My nights in Moscow's lower depths

Criminals, Chechens, prostitutes: Jason Cowley visits the Russian capital, where nightclubs swell wi

Moscow in late autumn and the temperature is falling, snow is swirling thickly and your breath hangs in the air like a frozen cobweb. The extremity of the weather finds an echo in the extremity of life in the city: there is war in the Caucasus, unease on the streets after a late summer terrorist bombing campaign, taxes and wages remain unpaid and everywhere you look babes are hustling for sex and hard currency.

What better place, then, to go in search of what Maxim Gorky famously called the "lower depths" of Russian society: that twilight world of nightclubs, speakeasies and subterranean bars - now the haunts of the new rich, criminals, hedonists, prostitutes and adventurous expatriates - which have flourished in the criminalised post-Soviet era. I hope to begin, as always, at the Hungry Duck, on Pushechnaya Street, which more than any other club has defined Moscow nightlife since the collapse of communism.

The Duck was founded in the mid-1990s by an alliance of Chechen and Kalmuck businessmen, four of whom have since been murdered in Moscow's turf wars. When I was last in the Duck, in December last year, the mood was hysterical, induced in part by the feeling that the long party that began with the coup that toppled Gorbachev in August 1991 was at an end. The financial crisis of 17 August 1998, when many lost their entire savings after a crash in the banking system and the rouble plunged into free fall, had led to dire forecasts of social unrest and economic apocalypse.

To reach the entrance that night I passed down a long, damp, unlit corridor, to be greeted by doormen dressed as militia and carrying machine-guns. Wires from busted light fittings hung down from the ceiling like vines. Leaving behind my hat, coat and scarf, I moved uneasily past the young, low-grade prostitutes lining one side of the wall; across the way, their swarthy pimps looked on inscrutably. "Chechens," my friend whispered.

Once inside, the techno was relentless and the stench of sweat nauseating. Girls were dancing on the bar, on tables and on the stage at the back of the room. They were removing their skirts, T-shirts and bras.

At regular intervals throughout that night, couples disappeared through a door on to the frozen roof patio, treacherous with snow. I too was dragged on to the roof by a young Ukrainian, who spoke enough English to explain that I should drop my trousers. I left. I saw her, about 20 minutes later, heading back out on to the terrace with a man unlikely to be frozen into baffled inactivity.

But this time something had changed. The Duck was no longer the Duck, not as I remembered it. It was now called Fiesta, and while the decor and fittings were the same and the music as loud, the anarchic sense of danger had gone. There was instead a feeling of calculation, something willed: an absence of spontaneity? The Duck had curdled into formula. A more appropriate name might have been Siesta. What had happened? "Doug's gone," a barman told me. "He's had enough of the troubles."

"Doug" - Douglas Steele - is an iconic figure in Moscow clubland. Everyone either knows him or knows someone who knows him. Rumour and apocryphal stories cling to him. A Canadian adventurer from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Doug has been confounding the mafia gangs and outraging politicians ever since he arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the decade in search of a new life. He took over operations at the Duck in 1996, since when he's been threatened, hounded and bullied. No one, it seemed, wanted the Duck to flourish. Except the club crowds themselves.

During the biggest raid on the Duck, more than 50 officers from five different law enforcement agencies smashed their way in. "There were grunts in camouflage and ski masks," Steele has said, "tax police riffling through the wastebaskets; narc dogs sniffing customers' crotches; health officials sniffing the food; and militia men in full infra-red night-vision gear keeping watch for any snipers on the dance floor."

The next day I contacted Mark Ames, the young American editor of eXile magazine and a keen documentor of clubland. "Moscow has lost its mojo," he tells me. "The crash made everyone poor overnight; two-thirds of the foreigners have left, there have been bombs. Nothing's happening."

To Ames, the closure of the Duck signals the definitive end of his Moscow adventure. "That feeling of decadent, Babylonian Moscow, once so exciting, went with the end of Doug's place. The Duck was like nowhere else - it was unbelievably seedy. It's all gone now." His nostalgia is touching.

I caught up with Douglas Steele later that night. He was propping up the bar at his new venture, Pancho Villa, a Mexican bar-club on the old Arbat, the city's main tourist drag. He is red-faced and rugged; his silver hair is cropped. His clothes are American college-boy casual: Atlanta Braves T-shirt, long, baggy chinos, white socks, deck shoes. Ask him a question and he invariably sucks on his huge Davidoff cigar before releasing clouds of friendly smoke into your face. Surrounding him was a group of middle-aged North Americans - frontier spirits who'd been attracted to the wild east in the early nineties by the scent of fast money. Caught up in the exalted degradation of the place, they'd stayed on even in the bad times. In the corner of the bar, a five-piece Mexican band improbably played "La Macarena", while a bare-footed Russian danced seductively, the stud from her pierced navel glinting.

Steele arrived in Moscow in 1991, leaving behind a failed marriage and his old life of conformity in Nova Scotia. "The first thing that struck me when I arrived was there were no bars. I've got to open a bar, I thought. The second thing was how beautiful the women were. They were the best-kept secret of the cold war." Steele breaks off. "Hey, here's Craig."

Craig Richer is the former bar manager of the Duck. He is bald, thick-necked, articulate. There's a superb worldliness about him. A young, long-haired Russian woman - his girlfriend - nods approvingly as he recalls his days at the Duck. He is writing a book about his experiences as a Californian in Moscow, in which the evolution of the Duck will be used, like the river in Huckleberry Finn, as a shifting prism through which to view the changes in Russian society. "To understand why the west got it so catastrophically wrong, why their reforms would never have worked, you must live here," he says. "The Duck was at the eye of the storm of the new Moscow. Let people do what they want, let them release their energies, abandon their inhibitions - the Duck is what you get."

I'm introduced to two more guys: Steve, an American construction engineer, and an Anglo-South African who, coincidentally, used to run the bar at my old English university. "Doug Steele went through one of the most successful mid-life crises in the history of the west," says Steve, who has a pale, shaven head and a goatee. He used to be in the American air force and speaks excellent Russian. "Doug," he continues, "was just an ordinary beer-drinking, middle-aged Canuck before he arrived in Moscow; then he found himself being worshipped by long-legged 19 year olds. A man would be willing to die to protect what he's got now."

After midnight, Steve and I return to the lower depths. Our first stop is Club 13 in central Moscow, a popular haunt among the "new Russians", the affluent, acquisitive, plutocratic elite who have benefited spectacularly from the liberalisation (and criminalisation) of the economy. You see them on the street, these new Russians, swaggering, self-contained, overburdened with designer labels and impervious to the hot struggles of the poor around them: in Moscow the average salary is about $40 a month - in a city which, before the crash, was among the most expensive in the world.

Club 13 is beyond the reach of most Russians; but it's amusing enough - since everyone is dressed up in absurd imitation of the British aristocracy. One floppy-fringed man even wears a monocle and clutches a teddy bear to his chest, like a contemporary Sebastian Flyte, the doomed boy-dreamer in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. This isn't fancy-dress night, I'm informed by a manager: this is how patrons always dress at Club 13. Well, useful to get that learnt.

Cherry Casino on the new Arbat is something darker altogether. We arrive shortly after 1am, but the club is only just awakening from the long sleep of the daylight hours. We pass through an airport-style metal detector and are frisked for weapons. There's something not quite right about the place, but I can't work out what it is, although none of the perfumed girls seem to have male partners and all are provocatively dressed in short skirts and high heels.

I'm approached by a blonde - Katya - with blue-green eyes and a skimpy top buttoned loosely against the swell of her cleavage. In her stilettos she is at least six foot, almost as tall as me. An old Lionel Ritchie song is playing, which I remember from adolescent discos, and I find myself inexplicably moved by the mawkishness of the lyrics as Katya and I move stiffly among the other intimately dancing couples beneath a mirrored ceiling.

I ask her what she does. She leans backwards, holding me at arm's length: "What do I do? You mean . . . you're being serious?"

"Sure, why not?"

"I'm a working girl. Like all the girls here."

"You mean . . . a prostitute?"

She nods gravely. "It's not so easy to earn money here in Russia."

"Do you like what you do?"

"Politicians, showbusiness people come to me. I'm busy. It helps me in the real life . . . Where are you living tonight?"

"I'm in a hotel."

"Well, tonight I'm $300 for you."

There is a break in the music. We separate.

"Where are you going?" she calls after me.

Where am I going? Well, downstairs actually, to blow another 50 bucks on the blackjack table.

Steve and I have one last drink in the basement nightclub of the Metropole hotel - with its magnificent views over the Kremlin and the blue-frosted calm of Theatre Square. A ring of tables are elevated above an overlit dance floor, where a young dancer performs her clinical, choreographed routine with all the enviable suppleness of a gymnast. Between perfunctory somersaults and backflips, she begins removing items of clothing until she is wearing nothing but a thong. Her tanned buttocks are worked and muscular, but there are very few of us there - the sweaty businessmen are outnumbered two to one by waiters.

At the end of her routine, she smiles professionally and then is gone, replaced by a thick blast of dry ice - a young woman with the appeal and loose-limbed grace of the tennis star Anna Kournikova, a young woman mechanically earning her living in the nightclubs of the new Russia.

Jason Cowley's first novel, "Unknown Pleasures", is published by Faber in May

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