Over the years I have made a healthy living making fun of Russia’s over-the-top elites in novels, short stories, and articles, some of which have appeared between the covers of this magazine. I’ve spent many words describing heavyset men in Adidas tracksuits, overripe women tottering beneath wedding cakes of hair, and a nation’s general misuse of leather goods. Born in Leningrad, U.S.S.R., in 1972, I have been coming back almost every year since my late twenties to poke fun at my birthplace. But I come back for a different reason as well.
I believe we travel not just out of curiosity, but also for selfish reasons. We travel to find out where we come from and who we are, those little shards of identity that fall out of a stall in a Hong Kong market or float up with Proustian clarity from the bottom of a Hungarian goulash. But for those of us from somewhere else, it’s not just clarity we seek; a part of us wants to rewrite history. If Russia can become a normal country, then maybe my past can be normalized, too. It’s a hopeless and romantic task, but then again you don’t get to choose where you’re born, which language your parents speak to you when they soothe your first cut with iodine and Mishka the Clumsy Bear chocolate candy, and which wooden ladle they use to stir your summer borscht.
My quest for normalcy leads me to a magazine with the unlikely name of Snob, an international Russian-language glossy that’s lavishly funded by the mineral wealth of Mikhail Prokhorov. (Full disclosure: Snob translated and published the first chapter of my most recent novel.) For those who haven’t seen him breakfasting alongside Jay-Z and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Prokhorov is one of Russia’s tallest (six foot eight) and more progressive oligarchs, the 32nd-richest man in the world and owner of the New Jersey Nets (no one’s perfect). Prokhorov has been critical of Vladimir Putin’s apparent quest to become Russia’s President/Prime Minister for Life and the country’s sham democracy, but his criticism has been strategic and intermittent—he is unlikely to spend his next 10 years in a frozen labor camp like fellow oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who didn’t quite know when to shut up. His billions have given Snob a nice frisson of controversy, but the magazine and the endless social networks it has sparked through its well-trafficked website are more than just a billionaire’s whim. It is an attempt to bring together a strange new animal: the liberal global Russian who is fond of her voluminous culture, her beautiful language, her doting parents, and the pleasant cast of her cheekbones, but doesn’t look like she just held up a Neiman Marcus at gunpoint. To me, the DHL delivery of my Snob—yes, it is couriered over from Moscow—is a happy part of the month where my crazy fantasies of having been born in an increasingly normalized part of the world are stoked by its card-stock cover and measured tones. Can Russian excess and Western reason exist in the same magazine? Can they exist in the same city? I head to Moscow, circa June 2011, to find out.
As I fly into Moscow from Rome, the New World order is clear: middle-class Italians gesticulating up a storm in economy, slick Muscovites up front, chatting in hip, sullen tones over their iPads, their luggage bearing tags from Rome’s Hotel Hassler. I’ve never seen a man in his thirties pout so effectively with his designer lips when told of the absence of his favorite wine. We are circling one of Moscow’s main airports for a while; the rumor I hear is that some high government official is landing and hence we mere mortals are delayed. Whether rumor or reality, this, too, is Russia. Once landed, I take an express train to this megacity’s center and try to get a cab to my hotel. The driver wants a thousand rubles, or roughly $40, for the 10-minute ride. When I protest he says, “A thousand rubles? Young man, that’s not even money anymore!” A few hours later a Snob staffer tells me she could rent out her fairly average Moscow apartment and live a full life in New York City from the proceeds. As of this year, Moscow has more billionaires than any other city in the world, leaving New York, London, and Hong Kong far behind. The pain and humiliation of not being a billionaire is a part of every interaction here. If I had never left as a child and then bought a part of some ferrous-metal enterprise at a rigged auction during the Yeltsin era, I wouldn’t be bargaining over a $40 cab ride.
The center of the Snob universe is Moscow’s former Red October (Krasniy Oktyabr) chocolate factory on the Bersenevskaya Embankment of the Moscow River. A red-brick fixture of central Moscow for over a century, this enormous complex, crisscrossed by walkways that bring to mind the industrial glamour of New York’s Meatpacking District, once perfumed this gritty city with its sweet chocolaty smells. Today it is at the heart of Moscow’s media elite, home not just to Snob but to the influential Kommersant daily, not to mention oligarch-funded Internet ventures such as Digital October, and an endless array of clubs and restaurants with names like Progressive Daddy and Belka: The First Non-Smoking Bar. Day and night, swarms of artsy young people hum along with boundless Wi-Fi energy. As my friend and Snob’s deputy editor, Masha Gessen, told me, gesturing at the Red October buildings around us: “If they want to bomb all of enlightened Moscow, it would be very easy.”
Somehow I didn’t need to ask who they were. The new post-bling wave of globalized Russians—another friend talked of flying to Berlin for a day to see a play by a Québécois playwright—is not universally beloved. Back in New York, just a week before my trip, a Russian-speaking woman stopped me as I was crossing Fifth Avenue to ask: “You’re not a part of that Snob crew, are you?” During a visit to Rome, a well-known Russian author tells me: “They are just provocateurs.”
Back at the chocolate factory, I book a room in the new Red Zarya (Dawn) hotel within the factory complex. Checking in to my spacious new suite, decorated with old Russian hygienic posters, I realize: I’m staying within the factory walls where my beloved Mishka the Clumsy Bear candy was made! For a child growing up in a nation where even sugar cubes from Havana could mean a treat for a five-year-old, Mishka occupied the upper echelon of sweets. I used to save the blue wrappers showing goofy brown bears scaling a tree, sniffing out their chocolate essence whenever I felt sad.
The Red Zarya is perfectly indicative of contemporary Moscow: a loftlike boutique hotel with Soviet service. (Sample conversation: “Do you have a map of the city?” “No.”) At one point my clothes come back from the laundry soaking wet along with a very honest explanation: “We couldn’t locate a dryer.”
And yet, this is the place to be. The Red October factory is just a five-minute walk from the Kremlin, and occupies a strategic stretch of the westernmost part of Bolotny (Marshy) Island, an unexpected sliver of cool within the Moscow River. The first place I go is Bar Strelka. Proceeds from this bar-restaurant help fund the brilliant new Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture & Design, and the amphitheater adjoining the bar is packed in the summer with lectures by the likes of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, a champion of quality housing for the poor. Aravena’s presence within sight of Moscow’s Ostozhenka Street, one of the most obscene pockets of wealth in the world, provides a hopeful contrast.
Strelka is a big win for Moscow’s architectural and lifestyle prospects (Rem Koolhaas delivered the institute’s inaugural speech). Glass and metal and, most importantly, wood—wood in all its glorious, Russian abundance—are at work here. Strelka alone goes far in negating the acres of faux–Art Nouveau Moscow built by its recently fired mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who had an 18-year tenure that turned the already-wounded cityscape into a drunk peasant’s idea of modernity. From Strelka’s roof bar you can see the excesses of the past in Luzhkov’s pet architect Zurab Tsereteli’s statue of Peter the Great in a toga astride a life-size frigate, a 308-foot-high exercise in reducing the great bloody czar to a minor Disney character. “We shouldn’t knock Peter down,” the husband of one Snob staffer tells me when I gleefully propose doing just that. “We can’t keep knocking things down and rebuilding.” He’s right: Towering over the Strelka rooftop is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, knocked down by Stalin (and turned into a swimming pool for much of the Soviet era) and recently rebuilt by Turkish contractors, a marble-and-granite giant, referred to in its first 19th-century incarnation as “The Samovar.”
Sipping Strelka’s sublime Moscow Beauty cocktail, with its fresh cranberry juice, Grey Goose, and a dash of Sprite, I look east to the Stalin-era House on the Embankment. If one building in Moscow could talk—or, rather, howl—it would be this one. Stalin’s scientists and artists lived and died here during his fickle reign (plaques commemorate former residents such as aircraft designer Artyom Mikoyan, the M in the “MiG” fighter jet). Peeking through a window I am shocked to see a portrait of Stalin in full battle regalia gracing one living room. It couldn’t be! But then again, something needs to counter the massive Mercedes-Benz hood ornament currently affixed to the building’s roof.
“How Do We Get Rid of the U.S.S.R.?” an article in a recent issue of Snob asks its readers, with one responding, “Why would we get rid of who we are?” Strelka’s lemon-poached chicken with fennel purée, sautéed greens, and new potatoes sure tastes like one way out. The dish’s simplicity stands in contrast to the oversauced, insecure Moscow dishes of the last decade, recalling my grandmother’s chicken bouillon, if Grandma knew from fennel. Amid the laptop crowd in Strelka’s downstairs bar, which houses a baby grand and is swaddled in optimistic plant life, I feel as normal as I’ve felt in Russia in two decades. This could be London or Chicago or Berlin, or any other place where the government doesn’t control the television channels. And who cares if Strelka’s chef happens to be British?
Next door to the Brits, Bontempi features the Italian chef Valentino Bontempi hollering Italian into his open kitchen or smoking soulfully outside as the sun lights up the golden dome of Christ the Savior. I have the bruschetta with olive-and-anchovy tapenade: it’s tarted up with butter in a nod to local tastes, but the powerful Russian bread is an improvement over the Tuscan variety (Bontempi sources a great deal of his ingredients from local Moscow markets). There’s an oregano-and-rabbit ravioli that would not be derided in his native Brescia, and a civilized glass of Chardonnay for under $15.
For another dose of progress, I head down the embankment to the nearby Art Akademiya, nearly 3,000 square feet of art, booze, and decent food “in the style of New York’s SoHo.” Risotto? Check. Sea bass? Check. Full sushi menu? Check. Plush, cracked-leather couches, scuffed ceilings, outsize nudes, indifferent service? Check, check, check, check! In the risotto-mad capital of the Russians, the dish comes heavy with porcini and oddly reminiscent of the “white” mushrooms in sour cream our parents made for us. Art Akademiya’s self-proclaimed “largest bar-stand in Europe” may be a tad excessive, but a painting composed solely of the words relativism is dialectics for idiots instructs me not to judge (or is it the other way around?).
A courtyard away from Art Akademiya, the airy, exposed-brick Snob offices deep within the Red October factory are peopled by good-looking content-providing and editing types. Masha’s office has a well-used bottle of Jack Daniels and a skylight aglow with tenuous June sun. Downstairs, workmen are hammering away on a new Snob social club for its local and international members.
Masha has grown up in both Russia and the United States, and her fixed-gear bike would be coveted in certain parts of Brooklyn. She wears one excellent earring and all black. The father of Daria, her partner, mistakes us for brother and sister. “Do all Jews look the same to you?” she kids him. For the next few days, the poor, dear man will call her every few hours to apologize. Indeed, when it comes to multiculturalism post-Soviet-style, Snob easily takes the all-Union prize for ethnic diversity. Jews, Georgians, Armenians, and people of all sexual orientations form its staff—a nationalist’s nightmare in a city with a clear pecking order (“Nannies come from Moldova, and workers come from Tajikistan,” I am told matter-of-factly).
Another interesting fact is that unlike the rest of Russia’s diminishing population, Team Snob is heavily pregnant. As I arrive, one editor is rushed out to the rod dom (literally, “birthing house”). People with means are still going around having children, and the Snob editorial staff introduces me to another interesting feature of Moscow’s creative elite: the rise of the Russian house-husband, with his advanced degree in some irrelevant humanistic field, who can grill a spectacular mutton kebab while wearing a Snoopy hoodie. “Is this Russia’s missing middle class?” I ask Masha. “This is the weirdo class,” she tells me.
The attractions of the Red October factory have not gone unnoticed by Moscow’s less bohemian, high-heeled residents, and when the summer sun sets the Weirdo Class is wont to actually get off Marshy Island and head to a downtown place like Kvartira 44. After three days without a drop of vodka—my first relatively sober 72 hours in Russia—we start following up many shots with grenka (dark rye toast) covered with cheese and garlic, and the best old standard for vodka drinking: herring with potatoes. As the night goes on the table thickens with people, my ancestral name of Igor is invoked, and the Russian summer feels golden. As the conversation gets more ribald—a tale of a Naples bathroom that really shouldn’t be repeated—I realize I’m in bizarre world: a kind of mirror image of my friends in New York, only with more Armenians. No wonder older Russian women stop me in the middle of Fifth Avenue to complain about these people.
Delicatessen, close to Tsvetnoy Bulvar, is truly off the beaten path (“Thanks for finding us” is one of its slogans). Inside a courtyard, next to a highway, past some guy with a goat asking for loose change—the charms of this place truly make it worth the trip. A friendly owner with long hair and a waxed mustache. A bar that can mix up just about anything, including an “Old-Fashioned Prohibition Style” with great complexity and verve. And there’s another Moscow rarity: the woman sitting one table over from us actually weighs more than 80 pounds.
Another excellent example of the New Moscow is the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Set in a leafy Soviet neighborhood, the spacious 1920’s Konstantin Melnikov–designed bus depot has been turned into a major art center by Daria Zhukova, girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, the multinational oligarch and owner of London’s Chelsea Football Club. Garage features shows by the likes of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and, recently, an amazing color light show by James Turrell. There’s art therapy for kids on weekends and a packed restaurant. Back on the island, near the Red October complex, the Lumière Brothers gallery has outstanding exhibitions, most recently a collection of photographs chronicling Moscow from 1900 to 1960, such as Leonid Lazarev’s Echoes of Childhood (1957), the iconic photo of a boy running down a Moscow street in front of a series of trucks spraying water, with hints of both danger and excitement.
How do we get rid of the U.S.S.R.? The problem is that our pasts are so interlinked with 70 years of Soviet rule that even the “Old-Fashioned Prohibition Style” is just a drop in the bucket. After six days of savoring Moscow’s heady progress, I take a trip back to the U.S.S.R. in its most full-bodied remnant: the All-Russia Exhibition Center. Here, the clock never ticked past December 26, 1991, when the Soviet Union officially dissolved. It lives on in the heroically monumental 82-foot-tall Worker and Collective Woman statue (check out the relief of different ethnicities herding sheep and goats at its base) and the Fountain of the Friendship of the Peoples, with its gold-plated Belarusian and Tajik maidens worshipping a giant wheat sheaf. If you ignore the loudspeaker’s cry of “Jeans, jeans, jeans!” and the signs that point to “Honey” and “Lawyers,” you could believe, the way I did as a child, that a great civilization was celebrating itself.
Later, I take the metro to a quiet working-class neighborhood down the street from what look like the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor to Koryo, the first North Korean restaurant in Moscow, and possibly anywhere else. Here, in a low-ceilinged dining room graced by murals depicting Korean maidens floating over cliffs while playing lutes and suggestively grasping wild ginseng roots, the Soviet Union, circa 1951, lives on in a television feed directly from the land of Kim Jong Il. There are accordion competitions, a soldier wooing peasant girls with a tap dance, the earnest whine and screech of a woman in traditional hanbok dress praising the Dear Leader—all of it played on an ideologically suspect Sony television set. Russia’s abundant supplies of cabbage and buckwheat help out in the kitchen. The kimchi is fresh and spicy as hell, and the Pyongyang naengmyeon—buckwheat noodles in an icy broth of meat, egg, vinegar, and mustard—are excellent. As I prepare to leave, I grab a copy of a North Korean magazine translated into Russian, which includes some important advice for future restaurateurs from Kim Jong Il himself: “Before a dish can be placed on a menu, one must first gather its ingredients.”
Or to quote the animals: “we gotta Get Out of this Place.” It’s the tune I’m humming to myself as Masha drives me over to her lovely dacha in the little hamlet of Nikul’skoe, north of Moscow. We leave behind the southwestern sunset colors of Moscow’s pollution. Here the air is clean and smells of dew and grilled kebab. We spend the first night chatting about the Stalin era until 3 a.m. while drinking Gewürztraminer and demolishing a Camembert. Breakfast begins at 10 a.m. with a discussion of Russia’s doddering economic reforms and ingrained corruption, a black cat asleep on the high-tech Italian stove. Even here in idyllic circumstances and with the stinkiest of French cheeses on the table, Stalin, and Putin, cast a shadow.
As I’ve mentioned before, reproduction is rife among this crew. The kids, and many will be gathered throughout the weekend, have mistaken me for a middle-aged Harry Potter (the Russian letter for H is sometimes pronounced as a G, hence “Garry Potter”). I disappoint tremendously, but they still invite me to an intense game of foosball, where the kids represent Russia and I defend America’s honor. “Don’t cheer for Russia,” one sweet kid says as her friend kicks my ass. “You buy all your clothes at an American store.”
After the game, a kid comes up to hug me for no reason whatsoever (“You’re prickly,” she says, “like a porcupine”) and I remember just how well well-born children are loved in this country, and have always been, even as the country itself has repeatedly burned to the ground around them. A good Russian childhood. It’s what I’ll always miss.