Late every night, in an opulent nightclub that was once a KGB office, the filthy rich and the just plain rich gather to indulge in the spoils of new Russia.
Emerging from stretch limos, men in dark suits file past a guard toting a Kalashnikov rifle to enter the Up and Down Club, where admission costs $120.
Amid Greek statuettes bathed in fluorescent light and artificial palm trees, they can watch an erotic stage show and indulge in suckling pig for $240, pineapple flambe for $190 or wine at up to $995 a bottle.
A city that offered little night life during Soviet times, Moscow is now a wild frontier town after dark for those with deep pockets.
In this world of swank clubs and bustling casinos, thugs mingle with rich “biznesmeni” and $5,000-a-night prostitutes. Young gamblers go through stacks of million-ruble chips like kids eating candy.
“There are people in these clubs who are rich beyond your imagination, richer than in Europe,” said Alla, a 21-year-old hooker in a short black dress, soliciting customers in a posh nightspot on upscale Tverskaya Street.
These are the kind of “new Russians” who read Domovoi magazine, a glossy primer for the newly monied. Recent articles have included “Where to Send the Heir to Study,” “How to Buy a Private Jet” and “When to Wear a Tuxedo.”
Only since the Soviet Union collapsed have Muscovites learned how to paint the town red. Under communism, entertainment was intended to support Soviet ideology and anything else was likely to be banned.
“Five years ago we had parties in our homes, and sometimes we’d go to a restaurant for a sort of fancy meal. That was all,” said Dmitry Byezpalov, a young film production director.
Then came the Soviet collapse, private business and the birth of an “anything goes” mentality. Now Moscow can be deadly but it’s far from dull after dark.
There are clubs that specialize in heavy metal, jazz and techno-pop, clubs for actors, artists and the young elite. There are a couple of unadvertised gay clubs, including one where young men swim naked in an aquarium.
“Moscow clubs are growing like mushrooms after rain,” said Byezpalov, a member of three. “But unfortunately the nightlife scene is still dominated by the criminal element.”
“Very few people can afford to spend honestly earned money in casinos and clubs.”
Huge fortunes have been made during Russia’s transition to a free market, much of it not always in the most legal or ethnical ways.
In a country where the average monthly salary is about $100, admission to clubs costs $20 and up.
Most Russians still stay home at night. But for the monied, the craziness starts around midnight.
Within shouting distance of the Kremlin, as many as 1,000 people a night pack the Cherry Casino, where a notice at the entrance warns: “Gas guns, stun guns and switchblades must be left with security.”
Thick-necked men wearing gold watches hover over the 30 blackjack, craps and roulette tables of Russia’s largest casino. A young player in jeans dishes out some 30 millionruble chips - about $6,000 worth.
At Night Flight, dozens of garishly clad prostitutes stand elbow to elbow, trying to score with the well-heeled men who come to drink or dance.
Alla, a medical student, visits occasionally for the chance at big money: $200-$300 a trick, $5,000 to spend the night.
“Lots of girls come here after graduating because they can’t find a job. It’s not so bad,” she said with a shrug.
Police acknowledge that Moscow’s 150-plus casinos include gangsters among their clientele. But they appear to turn a blind eye to any shady characters or soliciting.
“Of course there are criminals there, but we have no proof,” police spokesman Vladimir Buzkov said. “Nightclubs are simply places where the rich hang out, discuss their problems and spend time culturally.”
Or just go for show.
At Silver Century, an elite restaurant converted from a czaristera bathhouse, the nouveau riche bid every night on a single long-stemmed rose. The weak of wallet need not participate: bidders have paid as much as $2,500 cash, apparently just to impress their friends.
“Can you believe it?” said a disgusted waiter who gave his name only as Vladimir. “What this country is coming to, I don’t know.”
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