Published: August 2008
Moscow Never Sleeps
Novelist Martin Cruz Smith and photographer Gerd Ludwig discover the sinister magic of a city that reveals its true colors at night.
By Martin Cruz Smith

At midnight the city is a brilliant grid of light that includes the gilded dome of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Stalinist horror of the Ukraine Hotel, and a dark loop of the Moscow River. Downstream the lights of round-the-clock construction hang in the air while steel and concrete disappear. The clutter of the day is gone. The night brings clarity, and lights trace the future.

On Sparrow Hills, however, all eyes were on an unsanctioned rally of motorcycles: Japanese bikes as bright as toys, dour Russian Vostoks, "monster" Ducatis, Harleys with exhaust pipes of polished chrome. Hundreds of bikers and admirers filled the vista terrace to see machines that posed on their stands in the negligent fashion of movie stars. A Harley merely had to clear its throat to thrill the crowd.

Some bikes were so customized it was difficult to determine what they started as. A Ural that usually hauled sacks of potatoes in its sidecar had been transformed into a stealth-black predator bristling with rockets and machine guns. As the machine-gun barrels were chair legs and the handlebars were crutches, the effect was more theatrical than threatening. Despite the display of leather and studs, the same could be said of the bikers. I asked an ogre with a shaved head and bandanna what his day job was.

In a growl, "I sleep."

To which his girlfriend added, "Fievel's a computer programmer."

Geek by day, bandit by night.

My friend Sasha was along. Sasha is so soft-spoken he seems shy, when in fact he is a homicide detective who weighs his words. In the army he competed in biathlons, the sport of racing on skis with a rifle and then stopping to shoot at a target as his heart pounded against his ribs. He still has that calm.

We first met years ago in an Irish bar in Moscow. My highly intelligent colleague Lyuba and I were celebrating the end of two weeks of on-the-ground research and interviews for one of my novels. Sasha had just dragged some dead mafia from a swamp and was in no mood for fictional heroes. Now that he is married to Lyuba, he is forced to endure my constant questions, although he gripes that my Investigator Renko should be a regular detective like him.

Racing began across the boulevard. Competitors were a blur between spectators, the smaller bikes accelerating with a whine while the heavyweights produced a roar that made the ground tremble. The finish line was negotiable, anywhere from a hundred meters to a circuit of the Garden Ring, the peripheral road around the center of Moscow, where bikes could reach 120 miles an hour, depending on traffic. Car races also took place, or did until the crackdown after YouTube featured videos of drivers weaving in and out of Ring traffic at three times the speed limit.

A biker in a padded leather outfit—more a belief system than actual protection—mounted a Kawasaki, maybe 750cc. What did I know? I once rode a Vespa scooter from Rome to the south of Spain; that's the extent of my expertise, and I worried when a teenage girl wearing little more than a helmet hopped on behind. As soon as she had a grip, they glided toward the race lanes. The girl looked so frail I had to ask, Who is in charge? Where are the police?

Sasha pointed at a group of militia officers who stood bashfully to one side.

"It's out of their control."

The bikes blasted off the mark. In seconds the kids were taillights that faded away.

WHO IS IN CHARGE? Vladimir Putin? His successor, Dmitry Medvedev? The legendary oligarchs? The KGB disguised as a kinder FSB? (There does seem to be an active or former secret agent on the board of every major company.) Well, as they say in Russia, "Those who know, know." What is certain is that Moscow is afloat in petrodollars; there are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world. More than New York, London, or Dubai. Millionaires are as common as pigeons. Together the rich and mega-rich constitute a social class who were loosely called New Russians when they first appeared in the 1990s. Half of them are survivors of industrial shake-ups like the "aluminum war" of ten years ago, when executives were killed left and right. Half have discovered that starting a bank is more profitable than robbing one. Half are young financial trapeze artists swinging from one hedge fund to another. (You can have three halves in Russia.)

But what a change. When I first visited Moscow in 1973, the entire population of the city seemed to retire to a crypt as soon as the sun went down. The few cars on the street were small, dyspeptic Zhigulis. A shop window display might be a single dried fish. Red Square was empty except for the honor guard at Lenin's Tomb, and billboards featured the stony visage of General Secretary Brezhnev. Banners declared, "The Communist Party Is the Vanguard of the Working Class!" That was the world that today's New Russians grew up in, and it is no wonder that their repressed energy and frustration have erupted with a passion.

Russians are over the top. They're not "old money" hiding behind ivy-covered walls. In fact, they often refuse old money. It's new money, crisp American $100 bills flown in daily and spent almost as fast. Think about it. A billion dollars is a thousand million dollars. How do you celebrate success on such a scale? How much caviar can you eat? How much bubbly can you drink? Et cetera. That's why clubs were invented.

Clubs give the rich the chance to "flaunt it, baby, flaunt it," assured that "face control" will stop undesirables at the door. Face control is executed by men who in a glance can determine your financial profile and celebrity status. And whether you are carrying a gun.

The first sign that the GQ Bar was hot was the number of Bentleys and Lamborghinis lined up at the curb. I was visiting with writer Lana Kapriznaya and journalist Yegor Tolstyakov. Lana is dark haired, petite, about a hundred pounds, including cigarette smoke. She is an acerbic chronicler of the follies of New Russians. Yegor has a voice meant for a dirge, but see him, and he's smiling.

"Think of the GQ as a boy's club," Lana said. "A boy's club with bodyguards."

New arrivals were greeted by women who were beautiful on a surreal level. Big air kiss. Big air kiss. The GQ Bar is licensed by the magazine publisher Condé Nast International, which provides a steady supply of models who sip water at $20 a bottle and pick at Kamchatka crab, a giant crustacean served with six sauces. The interior design is out of Somerset Maugham, all dark woods and lazy ceiling fans. Not hungry? Nyet problem. GQ's VIP lounge is a watering hole for lions only. Here a man can sip Johnnie Walker Blue, light a Cuban cigar, sip a brandy, unwind, and make more money.

New Russians are social animals; they squeeze business and pleasure together the way Russian drivers squeeze five lanes out of four. The office is full of petty distractions: meetings, phone calls, endless details. Billion-dollar deals await the cool hours of the evening. There is a Russian tradition that you can't trust or do business with a man until you have been drunk together. Food, vodka, money, they go hand in hand.

More astonishing than the grooming of men is the transformation of women. In the few years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian women have metamorphosed from hefty builders of socialism to tennis stars who stand a head taller than the general population. During the day, clones of Maria Sharapova move from spa to spa. At night, they go from club to club in the giddy hope of meeting their own millionaire.

While a GQ deputy director named Sergei gave us a tour, Lana described the buy list of a New Russian: "a flat in Moscow, a town house in Belgravia, a villa in St.-Tropez, a ski chalet in Courchevel, foreign schools for his children, foreign banks for his money, and, finally, a private jet to fly away in."

This is a sore point in Russia. Even in the worst days under Stalin there was a general sense of classlessness. People didn't have money, they had perks: a larger ration of sausage, an extra week at a sanatorium, access to foreign films. The New Russians have emerged in a cloudburst of dollars, and they are, in the eyes of most people, thieves. Their lifestyle is both envied and abhorred, and since Moscow is the center, there are imitations of its club scene across the country. It is fair to say that for many young Russians, clubs define the night.

Sergei described the clubbing schedule: 10 to 12 is for pre-party socializing in the restaurant, 12 to 4 for partying in the clubs, 4 to 6 for post-party cooling off. He informed me that when Mickey Rourke is in Moscow, he parties at GQ.

I can imagine Rourke partying until dawn. I imagine myself in bed, my head on a pillow.

We left GQ and hit a club that was launching either a new BMW or a new vodka or both. Then to a club in Gorky Park for a more democratic crowd where, besides playing Whac-A-Mole with a rubber mallet, you can walk on a man-made beach. Nice place.

Nonetheless, I felt that I was missing something. What was the very best club in Moscow? Which was the most fantastic?

"Well," Lana said, "there's Diaghilev."

"What makes it so popular?"

"No one can get in."

THREE STATIONS—PART ONE.  If Diaghilev is Moscow's Mount Olympus, Three Stations is its lower depths. Officially Three Stations is Komsomol Square, but the locals know it by the railway terminals that converge there: Yaroslavl and Leningrad Stations on the north side and Kazan Station on the south. A statue of Lenin stands on a side plaza. The firebrand of the Russian Revolution holds the lapel of his coat with his left hand and with his right reaches for a back pocket. He appears to have just realized his wallet is gone. That's Three Stations.

Every day thousands of commuters arrive and pour out onto the wide pavement against a counterflow of traders dragging in suitcases stuffed with clothes and shoes for resale in the provinces. Street vendors offer rabbit fur hats, Soviet kitsch, roses wrapped in cellophane, pirated CDs. Tourists stagger under backpacks. Women from Central Asia brush by in voluminous skirts the color of poppies, while soldiers search for game arcades.

Every kind of face surfaces. Blue-eyed Ukrainians, hawklike men from the Caucasus, Uzbeks in caps, Mongolians, and especially Tajiks. A demographic time bomb facing Russia is its declining population and the influx of Tajiks, who are known to be sober, hardworking, and willing to do jobs Russians won't.

But at 2 a.m. the square was vast and still. The misty light of streetlamps revealed what the traffic of the daytime, the coming and going of travelers and peddlers, had hidden. The drunks around Kazan Station were difficult to see at first because they were as gray as the pavement. These were not casual drunks or men on a bender but dedicated alcoholics literally pickled in vodka. So many were bandaged or bloody they could have been a battlefield tableau. One held up a cardboard sign that said "Give Us Money or We'll Die."

Behind the station lay a dark alley of shuttered kiosks and homeless people wrapped in rags and newspaper. Those capable of standing staggered sideways. In the faint light a woman dressed in rags tied a bouquet of lavender. The one kiosk that was open sold vodka, of course. Shadows dashed by. Street kids. "These are free people," Sasha said.

"You mean homeless."

"No, there are shelters. They choose this. Free people."

We watched prostitutes in tight pants grind by. They have a reputation for breaking clonidine pills into soluble powder. Clonidine is a powerful blood pressure medication. One spiked vodka and the customer passes out, ready to be stripped. When the victim wakes in his underclothes, he probably won't run to the nearest militia officer. Drunk or not, he should know that at Three Stations the police are the pimps.

As we moved farther into the shadows behind the station, we came upon a scuffle between two gangs, Russian versus Tajik, about eight on each side, ages from 10 to 20. No knives were in sight, although a Tajik had a Russian down and was pounding his face into the concrete.

Sasha told me to stay where I was and waded alone into the melee. The Tajik paused, his fist cocked, trying to figure who this interloper was. The Russian on the ground lifted his battered head, trying to work out the same thing. I heard Sasha give them the Russian equivalent of "Break it up and go home." But the gangs were home, both sides claiming the same turf; that was the problem. About the only thing they hated more than each other was an outsider.

They weren't innocents. They dealt drugs, rolled drunks, and swarmed over anyone they caught alone and unarmed. The Tajik picked up his hat, a jaunty fedora, and immediately I thought of the Cat in the Hat. The Russian got to his feet. He looked like an ingrate to me. Suddenly we were in Dirty Harry territory. Did Sasha have a gun? Did the gang feel lucky? Well, did they?

Not tonight. Instead, they beat a sullen retreat. I may have been an easy target, but Sasha was definitely not to be messed with. The Cat in the Hat saluted him and called him "brother," as if they'd meet again.

As a matter of fact, tucked into his belt, Sasha had a pistol that he's proud of because it was given to him as an award for meritorious service. One side of the gun frame is inscribed like a trophy with his name. He hates to use it.

CARS During the day the streets of Moscow are dominated by black Mercedes sedans with tinted windows so opaque they are against the law, which no one pays attention to. When Mercedes cluster at a ministry gate, I am reminded of a Roach Motel.

At night the BMWs and Porsches come out to play. Night traffic around the Kremlin has a centrifugal force that catapults them to speeds no police car can match, and even if a driver is caught, he simply bribes the police on the spot. It's not unlike American fishing: catch and release. Russia has an alarming accident record. Considering that a driver's license can be had for a bribe instead of a demonstrated ability to operate a vehicle, the numbers aren't so bad.

A special suicide feature of several Russian avenues and highways is a middle lane that runs in both directions. This lane is reserved for cars with blue roof lights so that high officials can hurry to affairs of state. Such a light is a desirable item for New Russians in a rush; the going price for a blue light and official license plates is $50,000. It is not unusual to see two motorcades speeding toward each other in a Russian version of chicken.

SOBRIETY It was late in the afternoon, the sun dissolving into afterglow by the time I arrived for lunch at Alexei's apartment (not his real name). Alexei and Andrew were halfway through a second bottle of vodka, and the best I could do was try to catch up. I was outclassed. Thin as a drinking straw, Alexei was an art critic, scholar, and collector of fine porcelains, an intellectual who became more animated with each round. Andrew was British but did business in Russia and stayed in practice vodka-wise, so to speak.

Right off the bat Alexei swore he had seen a video that caught the President of the United States as he stuck a wad of chewing gum under a table of inlaid stones at the Hermitage Museum. Alexei was sure that George W. Bush had declared war on Russian culture. It turned out he had just gone through the humiliating experience of being denied an American visa. He said the State Department as good as accused him of trying to sneak into the United States when it was the other way around. The United States was invading Russia through gentrification. There was even a neighborhood in Moscow that had banned Russian cars, he'd heard. Only foreign cars were allowed!

Anyway, why would he want to be American, he asked? Moscow was safer at night than New York. He could walk around the center of Moscow at any hour, drunk or sober.

Alexei gave an example. A week ago he had visited an artist's studio. This artist had an interest in Nazi art, in its narcissism and banality. It was a deep discussion, and around two in the morning they ran out of vodka. They were nearly drunk, but Alexei knew a shop across town that was open. They walked blocks and blocks discussing Fascist paintings, sculpture, and architecture. At the shop they bought a few bottles, turned to leave, and found their way blocked by four skinheads tattooed with swastikas and portraits of Hitler. The biggest of the lot demanded to know why they were bad-mouthing the Führer. Alexei expected to suffer a beating, at least a little kicking and stomping, when the artist, although nearly drunk, opened a bottle, tossed aside the cap, and invited the skinheads to his studio. On the way they passed the bottle around while the artist held forth on modern art, starting with Cézanne. The lecture was so boring and the skinheads became so inebriated they couldn't walk unaided. So Alexei and the artist dumped them one by one in various courtyards, and that was the difference between being drunk and being nearly drunk.

What this had to do with the safety of Moscow's streets escaped me; but I was in no condition to give chase. Somehow it had gotten dark. Alexei opened a window to the background din of the city, which prompted me to ask if he'd ever heard about late-night racing of cars or motorcycles in Moscow. It was a stretch, but I asked.

"On the Garden Ring?" Alexei said.

That he knew even that much surprised me.

"Yes. The record time for a car to go completely around is six minutes."

"Five minutes," he corrected me.

"Have you …?"

"Nine minutes." He sighed for the glory that might have been. "I stopped for red lights."

CASINO Andrei Sychev looked out over the 220 slot machines, 30 gaming tables, sports bar, and VIP hall and confided that he felt like the captain of a sinking ship. As an employee of the Udarnik Casino he did not understand why City Hall wanted to shut it down and "kill a goose that lays nothing but golden eggs." Each slot, for example, generated a generous profit every month, and yet the government accused casinos of "moral damage," having closed some already and vowed to relocate others to "Las Vegas zones" on the far borders of the Russian Federation by the end of next year. To some, a Moscow night without the bright lights of casino marquees may seem like a year without spring, but officials have already closed hundreds of gaming sites large and small. Who would be next?

Some of Sychev's dealers had already jumped ship for employment with better security. This created a ripple effect because regular customers like to play with a favorite dealer.

Was the Udarnik Casino a criminal enterprise? Absolutely not, according to Sychev. That is, no more than any other enterprise. Maybe 10 percent. For their own protection everybody had a "roof." Don't think of it as the mafia, think of it as alternative police.

Alexei had told me that Americans would never understand Russia because Americans saw things as black or white, nothing in between, while Russians saw a gray area of perhaps 80 percent.

Which brings us to …

THE MAYOR Not since Stalin has anyone left his stamp on Moscow as much as Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. A sawed-off colossus, he raises skyscrapers with one hand and flattens historic neighborhoods with the other. The floodlights that illuminate Moscow's classical palaces at night are under his command. He garnishes the city with statues that infuriate the critics, whom he ignores. He is what Russians call a muzhik, a man of the earth, and, although he and Vladimir Putin have been rivals in the past, they seem to agree that gaudy casinos are out of step with Moscow's new maturity and dignity, even if Putin reportedly complains that he never knows what the skyline of Moscow will look like when he gets out of bed in the morning.

The feeling in Moscow is that Luzhkov may be corrupt, but he gets things done. When construction funds ran short for the behemoth Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the story goes, he didn't hesitate to shake down businessmen and mafia alike to finish the job. According to one estimate, in 2005 Russians shelled out $316 billion in bribes. Why not a donation for a worthy cause?

It was a happy coincidence that a company owned by the mayor's wife, Yelena Baturina, landed so many construction contracts in the city. In fact, Baturina is the only woman among Moscow's billionaires.

THREE STATIONS–PART TWO Sasha and I took the pedestrian underpass from Kazan Station because the more distance between us and the Cat in the Hat the better, and it was reassuring to find two uniformed security men sitting in the walkway, even if one was reading a comic book and the other was asleep. The shop stalls in the tunnel were shuttered except for one window displaying mobile phones.

We emerged in front of Yaroslavl Station. It was 3 a.m., and all the civilians had retreated to the waiting rooms and ceded the night to vodka zombies, prostitutes, and teenage gangs too spaced from huffing glue to notice us.

Incredibly, with one step into the waiting hall we reentered the normal world. There were cafés, a bookshop, a playpen, closed, to be sure, but evidence of normal life. Normal people were asleep in chairs. Healthy babies curled up on their mothers' laps. In some parts of the world people share a river with crocodiles. You just had to be careful.

But there was more. Returning through the underpass we came upon two men robbing a drunk. One lifted the victim by the neck while the second went through his pockets, although the way the drunk flopped back and forth made the task difficult. We had to get around them to pass. Sasha placed himself on the inside, between the action and me. The security men stayed seated and watched with mild curiosity; they were paid to protect the window of mobile phones, nothing else.

What happened took ten seconds. Essentially, the thieves took the money and ran. They wrested a roll of bills from the drunk's inside jacket pocket, let him drop, and vanished up the stairs to the street.

The drunk spat blood and sighed. He rolled to a sitting position and waved off any help.

At night?

At Three Stations?

Nothing happened.

DIAGHILEV Amid clouds of smoke, strobe lights, and the deafening beat of house music, the new lords of oil, nickel, and natural gas arrived at Diaghilev with women as mute and beautiful as cheetahs on a leash.

In this cacophony a millionaire could expand and relax. For one thing, no guns are allowed inside Diaghilev. The club had a 40-man security force, and any customer who felt in dire need of protection was assigned a personal bodyguard. A bomb dog had sniffed the chairs, and a security briefing had alerted the staff about special needs, such as guests from Iran who did not want to be photographed drinking champagne with scantily clad models. I had followed Yegor through a back door. How Yegor arranged my visit I did not know, but the chief of security was not pleased.

The club incorporated relentless sound, color, and motion. Psychedelic visions splashed across screens and vodka bars. A UFO and a crystal chandelier contested air space, and a contortionist added a touch of Cirque du Soleil. It was a simple system. Face control admitted more women than men and only enough guests to achieve critical mass. The more people who were turned away the more people who wanted to get in. The real Diaghilev was the fur-trimmed impresario who founded the Ballets Russes a hundred years ago. First of all, he was a showman. He would have loved this.

New Russians climbed to their VIP tables, waving to fellow New Russians and celebrities. Television personalities and Eurotrash leavened the mix, and soon the floor was so crowded people could only dance in place, something six-foot models in six-inch heels managed gracefully.

Yegor kept asking a question I finally understood over the din, "Are you happy? Did you get what you came for?"

I didn't know. Was this what millions of Russians died for in wars and prison camps? Had they faced down a KGB coup and dismantled an empire so a few gluttons could party through the night? Gogol had likened Russia to a troika of speeding horses, not a Bentley in a ditch.

Suddenly, the speakers went silent for a booming, "I love Moscow!"

On the runway an American singer had taken over the microphone. She was black—not many in Moscow—and she sang the blues. The boys on the VIP tier went on chatting at a shout and pouring each other cognac. Then the entire crowd joined in one refrain in English, "What are we supposed to do after all that we've been through?" I had no idea what song it was. They sang it over and over. "What are we supposed to do after all that we've been through?"

Soon after Diaghilev was, in a time-honored tradition of nightclubs, gutted by fire. Now it is better than hot, it is legend.

LIGHTS On my last night in Moscow Yegor showed me the future.

We drove beyond the Garden Ring and followed the river to a dark industrial area, where we parked and walked along a chain-link fence. If this was the future, I wasn't impressed.

"Look up," Yegor said.

"I don't see anything."

"Look higher!"

Against the night stood a ladder of lights so high I couldn't be sure where it stopped, until a red beam crawled to the edge of an open floor somewhere near Mars.

"Moscow City," he said. "A city within a city."

It was a magic beanstalk, a complex of 14 buildings, including the Russia Tower, at 113 floors projected to be the tallest skyscraper in Europe. A giant crane performed a pirouette at the top of what will be the Moscow Tower, a mere 72 stories high. Work was going on day and night. A floodlight revealed figures in yellow vests clambering over the load the crane had delivered. From what seemed an incredible distance we heard the stutter of a rivet gun, the clap of metal plates, even voices, creating a curious intimacy.

Buildings were in every stage of construction. Those already completed resembled silver spaceships about to depart. The scale was enormous. The excavation alone could swallow the pyramids of Giza. The complex is planned to house City Hall, offices, and luxury apartments with views halfway to Finland.

This is the advantage of being in Moscow after dark.

In the daytime you see only architecture.

At night you see blazing ambition.