Moscow is Becoming the New Capital of Cool

Once the home of dour communism, Russia’s capital now goes for glitz and glamour.

Fashion and attitude are on display at the Opera nightclub.

Fashion and attitude are on display at the Opera nightclub.

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On the exterior wall of the old House of Culture building, a stony Lenin gazes over the last generation of Young Pioneers to come of age in Russia: pretty boys in wraparound shades and dolled-up girls with fake tans and fake eyelashes, all of them queued up and brimming with hope that tonight they will make it past Face Control.

It is 2 a.m., and the entrance to the Opera nightclub is guarded by a half-dozen sentries in nylon army fatigues and steel-toe boots and earpieces. But they are not as formidable as the gatekeeper in the bespoke suit who scrutinizes the partygoers like a cop inspecting a car wreck. Pass the test, and you can join the undulating crowd inside; get rejected and you're discarded like fashion road kill. Evgenia, 22, is one of the lucky ones to be waved inside. She checks her blond curls in one of five entrance mirrors, grabs her friend's hand, and makes straight for the dance floor, turning back only to cry, "Moscow never sleeps!"

Forget the old clichés about vodka, gangsters, and bears—Moscow certainly has. In the new century, the Russian capital has reinvented itself as a 24-hour, champagne-guzzling Vegas-meets-Gotham, where through the night you can eat sushi, work out at the gym, buy organic cereal at a glittering supermarket, or get your hair cut. Soaring oil prices and the rise of real income (as well as the introduction of credit cards) have ushered change to the capital faster and more dramatically than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.

Making up for lost time. Frenetic, protean, and above all striving, the onetime global capital of communism is vying for recognition as the new global capital of cool. "People have a lot of choice now—where to eat, shop, go on vacation," says Natalia Tikhonova, 25, Opera's permed and high-heeled PR manager, while Moscow's golden youth jostle to get the bartender's attention inside the cavernous theater of the club. A vodka mixed with Red Bull costs 500 rubles ($22). A table in the VIP section can run upward of $2,000, but it buys the best view of the blond acrobat who, a little after 3 a.m., descends from the ceiling clinging to a fishing net. Dressed in a lamé outfit, she twists and flips and does the splits midair like a Cirque du Soleil act as blue and white confetti rains from above. As Tikhonova says, "Moscow is a city of opportunity, a city where you can realize yourself."

It is a city that is frantically trying, it seems, to make up for lost time. "For my parents, the dream was to have an apartment in the center of Moscow with a view of the Kremlin," says Opera's party promoter, Alexei "Limousine" (a nom de guerre the 24-year-old adopted on the frontlines of the party scene). He puts down his drink and proudly shows off his Dolce & Gabbana jeans, Gucci belt, and black Prada loafers. "My dream is to be Roman Abramovich," he says, referring to the billionaire oil tycoon and owner of England's Chelsea Football Club. To afford his aspirational lifestyle—and designer wardrobe—Alexei works a day job "in insurance."

Still, the new Moscow at times feels like it has been plastered over the old Moscow like a coat of fresh paint on a pockmarked wall. The streets have been renamed to reflect a less communist Russia, but vestiges of the former system still linger. For two weeks every summer, unlucky Muscovites must boil their bathwater on stovetops while the city cleans their pipes. The avenues—built at a time when the average wait for a Lada automobile was five years and most people didn't drive—are unable to accommodate the nearly 4 million cars now registered in Moscow. Many phone lines still operate on rotary dial, not to mention that sorting out a problem with your phone bill might mean traveling to the other side of this vast city, only to stand in line. Yes, people here still stand in line, sometimes for hours at a time.

These days, the robber barons who once made headlines for their plundering and their partying are talking the talk of legitimate businessmen—corporate governance, transparency, investment—at international businesses conferences all across the city. There are 74 billionaires in Moscow—more than in New York—and they have an average age of 46.