From Stalin to Spear’s, Russia certainly has come along way.
To Moscow for the launch of Spear’s Russia. I had been to Moscow once before, back in 1985, on an Aeroflot flight that arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. I was on my gap year and within a day of my arrival the Russian president died so it was an odd time to be there – during a state Soviet funeral.
The first thing to be said about Moscow is that it is huge; and I mean really vast. London has a population of about 6.6 million. When I asked the publisher of the Russian Spear’s what the population of Moscow was, he said that it could be as much as 20 million. Nobody really knows.
My clearest memory of Soviet Russia, 1985, was that it was actually painful to breathe the winter air. I walked around in an old overcoat feeling like an inmate at the Siberian work camp described by Solzhenitsyn in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In such labour camps, inmates were required to work outside all day in ill fitting clothes and boots – unless the temperature dropped below -41 degrees.
Twenty three years after my last visit to Moscow, I didn’t even need an overcoat; there was no such thing as waiting on the freezing pavement for a taxi or a bus as we were whisked around town in a pair of Audis fitted with DVD players and efficient German heating systems.
The other thing I remember from 1985 was the food was just awful. Not any more. On the first night we went to a new restaureant called Michael’s on Tverskoi Boulevard where the wine list was as good as any restaurant like Le Caprice; the menus were in English and vodka was served up like iced water. In fact the food in Moscow is quite superb – although it is expensive.
The best restaurants and clubs we went to were Turandot, which is an institution in Moscow and boasts no less than about fifteen private dining rooms; all the staff have the uniforms made specially for them and the whole place has the feel of an Anna Karenina BBC costume drama. It’s a bit over done but it has a theatrical effect and the food was good, with the head chef being former London restaurateur Alan Yau of Hakkasan and Wagamama.
Everything in Moscow is big, brash and expensive and Turandot is no exception. It took six years to build the place and cost millions. How long the world will want to spend thousands at such gourmand fantasy palaces, I don’t know but it did feel a little like being the last diner in the First Class restaurant on the Titanic when the ship went down.
It is all over the top – from the collection of Chinese porcelain to the museum quality tapestries to the murals and frescoes and the fancy dress costumes of the staff. The restaurant even has its own specially made china sets from Germany. Selections from the menu included: Salad of Foie-Gras with Smoked Eel and Green Apples, Jasmine Tea Smoked Pork Ribs, Deep- Fried Coffee Flavored Spare Ribs, Spring Rolls with Smoked Duck and Peanuts.
Delicious and all very nice but the oddest thing is that throughout my latest trip to Moscow – some twenty three years after my first – I felt a certain nostalgie de la boue for my trip in 1985 when the only thing to eat on the menu was beetroot soup followed by lettuce and grated carrot. Moscow today feels like a cross between Las Vegas and Manchester.
The party to launch Spear’s Russia was memorable; to show how much money has become the new religion in Russia today, I was very flattered that Alexander Shokhin, one of Russia’s top government officials and president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, gave a speech at the event which was held at Zolotoi, one of Moscow’s top restaurants. Mikhail Fridman, a member of the prestigious and influential Public Chamber of Russia, and Petr Aven, president of Alfa Bank, were also present.
I can’t quite imagine Alistair Darling finding the time to write a speech in favour of the cult of wealth at the Spear’s 10th issue birthday party we are giving in late November, but it is a testament to how seriously money is taken in Russia today that senior members of the government should be interested in supporting Spear’s, which began life four years ago as a wealth management supplement to the Annabel’s Magazine – for the 15,000 well heeled members of the late Mark Birley group of clubs.
I was about to say Lenin must be turning in his grave but then I stopped by his tomb in Red Square the day after the party to take a look at his mummified body which is creepily disintegrating – almost faster than the Russian fortunes that are being wiped off. Abramovich is apparently down £20 billion whilst Nat Rothschild’s pal, aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska, has also taken a hard cash hit.
Lenin’s tomb is a starbgely eerie place, not the least as it is set directly across the square from one of Moscow’s chicest shoping malls. Cartier, Bvlgari and Todds sit only a hundred yards or so from the Madame Tussaud spectacle of Lenin lying in state. It is dark and opressive in the tomb – I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible after I was ticked off – and nearly arrested – for putting my hands in my pockets.
The weirdest thing, however, were the clothes that Lenin was wearing as he visitors shuffled past. No cloth cap or worker’s dungarees – rather a smart Wall Street-style dark blue suit and a smart polka dot blue tie. From Stalin to Spear’s, Russia certainly has come along way in the last fifty years.