A billion is the new million in Moscow—and that loud, loud money tends to drown out the other story happening here. I'm back in town for a week from New York, and most of the conversation centers on cash and muscle: whose bodyguard was beaten in a police cell, whose birthday party cost three million, what's the going price for membership in the Zolotaya Molodyozh (or "Golden Youth"—a figurative status: it's currently $5 million by the time you're 25, $10 million by the time you're 30, and no one works nine-to-five for the money). Maybe it's the Communist legacy, or the fact that the people in power have been too busy stealing from the masses to concentrate on much else, but since the 90's the definition of luxury here has been all about armed entourages and boardrooms with thrones—a hand-over-fist grab for status, money, and bullish, unsubtle power. And for an outsider looking for the style or soul of this city, it's been all too easy to spend $800 for a mediocre hotel room and not find much to appreciate beyond Silver Age classics, Stalinist architecture, and the entirely accidental charm of old women selling wildflowers in the metro.
Tune out the excess, though, and you can hear the undertone: things are changing. Not from above; Russia has an ever more totalitarian government and, notoriously, no freedom of the press. Moscow's mayor was recently "reappointed"—eerie for those who remember when he had to run for office. But as the first post-perestroika generation hits career middle age and starts to amass some real power, thirtysomething Muscovites of all stripes—canny artists with oligarch patrons; children of the old elite; success stories of the new professional class, albeit with a pronounced bohemian-contrarian streak—are altering the face of the culture. They're launching museums, galleries, clubs, fashion labels, foodie restaurants. No one rebels politically (that would be un-Russian, not to mention dangerous); instead there's increasingly a kind of resistance from within, as this movement bucks the prevailing materialism and reclaims some of the national identity that was so hastily discarded in the post-collapse pursuit of the West. As 36-year-old industry captain turned bookstore owner Vadim Dymov, one of their vanguard, puts it, "This is the time to start anything. We have lost our history. But because of this we're fresh, young, a little bit wild. And we have stamina." Right now in Moscow, if you keep an eye on people like Dymov, it's possible to witness a new kind of indigenous Russian culture—one that breathes the creative freedom of the West yet is authentically local—in the heady, headlong moments of its inception.
I meet Igor Markin, between his trips to the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, in the cool, polished-concrete office space above Art 4, his newly opened museum of contemporary art, a five-minute walk from the Kremlin gate. A bearish man with shoulder-length blond hair and a disarming giggle, Markin is typical of the type of superachiever shaping Russian society. He's a successful industrialist with three factories (producing extrusion PVC, aluminum, and window blinds) and he wants to do something more with his money. "This country is huge, but practically nowhere can you see good contemporary art," he says. "The government museums and the artists the government supports are terrible. Glazunov—terrible! Tsereteli—terrible!"
Markin's Art 4 is the first private museum to open here in 100 years and showcases his personal collection of Russian art from the past four decades: Totalitarian-stamped vistas by 70's Pop art practitioner Eric Bulatov; cocktails of brutality and buffoonery by 80's painter Konstantin Zvezdochetov; a cynical, art-game (or is it, in this perilously homophobic country, brave and incendiary?) photograph of two militiamen kissing. The ensemble is a bright showing by artists soon to be international names, if Russia's increasing presence in the global art market is any indication.
Markin's curatorial vision has the fire and wit to be expected of someone championing art in a hostile climate. He's done away with ID placards, instituting a system wherein viewers are given stickers reading za ("for") or protiv ("against"). "When everyone votes against something, I'm going to show more of it," he says. The hilarious, irreverent catalogue opens thus: "Anyone who thinks he can draw a square better than Malevich can come on and fucking do it." Provocateur gallery-owners tend to get beaten up or sued in this country. (Exhibitions have been attacked with bulldozers. By priests.) But Markin openly refers to the Russian Orthodox Church as a mafia and snickers at its crusades against the arts and gays. He says defying such people is fun, and after doing business in Russia in the notoriously violent and lawless nineties, "I'm not afraid of anything."