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Midnight in Moscow

When the Iron Curtain fell, in the early '90s, there wasn't a bona fide nightclub in Russia's capital. Today, the Moscow scene makes every other city's look tame, as an indescribably wealthy few--Kremlin power brokers, star athletes, aluminum tycoons in sniper-tint glasses--drop $10,000 for a table, ignore the dawn on Stalin's yacht, and indulge a bottomless appetite for the heartachingly beautiful women, many of whose hearts seem set on only those with bankrolls. With the czars of the hotspots where status and souls are bartered, Brett Forrest goes from the party that's hard to crack to the one you'll never even know about.


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 keeps going.

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 G.D.P.

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 breed.

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 re-designed 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 impresario.

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.)

ANOTHER 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 the entrance.

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 Tsar 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 glasses.

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 their significance.

“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 recall precisely 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 destroys them.”

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 want.”

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 says.

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 back-first. 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 cash.

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.

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