Chelsea and Manchester United fans are battling for Champions League tickets, but to live it up in Moscow you need the wealth of a mini-Roman Abramovich. Rory Ross takes a luxury tour of the Russian capital – and wonders just how long the party will last
It is perfectly obvious that whoever decided to hold the final of the Uefa Champions League in Moscow hadn't anticipated an all-English final. In fact, they hadn't anticipated any team getting through to the final with significant numbers of travelling fans – never mind two of the richest, most itinerant fanbases in the world in Manchester United and Chelsea.
Think about it: Moscow only has 35,000 hotel beds that you'd actually want to sleep in; the visa problem seems to be a slow-motion explosion happening before our eyes; Moscow is an arduous four-hour flight away from most western European capitals; and Moscow has officially been anointed most expensive city in the world.
In fact, the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that whoever decided to host the Champions League final in Moscow has never been anywhere near the Russian capital in their life. So, whichever team lifts the cup on 21 May, the result will be the same: chaos.
Which is a pity because now is a fabulous time to visit this thrilling city. Ask any estate agent, yacht salesman, private-jet broker, cosmetic surgeon, sommelier or luxury-goods purveyor, and they will tell the same story: elite Russians are the world's biggest spenders, and they are swelling in numbers with every up-tick in the oil price. Russia today boasts more than 50 billionaires, as well as some 100,000 millionaires. Russians have become money-mad: a recent survey showed that 53 per cent of them think cash is the most important thing in the world.
As one fund manager put it, "Russia is debt-free and sitting on mountains of gas- and petrodollars. Reserves have shot up from almost zero in 1998 to £242bn today. If the world economy went into meltdown, Russia would cruise along regardless."
So, the bottom line is the bottom line. Russia is startlingly rich, and rapidly becoming richer. And the most obvious beneficiary of this wealth is Moscow, which is booming thanks to a small, aggressively consumerist class of minor oligarchs, who are getting to grips with massive solvency.
Central Moscow is where this elite meet to carom off each other, compare bank balances and generally flaunt their wealth in a high-powered game of one-upmanship that is creating a world of luxury and glamour equal to that of the world's top destinations, albeit in a distinctly Russian way. Sales of flash watches, cosmetic surgery, sports cars, designer gear, sushi, Louis Roederer Cristal champagne, and, latterly, contemporary art are heading for the stratosphere. Cynical but knowing observers would condense this list of oligarchical must-haves to just three: Botox, Bentleys and sushi.
My chaperone in the Russian capital was Alexander Kuznetsov, a critical node in the new Moscow society. Multilingual, omni-social, and blessed with an inexhaustible expense account, Kuznetsov is the perfect guide. He can crack the toughest door policy, and smooth gargoyles through the most demanding "feis kontrol" (face control) – a callous Studio 54-style "velvet rope" that cordons off the most exclusive addresses.
"There was never really communism or socialism in Russia," said Kuznetsov, as we sat in 02 Lounge at the top of the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Tverskaya Street, Moscow's main commercial thoroughfare, nibbling sushi and drinking in the spiky-to-bulbous skyline and Cristal champagne. "Just Sovietism. Money wasn't an issue: you work in factory, you get 200 roubles; you work as a professor: you get 350 roubles. It brought people together.
"Today, everyone lives separately. They have their own clubs, fitness studios and cars. They pass their time in their own world. Let me show you the new Moscow."
As we cruised Moscow in Kuznetsov's limo, it struck me that, while Muscovites may pass the time in their own worlds, they do like to get out of the house. Heaving bars, cafés, restaurants, clubs and even churches attest to the post-communist emancipation from the kitchen table and bread queue, and the celebration of "democracy" and disposable income.
Briskly, we ticked off the Kremlin and Cathedral Square, Red Square and Lenin's Tomb. In the new free-market capitalist paradigm, these icons of communism were almost empty, so it took no more than a morning to see them all. The biggest tourist draw was the changing of the guard outside the Kremlin, surely a metaphor for something, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what.
Then we took a peek in Art4.ru, Moscow's leading contemporary-art gallery, dedicated to the collection of Igor Markin, 41, a plastics tycoon. It includes works by Ilya Kabakov, Oleg Kulik, and the artistic-tag team of Alexander Vinograd and Vladimir Dubossarsky.
After a caffeine fix at Coffeemania, we crashed several services at several beautifully iconed churches and cathedrals. Most impressive was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the largest structure within the Russian Orthodox Church, located two blocks from the Kremlin on the Moskva river. Here, in the magnificent gilded interior, modelled on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Tchaikovsky staged the premiere of his 1812 Overture. The cathedral was demolished by communists in 1931, but rebuilt in replica in 2000.
Moscow has three types of cuisine: Russian aristocratic, a hazy taste-memory from the days when the Tsars hired French chefs; sushi, which in many Moscow restaurants has become the national cuisine; and rustic peasant fare, whose greatest hits include dumplings, borscht and jellied pike. My advice is to stick to the last, the apotheosis of which is to be found at the Pushkin Café, Andrei Dellos's cosy, woody, intellectual restaurant-café. It resembles a pre-Bolshevik hangover – even though it actually opened in 2004 – but its café operates 24 hours a day to make up for lost time.
At dusk, our thoughts turned to the evening ahead. That all of Moscow's habitable hotels are said to be booked up, while the Luzhniki Stadium seats "more than 80,000", is the least of the travelling football fan's problems. Why? Because sleeping is the last thing you want to do in Moscow, a city with the most seductive, vibrant and fluid nightlife. Indeed, as one web-guide delicately puts it, Moscow has seen more openings than an Amsterdam gynaecologist.
But don't expect to be greeted with open arms. All the stories you may have heard about "feis kontrol" are true. Arbitrarily elitist and icily exclusive, Moscow's clubs can be an exercise in humiliation. They can also offer a glimpse of the fastest money on Earth as they are an important part of oligarchmanship, being the only places where money alone will not gain you access. You have to be rich, beautiful, a regular, or the "right" person, and know someone who knows someone who knows the owner. If your hotel carries a bit of clout, the concierge should be able to help. It always helps, however, if you book a table at the club in advance – it'll only cost you several thousand dollars. And take a pretty girl dressed as skimpily as she dares.
Our first stop was GQ Bar, owned by Arkady Novikov, Moscow's hotspot king, whose other joints include Galereya, Vogue Café and Aist. GQ's three dining rooms and huge bar combine luxurious materials with cutting-edge design, including a bar of crushed black glass. The place was heaving with rich Brioni-clad businessmen out to impress other rich Brioni-clad businessmen, off-the-catwalk girls who love rich Brioni-clad businessmen, and expats who like to watch girls who love rich Brioni-clad businessmen.
Teed up by a couple of vodka cocktails, we proceeded to Simachev Bar, an even cooler, funkier place for the young and fashionable who "get it". The eponymous owner Denis Simachev, 33, a wild-child designer, has galvanised Stoleshnikov Lane, Moscow's haute-couture row, with his first boutique, between Burberry and Hermès. The shop is upstairs; the u o 24-hour bar, which opened a year ago, downstairs. The decor? Marcel Duchamp meets Sixties London meets flea-market: leopard-skin rugs, visible plumbing, an aircraft ejection seat, a cosmonaut helmet. Simachev's ironic vision has won him many fans, including Chelsea FC owner Roman Abram-ovich, who bankrolled this venture. If you get "feised", don't worry. A couple of verses of "Blue is the Colour" should see you right.
Simachev's success is perhaps the best indication that the city's creative energy, talent and cash are combining to spawn something new and exciting that will appeal beyond Russia's borders. After hammering a couple more vodka shots, we moved on.
The climactic summit of the evening was, ironically, a basement. The Most is Moscow's hottest, coolest and most exclusive nightspot, a high-concept, high-priced and highly seductive labyrinth that everyone hates to love – everyone who makes it through the door, that is. The Muscovite sense of humour was shown to great effect in The Most's brutal feis kontrol, clearly a marketing tool for the local cosmetic-surgery industry. Actually, to get into The Most requires clearing not only face-control but also wallet-control and who-you-know-control, too.
With barely a wrinkle in the smooth Kuznetsov service, we jumped a long queue of supplicants and descended to Moscow's most notoriously exclusive address. The Most is all crimson brick walls, neon-lit glass floors and baroque salon furniture. Costumed girls gyrate on a bridge spanning the dance-floor. If this isn't decadent enough, gold loos ram home the point.
"It's about women spending thousands of dollars to impress men, and men spending tens of thousands to impress each other – and women," shouted Kuznetsov into my ear as we watched the throng. "Some people are completely into this game. They create their own rules. And they believe in them."
The rules of the game include: (1) a man without a good watch is not a man; (2) a man without a stunning girl next to him is not a man; (3) the man always pays. Needless to say, the Muscovite market in counterfeit luxury timepieces is as big as the market in counterfeit luxury women. I could add three more: (4) never approach a pretty girl in a club, because you risk getting shot by her boyfriend; (5) if a girl approaches you in a nightclub, chances are she's a prostitute; and (6) never try to outdrink a Russian.
"The game is played only by Russians, never foreigners," continued Kuznetsov. "It is all about showing off. If you're Russian and I'm Russian, we grew up in the same conditions. We started off with nothing, and now we have millions. There's no point showing off to foreigners."
Suddenly, it all became clear. I felt like I had been brushed by the pages of Dukhless (rough translation: Soulless), Sergei Minaev's bestselling chronicle of a young Muscovite's descent into a life of nightclubs, drugs and sex. It's Moscow's answer to Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero (which is precisely what I predict Manchester United will score on 21 May).
Minaev, hailed the "tortured voice of Russia's lost generation", but whose day-job is that of a wine merchant, likened post-1990s Moscow to Soviet-era Russia in negative. "In the 1990s, they drastically changed everything," he said. "They said, 'Forget about the heroes, forget about the cultural heritage, forget about everything. We've changed the picture. Now survive'."
One can sympathise with Minaev. Crowds that once queued to pay homage to Lenin now clamour to get into nightclubs. Capitalism is aping Sovietism in trying to efface the past.
One wonders how much stamina the oligarch on the Tverskaya omnibus has. There are only so many bottles of Cristal you can drink of an evening, and only so much caviar you can lick off your mistress's bottom. It will surely be a matter of time before he gets bored, or ends up in rehab, or turns New Age. So, enjoy the party while it lasts and bask in the current wave of "BLOOOOO IS THE CU-LLEEERR!"
Bolshoi and bling: larging it for less
By Neil McGowan
More than a quarter of Moscow's 13 million inhabitants subsist on a monthly salary of £500 or less. But in a city dedicated to pleasure and parties, you don't have to be an oil magnate to indulge your sybaritic side – in fact, many pleasures are either cheap or free.
While the Hummer-owners are enmeshed in gridlock above, the Moscow Metro still serves palatially decorated stations every two to three minutes, and for just 30p a ride. The cheapest of nights out involves grabbing a bottle of vodka (£1.20) and a guitar, and sitting under the stars in any of Moscow's leafy courtyards, singing songs with your friends. Spiffier surroundings will cost you a pound's admission fee at Gorky Park: not the Soviet spy-centre that visitors suspect, but a year-round fairground and pleasure park offering rides and beer-gardens in summer, an ice-rink in winter, and tree-lined lover's lanes at any time of year.
If you like life large but your bank's in credit-crisis, some of Moscow's best culture still remain accessible at pocket-money prices – provided you avoid scalpers and buy from the box-office. Just £20 (€30) will see you into a decent seat at the Bolshoi Theatre (above), and you can book online on its own website (it's at Bolshoi New Stage Theatre until renovation of the main theatre ends in 2010).
Opera fans make a bee-line for Helikon Opera, whose award-winning productions have been wowing audiences all over Europe. Next week you could see Prokofiev's Soviet tub-thumper Story of a Real Man reworked as The Man Who Fell From The Sky, which lambasts current healthcare policies. (Who said the arts are under the jackboot in Russia?) Average prices for theatre is even lower, although only Russian-speakers would be able to take advantage of this. With your interval glass of champagne and a smoked-salmon sandwich totalling £2, louche living on the cheap was rarely so easily achieved.
Clubbing needn't mean a dash to the ATM either – at B-2 the average door-price is £7, where you could have seen British bands I Am Kloot or The Rakes last month. Other mainstream clubs like IKRA or Gogol charge around the same.
Cheap-chic dining presents more of a challenge, but in Moscow everything is possible. Café Soup is a DJ-café haven for wannabe-famous students and resting actors – get a table in the "black room" if you want to be super-cool. Kafemania's West Village-style boho bistro pulls in a similar crowd for a fractionally higher tab. Lounge-lizards will prefer the minimalist chic of Vision, where they shake a mean mojito or the perfect caipirinha , with crispy Okinawa maki rolls on the side.
Bolshoi Theatre, 1 Teatralnaya Ploshcad (007 495 292 9270; www.bolshoi.ru/en ).
Helikon Opera, 11 Novy Arbat (007 495 202 6584; helikon.ru).
B-2 Club, Bolshaya Sadovaya 8 (007 495 650 9918; www.b2club.ru ).
Café Soup, 1-ya Brestskaya St 62/25 (007 251 1383). Average bill £12 without drinks.
Kafemania, four outlets in Moscow ( www.coffeemania.ru/eng ). Average bill £16 without drinks.
Vision cocktail lounge, 11 Novy Arbat Ulitsa (007 495 727 3230). Average bill £20, without drinks.
To Russia with luck: how to obtain a visa
At the time of going to press, though discussions with interested parties are still going on, this is the situation. People who wish to be in Moscow for no more than 72 hours on 21 May should apply only through the Russian National Tourist Office (020-7495 7570; www.visitrussia.org.uk ). You must download a visa application form and apply by post, (full details on the website), along with your passport, a photograph and, if you have one, a photocopy of the match ticket or an electronic confirmation from one of the clubs that you qualify for a ticket. The fee is £70.
Non-football fans can get a visa from the Embassy of the Russian Federation (020-7229 8027; www.rusemblon.org ); fee £45. You must provide a tourist voucher from a tour operator.
The writer flew to Moscow Domodedovo with BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com ) from Heathrow. British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com ) flies the same route, while Aeroflot (020-7355 2233; www.aeroflot.co.uk ) serves the less convenient Sheremetyevo airport.
The Ritz-Carlton, Tverskaya Street 3, Moscow (007 495 225 8888; 0800 234 0000; www.ritzcarlton.com ). Double rooms start at 23,010 roubles (£492), room only.
Eating & drinking there
Café Pushkin, 26a Tverskoi Bulvar (007 495 229 5590; www.cafe-pushkin.ru ).
GQ Bar, 5 Baltschug Ulitsa (007 495 956 7775; bar.gq.ru).
Denis Simachyov Bar, 12/2 Stoleshnikov Pereulok (007 495 629 8085).
The Most, 6/3 Kuznetsky Most Ulitsa (007 495 660 0706).
Art4u, 4 Hlinovsky Ktupik (007 495 660 1158; art4.ru). Open 11am-8pm daily except Monday, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.