Monday, February 25, 2008

Diaghilev Burns, the Moscow "Elitny" Scene and Property Raids

Moscow club burns itself down to avoid going out of style?

One of the more annoying features of life here in Moscow is the obsession with "elitny." A cognate of the English word "elite," and sometimes used to mean exclusive, it really means expensive. There are elitny apartments, elitny restaurants* and even a free HR and employment newsletter available at my gym, "Elitny Personnel." The reason this is so annoying is that Moscow doesn't have much "in the middle" - most of the city is either cheap, and not that nice, or "elitny," which means you have to buy into the whole "I am visibly and vocally better than everyone else" vibe. Which is a pain if you're me, who likes nice things, and even a flashy time sometimes, but lacks the patience, insecurity and (hopefully) pettiness that means it needs to be about being better than others more than just a good time with the people I came with. The whole vibe makes me feel guilty and is a real turn off. It also calls to mind one of my favorite sayings by former British Prime Minister* and chancellor of my undergraduate university Margaret Thatcher; "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."The same applies to being elite, and while Moscow does have some of the truly elite, they aren't at most of these establishments, and most of the people aren't them.

The main focus of all this is a few night clubs, where a door policy called face control (really money control. People like to say it is wealth for men and beauty for women, but I’ve noticed that the former goes a lot farther than for both genders). It can be strict, or arbitrary, and groups of friends are sometimes broken up to increase the social pressure. The weird part is how pushy it can get; I’ve seen people bunch up at the door and push, so that there is a dense cluster at the entrance and empty space a few feet back. Everyone wants to be in front of the bouncer and is afraid to wait their turn.

Of course this isn’t a very line-friendly country anyway (trying to navigate the aisles at my Perekrestok grocery store during peak hours can be hazardous), but the tight ball of people/empty space pattern is fairly extreme, and a little silly. Back in the day (I think it was in 1999) I went to a Versace show in Milan where the Backstreet Boys performed. The entrance was swarmed with girls wanting to see their idols (one of which kissed the gay director’s cheeks to kiss the Backstreet Boy molecules which might still be there after he cheek-kissed them hello). Face control involves less people than that shriek-fest, but is more intense.

That said, I occasionally yield to the temptation and abandon my one-woman abstention from the elitny fuss. They are flashy, they are trashy, they are overpriced and they aren't elite, but they can be a lot of fun.

Which is why I was torn between Schadenfreude and dismay when Diaghilev burned down. Arguably the most famous of the elitny clubs, Diaghilev has been promoted by a thousand reviews and travel guides calling it "the most exclusive club in Moscow." This was not entirely true, but it was elitny, and it was one of the best clubs in the city. Named after Sergei Diaghilev (who really was elite), it was for a time the premier club of Moscow, or at least the hardest to get in. So hard, that when a Moscow Diskoschnitte actually risked denial and insulted the chief bouncer, a local expat paper wrote an article about it.

This started to change last summer; new competition combined with the natural life cycle of any "next big thing" meant that face control relaxed a little (although not so much, as to do that would immediately make all the people who still wanted to go there, stop). The holiday week following New Year's even brought an advertisement for Diaghilev's events in a banner over Tverskaya Street.

Which is why, when the club burned down (on a Thursday morning - three people were injured but no one waas killed), my first reaction was aggravation, as the Leading Man was visiting from the US and this meant that a lot of Diaghilev's customers would be at Rai, the club to which I planned to take him. Russia must be wearing off on me because my second thought was "whom does it benefit?" This is a Russian phrase used to work out the true machinations behind any government conspiracy and/or shady deal. There are a few explanations, all of which are completely crazy, but which shed interesting light into some of the craziness at work in this wild city.

The first theory was hinted at in the Associated Press story which, in a parting sentence, mentioned that "more recently a Moscow government-linked construction firm has been pushing to redevelop the building, which occupies valuable land." Real estate in Moscow's center is very hard to come by; 140 million people want to live there, but only 1.5 million do, and raids on companies lucky enough to occupy it are common. In the early nineteen nineties, when the city was even wilder and property rights less clear, this could take the form of an actual raid, with mafiosi thugs physically taking possession of a building and then arguing that it was theirs to being with. Now it is a bit more complex, and often business owners are charged with crimes, or forced out in some other way. This may be what happened to Diaghilev; someone wanted their property, but they weren't leaving.

Diaghilev was fairly high-profile though, making it that much harder to launch a raid, but add in an an unfortunate accident in the form of a fire, and then all of a sudden, it becomes a bit more possible. What is more, it occupied city land, and Mayor Luzhkov is expected to leave office soon after the upcoming presidential elections. He and his associated patronage networks including his wife - quite possibly Russia's wealthiest woman - and her multi-billion dollar business empire, much of it in Moscow real estate). Someone may be feeling the pressure to move now, while their own position and influence is more certain.

The story I prefer, if only because it is more dramatic, and, in a way, more principled, is that the people behind Diaghilev may have burned the place down itself. Ad I mentioned before, although still popular, its star was on the wane, and the management, aware of how much their status and that of all their establishments (they own several clubs and other businesses, both within Russia and without) hinges on the hyper-fickle wind of popular opinion and reputation, may have opted to burn out rather than fade away.

It could also be some combination; knowing that Diaghilev was doomed to fade eventually, the arsonist may have gambled that it was a bit safer to go after Diaghilev when the management wouldn’t mind quite as much, or the management could be sing the fire as part of the larger real estate scheme, this way preserving their reputation and eliminating some restrictions on building/renovating/tearing down yet another historical building.

Of course, it could really have been just a fire. My gym was a strip club previously, before a fire gutted it and it became my gym. It's a nice gym and the prices relatively steep, but such a moneymaker it isn't.

*Cafe Pushkin is perhaps the most famous, and is the subject of way too much hype, but it is exempt from the above complaints. I really like it, in spite of (and perhaps a little because of) all it's theme-iness. That the first floor is open 24 hours is the icing on the cake.

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