his friend Diane, and me for the ride to Barvikha, the village where Russia’s most powerful government officials and leading intellectuals traditionally have owned weekend dachas. Since the late 1990s, Barvikha has been the scene of a building boom, with ever-bigger luxury edifices being erected. The four-lane highway out from Moscow has a center lane that, for the moment, was empty. "It is supposed to be reserved for high-ranking government officials or emergency vehicles, but sometimes you’ll see the wrecks of two cars from a head-on collision," said Kolodzei. "It’s usually oligarchs."

Besides the oversize dachas, Barvikha is home to a shopping mall that specializes in luxury goods. The mall houses Ferrari, Bentley, and Lamborghini showrooms, but instead of one or two models on display, as in the dealerships on Park Avenue in New York, here you will find five or six or more. "They have to have as many as possible in stock," said Diane. "If one of our ‘new rich’ decides he wants a Ferrari, he doesn’t want to wait for it. It’s an impulse buy, like you might buy a tie."

Arriving in Barvikha, we saw dachas seemingly the size of Walmarts rising above the treetops. Farther down the road we came upon an equally imposing display of monumental statuary: knights on horseback, chrome bears, winged horses 10 and 15 feet tall.

A cemetery? I asked.

"No," Sergey replied. "This place sells lawn ornaments for the new dachas."

Before returning to Moscow, we stopped at Prichal, an outdoor restaurant set on the scenic bank of a placid river. We were on our way back to Sergey’s car when the talk turned to oligarchs. "Most Russians don’t like them," said Diane. "They caused a lot of trouble for this country in the 1990s. And they disrupt things. I never liked sitting next to somebody with bodyguards in a restaurant; I felt like I was sitting next to a target."

Some oligarchs see themselves as bikers and ride tricked-out Harleys, said Sergey. "You can always recognize them. They’ll have loud music blaring, and extra lights attached, and have bodyguards following them in an SUV. But you see them less and less."

As we settled into the limo, a pair of men dressed in camouflage and carrying submachine guns jumped in front of our car to keep us from moving until their boss, in an SUV, pulled out ahead of us.

"Obviously, though," said Sergey as we departed the parking lot and headed back toward Moscow, "some are still around."

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Photo by Janos Grapow