Moscow Stories: Beer and prawns in the bath house - Russia's new elite let it all hang out

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The Independent Online

"Elitny Moscow" - the city's elite - is a sight to behold. Going out to one of the many exclusive restaurants is usually an eye-opener. The forecourts overflow with the flashiest cars and 4x4s, while inside, appearances count for everything. Diners decked out in the smartest designer gear, sporting the latest mobile phone and ordering the most expensive items from the menu. Entry to such venues is exclusive, with Moscow's infamous "face control" strictly enforced.

I recently fell into conversation with a wealthy businessman who called himself Viktor who had studied in Britain. "I left the UK," he told me, stuffing a piece of prime beef into his mouth, "when I realised that the maximum I was ever going to earn was £150,000 a year. It's just not possible to earn real money there." He may be a member of a small elite, but people like him seem to be proliferating.

"I don't know what's wrong with you in Britain that you all have to borrow money or take out mortgages to buy your houses," he said. "Here we just buy them with cash outright."

A few years ago, wealthy Western expatriates could feel like king of the castle in Moscow. But as Viktor showed, nowadays the Russians can give them a run for their money.

"Stalin lived, Stalin lives, Stalin will live!" The Soviet dictator may have long been out of vogue in the West but the 125th anniversary of his birth was marked in Moscow recently with considerable pomp. Around 500 Russian Communists converged on Red Square to lay wreaths at his grave beneath the Kremlin Wall.

Communist heavyweight Alexander Kuvaev said Russia needs a man like Papa Joe now. "Today the country is in a deplorable state. We need a firm hand, we need a new Stalin."

A poll conducted by the Yuri Levada Analytical Centre showed that there is some residual nostalgia for the paranoid, power-crazed Georgian. Twenty-one per cent of respondents agreed that he was "a wise leader who brought the USSR to greatness".

But "the man of steel" looks unlikely to stage a posthumous comeback in the near future: 31 per cent agreed with the statement that he was "a harsh, inhuman tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people".

Indeed the only people with any interest in Stalin these days, apart from marginalised Communist die-hards, are the tourists who throng Moscow's Old Arbat Street in search of Stalin-era memorabilia.

Not everything associated with the Soviet Union should be condemned, though. In the old egalitarian days of the USSR the banya (bath house) used to be the preserve of every homo Sovieticus. For one rouble any Muscovite could take themselves off to the Sanduni, a luxurious complex located within walking distance of the Kremlin. The Sanduni, the oldest bath house in Moscow, is well loved. Its patrons waste little time in undressing, wrapping themselves in a cotton sheet, slipping on a pair of plastic slippers and a felt hat and then whiling away two hours at a leisurely pace.

The routine rarely varies. Punters boil themselves red in the packed steam room, often whipping themselves and their friends with birch twigs, before plunging into icy tubs or the beautiful, tile-encrusted swimming pool. During regular breaks bathers recline on luxurious brown leather pews while savouring cold glasses of beer and munching fresh prawns. The Sanduni is still alive and kicking and as good as ever but, like many things in Moscow, has fallen victim to the capital's elitny culture.

Entry now costs 1,200 roubles (£22), a decent birch twig £3 and a bowl of prawns £10. Considering the average national wage is little more than £130 a month, that puts it out of reach of most. Nowadays the only voices heard in the steam room are those of the privileged few.