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by Jeffrey Tayler
December 31, 1997
The posh Swedish discothèque Night Flight is located within sight of the Kremlin's crenelles, and frequenting the place has become a tradition (if a secret one) for many of Moscow's well-heeled foreign and Russian men. The club's business thrives on its customers' expense accounts, which add an inflationary fillip to an already cash-swollen night scene. Most of the women who look for clients at its bar are prospering even by Moscow's standards; by the meager norms of the hinterland from where the greater part of them have come, they are filthy rich.
It is Tuesday night. With an expat acquaintance of mine, who works for a multinational company, I run a gauntlet of gargantuan Russian guards at Night Flight's entrance; inside, we are greeted by a pair of bulky Swedish bouncers. Though it is early in the week, the club is crowded; the clientele seems about evenly divided between foreign men and "rentable" Russian women. The decorum of the prostitutes is striking: they drink little, banter politely in English, French, and Italian, and are dressed as if for a night out in any chic European club. No shame attaches to them: they are providing a remunerative, workaday service in a land where, after seven decades of ideological regimentation, the notion of political correctness is repellent.
We buy beers and take up positions by the runway.
"You are alone?"
Lena sidles up to us.
An inch taller than I, she wears a diaphanous chiffon blouse with a black brassiere underneath; her jaw and nose jut ever so slightly and give her a fiercely alluring reptilian look. The stub antenna of a cellular phone projects from her purse. I decline her come-on, but my friend does not. He bargains with her and settles on two hundred dollars (which, he says, he will record as "client entertainment" on his expense voucher) and they leave together.
I am alone until I meet Irina. In her early thirties, Irina says she has worked out of Night Flight since its first days in 1991. Though she never finished university, she is well-spoken; I learn that she is a passionate reader. We stand by the dance floor and gaze into the crowd. She makes no overt advances to anyone and is so decorous that I wonder how she makes a living.
Irina's story is not unique in Moscow. She arrived from a small town in the heartland, found work for two hundred dollars a month, then discovered that she could earn two or three hundred a night hooking, so she quit. She doesn't keep track of her income, she says, but an informal tabulation produces a figure of 2,500 tax-free dollars a month, roughly twenty-five times the pay of a shopkeeper in her home town, twelve times the Moscow average, five times the pay for a bilingual secretary in a foreign firm, and three times what an accountant might start out earning at a Big Six branch office. Like other women of Night Flight, she says she has no pimp, takes no drugs, always uses condoms.
The music slows. Irina drifts away. A crapulous Cayman-Island attorney rambles on to me about his capital flight endeavors. His speech is replete with Moscow catchwords as diaphanous as Lena's chiffon: "holding" companies, "offshore" companies, "shadow" companies -- all covers by which he assists Russians in exporting funds abroad with a verisimilitude of legality. His business is helping the country's rich assure a future in palmy places, and he is unapologetic about it. He is breaking no laws if no coherent legal code exists.
Later, while I am collecting my coat, Lena returns fresh from the frosty night, having serviced my friend at his hotel and left him there. She pulls me toward the mirrors.
"I don't understand foreigners. Your friend was a zhmot (cheapskate) -- he bargained with me over a hundred bucks. Three hundred would have been nothing for him. For me it is . . . well, I have necessities, payments to make on my mink."
She saunters back into the bar in search of another client.
A doorman welcomes us in and a bow-tied headwaiter leads us to a reserved table by the fireplace. The customers at surrounding tables -- bankers, directors of businesses, dealers in timber and precious metals -- impress with their youth. No one in the club looks over thirty-five. Few sit with their backs to the door.
Olya's blonde hair just touches the shoulders of her black fishnet blouse; her custom-made gray cashmere coat lies plushly folded over the chair opposite us like a third presence at the table. She is a self-made woman who came alone to Moscow from Smolensk to study economics; she received her degree in 1991. "All my work experience has been in the private sector," she says, proud to have spared herself exposure to the corruptive sloth of Soviet enterprises. She was making "good money, easy money" -- up to five thousand dollars a month, take home -- as public-relations director for a bank, but she spent it all clubbing, touring the sun spots of Europe, and shopping in the new designer stores of the capital. Then the bank collapsed. Determined to remain in Moscow and maintain her lifestyle, she retrained herself in marketing and now works for a major television network.
In the West, Olya would be considered a success, someone who is earning good money and moving ahead in life. In Russia, her salary and lifestyle set her apart from the threadbare laboring masses who have, since the 1917 revolution, adhered to an unwritten rule of equality in poverty. To them the rich are thieves, wealth is loot, and someone like Olya is immorally affluent. A divisive envy of one's neighbor's good fortune has remained the salient legacy of Soviet rule, and the visible wealth and hauteur of New Russians creates a social tension that threatens to tear the country apart. This often infuses the night scene with a skittish élan more appropriate to criminals on the lam than affluent revelers.
When I ask Olya about how she reacts to the menacing inequities she lives with -- the anger and envy of those who would vote to put the Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov or the retired general Alexander Lebed into the Kremlin -- she shrugs fatalistically. "In our country there is never a good reason for calm. That's part of the reason I don't save money. Here you never know what you'll wake up to."
Tanya is eager to show me that New Russians feast on a scale surpassing anything in the West, and her eyes beam as she points out our choices for hors d'oeuvres: white sturgeon and sterlet interlaid with fresh lemon slices cover some plates; sausage and pungent charcuterie overlay others; gilt-rimmed bowls brim with fresh cherries and shrimp and crab; red and black caviar sits heaped in pyramids that could be valued at more than four hundred dollars apiece at retail prices. The array of spirits is no less impressive: Rowanberry Vodka, Golden Ring Vodka, Amber Vodka, Martini Bianco, Soviet Champagne, three kinds of cognac, two brands of wine, and a supply of mineral waters, chilled and unchilled, carbonated and plain, glitter across banquet tables stretching five, ten, and fifteen yards long.
We sit down at a small table across from a couple in their thirties. Sergei, with a touch of aristocratic reserve, says he works in a field "related to the guarding of this institution" and introduces us to his bejeweled wife, Larisa. He pours cognac for us all; we toast to our acquaintanceship. Tanya picks up a filigreed silver knife, spreads black caviar over a white roll and feeds it to me. A waiter brings us entrées of filet mignon and poached vegetables. Soon after, accompanying a treacly rendition of "Happy Birthday Casino Moskva," a dozen showgirls in G-strings -- all bobbing breasts, mascara, and drumtight stomachs -- emerge to serve us ice cream.
Viser Kirov, a Bulgarian pop star, launches into "When the Saints Go Marching In"; matrons with gold-covered wrists, silver-haired gentlemen in tuxedos, and young couples sporting all the accoutrements of the nouveau riche (from beeping pagers to diamond cufflinks), applaud and shimmy onto the dance floor. Kirov segues to a loose-tongued medley of "Let it Be," "We Shall Overcome," and "Guantanamera," with the crowd hopping hands-on-hips in a circle around him. One hoofer carries on a cellular-phone conversation without missing a step. At our table, the talk turns to Eldar Ryazanov and Francis Ford Coppola, to Russian versus American cinema. We eat caviar.
The opulence, the music, the gouty food -- all start to cloy my senses. There is such abundance that the eye, the palate, and the nose cannot take it all in, yet it seems I am the only one overwhelmed. An aura of world-weariness settles about the features of my dinner companions; they have seen all this many times before during the past five years. The extravagant norm that has come to prevail in Moscow makes perfect sense when viewed against the nullifying Soviet uniformity from which it took shape, a uniformity that could, finally, only inspire rebellion and a lust for excess among those forced to uphold it.
Return to Part One: Inside the Hungry Duck.
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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