New Moscow gallery: An audience with 'Mrs Abramovich'

With a vastly wealthy boyfriend and a huge modern art gallery in the capital, the former model is leading Russia's new cultural revolution. By Shaun Walker in Moscow

Outside the Ritz Carlton, centre of Moscow bling and one of the most expensive hotels in the world, a crowd of autograph hunters waits eagerly, but they don't even notice 27-year-old Daria Zhukova as she enters through the revolving doors. They're not here for her; clutching British flags and vinyl records, they've come to get a glimpse of Queen and Paul Rodgers, who are in town for a concert.

The former model, creator of her own fashion label, and girlfriend of the Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, slips in as quietly as a cat. In a low-key outfit with a canvas bag slung over her shoulder, Ms Zhukova is the antithesis of the many ostentatiously wealthy Russians loitering in the hotel's lobby.

The daughter of a wealthy Russian businessman, Daria left with her mother for the United States aged 10 when her parents divorced, attending school and then studying homeopathic medicine in California. After that she moved to London, where rumour has it she met Mr Abramovich for the first time, before returning to Moscow recently.

Mr Abramovich, who is notoriously media-shy and is said even by those who know him socially to be a man of few words, appears to have found the perfect partner in Ms Zhukova, who is rigorously protective of her personal life and gives few interviews. Having spent more than a decade in the US, she speaks fluent English with a West-Coast drawl peppered with y'knows, kindas, and likes.

Last night saw the opening of her latest project, the Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, in Moscow. Housed in an old bus garage, the centre will be the biggest and best modern art gallery in the Russian capital. Ms Zhukova has catapulted herself on to the international art scene, schmoozing with artists and curators across the world. The opening came just nine months after she first came across the decaying building last winter.

"I always had the idea in the back of my mind, and it's always bothered me that there wasn't a place like this in Moscow," she says. "I think when I saw the building it just kind of fell into place, I was like, right, this is great."

With a floor space of 8,500sq m, and just 18 narrow columns propping up the ceiling, the 1920s garage is an impressive feat of engineering. Its spiral staircases and intricate ceiling window shapes are works of art in themselves. Built for a fleet of 104 Leyland buses imported from Britain by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the shape was specially designed so that the whole fleet could enter, park and leave the garage without having to reverse. The garage fell into disarray with the collapse of the Soviet Union, like so many of the utopian 1920s Constructivist buildings that dot Moscow's cityscape, but after a renovation programme, it looked as good as new at yesterday's opening.

Hundreds of journalists and art students from across the world came to see Moscow's newest hotspot, and in the evening Ms Zhukova was set to host a dinner for artists and curators. Everyone who is anyone in the art world has been manoeuvring for an invitation, after a lavish pre-opening party in June that was described as a networkers' paradise, and saw Amy Winehouse flown in to play for the guests.

Ms Zhukova is also becoming a fixture on the international art circuit. She hosted the Serpentine Gallery's summer party in London, where she was seen arriving with Damien Hirst.

"I think ... if the political side of, you know, a country's relationship breaks down ..." Ever cautious, she checks herself as if even stating the obvious about British-Russian relations might be too risqué. "Whether it has or hasn't I'm not really a great judge of that," she says. "I think that culture can only strengthen that ... you know, the separate ties, you know ... Basically I think it's good to have more cultural events between countries if the political relationships are maybe a bit difficult."

The Garage is the most visible sign of a trend for rich Russians to become involved in art. As the economic crisis bites, auction houses in London and New York are selling art at record prices to Russian buyers. Mr Abramovich himself reportedly paid £60m for two paintings by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon earlier this year.

"People at auctions always get happy when prices are going up so I'm sure they welcome the new buyers," says Ms Zhukova.

Also this week a gallery show of more than 100 works, including pieces by Alberto Giacometti and Jeff Koons, by the New York art dealer Larry Gagosian goes on display in a former chocolate factory near the Kremlin.

Modern art is still a controversial topic in Russia, with most Russians more comfortable with older artworks, and few places for people to see living artists' work displayed. The curators of an exhibition of controversial contemporary art are currently facing a court case, accused of extremism. While the Garage's opening exhibit, part of a retrospective of the Russian émigré artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, shows work that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet period, it's clear there is still a long way to go. Ms Zhukova says she wants to "challenge" her audience but would refrain from showing works she thought people would find offensive.

For Ms Zhukova, the Garage is a chance to forge a reputation of her own, and this is part of the reason why she is understandably keen to dodge questions about her romantic interests and focus on the art. Any question about her private life runs into a brick wall.

But even when talking about the gallery, Ms Zhukova appears strangely dispassionate. It seems she would rather be elsewhere, though it's probable that her stiltedness when talking about the gallery is less the fatigue of a rich girl who has already lost interest in the project, and more the irritation of someone who simply doesn't like talking to journalists.

The few interviews she has given have not always gone well. A few weeks ago she told a reporter, who has asked her to name some of her favourite artists, that she was "not very good with names". This prompted a slew of scathing articles about her, and it was hardly surprising – here, it seemed, was a rich girl opening a gallery, who couldn't name a single artist.

Ms Zhukova claims she was misrepresented, and that all she had said was that she didn't want to be seen picking favourites. "If someone wants to interpret that as me not knowing names of artists, that's their prerogative," she says. "I think that's a bit silly. Anyone who doesn't know anything about art knows the name of at least one artist."

Pride of place at yesterday's opening was given to the Kabakovs' Red Wagon installation, which charts the Soviet experience from the utopianism of the 1920s to the decay of the 1980s.

The Kabakovs' installation ends there, but the poverty and decay that marked the death throes of the Soviet Union is hardly the end of the story. For a lucky few, including Ms Zhukova's love interest, there followed a period of great opportunity, when they were able to amass fortunes so vast that a few million to open an art gallery or two is a mere drop in the ocean.