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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And the dollars and euros pour in, as do the traveling merchants. Matthias Rüthmüller, director of a Swiss-based contemporary art gallery, brought several dramatic, large-scale canvases to the recent Moscow World Fine Art Fair, which showed 6,000 works of art worth some $1.6 billion at the Manezh Exhibition Hall. "Russians really like to spend money," says Rüthmüller. "They want prestige, and they are convinced their country has a bright future."

On the lower level of the Manezh, which once served as the tsar's horse stables, Russian jeweler Maxim Voznesensky hosted an auction of his contemporary designs. Tuxedoed waiters served canapés and flutes of bubbly while the auctioneer, actor Leonid Yarmolnik—the self-styled "Russian Robert De Niro"—pushed one lot after another, upping bids $20,000 at a time.

The auction heated up when two men zeroed in on a set of four diamond rings encrusted with rubies and sapphires. Ignoring the auctioneer, they started shouting out their bids in intervals of $100,000, until the lot finally sold to the bald gentleman in the front for $3.65 million. The audience erupted in applause and the buyer made a little bow. He looked very pleased with himself, though not as pleased as the designer. In under an hour, he sold off 10 lots for a total of $8.97 million. "When we're talking about people spending that much money on jewelry and they're not trying to hide it, as they would have in Soviet times, it is a sign that the country is becoming healthy and starting to grow stronger," says Yarmolnik over a post-auction cigarette. "People are spending money for their amusement, not just for their survival. When you can spend your money any way you want, this is freedom."

Signs of prosperity. If two decades ago the buzzword for freedom was McDonald's, today it is McDacha, the opulent homes with the imported Italian furniture. "Look around you," says Anya Jirnova, 25, a beauty salon manager shopping at the Evropeisky Center. She sweeps her hand vaguely over the glistening storefronts of the 2 million-square-foot megamall, where international designer shops are clustered around areas named London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. "If you have the money, you can buy anything here."

Meanwhile, on the Old Arbat, the storied pedestrian thoroughfare where Russia's beloved bard Pushkin once lived, the scene is a hodgepodge of peddlers and tattoo parlors and mongrel dogs and tourists and fast-food joints. A Starbucks latte will set you back 175 rubles (about $8). On summer weekends, young men in basketball jerseys break-dance to hip-hop music pouring out of a silv er boom box in front of the Hard Rock Cafe. Nearby, a souvenir seller hawks fur hats and Simpsons ties and nesting dolls lacquered with Russia's pop culture icons: Stalin, Che, Harry Potter. A recent addition to his wares: Russia's new president, Dmitry Medvedev, inside of whom is a smaller Putin, followed by Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Lenin is the smallest—smaller than a thimble—but in what seems like an apt metaphor, he is still inside all of them.

At 4 a.m., Moscow's young boulevardiers are still pouring into the Opera line to brave Face Control. The pink-blue of dawn brings with it a rare stillness to the capital—even the dogs in the alleyways are sleeping—and the driver of the "VIP Taxi" parked cater-cornered on the sidewalk is slumped over the wheel of his pumpkin-colored Porsche Cayenne, trying to steal a nap before the night comes to a close. Inside Opera, DJ Erick E, a Dutch import, blasts techno music at decibels that make the floor vibrate, while go-go dancers in pink pleather and leopard-print and rhinestone-studded bikinis sway to the oontz-oontz-oontz under the flash of a strobe light. The kaleidoscopic vortex pulsates with the hope that the party never ends.