Mary Dejevsky: The restaurant was called Le Cheval Blanc – but I didn't expect real horses

Russia Notebook

Share

However many times I visit Russia, there's always something to surprise. As one of a group of international Russia specialists invited annually to meet Vladimir Putin, I've been flown by private plane from Moscow to the Black Sea for dinner. I've been on a day trip to Chechnya, and I've been taken on a mystery tour through glitzy suburbs to the then President's official residence. In surprises, this year was no exception.

Bused through the stop-go-stop traffic of Moscow's Friday evening rush-hour, we were off to dine with Putin at his favourite restaurant, Le Cheval Blanc. An hour or so later, we found ourselves in the pitch dark, as the snow fell in enormous globules, tramping through post-Soviet Russia's first private equestrian club. Fortunately, I'd opted for boots over shoes. There were those in very risky heels. It had not occurred to any of us that the cheval of the name might be just that, and that there would be more than a hundred of them.

Anatoli Merkulov, the owner, met us, immaculately attired in a dress suit and tie – appropriate to receiving the Prime Minister later – and escorted us through the first stable block. His own favourite steed stamped around a stall with its own heating system. A startlingly elegant golden-tinged beast had been presented to Russia's current President, Dmitry Medvedev, by the President of Kazakhstan; an Arabian stallion was a gift from Turkmenistan. Medvedev was said to be a horse-lover; Putin less so.

Merkulov related how he had bought an abandoned collective dairy farm after the Soviet Union collapsed, with money from a fish-trading business he had set up with Scandinavia. Riding clubs existed in Soviet times, he said, but they were few and far between, and all the horses were dispersed as the system collapsed "for various reasons" – an elliptical phrase covering myriad irregularities.

Merkulov's club is now regarded as the premier Russian stud farm and stables, but – 13 years after it first opened – it's one of five in that single district alone, with dozens more dotted around the capital and the country. How do you become a member and what does it cost? There are no membership fees as such, you buy your way in by paying to board your horses. This is the new Russia, the new class, and it doesn't come cheap.

Our penultimate stop, after the veterinary block and before the restaurant, was one of three dressage rings, where mostly young riders were practising in front of a vast, angled mirror. After we had watched for a few minutes, the woman instructor approached on the most perfect white horse – like a unicorn without the horn. This was Merkulov's wife, it transpired, and, of course, her horse was the inspiration for Le Cheval Blanc.

Woman with a history – and without fear

Social mobility takes many forms in today's Russia and yesterday's, and the Russia before. Last week, you could not but be aware that a leading popular television personality had just passed her 30th birthday – quietly with friends, somewhere in western Europe. Xenia – known as Xiusha – made her name as TV's wild child, a young woman whose appetite for outrageous attention-seeking brought tut-tutting from oldies, while endearing her to the first post-communist generation.

At 30, she has calmed down a bit, is hailed on the street by those same oldies who now treat her almost as a wayward daughter, and draws admiration for her plain speaking. What I didn't divulge is that her second name is Sobchak, and she's the daughter of the late mayor of glasnost-era Leningrad, whose memorial bust bears the inscription: "To Anatoli Sobchak, who gave the city back its name." She has clearly inherited her father's way with words, his fearlessness and his popular touch. There are those now urging a move into politics. Russia should be so lucky.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Technician

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Production Technician is required to join a ...

Recruitment Genius: Network Support Engineer - Hosted Telecommunications

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for a Ne...

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor / Partner - Cheltenham

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: A very rare high level opportunity with a fir...

Recruitment Genius: IT Manager

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This distributor of electronics...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kanye West performs live at the Brit Awards 2015  

UK grime is finally getting the recognition it deserves, but why has it taken so long?

Paul Gibbins
 

Jihadi John went to my university – so what?

James Tennent
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower