The New Face of Moscow
Published: May 2009
By Reggie Nadelson
A decade after the collapse of Communism, Russia's largest city has come of age—brash and booming, with a restaurant or club opening every week. But even in the here and now, this town keeps looking back over its shoulder.
Friday night at Café Pushkin. At the next table, a man in platinum cuff links and an expensive suit leans over his borscht to gesticulate at his companion, explaining the arcane details of some fabulous deal. There is the tinkle of ice. Discreet flash of jewels. Friends stop by to shake his hand; a young woman—cheekbones that could cut glass, Birkin bag under her arm—kisses his cheeks three times. Other customers glance in his direction, then return to their blini with caviar.
The Pushkin is Moscow's Balthazar, its Ivy. The restaurant occupies three floors (with a roof garden in summer) of what appears to be a 19th-century town house once owned by a wealthy man of letters, but which was actually built in the 1990's. It's the perfect stage-set for the new Moscow: the Moscow of cool, the Moscow of fusion cooking and good jazz and ice discos in Gorky Park, a Moscow that wallows nostalgically in its pre-Soviet past but loves its neo-capitalist pleasures.
"You remember the fairy tale about the beautiful princess who kissed the frog and turned it back into the handsome prince?" asks Vladimir Pozner, a Russian TV journalist. "Well, this is where the capitalist princess kissed the Soviet frog and turned it into a ravishing city...with warts, of course," adds Pozner, taking a sip of good Bordeaux at the Pushkin.
It's been a decade since Communism folded, and this is a city that's only a decade old. Some people here have lived through the beginning and end of an entire empire. Moscow is brazen and vital, a tough, in-your-face town with something for everyone: great restaurants, casinos lit up like the Klondike in gold rush times, the best-dressed women on earth. Even with restaurants and clubs springing up every few months—I barely recognize the place from a few years back—there is no new Moscow without the old; no conversation about it without comparisons, how it is now, how it was then.
"Hard to believe we're talking about the same city," Pozner says. "Moscow used to be drab, dull, stifled by ideology. The food was awful, the service nonexistent, the hotels substandard. A damp blanket of fear hung over everything."
Pozner, who speaks English like a native New Yorker, is my guide and friend. He has lived here for almost 50 years (though he was born in Paris and raised in New York), and I met him on my first trip to Moscow, in 1988. Those were gray times, when the choices for dinner were limited to the hotel—where nothing on the menu was available—or the grim restaurant Prague (where I once bought a jar of black-market caviar off a waiter for seven bucks—they used to keep a supply of it in their pockets).
So it seems a little surreal to be drinking vintage wine with Pozner at the Pushkin or eating succulent rack of lamb at the French restaurant Le Duc, with its superb cheeses, extraordinary wine list, and vaulted ceilings that give the place the austere air of a cathedral.
Outside, the snow starts falling, huge flakes floating down on the frozen streets. Every city has its season; Moscow's is winter, when the snow is deep, the ice is black, and the temperature is often 20 below. Trees are gnarled with frost and hung with icicles. The 18th- and 19th-century palaces and houses and shops, renovated now, glisten under the snow like marzipan. The churches, often used as storage facilities during Soviet times, have also been richly restored and come in blood-red, jade, teal, royal blue, and pistachio; dusted with snow, their gold onion domes glitter against the black sky.
At midnight Pozner drives me back to my hotel, down Tverskaya Street, Moscow's main drag. On the left is Yeliseyev, once the city's grandest gourmet store, still ravishing with its stained-glass skylights, mahogany counters, and chandeliers. Just past it is Night Flight, the club where, it's said, you can find Moscow's most expensive hookers. Farther along is the Moscow Art Theater, founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky, who invented the Method acting style. In the new Moscow, students sometimes perform in English.
Moscow traffic is horrendous—no one observes the rules much, and people often drive up on the curb to get through. Pozner negotiates the snarl and leaves me at Le Royal Meridien National, a hotel in an ornate 1903 Art Nouveau building. Lenin once spoke from the balcony of the National's room 107. Though it has been modernized, its sinuous wrought-iron elevator screen and stair rails have been left intact, and it's the most evocative of all Moscow hotels. I stayed here on my first visit; the doorman then resembled Leonid Brezhnev in a cardigan. I told the woman at the front desk that it was my first time in Moscow and I wanted a view of Red Square. "Here you may want," she replied, "but here you may not necessarily get."
Now you get. If you have the dough, you can get anything. My $250-a-night room on the fourth floor has a view straight up a snow-clad street to Red Square and the Kremlin. St. Basil's, with the smoke cloud from a power plant behind it, looks like a rococo spaceship landed on a frozen planet. It is an extraordinary, outrageous, beautiful building. (Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, St. Basil's was built between 1555 and 1561 by Postnik and Barma; according to legend, Ivan had them blinded afterward so they would never build another like it.) Look at it up close and it seems to be made of fish scales, mosaics, and jewels.
Red Square is still the heart of the city, of the country. All roads lead here, literally and figuratively, and it is one of those few great urban spaces—Manhattan's Central Park, the Venetian Lagoon, Place de la Concorde in Paris—that never disappoints. The Rolling Stones may have played Red Square, and on New Year's Eve it's packed with revelers, but Lenin's Tomb is still the square's main attraction. Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, once the moving force of another Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union, lies shriveled in his box, weird, embalmed, the leftover icon of a vanished empire.
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.
In the old days, we had the KGB; now, we have 'face control,'" says Svetlana Kunitsyna, a cultural journalist and TV reporter. "At certain restaurants and nightclubs, they look you over before they decide to let you in. There are even signs that say management has the right to refuse you entry without explanation."
Though there's no actual sign, Restaurant Vanil is the kind of place where face control might be practiced—a sleek, minimalist, entirely chic restaurant with exquisite food and views of the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Vanil is on the site of the old cathedral, which Stalin blew up in 1931 and replaced with a swimming pool. Moscow's flamboyant mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, rebuilt it in 1999, and even though it's immense and rampant with marble and bronze, it looks plastic: Moscow as Vegas, with frescoes by Zurab Tsereteli, Luzhkov's court sculptor. Tsereteli is also responsible for the incredible (and incredibly hideous) overscale statue of Peter the Great, on the Moskva River downriver from the Kremlin. There he stands on a kind of pirate ship, offering safe harbor to visitors.
Six two and blond, Svetlana Kunitsyna was raised inside the system but was always seditious; her mother was called to her school because the young Svetlana was drawing wigs on Lenin in her textbooks. Kunitsyna was at the heart of the burgeoning rock scene in the early 90's, and she knows her nightlife. Keeping abreast of it has been part of her job, though it would make her laugh if you called her a rock-chick or a party diva. "Even in terms of nightlife," she says, "Moscow went through every stage in the course of a decade: rock, disco, dance."
Clubs and pubs, casinos and bars, blues bars, rock clubs, gay clubs, strip joints—they all come and go. The nightlife is frenzied. Unless you're 20, a little goes a long way. There is good jazz, though, and some of the best is at Le Club, where you can eat and drink in civilized surroundings and listen to Moscow's Igor Butman on the saxophone or visiting stars like Spyro Gyra.
"We're finally emerging into something more stylish," Kunitsyna says over Merlot and herring at Club Petrovich. "People used to go out to listen to jazz. But the attraction of the sex club, the hooker, the low life, was very strong. When the Soviets left, it was like they pulled the cork out of the bottle, and everyone went wild. A puritanical society died, and everyone wanted a see-through blouse."
In a remote courtyard, Petrovich is frequented by writers and artists; the clientele is generally dressed in the international brotherhood of black clothing. It's a private club, but if you're wearing the right outfit you can talk your way into a table for lunch or dinner. A quartet of guys plays cards, drinking tea from glasses. A jazz band performs. A few people dance. Founded by André Bilzho, the club is named after the beloved cartoon character Petrovich, a sort of Russian Homer Simpson. The décor runs from cartoons to Communist kitsch. When you join, you get a card that makes you an honorary Petrovich. "Here, every man is named Petrovich, every woman is Petrovicha," says Kunitsyna, laughing. "It says so on my membership card."
There's never been a shortage of culture in Moscow—great opera and ballet at the Bolshoi, great music, great theater. Now there are plenty of movies, including first-run American films. And there's the Novaya Opera Theater (New Opera) in its own elegant, purpose-built theater.
I wouldn't go to Moscow without a stop at the Pushkin Museum, founded in 1912. I love its variety and its vastness: the legendary Treasure of Troy artifacts from the Mycenaean era, seized from the Nazis in 1945 as part of the unofficial spoils of war; Coptic textiles; paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt and some French Impressionists. In the city's Zamoskvarech neighborhood is the Tretyakov Gallery, which has a huge collection of Russian art, including Chagall, Kandinsky, and Malevich.
One of the most interesting galleries is the Moscow House of Photography, opened in 1996, which exhibits Russian and foreign work (Russia has had many eminent photographers, some of whom were repressed in Soviet days). On its walls you might see Rodchenko's early pictures of the U.S.S.R., of its men and machines. Or Boris Savelev's photojournalism covering decades of Moscow life. There are photographs of Khrushchev in the sixties and disco kids in the nineties.
The one area in which Moscow doesn't compete with other world-class capitals is the shopping. There's Armani and Lacroix and Versace, but unless you want the same stuff you can get anywhere else, these places are only for cruising the new form of native life: the rich and the very rich.
A little ingenuity will get you some treasures, though. Along the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the Arbat, the old artisan center of Moscow, there are a few decent bookshops where you can buy Soviet posters, and a few antiques stores. On a freezing afternoon, I find a knowledgeable shopkeeper selling plates he's had copied from old Soviet designs, a new twist in the souvenir market. Reluctantly, he pulls examples of the real thing from under the counter, plates produced in the 1920's, when the Constructivists were at work. They're stunning; the guy won't budge from four grand each.
I used to collect Soviet kitsch and antiques. In the late eighties and early nineties, you could still get it in the Arbat and at Izmailovo Park, Moscow's flea market. I once found an entire 1930's Soviet toy train, complete with village station, farmers, cows. I should have bought it. Many of the great pieces are long gone, but you can still find some jewels in Petrovsky Passage or Stoleshnikov Pereulok. Izmailovo, open only on weekends, is now mostly a place to pick up old cameras, fur hats, great books, scarves, tablecloths, trinkets, and matryoshki (the wooden stacking dolls).
After an hour in the park one Saturday morning, my feet are frozen solid. My friend Anna Ivanov, a documentary producer, makes me take off my boots and put an extra set of gloves over my socks. Then we head back to town, unable to decide if we want lobster bisque at Café Alexandria or a fast, good, cheap meal at Yolki-Palki. Until recently there were plenty of fast-food chains, but they were mostly American: Pizza Hut, McDonald's. (I had my first Big Mac in Pushkin Square in 1990. I know this is hard to believe, but until Moscow brought me down to earth, I was a bit of a food snob.) Yolki-Palki is a Russian chain that serves Russian food—a real sign of the times. The restaurants resemble ersatz country inns, with fake sunflowers in pots. They're clean, the workers are friendly, and you can have a big lunch for 10 bucks. (A friend tells me the hot lunch is mediocre, so it's best to stick to the salad bar.)
"That's what makes the new Moscow really different," Ivanov says. "Now ordinary people can afford to eat out. Unlike the old new Moscow—in the early and mid nineties—it's not just for the rich anymore."
Still, no matter how many modern restaurants, no matter how many discos, the nostalgia for the past is everywhere. "It's thick on the ground here," Ivanov says as we stroll into Moscow's Latin Quarter. Along the twisting streets are the former houses of two of Russia's most famous writers, Gorky and Chekhov. At its heart is Patriarch's Ponds; in the satirical novel The Master and Margarita, it's where Satan makes his first appearance. (The author, Mikhail Bulgakov, lived at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street from 1921 to 1924.)
Evening falls. We head to Chistiye Ponds and chase after a little tram that runs around the water. Inside is a small bar with a few tables, where we sit and drink vodka and watch kids skate on the pond under a string of lights. It could be a scene from the 19th century.
The new Moscow loves looking back over its shoulder at pre-Revolution Russia. Like Café Pushkin, the restaurant Oblomov plays off this mood. Oblomov is one of Russia's most celebrated novels, written in 1859 by Ivan Goncharov. The protagonist is Ilya Oblomov, a Russian nobleman who has come upon hard times but is still loving, kind, humble, honest, and humane. A romantic, he loathes the new generation of go-getters (this is the 1860's) taking over the country. Though his heart is in the right place, he can't get anything done. He spends hours lying on his couch in a bathrobe thinking about what the world has come to. He is destined to fail.
Oblomov, the restaurant, is a theme park devoted to the literary figure. It sits in a row of restaurants opposite Moscow's World Trade Center and is owned by Anton Tabakov, a Moscow entrepreneur, who also runs Mao, an Asian restaurant downstairs, and Antonio, an Italian restaurant on the same block. (Think Epcot on the Moskva.) At Oblomov, you sit on sofas and armchairs, like Oblomov himself, around communal tables. You're served the dish of the day—from pelmeni (dumplings) to pork neck.
You may giggle, but when you eat at Oblomov, you catch the spirit. Suddenly you forget the traffic outside, the businessmen streaming into the karaoke joint down the street, and you're at a table with Oblomov himself. You're in the new Moscow, surrounded by the comforts of the new capitalist world, but you feel yourself in the Old Russia, a long-gone fantasy world of philosophers and poets.
Recently, yellow cabs were introduced in Moscow, putting an end to an era of unreliable and overpriced taxi service. But it's still a good idea to ask your hotel to send a car for you at the airport. Even with the new taxis, the Moscow method of getting around is to hold out your hand and wait until a private car stops—though it may just be a worker on his way home. You'll have to bargain (practice your Russian), but it's an exhilarating way to go. The subway is also an easy option, and some of the stations are works of art. Subway maps come in Russian and English.
Le Royal Meridien National
Doubles from $190
15/1 MOKHOVAYA ST.
800/543-4300 or 7-095/258-7000
Doubles from $350
1/4 TEATRALNY PROEZD
Hotel Baltschug Kempinski
The 232-room classical hotel on the banks of the Moskva River has skyline views. Young Muscovites frequent the restaurant for "linner" (Sunday meal between lunch and dinner). Doubles from $400
1 baltschug St.
Park Hyatt Moscow
This modern 219-room hotel within walking distance of Red Square and the Bolshoi Theater opened in October. Doubles from $240
4 NEGLINNAYA ST.
800/233-1234 or 7-095/783-1234
Marriott Royal Hotel
Butler service for all 230 rooms, plus a bright indoor pool and a restaurant that serves American beef.
Doubles from $285
11/20 PETROVKA st.
800/228-9290 or 7-095/937-1000
Dinner for two $120
26A TVERSKOI BLVD.
Dinner for two $200
2 1905 GODA ST.; 7-095/255-0390
Dinner for two $50
30 PRECHISTENKA St.
Dinner for two $70
7 gasheka st.; 7-095/797-4333
Ris i Ryba
Dinner for two $90
2 SERAFIMOVICHa ST.; 7-095/959-4949
Dinner for two $200
1/9 OSTOZHENKA ST.
Dinner for two $60
25 TSVETNOI blvd., BLDG. 1
Dinner for two $110
2 1905 goda st.
Dinner for two $100
2 1905 goda st.
Dinner for two $200
2 1905 GODA ST.
A Russian restaurant built to resemble a country inn, with a farmyard and real animals.
Dinner for two $120
2 1905 GODA ST.
Ilya Ilyich Coffee Shop
Quick meals: soup, salads, dumplings. Lunch for two $16
2 1905 goda st.
Russian food, live music, and dancing. Dinner for two $150
12A CHRISTOPRUDNY blvd.
A French restaurant, with
great wines and cigars.
Dinner for two $300
23 TVERSKAYA ST.
21 v. radischevskaya st.
Happening disco with a whiff of the old new Moscow (from the mid 1990's).
17 TVERSKAYA St.