Moscow isn’t short of places to waste your nights in. The city comes into its own after dark. As in Spain, despite the difference in latitude, you eat late and drink until even later. At the height of the oil boom, Saturday night could be spent spinning through a glittering whirligig of clubs where Chechen gangsters snorted coke with cross-dressing performance artists, Kremlin spin doctors hung with theatre directors, grinning thirtysomething billionaires seemed intent on spending oil wells of money at the bar, and the cloakroom girls looked like supermodels. The mood was part LL Cool J video, part Studio 54, part Petronius’ Rome.
But for all its Restoration hedonism there was always something forced about Moscow’s night-life, the behaviour cut and pasted from a glossy magazine. This was the first generation able to enjoy Moscow this way, and people didn’t know how to behave. When friends from overseas came to visit and asked to go somewhere ‘traditional’, I would take them to Café Pushkin, a restaurant elaborately decorated like a set for an Anna Karenina production, where the waiters speak in pre-revolutionary Russian, the menu features ‘pelmeni with brains’ and the vodka is poured out of long-necked decanters. My guests would be delighted to have found the ‘real Russia’. But the decorations were all new, made out of plaster of Paris, the whole thing a fantastical recreation of a history with which, after all the mutilations of the 20th century, there was no genuine connection.
Wherever I’d been earlier in the evening, at around two a.m. I would pull on my coat and scarf and skid and slide across black ice to Dmitri Borisov’s grotty little cellar in a higgledy-piggledy courtyard on Potapovsky Street or, in later years, to Mayak, his one-room bar off Herzen Street. There’d be many of the same faces I’d seen earlier at the more glamorous clubs: Borisov’s bars aren’t ‘underground’ places, and they’re not particularly cheap. The food ranges from OK to abhorrent, the booze is warm and often the wrong bottle. Borisov himself may well be there, but he has been drunk for so many years that his puffy, drooping face stares past you when you walk in even if you once swore friendship. He’s too tight ever to have installed air-conditioning, and the bars are such a smog of sour Russian cigarettes it makes a chain-smoker choke.
Even so, as soon as you were through the door you could breathe more easily than in the cut-and-paste places, whether glam or grunge. Borisov’s bars tap into the only unbroken tradition in Moscow, that of Soviet dissidents and non-conformists, a tradition that started off in Soviet kitchens and didn’t have to reinvent itself after 1989. It just continued out of the kitchens and into Borisov’s bars. Borisov’s father, a literature professor, served time (he’ll tell you the story around four a.m.), and his first venue was an old flat where you brought your own bottles and read your own poems. The clientele now range from an older generation in their sixties to their children and grandchildren, who have taken to the streets to protest against Putin’s regime.
As the political mood in Moscow grew more oppressive over the last half-decade, Borisov’s bars changed: Jean-Jacques is themed as a French bistro, John Donne as an English pub. But they don’t feel like hollow pastiche so much as witty acts of imaginary emigration: like visiting a White Russian émigré locale in 1920s Paris or a 19th-century London pub full of exiled anti-tsarists. Between dinner and dawn you get to escape Putin’s Russia.
Borisov has opened another place, Kvartira 44, decorated like a 1970s dissident apartment, with the same books you would have found in his parents’ home: we’re back drinking in 1970s kitchens (though now you have to pay for it). And as Putinism became more asphyxiating, so the free air of Borisov’s bars grew more popular. When the oil money began to dry up, most of the baroque, Studio 54-type clubs closed. I found myself spending more and more time in Borisov’s bars, where the conversation turned increasingly to politics. When mass protests began last year, the head of the Kremlin PR channel Russia Today said the demonstrations were only relevant to people who went to Jean-Jacques. Earlier this year riot police, known as ‘cosmonauts’ because of their black helmets, stumbled into the bar to arrest protest leaders drinking inside.