Outside it is snowing, and a blustery wind whirls fleeting flakes through milky orbs of lamppost light. Inside, beneath a ceiling-high projected image of the San Marco Basilica, three tiers of designer-clad spectators in gesso and gold-leaf masks -- the women, tanned and glittering with jewels, the men, some paunchy and most suited in Armani and Hugo Boss -- look up from their meal to gaze down on the floodlit stage as Abba's Dancing Queen fades to a delicate female vocal from an Italian opera. A demoiselle emerges from a side entrance, with plump white doves perched on her crimson, elbow-length gloves; the birds flutter their wings and fly, on some subtle imperceptible command, to her tailcoated partner. Soon after, the hall darkens, and a woman coiffed in a lacy white bonnet, with a lace hoop skirt, paints herself in glowing white neon. Then giant white balloons slowly descend from opened nets on the ceiling, popping as they hit the floor, releasing four hundred smaller, glowing, helium-filled balloons that float upwards in luminous waves of turquoise and scarlet. Again the act changes: Masked female performers on ten-foot stilts teeter out to center stage, their ornate lace ankle-length dresses swaying in shifting columns of red and green light, and move through a choreographed, high-altitude routine of Rinascimento poses that take the breath away - at least until they teeter back toward the wings, and a chorus of Bravo! Bravo! erupts from the diners. All this, and we're still on our entrees.
The stilt-walkers are Ukrainian; the other performers, Russian; the location of this fete, whose theme is, loosely, the Carnival of Venice, just outside Moscow. If the last fact surprises, it's only because Russia's new "normal" is insufficiently reported on, and possibly too self-contradictory for the Manichean narratives beloved of the press: Shocking displays of economic inequality (especially between Moscow and the rest of the country) that should spark revolution here no longer arouse overt political passions. Most people busy themselves with getting by in the system, rather than trying to change it. This is common the world over, but from Russia, Westerners, when not assigning the country the rank of Terrestrial Hell, expect epic confrontations of Good and Evil.
At no time is this inequality (and its widespread acceptance) more evident than when the calendar serves up holidays that give cause for celebration. For Russians, New Year's Eve has long held the status of most-favored bacchanal, one to be conducted, means permitting, with the lavish flair I'm witnessing here, at this korporativ (company party). The choice of an Italian venue fits perfectly: In the nineteenth century, Italy fascinated Russian artists, writers, and poets, who often sojourned there, soaking up culture they would later deploy in their own renaissance back home.
Each year, the budget for this evening's affair grows, I am told, and so does the guest list, which number 250, plus me. (I've been invited with the understanding that I not reveal the company's name.) Shades of the Weimar Republic, some would say. But this firm would be doing well under just about any circumstances. It is well-managed, intelligently staffed, debt-free, and, despite the economic crisis, growing. Its employees, many of whom I've known for five or six years, are not gangsters and molls, but industrious, well-paid young people (more women than men), with university and technical degrees, people who put in twelve- and fourteen-hour days, vacation in Europe and on the Black Sea, and go to the theater when they can. Most belong to Russia's slowly expanding middle class, some are richer. If positive change is going to come to Russia, it may well be because people like them gradually pressure the country's grim ruling siloviki elite to alter the status quo. Their tastes for culture and entertainment and lifestyle are, increasingly, those of the country as a whole. A Venetian carnival in the snow would play just fine from here to Vladivostok.
But back to the fete. The tables are set with plates of mozzarella and sliced tomatoes, sliced tongue and a myriad of cured meats, fluted curls of smoked salmon and sturgeon; and dollops of caviar and grilled vegetables; there are Tuscan wines and French cognacs and Russian vodkas, bottles of Evian and Diet Coke. Pir vo vremya chumy (feast in a time of famine), one might say, rather than cite Weimar, but with the exception of the mozzarella and foreign liquors, most of these delicacies feature in New Year's celebrations across the country. There is much toasting and drinking, but no (blatant) drunkenness: Stumbling about smashed, once accepted, is now definitely not. With the arrival of the market economy almost two decades ago, and the need to work hard and look good in the morning (or risk the sack, something that was tough to imagine in Soviet days), people with good jobs have sobered up. Another aspect of normalcy I never see reported.
A succession of Russian pop stars take the stage, including one who sings Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, which brings almost everyone out onto the dance floor, including my dinner companions and me. As the singer intones the lyrics of feminine defiance (which seem especially appropriate here, given the disproportionately heavy burdens Russian women bear) I marvel at all the changes I have seen in Moscow, at how the city went from grim and grimy and dark, in 1993, to glitzy and violent with the first boom, to almost dark again with the economic collapse of 1998, to what it is now: a world capital capable of satisfying one's tastes, whatever they be; a city of hardship but also of promise, where people work damn hard to get ahead, and where more than half of those hard workers are surely women, many single mothers. No matter what the government is doing, Russians are changing, developing, and advancing, living their lives in ways that rarely capture headlines, but that, in great measure, are simply normal. Or even laudable: The challenges they face often far exceed those posed by life in the West.
Earlier, a tenor soloist from one of Moscow's major theaters had performed "La Donna Mobile" and "O Solo Mio, rendering the tunes with such stentorian, mellifluous precision as to stun the diners into silence, still their chewing, and turn all eyes toward the stage. Tsarist Russia, just before World War I and the 1917 revolution, was a major power, with a growing economy, and vast disparities of income, perhaps similar to those visible here. But if there's one thing Russia truly has always had a surfeit of, it is world-class talent. Maybe this time, once the New Year's festivities are over, Russia will use it to resolve its problems and rise, peacefully, once again. For now, there's the Carnival of Venice in the snow.