I went to last Sunday’s World Cup final with my father (we sat in a box; a Russian friend of his had offered him two tickets). It was 22 years since I’d last been in Moscow. There was no sign now of the scruffy riotousness I remembered. Everything about the city gleamed: a giant project of beautification had been undertaken in the run-up to the World Cup. Decades of grime had been scrubbed from the buildings, and a plethora of new roads, parks and pedestrian precincts built. The kerbside kiosks that had once sold vodka through the night were bulldozed two years ago, in an act of official vandalism unofficially known as the ‘Night of the Long Shovels’.
Outside his Moscow house and studio, the president of the Russian Academy of Arts, Zurab Tsereteli, has a bronze statue he made of Vladimir Putin in judo robes with a tiger at his feet. Inside the house, which used to be the German Embassy, there are photographs of Tsereteli and Putin in front of To the Struggle against World Terrorism, the monument he gave to New Jersey to commemorate 9/11, and of Putin pinning one of many presidential orders on his lapel.
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.