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Moscow's Moment

Valerie Stivers-Isakovia looks beyond the armored cars and gilded excess–and finds Russia's capital in the midst of a burgeoning cultural revolution.

By Valerie Stivers-Isakova

A billion is the new million in Moscow—and that loud, loud money tends to drown out the other story happening here. I'm back in town for a week from New York, and most of the conversation centers on cash and muscle: whose bodyguard was beaten in a police cell, whose birthday party cost three million, what's the going price for membership in the Zolotaya Molodyozh (or "Golden Youth"—a figurative status: it's currently $5 million by the time you're 25, $10 million by the time you're 30, and no one works nine-to-five for the money). Maybe it's the Communist legacy, or the fact that the people in power have been too busy stealing from the masses to concentrate on much else, but since the 90's the definition of luxury here has been all about armed entourages and boardrooms with thrones—a hand-over-fist grab for status, money, and bullish, unsubtle power. And for an outsider looking for the style or soul of this city, it's been all too easy to spend $800 for a mediocre hotel room and not find much to appreciate beyond Silver Age classics, Stalinist architecture, and the entirely accidental charm of old women selling wildflowers in the metro.

Tune out the excess, though, and you can hear the undertone: things are changing. Not from above; Russia has an ever more totalitarian government and, notoriously, no freedom of the press. Moscow's mayor was recently "reappointed"—eerie for those who remember when he had to run for office. But as the first post-perestroika generation hits career middle age and starts to amass some real power, thirtysomething Muscovites of all stripes—canny artists with oligarch patrons; children of the old elite; success stories of the new professional class, albeit with a pronounced bohemian-contrarian streak—are altering the face of the culture. They're launching museums, galleries, clubs, fashion labels, foodie restaurants. No one rebels politically (that would be un-Russian, not to mention dangerous); instead there's increasingly a kind of resistance from within, as this movement bucks the prevailing materialism and reclaims some of the national identity that was so hastily discarded in the post-­collapse pursuit of the West. As 36-year-old industry captain turned bookstore owner Vadim Dymov, one of their vanguard, puts it, "This is the time to start anything. We have lost our history. But because of this we're fresh, young, a little bit wild. And we have stamina." Right now in Moscow, if you keep an eye on people like Dymov, it's possible to witness a new kind of indigenous Russian culture—one that breathes the creative freedom of the West yet is authentically local—in the heady, headlong moments of its inception.

I meet Igor Markin, between his trips to the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, in the cool, polished-concrete office space above Art 4, his newly opened museum of contemporary art, a five-minute walk from the Kremlin gate. A bearish man with shoulder-length blond hair and a disarming giggle, Markin is typical of the type of superachiever shaping Russian society. He's a successful industrialist with three factories (producing extrusion PVC, aluminum, and window blinds) and he wants to do something more with his money. "This country is huge, but practically nowhere can you see good contemporary art," he says. "The government museums and the artists the government supports are terrible. ­Glazunov—terrible! Tsereteli—terrible!"

Markin's Art 4 is the first private museum to open here in 100 years and showcases his personal collection of Russian art from the past four decades: Totalitarian-stamped vistas by 70's Pop art practitioner Eric Bulatov; cocktails of brutality and buffoonery by 80's painter Konstantin Zvezdochetov; a cynical, art-game (or is it, in this perilously homophobic country, brave and incendiary?) photograph of two militiamen kissing. The ensemble is a bright showing by artists soon to be international names, if Russia's increasing presence in the global art market is any indication.

Markin's curatorial vision has the fire and wit to be expected of someone championing art in a hostile climate. He's done away with ID placards, instituting a system wherein viewers are given stickers reading za ("for") or protiv ("against"). "When everyone votes against something, I'm going to show more of it," he says. The hilarious, irreverent catalogue opens thus: "Anyone who thinks he can draw a square better than Malevich can come on and fucking do it." Provocateur gallery-owners tend to get beaten up or sued in this country. (Exhibitions have been attacked with bulldozers. By priests.) But Markin openly refers to the Russian Orthodox Church as a mafia and snickers at its crusades against the arts and gays. He says defying such people is fun, and after doing business in Russia in the notoriously violent and lawless nineties, "I'm not afraid of anything."

Signs of the continuing flood of silky petrodollars are everywhere around Markin's museum. Four out of five landmarks are under scaffolding: the Bolshoi Theater is due to reopen in 2008; the Rossiya Hotel and the Hotel Moskva are in the raw-concrete stages of rebuild. A brand-new Ritz-Carlton opened in July on the old Intourist site, proffering $35 cocktails and antiques-stuffed rooms where previously there were prostitutes and passport checks. A person waking up at the Ritz (a very lucky person) can stroll a few blocks down the road to hushed jewel-box boutique TsUM. Here, slim-thighed trophy wives named Ksusha browse an exquisite selection of $1,000 dresses in sizes two and four. (British retailer Nicholas Harvey, founder of Harvey Nichols, is rumored to have come out of retirement two years ago to advise at TsUM; in any case, the store has nailed the bright, glossy, perfectionist Russian aesthetic, making this a worthwhile stop on the worldwide shopping circuit.) The Ksushas move from shopping to primping at the city's most famous bathhouse, Sandunovskiye Baths, renovated in 2006, which offers ornate halls for steaming, plunging into cold pools, being massaged with coffee grounds and honey, and sipping tea. Then around the corner they go, for dinner: The Most serves a novel kind of Russian cuisine in czarist-dream surroundings. Black bread comes with an exotic fruit-and-olive chutney. Beets appear in a surprising, sublime cold soup with pistachios. This is central Moscow now, refined and elegant as it hasn't been since the era of Pushkin.

Making an impact on such a landscape isn't for the faint of heart. Take Dymov, the Siberian sausage king and unlikely bibliophile. He has close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and sparkling Tartar eyes and is at first glance a no-brainer candidate for the cover of Russian GQ (which has, in fact, nominated him for its 2007 Man of the Year award). On the day we meet, I can see the edge of a tattoo curling from under the sleeve of his polo. (Later, he shows it to me: it's a griffin; the design was taken from the city gates of Suzdal, his favorite village). He could not be less like the stereotype of the scaly oligarch, despite the fact that he's Russia's largest meat-processor, with five factories in the Far East and a fortune estimated at $80 million.

Dymov's bookstore, Respublika, has a sleek, aggressively modern interior and the slogan "Books, music, perspective." On sale are gorgeous editions of everything from Nabokov classics to tomes on Soviet architecture; a huge library of music; high-end correspondence; and a smattering of international design objects curated by Dymov. There's a café, a popular series of readings, and a screening room for art-house films. Although Dymov admits that "purely as a business, it's not as good as meat-processing," Respublika is breaking even, and three more branches are scheduled to open in the next year.

The bookstores are part of a general Dymov initiative to provide aesthetically pleasing things for non–status-obsessed Russians, something few other business owners seem to be doing. He just opened a chain of high-quality, low-cost, instantly trendy sausage-and-beer halls called Dymov No. 1. "I'm not interested in Ferraris or the Côte d'Azur," he says. "I care about who I am and what I'm doing in life. It's like Maslow's Pyramid: First you think about how to survive, then you think about luxury and status, and then you think about your soul."

Children of the old elite have souls, too, and though most are busy living like 18th-century aristocrats (plus cocaine), a significant few have greater aspirations. Nina Gomiashvili, chic and delicate with close-cropped hair, is the daughter of a Soviet film star and a Polish ballerina. She owns Gostinaya, a restaurant highly recommended for Russian home cooking. She tramps the backcountries of Italy and the Republic of Georgia with a camera and two Georgian painters in tow to collect folk recipes for her cult cookbook series. And in Vinzavod, a neighborhood now being billed (somewhat ambitiously) as Moscow's Chelsea, she has opened a gallery, Pobeda ­("Victory"), which aims to introduce Russians to photography as fine art. Its first show was a provocative narrative series by Ellen von Unwerth.

"Russians are still confused by editions," Gomiashvili explains. "They want to know, 'Why should I pay that price if there will be a thousand more pictures?' Or, 'Can I be absolutely sure that the negative will be destroyed?'" She's working to educate them and also to cultivate awareness and examination of the culture's Soviet roots—specifically by championing photographic work from that era. A recent exhibition rescued cover shots by three Russian photographers who worked for the legendary Soviet Screen magazine in the 1970's. "The magazine closed, the photographers were old, and nobody cared about them," she says. "They didn't even have the money to make prints. These are the last." During the month it was open to the public, the Soviet Screen exhibition was the most popular photography search on Yandex.ru, Russia's answer to Google; Gomiashvili says the work sold "very, very well."

Slick resuscitations of vanishing Russian iconography are also taking place in Moscow's ever more refined fashion world (Muscovites do, after all, famously dress to kill). Russkaya moda's new champion is Denis Simachev, a petit, flamboyant dresser with long dark hair and a droopy mustache. He recently opened his first flagship—a large building swaddled, like a teapot in its cozy, in Russia's beloved country-folk hohkolovo pattern—on ­Stoleshnikov Lane, the main shopping drag. There are a few other Russian designers with stores in Moscow, but none with Simachev's reach: he's said to be funded by the expatriate oligarch Roman Abramovich, and his clothes are sold in 30 countries. The look, an absurdist mash-up of Russian gangster and British aristocrat, makes heavily ironic commentary on the country's trashy elitism with things like handmade leather shoes embossed with anchors, cuff links emblazoned with Soviet cartoon characters, and tailored suits laden with flashy gold hardware.

"Six years ago everyone was copying the West," Simachev says. "When we said we had potential, no one believed it." But surprising people has always been something of a specialty for him. A snide T-shirt featuring Putin's face surrounded by flowers was a sensation in 2002 (it's said that even Vladimir Vladimirovich's daughter wears one). When Simachev signed the lease on the space on Stoleshnikov Lane, he says, "We realized that we were surrounded by mighty brands with long histories that we couldn't begin to compete with." So he turned the first floor into a bar and nightclub with a tweaked pub-meets-gulag style and consistently great DJ's. Gucci and Burberry may be more established boutiques, but they don't have a scrum of hip Muscovites straining at a velvet rope outside the door every night.

Even Moscow's club scene—the clearest window onto the city's excesses, where you'll see heads of capital investment and African oil pipelines stumbling past bouncers at 6 a.m. on a school night—is being done differently. For more than a year the most exclusive venue in town has been Krysha. This stripped-down, guest list–only spot on a rooftop overlooking the Moskva River is the pet project of Kirill Korolev. Korolev, who's been involved in the underground music scene since the early nineties and currently runs what he claims is the city's only DJ booking agency, says that Krysha is "for my friends" (everyone who is anyone), and, he admits, it isn't a rational venture. "If I focus too much on business, I'm worried I'll lose the atmosphere," he says. The bartenders, for example, are all members of his social circle: "Maybe that's not good for the service."

Beaky and blond, with a ponytail and a DJ's anti-fashion sense, Korolev can be seen most nights at the top of the iron staircase that marks the club's entrance on the Tarasa Shevchenko Embankment. (There's no address or phone number, but if you follow the traffic at 4 a.m. on a weekend, you're not likely to miss it.) Guests who make it past his scrutiny climb up through trees and into a walled fortress, where a short stumble across a pitted cement causeway leads to a semiderelict building that used to be a beer factory. On its roof, nirvana: an alfresco deck above the sparkling city, with airy white Balinese cabanas, a menu of "ayurvedic" foods, and ambrosial dance music to blast the blasted further out of their minds.

What differentiates Krysha from Moscow's myriad white-hot commercial nightspots is that it is positioning itself as the antidote. Its symbol is three red dots inside a circle—the logo of painter Nicholas Roerich, who formed a kind of cult around himself at the turn of the last century. "We chose it because we'd rather push people in eclectic spiritual directions," Korolev tells me. "We didn't have any counterculture revolution in the sixties, because our country was closed. So we're having one now." Moscow's counterculture has distilled its meaning down, past bra-burning and communal living, to the idea of creating something for a purpose other than to sell it for as much profit as possible. In Korolev's case, that means a venue for music he believes in, where not every Exxon expat with $1,000 in his pocket is granted instant access.

And as Dymov has demonstrated with Respublika, a maximum profit margin isn't the only litmus test for success anymore; authentic local atmosphere is one, too. Simple Things, a year-old café owned by Moscow food maven Katya Drozdova, is the capital's first venue to combine peasant cooking with a gourmet sensibility—inspired by Alice Waters, whom Drozdova met at a Slow Food festival in Italy. From the tacked-up illustrations in the bathrooms to the strawberry gardens on the restaurant's deep windowsills, Simple Things has a wabi-sabi warmth and personality lacking almost everyplace else. "We're the only restaurant I know that doesn't have financial backing or invisible people controlling us," she says. Among other challenges, she's had to contend with a problem she thought had faded away with the wild 90's: extortion by the local mafia. "I didn't realize such things happened anymore!"

Drozdova has an impressive résumé in the city's food industry. She has edited a trade magazine for chefs; worked as head of public relations for the empire of Arkady Novikov, the city's biggest luxury restaurateur; and is still involved in PR and organizing various festivals. With Simple Things, she has tried to create "a Russian version of that small, casual, cool place that everybody finds when they go abroad. You don't need to dress up or behave like anyone but yourself when you come here." Funky Cyrillic text on the storefront welcomes and exhorts simple things—what a wild idea! and eat—don't be shy! The wine list is brief but impressive, whiskeys get their own shelf, and cocktails are made from fresh dacha strawberries with apples and champagne or vodka and wild-blackberry nectar. Dishes are resolutely basic, like cinnamon-roasted spring chicken, leg of lamb, and cucumber soup, or else traditional Russian plates, such as okroshka, a cold soup made from the fermented-bread drink called kvass.

While these entrepreneurs are following their muses, rather than wringing their hands over who's at the top of the list for next season's Balenciaga bag, most of them concede that a visit to Moscow wouldn't be complete without a small dose of the city's outsized glamour. Drozdova recommends dinner at one of the restaurants owned by Arkady Novikov, her old boss, for elaborate décor, Russian celebrities and, increasingly, fantastic eating. Novikov, a scene maker who owns a massive chunk of Moscow's food-related enterprises—upmarket, downmarket, produce in the supermarket—has even won a contract recently to supply Moscow's public schools. His latest venture, Nedalny Vostok ("the Near East") has an Asian-fusion menu that doesn't forget it's in Russia—as if Jean-Georges Vongerichten took a detour into the steppes and picked up a few new tricks. Straganina, for example, is sashimi in the Siberian manner: shaved curls of fish kissed by frost and served with lime, salt, and white pepper. The ultimate enclave-of-the-rich experience is Novikov-owned Prichal, a lofty open-air pavilion set on the bend of a slow green river about a 40-minute drive outside the city, along the Rublevo-Uspenskoe Shosse, one of the most exclusive addresses on earth. The patrons, Loro Piana sweaters thrown casually over their shoulders, dine on sorrel soup and sea bass in parchment while chauffeurs cluster, smoking, among the Beamers and Bentleys and Mercedeses in the parking lot. And if the stories that some of those drivers could relay of their employers' doings in the early 90's are probably better left untold—well, in Moscow, in 2007, everyone's ready to move on anyway.

Valerie Stivers-Isakova's first novel, Blood is the New Black, was published by Three Rivers/Crown in September.