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Moscow's Moment

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Signs of the continuing flood of silky petrodollars are everywhere around Markin's museum. Four out of five landmarks are under scaffolding: the Bolshoi Theater is due to reopen in 2008; the Rossiya Hotel and the Hotel Moskva are in the raw-concrete stages of rebuild. A brand-new Ritz-Carlton opened in July on the old Intourist site, proffering $35 cocktails and antiques-stuffed rooms where previously there were prostitutes and passport checks. A person waking up at the Ritz (a very lucky person) can stroll a few blocks down the road to hushed jewel-box boutique TsUM. Here, slim-thighed trophy wives named Ksusha browse an exquisite selection of $1,000 dresses in sizes two and four. (British retailer Nicholas Harvey, founder of Harvey Nichols, is rumored to have come out of retirement two years ago to advise at TsUM; in any case, the store has nailed the bright, glossy, perfectionist Russian aesthetic, making this a worthwhile stop on the worldwide shopping circuit.) The Ksushas move from shopping to primping at the city's most famous bathhouse, Sandunovskiye Baths, renovated in 2006, which offers ornate halls for steaming, plunging into cold pools, being massaged with coffee grounds and honey, and sipping tea. Then around the corner they go, for dinner: The Most serves a novel kind of Russian cuisine in czarist-dream surroundings. Black bread comes with an exotic fruit-and-olive chutney. Beets appear in a surprising, sublime cold soup with pistachios. This is central Moscow now, refined and elegant as it hasn't been since the era of Pushkin.

Making an impact on such a landscape isn't for the faint of heart. Take Dymov, the Siberian sausage king and unlikely bibliophile. He has close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and sparkling Tartar eyes and is at first glance a no-brainer candidate for the cover of Russian GQ (which has, in fact, nominated him for its 2007 Man of the Year award). On the day we meet, I can see the edge of a tattoo curling from under the sleeve of his polo. (Later, he shows it to me: it's a griffin; the design was taken from the city gates of Suzdal, his favorite village). He could not be less like the stereotype of the scaly oligarch, despite the fact that he's Russia's largest meat-processor, with five factories in the Far East and a fortune estimated at $80 million.

Dymov's bookstore, Respublika, has a sleek, aggressively modern interior and the slogan "Books, music, perspective." On sale are gorgeous editions of everything from Nabokov classics to tomes on Soviet architecture; a huge library of music; high-end correspondence; and a smattering of international design objects curated by Dymov. There's a café, a popular series of readings, and a screening room for art-house films. Although Dymov admits that "purely as a business, it's not as good as meat-processing," Respublika is breaking even, and three more branches are scheduled to open in the next year.

The bookstores are part of a general Dymov initiative to provide aesthetically pleasing things for non–status-obsessed Russians, something few other business owners seem to be doing. He just opened a chain of high-quality, low-cost, instantly trendy sausage-and-beer halls called Dymov No. 1. "I'm not interested in Ferraris or the Côte d'Azur," he says. "I care about who I am and what I'm doing in life. It's like Maslow's Pyramid: First you think about how to survive, then you think about luxury and status, and then you think about your soul."

Children of the old elite have souls, too, and though most are busy living like 18th-century aristocrats (plus cocaine), a significant few have greater aspirations. Nina Gomiashvili, chic and delicate with close-cropped hair, is the daughter of a Soviet film star and a Polish ballerina. She owns Gostinaya, a restaurant highly recommended for Russian home cooking. She tramps the backcountries of Italy and the Republic of Georgia with a camera and two Georgian painters in tow to collect folk recipes for her cult cookbook series. And in Vinzavod, a neighborhood now being billed (somewhat ambitiously) as Moscow's Chelsea, she has opened a gallery, Pobeda ­("Victory"), which aims to introduce Russians to photography as fine art. Its first show was a provocative narrative series by Ellen von Unwerth.


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