Is Russia ready to rave?

Tips for a good night's clubbing in Moscow: leave your gun at home and don't talk to the bouncers. Stewart Hennessey joins some very orderly queues
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Ten-thirty in the evening outside Pilot night-club on Tryokhgorny Val. The queue is orderly, by Russian standards. It looks odd: over 50 people in varied glad rags huddled at the foot of the huge dismal Soviet blocks. After decades of queuing for toilet paper like sandpaper and bread like bricks, nobody minds waiting to have fun. "What is the music like?" asks a girl, about 17. "Terrible last week," says her friend. "But it changes."

Moscow clubbers probably won't be this carefree if Russia manages to grasp the poisonous chalice of fashion. In the meantime you go almost anywhere wearing almost anything. The downside includes muggers and mafia, who come out at night. Against Muscovite Sasha's advice, we dress expensively. We want to visit a filthy-rich club as well as a poor and an average one. You have to be blatant. Russians don't do subtlety. It's leather jeans and jacket for me, Pierre Cardin for my insignificant other, dark suits for the two Russian men.

Entrance is 100,000 roubles (£16) for men and 50,000 for women, which cuts out the lumpen proletariat immediately. The security men make British bouncers seem cute as koalas. Dressing in the dappled black and white uniform of the Special Forces, they frisk us - for guns, not drugs. They don't talk because they want to look intimidating. In a city which is more lawless than Chicago ever was, people find that reassuring.

Pilot (pronounced pee-yot) is the average place, and even it is bizarre. The evening begins the way school discos used to end, with Lionel Ritchie- esque smoochy numbers. This is followed by techno-dance music (circa 1992), followed by Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and an awful live band: world- jazz cum Russian folk, fronted by a man in scarlet who looks like Fagin. Then it's back to dance and smooch. Pilot is regarded as trendy.

The cavernous, matt-black club looks like an Eighties theme pub writ large. The shell of a helicopter juts out of the middle tier in the three- level floor. Shiny metallic rigging adorns the stage and roof, from which a First World War monoplane is suspended, along with five sky-diving dummies in Oxfam clothes.

Fagin and his boys die a thousand deaths but drone on regardless. "People aren't confident enough to boo," says Yeva, 23, a banker. "I've been to London so I know you shouldn't have this."

Still, everything that has gone wrong with British club culture has yet to happen here. The dance space is huge; the management hasn't learnt that a tiny floor means people get crowded off and drink more. You can even hear yourself speak. If you took drugs you would hide it rather than wear the zombie-look like a badge of honour. Inquiries for drugs (for the sake of research) yield nothing but shocked expressions. That doesn't stop the clubbers imitating E-heads when dancing to rave. They saw it on telly; glaze over and get frenetic.

Hairy hippies mingle with suits, jumpers and rave torches. Campus clobber abounds; luminous rucksacks, dippy skirts and US Army gear. A sprinkling of Lycra, the occasional kaftan and even a huge Teddy Boy strut their different stuffs. Three under-10s wander in from some gathering in the private room. A cat appears in the upstairs bar and lounges around waiting to be fussed over, as it duly is.

"People of all ages come," says Alecia, 32, whose father, an erstwhile Party man, accrued wealth by "inheriting", then selling, state property. "From what Yeva says, I'd be old in London clubs. People have money here now. It would be bad if they couldn't go to clubs. They were such a mystery before. Is this one good?"

Pilot is excellent; well suited to visitors and local people who fit into the income band that lies between dismal poverty and immoral wealth. It is a thin band in a city where extremes are the norm. You never feel as if you will stay in one groove for long here.

To get to our next destination we use a trolley bus (like a tram but with wheels and strictly for the masses), but the club we are going to would rather close than let someone in off a trolley bus. The exclusive Up and Down has never even advertised.

There are eight security guards at the door, some in Special Forces uniforms, others in expensive suits. Getting in is problematic unless you have $10,000 handy - the deposit for joining. To get in as a guest, you have to contact one of the superleague businessmen or government ministers who frequent the premises, such as the nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Alternatively, like us, be friendly with the 23-year-old manager, Yaroslav Yelutin.

If Yelutin's father, a nuclear engineer, saved his wages for a year ($720) he would have just enough money to buy a bottle of Margaux 1986 in his son's workplace. Or he could have cognac, at $68 a shot, bulls' balls (yes), at $42, washed down with a bottle of plonk at $160, and rounded off with a fruit vase at $190.

The club is immaculate. Downstairs, the palatial dancefloor is full of drop-dead gorgeous babes; high, Slavonic cheekbones, legs that go on for miles and perfectly tuned bodies in perfect designer clothes. "They are company for the clients," says Yelutin. "They work for themselves. We select who gets in."

They are selective about everything. The super-attentive waitresses must be under 25 and almost as gorgeous as the escorts. The doormen all but fainted when my unshaven visage was granted entry. A group of bandits, dripping fur, gold and guns, were turned away.

Upstairs another group of beautiful women do striptease in a large, sedate lounge, all red velvet and low lights.

Yelutin, a qualified engineer who would earn $60 a month had he stuck to his career, says the strippers (mostly ex-students) earn $20 to $80 a night. "This is the way Russia is going; more Western capitalist than the West," he says. "We don't get many foreign customers. Only Russians understand the prices."

Outside, we hail a passing car - to make a quick buck ordinary citizens often operate as taxis - and the driver, a government clerk, tries to charge a fortune because he saw us come out of the Up and Down. It confuses him when we say we want to go on to Pyetlura's, a squat (novel here). "It is not good. They have drugs and it's probably dangerous," he surmises. Actually, he's wrong

Pyetlura's is an artists' hang-out, just off the Garden Ring road. Artists and musicians, like professionals, are paupers in business-obsessed Moscow. Pyetlura's only happens sporadically and not for much longer if the local administration has its way. The squat is earmarked for demolition. The clubbers here are recruited by word of mouth, mainly via the city's sizeable tribe of avant-garde fashion designers.

Buildings around it have already been reduced to rubble. To get in you trudge through mud and up a makeshift ramp. Security consists of a young man saying "come in" and charging a sum of money that hardly seems worth the effort of pocketing. Tonight a small band are playing swing jazz, including "The Girl from Ipanema", which is huge in Russia.

There is one style in Pyetlura's; beatnik in big boots with a hint of grunge. Everyone is dancing in couples, doing slow jive and improvised jazzy waltzes. They do them well, which adds to the surreal theatricality. An old man and woman smile brightly from the side. The place is a dilapidated fire hazard but it may be the oddest and most charming night spot in Moscow.

In the next room, Pyetlura, an artist, is selling cans of beer and wine in plastic cups (less than £l) through a hatch. He wears a sky-blue top hat. The cheap wooden furniture is as distressed as it can be without collapsing, but the mood is carefree.

"People here are well-educated and creative," says, Sasha, 25, a musician. "And the mafia never bother us because we've no money. It's fun but it won't last. That's Moscow."

We muse on the fact that perhaps none of these clubs will last long, and that's the strength of the scene. For now, we stay out all night to savour the flavour of a pick 'n' mix that could only happen when people are keen and clueless, when things are too new and exciting for self-consciousness. The hangover that is the future can wait, as always, till tomorrow.