Alessandra Stanley,

Alessandra Stanley,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 18 1997 12:30 AM

Alessandra Stanley,

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       I went to another party last night. I got there late, having filed a story first (my editors read Slate), but got there just in time to see Alla Pugachova, Russia's equivalent of Liza Minelli/Barbra Streisand, leave, her full-length black sable coat swinging angrily behind her.
       It's not a party until a Russian Diva storms out. I have no idea why she left early, but assume she felt slighted: The real Liza Minelli was performing in town last week, and that has put all us Divas in a bad mood.
       The occasion was a birthday party for Vladimir Grigoriev, a book publisher turned media tycoon, and one of my favorite people in Moscow. But this was not a typical Russian birthday party.
       For one thing, it was held at Fellini's, a members-only restaurant-casino owned by one of Vladimir's media partners, Sergei, who is one of the coolest--and scariest--New Russian businessmen. A one-time Komsomol leader and rock promoter, he now owns an advertising company, TV stations, nightclubs, and lots more. He travels in a convoy of jeeps with rifle-toting bodyguards. He is a considerate host. Instead of the usual bootleg vodka, pickles, and sausages, we feasted on champagne, roast beef, sturgeon, caviar, and mountains of canapés as a live blues band played music nobody danced to. There were lots of guys in black suits and black turtlenecks and cell phones. New Russians often look like bit players in The Avengers, but it is a look that works for them.
       To Vladimir's credit, there were also guests from his early publishing days, aging, tattered-looking writers and intellectuals who looked almost as out of place as I did. (What do you wear to a New Russian party when the temperature outside is 18 degrees below zero Fahrenheit? Basic black long underwear.)
       The one writer who fit in seamlessly was Viktor Pelevin, whose novels have been translated into English and French. He choked on his Cuban cigar when I asked whether writers are still as revered in today's society as they were in Soviet times. "When I tell people here I'm a writer," he said sourly, "it's like saying, 'I'm a loser.' "
       I quickly moved on to a winner, Misha, who is in construction. Misha is a big shot. As one guest put it, "He's the only man in Moscow who can say 'fuck you' to the mayor." I savored the spectacle of Pyotr Aven, a pompous former government official turned Russian megabanker (i.e., he doesn't return my calls), trotting behind Misha like an anxious terrier, a cell phone wedged in his ear, trying to do a deal.
       I had not seen Misha in a long time. He explained he had a bit of trouble with the FBI this year, a "misunderstanding" that led the feds to list him as one of Russia's top mobsters. I don't believe a word of it. He did tell me his son was kidnapped (he got him back), and that he himself was shot six times but survived. He pulled up his cashmere sweater, Lyndon Johnson-style, to show me the entry wounds, but I mainly saw chest hair.
       When the men settled down to blackjack and roulette, I left. (I love gambling, but the stakes were out of my league. Or Bill Gates', for that matter.)
       I felt a bit misty. In the old days, departing foreign correspondents grew maudlin over memories of discussing art and literature with dissidents over bad vodka until dawn.
       I mainly feel nostalgia for the few, heady glimpses I got of the new, raw Russian capitalists at play. They are a lot more fun than New York investment bankers. Western reporters rarely get a chance to mingle with the real movers and shakers in this town, and when we do, we are a little like '30s debutantes tripping up to Harlem jazz clubs with boxers and mobsters for a "lark." We are indulged and tolerated, as long as we don't ask too many stupid questions. Like, "What's your name?"
       A little goes a long way, but I would happily recommend Misha for a witness-relocation program if he should ever need it. And I know he would do the same for me.

Alessandra Stanley is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.