The Ritz-Carlton Magazine, 2007
Nearing midnight, the city blanketed in snow, I barrel through the dark streets of Moscow in a brand-new black Mercedes, the passenger of a wealthy Russian businessman determined to show me the high-flying shape of post-Soviet life. It’s December 1992. “I used to be followed by the KGB,” he says. “Now 12 of them work for me.” He laughs proudly, and hands me his new cell phone. “Go ahead, call your fiancée in Finland.” As I punch in the number, a blizzard of white swirling around us, I make out the glow of a red star above the Kremlin.
In those first months after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow was an intensely romantic place to visit. Street musicians were always performing the Beatles and Sting. Practically everyone you met wanted to hear about life in America and the West. (“Is it true,” I was asked, “that when you wake up in America you are already late?”) Fellow passengers on the Metro studied your clothes, fascinated and pleased to see a foreigner in their midst. There was a rich curiosity and a delicious sense of possibility in the early ‘90s after being cut
off for so long.
Yet those days were also rife with instability and uncertainty, which, from an outside perspective, made much of what went on seem like sheer madness. Consider: I met a brain surgeon who was dealing cards in a casino and a kindergarten teacher working as an escort in a hard-currency nightclub. I negotiated with a naval captain whose contacts could sell me a working submarine for $30,000 (I needed one for a movie I wanted to make). I was nearly run over in Red Square by three thick slabs in a black Mercedes, then watched as they paid off a nervous policeman, ordered a photographer to snap their picture in front of Lenin’s Tomb and St. Basil’s, and smiled and waved like movie stars at the gathering crowd before driving away.
At that tumultuous time—those years of ruble freefall and skyrocketing prices, shock therapy and dark uncertainty—I watched nightly as grim-faced babushki and young people lined the Metro stations and underpasses to sell practically anything: a wrapped salami, a silver wedding spoon, a puppy, a child’s porcelain doll, a caged bird, even a used pair of nylons. Promised forever by the old state, they woke up one day and found that their country no longer existed and everything was open to negotiation. A proud people with a rich history, a wealth of natural resources and a country twice the size of the United States, they aspired to a better life; indeed, many Russians craved the luxuries and pleasures of the West.
That was the Moscow I knew more than a decade ago. A visually drab affair then, but a place of adventure and a journalist’s dream—a chance to enter a long-closed world at a moment of historic, seismic shift where nothing is given and everything seemed possible.
If Moscow were a typical city, this would be a story of limited incremental developments. A fancy new restaurant here, a street of new shops there, an intriguing regional destination where travelers can experience the former Soviet empire in its massive capital city and witness the royal treasures that date back hundreds of years.
But Moscow is not typical. In barely a decade, it has become a genuine international city, buoyed by rising oil and gas prices, one of the largest concentrations of millionaires in the world, an expanding new class of ultra-rich for whom money is no object, and the feverish activity of a growing group of entrepreneurs and artisans determined to create a world of luxury and glamour that equals any of the world’s top destinations, albeit in a distinctly Russian way. Close your eyes in the mid-’90s, open your eyes today—and get ready for quite a surprise.