Moscow on Fire

Reggie Nadelson reports from the red-hot center.

My first trip to Moscow was in the dead of winter, 1988. The lights at Sheremetyevo airport were broken. The city was quiet—not much traffic, no neon. Through the lace curtains of my room at the National Hotel, a glorious but shabby 1903 Art Nouveau building, I could just make out the Kremlin through the snow. At midnight I walked outside with some friends. It was 20 below, with snow falling in slanted lines on Lenin's red granite tomb, and St. Basil's Cathedral was a psychedelic Byzantine vision of pineapple domes in red and gold and green. I was transfixed, and when I returned to the hotel I chatted up a woman behind the desk, who was wearing two beige cardigans. "You see, it's my first time in Moscow and I want a room with a view of Red Square," I told the woman. "I really would love it." Giving me a neutral stare from behind steel-rimmed glasses, she said, in exquisitely schooled English, "Here you may want, but here you may not necessarily get."

Today Moscow is all about getting. After all those drab years under communism, there are Nikes and Jimmy Choos, furniture from Ikea, Maseratis, Bulgari jewels, a fast meal at Café Mu-Mu for a few bucks. Interested in a palace? Call Alex Orloff at Moscow Exclusive Soth­eby's Inter­national Realty. A trip into space? Twenty million dollars, no experience necessary (the package comes complete with training at Star City in the suburbs). The week I was in Moscow this spring, Martha Stewart was there seeing off her friend Charles Simonyi. He went up with an aluminum hamper of food chosen by Martha, including duck breast confit with capers.

"For a while you couldn't buy anything and suddenly ka-boom!" says Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia's top television journalists. "Money means everything. You can buy a castle, a yacht, a British football team, women, men—you name it." A recent public opinion poll revealed that 53 percent of Russians think money is the most important thing in life.

The biggest city in Europe, Moscow now has a population of more than ten million, a vast majority of the country's wealth, and almost all of its billionaires (more than 53 at last count). It was recently named the costliest city on earth for the second year in a row. Three million cars are registered here—Hummers, Range Rovers, Mercedes-Benzes—and that number rises by 10 percent a year. There is always grid­lock. Reportedly you can buy a police kit for $20,000: a flashing blue light, a siren, special plates. "Moscow is really the only place in the world with the kind of energy New York had before 9/11," says Alexandre Vas­siliev, a noted set designer who has written a book on Russian roy­alty. "Anything can happen. You can get a million dollars from an anonymous sponsor, be invited to the most extravagant party."

The country's first Four Seasons will soon go up in Moscow and, in a di­­vine irony, the Ritz-Carlton opened its doors in July on the site of the old Intourist hotel. That was where Western visitors to the USSR stayed, a disgusting high-rise of concrete, dirty carpeting, and floor ladies who watched you come and go. In desperation I once ate in the restaurant which, in my memory, featured a lot of orange plastic. Today a standard room at the Ritz goes for upwards of a thousand bucks, a bottle of '61 Pétrus for $68,000.

The deeply luxurious Ararat Park Hyatt is the city's best hotel, where director of rooms Ma­­theo Georgiou manages an astonishingly friendly staff (service is not yet the Rus­sians' forte). "When I moved here from Dubai, I thought I'd seen everything with regard to luxury, but Moscow proved me wrong," says Georgiou. "The basic luxury needs of the nouveaux riches were satisfied some time ago, and now people are more creative when they want to have a good time. Exclusive party guides and event organizers are spreading like mushrooms. For children's birthdays, parents will fly in Hollywood actors to welcome the invitees. If it's not expensive, it's considered main­stream, and to be mainstream is currently the worst thing on the Moscow scene." Can the Ararat Park Hyatt supply anything? "Well," says Georgiou, "a pound of caviar and a bottle of Dom Ruinart Rosé '96 in the middle of the night? Or what about a parrot who speaks the Tatar language…?"

There's also ballet, opera, theater, art. Sotheby's opened a local office in May. "This is an important market," says Mikhail Kamensky, the auction house's Moscow chief. "We have thousands of clients here, not just Russians but also people from former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan who all have flats in the city. In a sense this is still the cultural capital of a great empire." (Right now there are no auctions; the Russian government has made exporting art almost impossible.)

"Keep in mind that Russia always was a centralized country," Pozner says. "So Moscow was the center of everything. It was and remains a magnet, the alpha and omega of success. It's driven by money but also by egos, by people coming in from the provinces hungry for careers, posh homes, cars, the good life."

That can, of course, lead to resentment. "Everyone else thinks we're aggressive and rude and self-important," says Artyom Sheinin, a producer at Russia's Channel One and a fourth-generation Muscovite. "Every soldier gets beaten or kicked when he enters the Russian army; Moscow boys like me get kicked twice. But they all want to come here. If you want to make money in America, you can do it in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York. In Russia, starting in the nineties, you had to come to Moscow."

It's four o'clock on a summer morning, the rising sun a gash of red and gold across the sky, and at the Café Pushkin Iana Maximova is having a bowl of borscht after work. An editor at the fashion magazine M-Collection, Maximova often works long hours, and by the time she gets to the Push­kin for supper, others are rolling in after a night at the clubs—the Dyagilev Project, Club XIII—looking for a final mojito, a magnum of Cristal, a cup of coffee, a plate of pelmeni, the delectable little dumplings that are a Russian specialty. After eight years the Pushkin, which resembles a 19th-century no­­ble­man's house, is still the new Moscow's great landmark.

"I like that I can eat anytime," says Maximova. "Early in the morning there are young businessmen with their beautiful girlfriends holding beautiful bags. Hermès Birkins in crocodile, bags from Leu Locati, limited-edition Chanel—but only in black or white. Those bags are the little gods of Moscow."

When Sheinin, the producer, works late, he goes for sushi at the Gin-no Taki on Tverskaya, the city's main drag. Russians love sushi so it appears on al­­most every menu, even at Italian places. Nobu has signed a deal for a Moscow outpost, and Buddha Bar is coming here as well. Restaurants open constantly: French, Thai, fusion, even a kosher joint that's drawing raves, the brand-new King David. "In restaurant-development terms, it's huge, halfway be­­tween Las Vegas and Dubai," says Guillaume Ro­­chette, whose headhunting service supplies Moscow and St. Petersburg with some of the top chefs in the world.

The owner of the Café Pushkin is Andrey Dellos, who con­trols 20 restaurants in Moscow, many with 18th-century themes. (At his Ukrainian farmhouse-style place, Shinok, guests dine at tables surrounding a glassed-in farmyard with live animals.) Perhaps the most dazzling of Dellos's holdings is Turandot, just down the street from the Pushkin. A re-ported $50 million confection of exquisite chinoiserie, damask chairs, fu­­sion food, and musicians in powdered wigs playing Mozart, Turandot is more a complex than a mere place to eat. The space includes a pâtisserie, a Buccellati boutique, and a gold-and-blue bonbon of a salon where clients can custom-order birthday cakes in chocolate and gold leaf. Another Italian restaurant will open here next spring, followed by an eatery patterned on a Russian imperial palace.

"I want to astonish," says Dellos, a wiry, good-looking man in his fifties who trained as an artist and designer and has been called a neoclassical Walt Disney. "Res­taurants are a microcosm of the world. Everything is played out in them. I make things that are 'old' because it reminds people of their dreams."

Dellos's counterpart in the Moscow dining scene is Arkady Novikov, who also runs scores of restaurants—among them the Vogue Café, the obsessively chic GQ Bar & Restaurant, and Not So Far East, designed by the Japanese design group SuperPotato. Novikov is the fashion guru of Moscow restaurants, says Rochette, the headhunter. And then there is Stepan Mikhalkov, who opened places such as Vanil (in a partnership with Novikov), Vertinsky, and Indus, the last of which features a menu by the Michelin-starred, London-based chef Vineet Bhatia. In a sign of how far Moscow has come, some of these restaurateurs are going global and opening branches abroad, particularly in London, where so many Russians live that the city is now nicknamed Londongrad.

Is there a political price to pay for all this growth, this massive influx of capital? Is authoritarianism on the rise? Most people feel that if it is, at least there's food in the fridge and a real man—Putin—in the Kremlin. There's law and order, stability. "Russians believe in will more than freedom," says Pozner, the television journalist. "Remember Oliver Wendell Holmes's words about nobody having the right to shout 'fire' in a theater just because he feels like it? Here, they call limits on speech 'responsibility.' " Anyway, why yell fire? So many are enjoying the heat.