A look back over the past 10 years in Moscow clubbing history, from the dawn of Russian rave culture to the new rave wave, via the crisis and the advent of face control.
Nightlife at the end of 1994 was like a fairytale. Having made money out of thin air, clever businessmen put their loot into establishments with exorbitant prices and unbelievable service, such as the clubs Carousel or Moskovsky, where whole fortunes would be drunk away in a night. Come morning, tired but satisfied “New Russians” would leave to fleece the next sucker. It was fun, but a little dangerous. Waiters didn’t know what they would end up with — a generous tip or some lead between the eyes.
Meanwhile, drunk on newfound freedoms, the intelligentsia crowded into the cramped basement of Bely Tarakan. Having once again discussed the world’s problems, their heads would quietly sink into their salads. And as no one here had any money, the most often heard phrase was “put it on my tab.” Here it was also fun, but somehow too brutal — not everybody shared the old timers’ joy at the availability of vodka at 6am. So the young and frivolous who didn’t have money to toss away at Carousel, and didn’t quite fit at Bely Tarakan, were drawn to the third nightlife option available at the time — raves.
Hitting the rave wave, club music seriously changed. Several DJs started to play specifically rave music, and even those who yearned for rap were forced to submit to the trends of the time. The key was to be “clubbified.” The next two years was a time of non-stop parties: Ermitazh, Penthouse, Ptyuch, Titanik, Aerodans, Relax, Ostrov Sokrovishch, and once again Ptyuch.
In 1995 foreigners poured into Moscow. Drawn by the idea of perestroika, they arrived with hopes of making some quick and easy money. Some actually succeeded, but the overwhelming majority was sucked into the swamp of Moscow life. Expats were surprised to discover that in Russia they could indulge in activities they would be jailed for in America. For some, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became a way of life, and the main gathering place for such debauchery was the notorious Hungry Duck. This place was the stuff of legends. It was said that women — juiced up on alcohol — had sex right on the bar, that a tanker of vodka was drunk nightly and that the owners of the Duck made a million dollars a month.
There had always been clubs “for one’s own” in Moscow. This was already an established tradition at the intelligentsia’s hangout, Bely Tarakan, where you couldn’t get in just like that. Back then, they gave a simple explanation for turning you away — it was a closed establishment. Like a home, it was not for strangers. The club 011 functioned on similar principles: it was intended for a close-knit Yugoslavian diaspora. Only pretty Russian girls were let in to their circle — they certainly wouldn’t spoil the party.
The ideologue of Moscow bohemian establishments was Andrei Kobzon, who opened the club Dzhusto in 1996. A well-hidden bar and dancefloor, Dzhusto was the first fashionable place in the city where literally everyone tried to get in; however, 90 percent of would-be visitors would run up against strict guards who would turn them away. Kobzon put it like this: “The club is for me and my friends. If a person finds himself in a closed club that no one knows about, he immediately feels at home.”
And that is exactly what happened. Under the direction of Sinesha Lazarevich, in all of a month or so Jazz Cafe became the city’s premier club. It employed a tried-and-tested formula: at the entrance to this impenetrable fortress stood Misha Yugoslav deciding who to punish and who to pardon. There was a strict ratio of club-goers: a small number of bohemians (for pretentiousness), four dozen models (for beauty) and lots and lots of well-heeled gentleman (for money). At that time, the main entry criterion was shoes: the better the shoes, the better the chance of making it to the dancefloor. Importers of elite footwear should be grateful to Lazarevich — thanks to him, their turnover multiplied. In an evening, the average guest spent $200 to $300. The establishment thrived.
Jazz Cafe certainly wasn’t the only thriving club, however. The end of the ’90s was a golden era for Moscow clubs. People had a lot of money, and they spent it freely, without much thought. Since decent clubs were catastrophically few, and there were countless numbers of people wanting to get in, all-powerful “face controllers” appeared at the doors of Gallery, Garazh and Dzhusto. Now, even a fat wallet couldn’t guarantee entry into an elite establishment. Club owners gleefully rubbed their hands together, thinking things would always be this way…
And then August ’98 hit. The crisis began, and everything gained from years of hard work turned to dust. In a flash, potential millionaires became almost destitute.
The clubs emptied — no one wanted to drink away the last of their money. A person leaving $20 at the bar seemed like an oligarch. It became fashionable to hold parties at home with egalitarian vodka and cold hors d’ouvres. Moscow laid low.
There were, however, some bright moments. The Crisis Party, held in the then unfinished Zeppelin club, is still remembered to this day. Foreign companies were rushing to cut their presence in Russia, and having lost their jobs, several thousand expats readied to leave Moscow. As a farewell they planned a party — a real party, a party to end all parties. Half of Moscow was invited. There was a river of free tequila. They danced till 1pm the next day and still didn’t want to part ways. They seemed to realize it was their last chance to party like in the good old days.
After the crisis, the Moscow clubbing scene searched for new alternatives, and Propaganda shot to prominence. The place was already popular among students, who were attracted to the reasonable prices and good music. However, in the era of general impoverishment, Propaganda became the place to be for entertainment-hungry party animals. And since there was no need to go to work anymore, people were clubbing here nearly all week, faithfully attending Sanches’ Thursdays and even the nameless Tuesdays. A trip to Propaganda at 3am became a post-crisis tradition. Moscow clubbing survived even the crisis.
Life slowly returned to normal. People started to relax and clubs started to come back to life. New venues were opening again.
Moscow nightlife’s first cuckoo of spring was the opening of Club XIII. The venue’s promoters did not follow the Jazz Cafe formula, but offered a new type of socialite entertainment. Every weekend the club’s interior was redecorated according to a chosen theme, from 1930s prohibition to futuristic sci-fi. Every week was a sellout — all Moscow gathered to see the dwarfs, giants and freaks. A serious competitor soon appeared with Zeppelin’s opening in a mansion on Ulitsa Gilyarovskaya. Moscow clubbers faced a difficult choice: Where to go? XIII or Zeppelin? Zeppelin or XIII? The only solution was going to both in the one night. Everyone was satisfied.
Weary Nights: 2001-02
In 2001-02, the scene started flagging again. By then, many clubbers had matured and started families and were finding it difficult to get out and about. The tight circle of friends moving from one disco to another started to shrink. Noisy dancefloors were gradually replaced by quiet beerhouses. Smaller clubs started to appear. At first it was just a pre-party scene: sit for a while, have a few drinks, and then off to dance. But eventually the dancing was forgotten. Sitting around drinking became the main entertainment for the night, and the likes of OGI, Kitaisky Lyotchik and Real McCoy came into favor.
While the old-timers were adding vodka to their champagne, a new generation of clubbers was born. Their gods were Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox and Tiesto. They could distinguish Dutch trance from British progressive, hunted around Gorbushka for Godskitchen compilations and went to packed, underground parties in strange places. Parties that attracted less than 1,000 people were considered a failure. New venues appeared on the clubbing map — the old theater on Plyushchikha, Skladochnaya Ulitsa, Gaudi. Rave was back. True, this second wave differed from the first amateur attempts to clubbify the city. These were professionals. Behind them stood powerful international corporations and no-less-influential club brands. Moscow danced with a new force.
Moscow Glamour: 2004-Now
At this point the story must end — the reality is before your eyes. In 10 years’ time, we may recall with pleasure the unfettered yuppies in Zima/Leto/Osen, parties in First and such other Moscow glamour. But now is not the time for that. New parties await. See you out clubbing.
* Dmitry Shalya is the editor of Ne Spat! This is an edited translation of an article first published in that magazine’s 10th anniversary issue.
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