From Red To Green

In Moscow, Newly Rich Russians' Motto Is 'More, More, More!'

June 08, 2008|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

I'm a child of the Cold War -- the old one with the Soviet Union, that is, not the new frost toward Iran. So, a few months back, after I checked into Moscow's Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a view from my room's window set my heart -- and nerves -- racing. Straight ahead were the brightly colored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, as well as the forbidding fortifications surrounding the Kremlin.

It was a photo opportunity not to be missed. Angling my camera to get both sights into one frame, I climbed on top of a radiator cover. A moment later, it collapsed off the wall, and I came crashing down, bruising my arms, which smarted for the next several days. Moscow!

This mishap proved portentous, as this is a city of sharp (and bruised) elbows. It has something of the feel of a gold-rush town -- Moscow is crackling with con artists and nouveau riche poseurs.

Forbes magazine estimates there are 53 billionaires in Russia, worth a total of $283 billion, and a "second tier" of 103,000 Russian millionaires, worth $670 billion. Hardly a surprise, then, that the country's capital is muscling its way onto the world stage as a cultural center and playground.

Costly building projects, including the lavish renovation of the Bolshoi Ballet Theater and the recently-opened Ritz-Carlton Hotel, are visible everywhere. During my visit, Donatella Versace, Tom Ford and other fashion heavyweights were in town, participating in the Millionaire Fair, a trade show of luxury brands for newly rich Russians. Latest craze? Over-the-top weekend houses, or dachas, for the wealthiest Muscovites.

So rife is ruble-mania in Moscow that I was subjected twice in two days to the same con by a pair of crooks. One rushes past and drops a thick wad of money, while his partner engages a bystander (me) in eye-rolling incredulity at such carelessness, before enlisting assistance in returning this cash to its "loser." During the hearty gratitude that follows, the good Samaritan gets his pocket picked.

"Russians are a little like children. As soon as they discover something new - and right now, it's money - they get really, really excited about it," said Roxanne Chatounovsky, a marketing executive I met one evening while dining at Nedalny-Vostok, a popular chic restaurant in Moscow.

"Luxury brands only became available here about 15 years ago," she added, "but already there are now a lot of Russians who have made their money so easily, they don't even know what work is."

Chatounovsky said the Millionaire Fair was offering a chance to shop for helicopters, private planes, race horses, Mediterranean villas and custom-built yachts to new oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich. He's the Russian oil and gas billionaire who bankrolled the most expensive sale ever for a living artist, when he paid $120 million for four paintings by Lucian Freud at a Sotheby's auction last month in New York.

The overindulged children of such families, she said, are referred to in Moscow as "bratskis."

From Bolsheviks to bratskis! History, alas, does repeat itself. Such were my thoughts as I waited in line the next morning in Red Square, inching forward toward a squat, granite bunker otherwise known as Lenin's tomb.

Red Square, of course, is at Moscow's center, both literally and metaphorically. Its colorful name, I learned, is not shorthand for communism; rather, in Russian, Krasnaya ploshchad (red square) derives from krasniy, which means "beautiful." And the square is exactly that - beautiful - and because of a slight sloping away from its center in all directions, when standing in it, you feel like you are cresting the world's curve.

If like me, you've wanted to see Lenin's corpse for decades, rest assured his tomb lives up to expectations - it's both spooky and exquisitely high camp.

You descend a ziggurat of dark marble stairs with a scowling guard at every landing, only to come to the crypt, where Lenin's embalmed body lies inside a glass coffin, bathed in such profusion of flattering pink light that he looks prettier than Doris Day did in her softly focused last movies.

Afterward, I wandered through the Kremlin, which is not just a governmental edifice as I'd imagined, but a city within a city that contains cathedrals, monasteries, museums, palaces, bells and cannons. If you are in a hurry, head straight to the Armory Palace, which was fully restored in 2006 to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

Here, there are rooms full of ceremonial costumes, crowns, thrones and carriages used by Russia's rulers from Medieval times to the present. There are also remarkable examples of the Russian Orthodox Church's wealth and power, including holy icons so encrusted with gold, pearls and precious stones that some weigh upward of 50 pounds. Gazing at these, as well as the Faberge eggs so beloved of Czar Nicholas II, puts the excesses of the Millionaire's Fair in historical context.

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