26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 24


Owen Matthews evokes a decadence now ending for lack of funds Moscow EARLIER this month, just as the rouble began its headlong plunge into oblivion, Vogue magazine was launched in Russia. Ill-timed isn't really the word — on the contrary, there was a defiant magnificence to it, a flamboyantly Russian élan in the face of catastrophe which marked the launch party as an epochal event. True, the drinks weren't free, the usual crowd of gatecrashers had lost much of their former swagger, and Donatella Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Dolce and Gabbana couldn't make it — sorry. But the Vogue launch inadvertently became a kind of end-of-term party for the New Russia, some of whose, alumni are soon to reconvene on the Cote d'Azur and in Switzerland, the less fortu- nate ones being left behind to queue for sausages. Do svidaniya, and thanks for the kicks.

It was great while it lasted, The flowering of Moscow's decadence was an awesome experience, terrible in its breathtaking tackiness, exhausting in its unstoppable energy. There was the Jazz Café, packed with what must surely have been the high- est concentration of beautiful women and heavily armed men in the world. There was Dolls, where 17-year-old acrobats stripped naked on the tables and where I sat and drank with two businessmen who were both gunned down within two months of our meeting. Who could forget the heyday of the Hungry Duck, where only girls were allowed in before 9 p.m., then fed with unlimited free alcohol and revved up by black male strippers until the admission of a slavering horde of men at the witching hour? The scale of Moscow's hedonism was Babylonian in its exuberance — and promises to be Biblical in its fall.

We all knew, viscerally, deep down in some half-hidden Slavic recess of our souls, that it couldn't last. Even when it was at its height, when the high-rollers got their money for nothing and their chicks by divine right, the deliciousness of Moscow's short-lived silver age was fuelled by pure hubris. Beneath it all was a seething under- current of injustice, poverty, violence, fear and loathing. While the rich New Russians plunged into cocaine-fuelled rampages through flashy casinos lined with wall-to- wall whores, impoverished babushkas lined up outside Pharmacy Number 1, in the shadow of the Lyubyanka, to sell their pre- scription drugs to teenage addicts. As wealthy flatheads slurped 30-buck gins and tonics in the Karusel Club on Tverskaya Street, young drop-outs, weirdos and run- aways sniffed glue and shot up in the labyrinthine basements directly below.

And now, the deluge. The crash of Rus- sia's financial markets and the ensuing collapse of the rouble have, as the former prime minister Viktor Chemomyrdin so colourfully put it, ridden through Russia like Khan Mamai. In just three weeks Rus- sians saw two-thirds of their buying power wiped out. Imported goods, which make up 60 per cent of consumer durables and food, are suddenly beyond the pocket even of families who considered themselves well- to-do before the crash. A whole section of society — the 'emerging middle class' so beloved of the New York Times — faces an agonising slide back into the Soviet reality out of which they so recently climbed.

The new middle class, who a month ago were blithely planning their winter pack- age holidays in Anatolia, are now scuffling in crowds outside failing banks as they scramble to recover their savings. The one difference between today and 1992 is that Muscovites now keep each other informed by mobile phone about which exchange booth offers the best rates. The first wave of mass redundancies has already laid waste the financial and banking sector more are yet to come. And with the pass- ing of the middle class, so disappear the nascent but highly visible service industries that sprang up to cater for them. Who will be left to read the Russian edition of Men's Health, shop at the soon to be opened Moscow Ikea superstore, have din- ner at the Starlite Diner or buy their clothes at the DKNY boutique? Those rich and guilty enough to have salted away their cash abroad will survive — those too honest or insufficiently paranoid to have expatriated their assets are watching their world fall apart. All the old, savage reflexes of self- preservation are surging back from the twi- light years of the Soviet Union. The half-forgotten mental furniture of peasant nakhodchivost, or resourcefulness, is being dusted down and thrown into the breach as survival becomes the priority. Prosper- ous Moscow housewives are scooping designer macaroni off the shelves of West- ern supermarkets. Their poorer counter- parts have emptied Moscow's markets of siege goods such as matches, salt, soap and flour. Newspapers have begun publishing home economics tips with headlines like `Which foods can be stored the longest?', advising readers not to stock up frozen meat in case of power cuts. Queues of dozens form outside currency exchange booths, and shifty black marketeers ped- dling dollars have resurfaced.

Suddenly rational people are discussing the supernatural signs of apocalypse which are appearing like mushrooms after the rain. A mysterious blight has wiped out much of Russia's potato harvest and inces- sant August rains have flattened the wheatfields, spelling disaster for the mil- lions reduced to subsistence agriculture to survive while the government withholds their wages. In July a freak storm toppled the golden crosses from the domes of the Novodevichy convent and broke the crenellations from the Kremlin wall. Light- ning struck the Russian flag which flies from the roof of the Kremlin's Senate palace. Russia's babushkas, the country's pathologically pessimistic watchers of signs and portents, clucked knowingly. Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, has joined in the hysteria by holding a special service to beg forgiveness and salvation from the Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, Russia's most holy relic. The icon reputedly saved Moscow from sacking by the Mongol horde in the 13th century; the last time it was called into action was during the putsch attempt in October 1993, and before that when the Wehrma- cht reached within five kilometres of the Kremlin in 1941. Most compellingly for me, NTV television has mysteriously become a mouthpiece of Armageddon by scheduling Apocalypse Now, The Omen and Omen II as Saturday prime-time viewing.

God knows, Russians have had ample opportunity to grow used to suffering over the last two generations. What was really new about the New Russia was that people could at last realistically hope, as the Rus- sian saw goes, to 'live like people' at last. The irony is that the vagaries of capitalism look set to accomplish in a matter of months what Lenin and Trotsky only man- aged through years of bloody terror — the annihilation of the bourgeoisie as a class.

The author writes for Newsweek from Moscow.