11 APRIL 1998, Page 9


Moscow cancan see the stars and towers of the Kremlin from my bed. Every day, I rise and travel by metro to the State Archive to do research for the biography I am writing of Prince Potemkin. There, bearded Russian scholars pore over piles of parchments while half-wild kittens called the Archive Cats play on the floor. I read letters actual- ly written by Catherine the Great, Potemkin and even his English gardener. It is a privilege to hold these letters and think they were written by these Titans 200 years ago. In the summer I cannot wait to go on my Potemkin pilgrimage to the south he conquered, especially Odessa, famed in Babel's stories. I lunch on tepid cabbage soup for $1 in the Archive café. Now it's the weekend: on Friday night at about nine, a shiny limousine sent by some Russian friend and driven by an ex-SpetsNaz (Spe- cial Forces) commando bodyguard arrives to take me into the scarlet and black Moscow night. Moscow today is irrepress- ibly exuberant. With its dizzying succession of excellent restaurants, its eternally open- ing and closing nightclubs, once dour, Asi- atic Moscow has overtaken the New York of Studio 54 as the Imperium of the night. There is something of Goodbye to Berlin about it. But Westerners are far too snob- bish about Moscow: it is developing and improving fast. One returns to London refreshed by its uninhibited exhilaration. My Russian friends are endlessly generous, decent, cultured, hospitable and civilised. It is the expats, not the Russians, who are embarrassingly coarse. If this is the Last Frontier, I like it.

No one cares much about President Yeltsin's dismissal of the Chernomyrdin- Chubais government. Identikit blonde girls, weighed down with Chanel gold buttons, dreaming of their favourite nightclub, the Montecarlo, listen silently at dinner as moguls discuss ever-shifting oligarchical alliances. Here, no one talks about political parties: like 17th-century Holland, it is the mercantile cabals that count. It seems that, like many of history's great events, the dis- missal of the government is just the whim of a shrewd old card-player: in Russia, the cleverest conspiracy theorists are often the biggest fools.

When they hear I am writing about Potemkin, even the most businesslike of moguls immediately offer their services: many nights these tycoons or their blondes take me on chauffeured historical tours. Near my Patriarchy flat, I stare through the snow at Suvorov's palace; the church, embellished by Potemkin for his mother, where Pushkin married; the Art Deco man- sion Stalin gave to Gorky on his return to Russia; Beria's house, scenes of Blue- beardish horrors, now an embassy. Often the history is weirdly intertwined with the night-life: there is Bulgakov's, a nightclub in the writer's building; whenever I say I live in Patriarchy, featured in Bulgakov's greatest novel, even the drabbest Paphian alleycat sighs, `Ah, The Master and Margari- ta.' One of the best clubs, Four Rooms, is built in an Ivan the Terrible building later used as a torture chamber by Peter the Great's Secret Office; on the corner of the building is the old steel balcony where, in 1812, Napoleon is supposed to have watched Moscow burn. . . .

The destiny of the Russian adventuress- es is a better index of how Russia is devel- oping than the Bourse. The Josephine of adventuresses, Alexandra, tells me the new key word is 'charter', as in 'chartered plane': all she and her friends talk about is how they're chartering planes to Monaco just for a day. First class is too common for them, it must be charter. 'Tomorrow to Paris.' Charter?' I ask. She pouts. 'Of course, charter. Always charter.' Often, after dinner, one generous Russian invites us all outside. He opens the boot of his new bullet-proof Mercedes to reveal an Aladdin's cave of bags filled with famous designer labels from Paris: all the Slavic Messalinas around the table are taken out to choose any suit they like from this trove of swag. He has every size.

Sometimes (though not very often) one tires of all this beauty and wealth. There is another city too, Moscow Gomorrah. A newspaper called the Exile, run by two bril- liant but wicked Californian satirists, describes it best: everyone claims the Exile is disgusting. Some puritanical feminist American harridans tried to close it. It is deliciously tasteless: its favourite column, the macabre 'Death Porn', chronicles the barbaric murders covered in the Russian police gazette. It scores the nightclubs with stars for danger and sexual opportunity, like a priapic version of the Michelin Guide, written by Caligula.

Al Englishman takes me to the Hun- gry Duck, the world's wildest bar, beloved by Muscovite students and office secre- taries. Twice a week, the Hungry Duck offers free drinks for girls until 9 p.m. Then the men pour in like Visigoth hordes. The result is a mixture of Klondyke fever, a mediaeval gang bang in a seraglio and Dionysian ecstasy. When I arrived, two unconscious girls were being carried out in a fireman's lift to ambulances by Brobding- nagian security men. Inside, the vast, teem- ing, sweaty stew is a Slavic Bedlam crossed with the bar scene from Star Wars, with hundreds of drunk girls in short skirts pul- sating on the bar. They maniacally flash their breasts and proudly expose their lack of underwear. Inexplicably, Russian girls are addicted to dancing on bartops. This often presents a danger to passers-by. Fre- quently girls are overcome by their own exuberance and simply fall off with a death- ly thud, The crowd swallows them and they disappear from view. Fights break out wriggling, muscled Russians are borne out by gangs of Brobdingnagians. It is terrifying but fascinating, half-paradise, half-Hades. No one who survives goes home alone. Yet if there are Russians who fear for the soul of their nation, you cannot blame them.

0 ne night, I'm taken to a chilling nightclub that turns out to be named after a Hitlerite extermination camp. This is Moscow Gomorrah's scarred underbelly: Buchenwald is a horrible, vile cavern, a Nazi skinhead rave, buried in tunnels beneath a warehouse in the Noviye Chery- omushki Styx. Two commandos, one with his face bashed in, stand guard. Inside, we are led through bare-brick passages and rusty grids until we reach a tunnel that looks like a post-apocalyptic shelter, where submoronic, weirdly placid skinheads lie piled semi-conscious on low wooden bench- es. To the left, the loo is headed 'Gas Chambers' in German. The dance floor, playing a wall of ghastly noise, is headed `Crematoria'. It is shameful that this place exists. Disgusted, I was happy to get out alive. But someone should either close it down or torch the place. On Monday morn- ing, I am relieved to be sitting back in the Archives, soothed by the meowing of the Archive Cats, reading Catherine the Great's letters. She could never have imag- ined my weekend.