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Moscow's Booming Nightlife, A Haven Of Politics-Free Fun

Partying in Moscow's "Gipsy" club
Partying in Moscow's "Gipsy" club
Julian Hans

MOSCOW — It's a typical summer night at Gorky Park on the bank of the Moskva River. The day has been heavy and humid, nearly 30° C (86° F), and then out of nowhere the clouds rolled in. The lightning started 30 minutes ago. It's been like this for weeks in Moscow — scorching sun followed by nighttime thunderstorms. Anyone who's lived through days like this can understand why, in Mikhail Bulgakov's famous novel The Master and Margarita, literary critic Berlioz experiences hallucinations after drinking a glass of sweet lemonade in the Moscow heat.

It's shortly before 10 p.m. and blaring from the speakers on the dance floor behind the Pioneer open-air movie theater is the music of Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy playing expand=1]Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam), a song that dates back to the early 1940s when it was an American hit. Two dozen couples perform their swing-out dance moves, promenades and circles, which could have continued for hours if the rain hadn't begun to fall heavily.

DJ Anastasia Murashko, a stout woman with a ponytail, turns the music down and calls out to the crowd, "OK, guys and gals, dancing's getting too dangerous!" It's not that the rain would make a difference to the dancers, who have sweated through their shirts and summer dresses. Many of them have come here straight from the office, bringing their dancing shoes with them. It's that the wooden dance floor gets dangerously slippery when it gets soaked.

A different side to the city

That's the downside to open-air partying. Just when things are getting really good, the skies break. But a visit to Gorky Park is the best way to avoid what many hate about Moscow nightlife — the astronomically high prices, the condescending looks of Dior-clad women, the spatially intrusive men with thick briefcases, the aggressive bonhomie of vodka tourists, and the scowls of beefy bouncers. The park is open day and night, to everyone, and the three dance floors are free, although the DJs are always happy for tips. If people are thirsty, there are free water coolers all over.

There is no better place to spend a summer's evening than Gorky Park, near the water and on the open air. But it wasn't always this easy to get close to the water. Although the Moskva flows through city center in narrow strips, the concrete-covered bank was formerly home to factories and six-lane roads. That's changed in the past few years. Cafés and restaurants have opened on the bank, along with numerous clubs with terraces for dancing that overlook both water and the city. The city government has banished cars and converted old factories into nightlife areas. And nothing is closer to the water than Gorky Park, which has two dance floors right on the bank.

Anastasia's DJ console is her laptop protected by an open umbrella. All the dance floors have the rest of the necessary equipment built-in. The DJ just needs to bring the music along to plug in. This is the second summer Anastasia has been working here on Friday nights. "When the park was converted, the new management asked us if we'd like to dance here," she says. The DJs don't pay any rent, and park management gets a free set. "It's win/win, and a lot of people see us, and some of them are curious so come down."

The various dance associations rotate, and the program is posted on a board at the edge of the dance floor. Sunday afternoon, Cuban dances; Sunday night, rock "n" roll; Wednesday night, ballroom dancing; Thursday night, Argentine tango; and today, Lindy Hop and Balboa with Anastasia.

No place for politics here

Here in this urban middle-class reserve, there aren't Russian flags hanging everywhere, or T-shirts that say, "Crimea Belongs To Us."

A quarter of an hour downriver is Balchug Island, located between the Moskva River and its old riverbed. There, on the grounds of the former Red October chocolate factory, a nightlife area consisting of restaurants, bars and clubs has been created. The biggest and best-known venue here can be seen (and heard) from the bank. The music is mainly techno and house. The Gipsy has a huge veranda with chaises longues that give it the feel of a cruise ship deck. As in many Moscow clubs, the dance floor, bar and restaurant are all under one roof.

In the other direction, two bends upriver behind the famous Hotel Ukraina, steep stairs lead to the "Roof of the World." Krysha Mira, on the roof of an old brewery, owes its reputation to the fact that it started as an underground club to which only those who knew the code word were admitted. The old trick worked, although for an underground club, Krysha was remarkably exposed and poshly decorated. Today, strict selection at the door serves to maintain the club's reputation as a place for the select few. But going through is worth it for a night with a view of the Moskva and the impressively lit Hotel Ukraina, one of the seven high-rise buildings that Stalin had built and that have left their mark on the city.

Because Moscow is a part of the global carousel that sees the same big-name DJs rotating around London, New York, Tokyo and Ibiza, other aspects of nightlife here have become interchangeable too. Anyone seeking to party with the rich and beautiful should get themselves invited to the Soho Rooms on the other side of the river. This is where the children of oligarchs — and sometimes their parents — celebrate birthdays with spectacular goings-on, glitter and fireworks.

Along with the bar and disco, there is a dining room in classic British style and a library with books, a fireplace and heavy leather armchairs. There is also a roof terrace with a swimming pool. This elite establishment makes it possible for people whose money is probably invested in London anyway to spend it London-style at home. If you're not invited, you can always admire the toys parked outside — Bentleys, Rolls Royces and Porsches.

Meanwhile, Gorky Park's swing dancers, who have been enjoying themselves for an entire evening without spending a penny, are heading home in the rain.

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