The old and new collide everywhere, even at the Kremlin. The brick walls date from the late 1400's, the yellow and gold palace from the 19th century, the renovations from the 1990's, when Boris Yeltsin was president. Yeltsin funneled so much state money into the place (and into his own bank accounts) that a huge scandal resulted. But, then, Moscow has always had a taste for the big, the vulgar, the gaudy.
Across from the Kremlin is GUM, the 19th-century department store now filled with artifacts of the early 21st: cosmetics, shoes, designer goods. And behind it, the Rossiya Hotel, a 3,000-room Soviet monster that was put to very contemporary—and ironic—use in 2001, when it was the location for the Russian version of the TV show Big Brother. The prize was an apartment, so the competition was fierce. A glass-walled studio, where the show's contestants were to live, was erected in the hotel lobby; they were filmed there 24/7. Passers-by came to gawk at them leading their supposedly normal lives. "It's better than watching the monkeys at the zoo," said one woman.
After a stroll around Red Square, I stop for a drink at the Hotel Metropol, a Moderne masterpiece with gorgeous mosaics. The bar is full of gents in silk shirts and leather jackets, "businessmen" that Tony Soprano would recognize. Upstairs, some of the suites are glamorous, but most of the rooms are pretty dull. In the basement is a caviar restaurant, and another for sushi. In recent memory most dishes listed on Moscow's menus were unavailable, and you took what you could get. People would practically brag about how dreary their last meal was. Not anymore. You can eat anything you crave in this town now, and the emergence of a real food culture is the strongest sign that Moscow has busted out of its dismal past.
The city is swarming with chefs from France, Japan, China. The farmers' market is stuffed with out-of-season peaches and wild strawberries, with rare honey, racks of baby lamb, organic butter, sturgeon, salmon, and, of course, caviar. At the Dorogomilovsky Market, the top caviar purveyor is Rustam, who will let you sample the eggs and sell you fine beluga for $100 a pound.
The city is obsessed with food, with eating out, with sampling the arcane and the exotic. There's Mongolian stir-fry at Tamerlan; Asian fusion at Uley, where everyone is dressed to the nines; and sushi all over. At Ris i Ryba (Rice & Fish), a glassy, boxy restaurant, I try sushi with black caviar and salmon cured the Russian way, with a hint of dill. It's three in the afternoon, but the place is nearly full. Like New Yorkers, Muscovites eat all day long, and most restaurants are open from noon to midnight or "until the last customer leaves."
Ris i Ryba is above a cinema and arcade, a clattering, ringing celebration of the present. Just outside is a panoramic view of the river, the skyline, and the House on the Embankment and its fearful past. Built for Soviet bigwigs, it had huge apartments, servants' quarters, and an underground restaurant and supermarket where, as some wag put it, "the sausage even smelled of meat." During the purges of the 1930's, hundreds of people who were considered enemies of the state were taken away from the House in "bread" trucks in the middle of the night, to prison cells, Siberian gulags, and, in most cases, almost certain death. Now their apartments go for six, even seven figures; the new rich have short memories.