The Golden Age of Nightlife in Moscow
Whilst many businesses thrash around in deep recession in Russia, the club industry is still going strong. New clubs have even opened this year, for example, the Pacha and Famous clubs. The closure of Moscow’s casinos has led to an increase in investment in clubs. Nevertheless, old-time clubgoers say in nostalgic tones that commercial pressure is killing the city’s nightlife. DJs and the club-going public alike remember the period of 1993-1997 as the golden age of Moscow nightlife. Let’s take a look back and see what it was like.
Text by Elena Krivovyaz
A Ticket Into a New World
The mid-nineties ushered in a whole new era of nightlife, which at the time was still in an embryonic stage. Huge and successful Gagarin parties were now something of the past (see History of Moscow Club-life I in Passport, April 2009). They attracted the new clubbers: journalists, music lovers, underground musicians, businessmen and expats (there weren’t very many of those then, but their number increased with every new party). After the first of these parties in the mid-nineties, with DJs playing live sets, clubbers didn’t want to return to the alternative – boring post-Soviet discos with cassette-recorders and terrible sound.
The first of these new-style clubs started to emerge in 1993. One of them was LSDance. Strangely, nobody seemed to pick up on the connection with drugs and the owners told everybody it meant Lucky Strike Dance. The concept of the place was simple: techno music and total disorder. This was enough to make hundreds of people line up every night to get in. “$5 – that was the entrance fee,” recalls DJ Digger, one of the coowners of LSDance. “I remember one night a guy came with $5 – but it was special – he gave me a banknote issued in 1936. It’s a mystery where he could have found a 1936 banknote in Russia – maybe he stole it from his father’s collection, I don’t know. But he was let in and was totally happy.”
In 1993, the club Ermitazh was opened by businessman Timur Lansky in the same place where the present Hermitage Garden is located. This was a respectable establishment, but bandits were not rare. The opening party at the club turned out to be a real sensation and the New York Times even covered it on their front page. The club had a huge dance floor with stuntmen flying over it doing fantastic acrobatic feats.
Svetlana Vikkers, one of the co-owners of Ermitazh, reminiscenses: “Every club in Moscow had its own audience, but Ermitazh was visited by almost all social groups: bandits, of course, businessmen, the so-called intelligentsia and teenagers. Teenagers had a hard time getting in so one day they found a hole in the roof – straight over the WC. And what do you think they did? They used to squeeze that hole and jump on the heads of those guests who were standing there waiting for their turn to get into the toilet. I called them “acid rain”.
Bandits Having Fun
Manhattan Express was another oasis of nightlife, where bandits and businessmen (these words were almost synonymic) gathered with their young girlfriends. Russian pop-stars and rock-musicians were also there. Entry into this club was granted to those who owned an expensive car or an exclusive watch – things valued by the rich and those that wanted to be like that. That’s why queues were a usual thing every Friday and Saturday night. In contrast to LSDance, Manhattan Express was mostly a commercial club with DJs earning high wages, and members of the show-business community sitting round the tables. Of course, people with money didn’t come just to dance – first they ate and drank, then grabbed the first girl they saw on the dance floor and danced. Then they sat down again and continued to order drinks and food. Manhattan was one of the first clubs to apply ‘face control’ which meant that unfriendly- looking security men would stare at you and refused entry if you looked strange or ‘inappropriate’. For many clubs the real motivation behind the face control was to prevent bandits from getting in, however, they usually besieged the entrances every night. Bandits often threatened security men with guns if they were refused entry.
Manhattan Express was one of the first Moscow clubs to headline worldrenowned groups like Boney M, Modern Talking and others, who were all extremely popular in post-Soviet Russia. The empire that was called Manhattan Express was founded and owned by Eugeny Zhmakin, a talented promoter and nightlife activist (he died in a car crash in 1996), who was also one of the organizers of the Gagarin parties in Moscow and some other club events during the early and mid-1990s.
The Titanic Surfaces Manhattan Express was strikingly popular in Moscow until 1995-1996 when competitors like Titanic and Utopia appeared. As soon as these clubs burst onto the scene, they instantly outshone all their competitors. The Titanic club was founded in a cellar not far from Dinamo stadium and was named after the Titanic because it was underground. The club was discovered by accident by two young and ambitious promoters, Dmitry Fedorov and Alexei Gorobiy. Gorobiy went on to open many significant and unforgettable clubs in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Titanic was his first place. During the summer of 1995, Titanic became incredibly popular. It was the first (besides the famous St. Petersburg club Tunnel which opened in 1992, which was founded in a real underground bomb shelter) night club to house “raves” – dance parties with techno music and DJs. The entrance fee was affordable and that’s why it was taken over by crowds of students almost every weekend. Titanic was an unpretentious club and almost everyone (except bald men in fake Adidas sport-suits) could get in – the cost of entrance was $5-10. In 1996 a delegation from the UK Ministry of Sound club visited it.
Although Titanic and Utopia had much in common, Utopia was entirely different. They were not really competitors. “Titanic was, first and foremost, a normal club for youth with hard music and drugs. But Utopia was particularly different. It was more like Dyagilev (a famous club for oligarchs by Alexei Gorobiy; successfully opened in 2005 and burnt down in 2008). Utopia was dedicated to a bohemian circle, businessmen and expats,” recalls Alexander Nuzhdin, the DJ and TV and radio show host. Bar prices were extremely high and the face control would refuse entry to anybody they deemed to look inappropriate. 1995-1997 celebrated the blossoming of these two clubs and the nightlife in Moscow.
At the same time, the first gay clubs started to appear. Tri Obezyany (Three Monkeys), Khameleon (Chameleon) and Chance were opened in the mid-1990s. These clubs attracted occasional visitors who came just to see “what it’s like”. Some of them were shocked to see men embracing and promptly made for the exit.
The development of nightclubs in the mid-1990s was a true revolution in Russia. One should not forget that they appeared at a time when prohibitive, xenophobic officials were still mostly in charge of entertainment in the cities. The clubs were not only places to be entertained; they were the centers of new life-styles for many people. By the mid-nineties, Moscow nightlife resembled that of western Europe and the USA, complete with famous DJs and face control, although face control in Moscow was usually stricter than elsewhere. Interiors became fairly salubrious, rich and bohemian club-goers visited the clubs and then boasted about their experiences. Clubbers became a kind of elite community. Foreign celebrities also started to show interest in Moscow clubs. Bandits and teenagers were let in less and less often, and young and beautiful people become the major audience in the clubs. Nightlife became a huge industry but the peak of its development was yet to come.