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December 24, 1997
"Great Russia has forged an inviolable union of free republics... Glory to you, homeland...! The great, the powerful Soviet Union!"
Many of the revelers sing along in hyperbolic bass, as if to a jocular drinking song; the one nearest me extends his arms in mock adoration toward a trio of thugs blandly waving from atop the bar in imitation of the Politburo elders of yesteryear.
"The great, the powerful Soviet Union!"
In my mind, perhaps as in theirs, the old Soviet anthem elicits images that flicker by in gray-grained TV fluidity: scarved peasant blondes joyously thrust their pitchforks into stacks of hay; hearty proles wrestle glowing hunks of steel out of forges; tractor after tractor rolls off the assembly line of a mammoth factory. During the anthem's final crescendo the youths down their vodkas -- and then a different kind of anthem begins. "WE WILL, WE WILL, ROCK YOU" pounds forth, with Queen's own masses roaring a refrain of defiance and alienation; the crowd stomps along with them, frenzied, as if trampling underfoot the eulogizers of the defunct Soviet state and all its bogus prolish wholesomeness, all its dogmas of self-abnegation. Two young women leap to the tabletops and start dancing. One of them rips open her blouse and showers the floor with its pearly, popped-off buttons.
One of the Politburo effigies extends a knuckly hand and hoists me up onto the bar. "Buy me and my buddy a couple of vodkas!" he shouts. "We want to drink vodka with you!" The coarseness of his language and his flathead haircut betray his trade. I ask him why I should buy them vodka. He leans into my face. "We're bandity, that's why."
Bandity without money, in Russia? He deflates. "Well, we're minor bandity. We're just starting out."
I wish them luck and hop off the bar.
Thus the evening begins at Moscow's Hungry Duck, an American-owned bar hidden in the otherwise Soviet-style House of Artists. Known popularly as the "Utka," the lively rathskeller has become a post-1991 hot spot for young Russians, bandity among them, who want to engage in a public, almost ritualized flouting of the Soviet culture and way of life that still lingers on around them. Despite its communist-enterprise-cum-U.S.-college-alehouse lineaments, the Utka offers nothing resembling a typical evening out in either America or Russia -- but then Moscow after dark is never typical. Night life here is predictable only in its bizarrerie; like a skewed prism it distorts, refracts, and magnifies the transformation the entire country has undergone since 1991. There are few places in the capital where the young trample the past -- or roil the present -- in more potent, choreographed fashion than the Utka.
The Utka's youth are not fringe elements on a broad social arena where it is perceived that, all in all, the just prevail and prudence is the ideal; they are, rather, the in-your-face vanguard of a societal bouleversement that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has relegated salt-of-the-earth laborers and votaries of democracy to the status of dupes and victims, or hapless drones. A lust for instant gratification has become the prime mover of the post-Soviet generation. As modes of gratification young Russians have adopted dance, music, and sexual mores from the West, but they execute them with a fanaticism that is intensely, uniquely, their own.
I return to the Utka on a Friday night -- prime Duck time, I am told. The lobby blazes from afar, a cynosure of white light in a sootshadowy façade. Idling Ladas clutter the cul-de-sac; a fifty-yard-long line snakes from the Kuznetsky Most metro station to the entrance. By twelve the Politburo thugs arrive, spouting expletives, hammered and ham-fisted. They recognize me -- I am at the head of the line -- and thrust their way through the crowd to my side.
I ask them what's up.
"We recovered a debt today and got paid, that's what's up," one says. His knuckles are raw; dried blood cakes his hairline. "Had to take a painkiller." He tosses an empty vodka bottle onto the sidewalk.
The bouncer inside opens the door to let out two women; a bandit grabs the handle and tries to force his way in. The bouncer at first resists, then yanks the bandit by the neck into the vestibule. A minute later, the door flies open and the bandit sails out, his lips bloodied. Within seconds, inexplicably, a vicious brawl explodes in the lot behind us: feet scuffle on asphalt, bottles break, bodies thud into car hoods.
The student behind me introduces herself as Yulya. "How sick I am of these minor bandity and their ruckus. Real bandity don't drive Soviet-made cars and beat each other up in parking lots." The bouncer motions me in.
I check my coat and, following the music, start up the winding stairway to the club, stepping over sweat-streaked bleary teens collapsed in the corridor. I round the last corner and am met by a blast of hot air, as fulsome as beastbreath. Bodies gyrate from floor to ceiling; every table, every counter is a dance podium, every aisle is crammed with dancers. The Politburo thugs suddenly throng at my back, and I am swept into the lightless steamy maw.
"HEY, TEACHERS, LEAVE THOSE KIDS ALONE!" is throbbing from the sound system. From every corner, from tables on high and the floor below, fists clenched, Russians roar along with Pink Floyd's anti-establishment lyrics. I am battered from dancer to dancer until I land near the bar. From between kicking legs on the countertop I order a Heineken. The woman above me sucks the flesh off a drumstick -- while bar-dancing, she is downing a quarter-chicken entrée and shouting couplets between mouthfuls -- and tosses it into the melee, knocking the arm of a beer drinker beside her and sending his brew over the crowd.
I step away from the counter, beer in hand, trying to descry a safe haven. A concussive burp in the sound system introduces "HOUND DOG," and the crowd turns Elvis, wrestling with invisible microphones; my battered arm sends beer sailing right and left in frothy parabolas. Through the neon-green beersweat effluvium I espy a free spot under a LUCKY STRIKE sign and make for it.
Nearby the Politburo thugs are doing the twist with one another, their brows furrowed, their jackets worn rakishly halfway down their backs and flapping furiously with their gyrations. Soon I am hound-dogging it with Yulya. She takes my beer and flings it, plastic cup and all, into the surrounding heads and shoulders. A teenage girl in a mauve turtleneck tugs at my arm, pointing at a slip of paper. It reads: "I AM DEAF. SEX -- $100?"
"PRETTY WOMAN WALKIN' DOWN THE STREET." On the bar, above a scrum of flatheads, a brunette is raising and lowering her blouse. Throaty cries of Davay! (Come on!) ring out -- the signature howl of the bandity. The woman whips her blouse over her head and undulates, clad in a bra and black-leather pants. There are more Davays!; she drops one bra strap, then both, and massages her breasts, her black heels cutting into the varnished counter as she prances in place. Fifty-thousand-ruble notes and ten-dollar bills sail toward her, but she lets them slip into the splatter.
I am losing my equilibrium in the beery haze and fleshy pulp of the crowd. Yulya sees this and pulls me to an upper deck. "Are American bars like this?" she asks. I shake my head and find myself feebly mumbling something about "fire laws."
"Fire laws?" She tells me she is grateful to America for providing "arts" Russians can enjoy when their lives count for nothing, but fire laws, she says, would only hinder the fun. She adds that she dislikes bandity but points out that at least they make money, whereas her fellow students see little hope for a job or a future: the government is corrupt and the mafias run business for themselves. There is nothing to be done about it. "'Don't worry, be happy,' that's my motto," she says. "Know that song?"
I steal a look at Yulya's face when she turns to watch the mayhem below: a weary cast settles into her eyes and mouth. When she is silent she looks much older than her twenty-two years.
I rise to my feet and reenter the fray, which has grown less orchestrated, more frenetic. Two women swing past me, deep-kissing and breast-fondling; they are probably baiting men, trying to lure them back to an apartment where drugged vodka or thugs await. A skinhead wobbles on the bar, then topples groggily into space, his fall broken by a throng of crew-cuts. Tongues and breasts and necks glisten in the churning, green-tinted phantasmagoria. A salvo of blows erupts; the bandity are pummeling the skinhead. He lurches past me, his face chopped beef with swollen eye-slits, his chin dangling a bloody saliva goatee.
At four in the morning I slip out of the Duck into a zero-degree night, with Old Moscow moonbright and tombstill around me. No echo from the club's bacchanalia reaches the street. It is as if I had exited into the somber capital of a decade ago.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Moscow, Transylvania, Siberia, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.