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Unfiled November 13, 2004
 
Welcome to Rossia
48 Hours in an Endangered Piece of Soviet History By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

The massive Rossiya Hotel can be entered through one of four vestibules – North, East, South and West. The West, which faces the Kremlin, is the most prestigious. Most people seem to register for rooms in the East.

Rooms are absurdly cheap – I had a twelfth-floor single overlooking the Moskva River for 2150 rubles. It hadn’t been "improved," meaning I was sleeping on a glorified piece of plywood, the TV didn’t work, and the disinfectant used in the bathroom smelled worse than sewage, but for 70 bucks? It’s incredible, for a postcard view like that, the single-best hotel view from Vladivostok to Vienna. And now, after an August decree by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the Rossiya is set to be demolished. In its place, according to his plans, up to five five-star hotels will rise up as part of a one-billion-dollar elite complex including pricey shops, multiplexes, underground parking, and all the usual big elitny plans that Luzhkov has become famous for.

With Soviet Moscow disappearing fast, the eXile decided it was time to pay tribute. The fact is, we love these places, as much as we loathe the oppressive pafos of post-2000 Moscow. In order to express this love, the eXile sent me to spend 48 consecutive hours in the Rossiya Hotel complex. Which shouldn’t be hard – after all, the complex is kind of a mini-city, complete with its own underground 24-hour go-cart track, restaurants, movie theater, strip club, whores, sovoks, angry okhraniki, petty Mafiosi, and so much more. In short, the Rossiya is the Russia we knew that is disappearing before our eyes.

With a more competent management, this place could corner the tourist market. Put a couple of English-speakers behind the desk, and no other mid-range hotel would have a single guest until the Rossiya filled up. Who wouldn’t want to stay on Red Square?

But instead, the Rossiya does business "our way." Structurally, it is made up of little fiefdoms, each competing for its little slice. For example, rather than rationalize the cafe system (there’re four cafes on every even-numbered floor), little sub-landlords rent out three or four cafes which they personally control. These bufeti and cafes are only profitable because of an infinite source of cheap labor from the regions and former Republics.

My first meaningful interaction with one such provincial wage-serf came at five in the morning on my first night, when I met Aleksandra, a 23-year-old blonde from Saratov. A friend and I had just walked up a fire escape to the Rossiya’s roof, enjoyed the unparalleled view of St. Basil’s (lit for the night to celebrate the October Revolution holiday), and were looking to wind down with a nightcap. Her bar’s lights were on but no-one seemed to be around. Then, just as we were considering helping ourselves, a cutie with carpet indentations on her face appeared out of nowhere. Aleksandra had been passed out on the floor, hugging the radiator for warmth, during a lull in her 24-hour shift. Like many in the lowest rung of the Russian service industry, she works one full day and then has two off. Most of the hotel was empty and there’s no reason for so many cafes to be open all night. But it’s not like her boss was really paying her, so it was no skin off of his back.

We talked for half an hour. In that time, I found out she’d moved to Moscow a year and a half ago to be with her NTV reporter boyfriend, but he then dumped her. From there she’d found work at the Rossiya (where they don’t care if you have Moscow registration), moved into a one-room apartment with three others, and decided to go to journalism school. She’s now in her first course of an institute that costs a grand a year and likes to hang out at the Hungry Duck because of the "free love atmosphere."

The next day around one in the afternoon I bumped into Aleksandra again, this time at a different bar. I must’ve made a good impression despite being horribly drunk because she invited me to sit down with her friends, one of whom was celebrating her 33rd birthday. This woman, a jolly Dagestani cook, had made herself a feast of sorts – mayonnaise salad ("you won’t find this on the menu!" she told me), pickles, sliced meat, a bottle of wine and fried chicken. I joined a Moldovan, an Uzbek with a mouthful of gold, and a girl from podmoskovie in toasting the Dagestani. At the heart of each toast was a wish that she would make more money. It was the least festive birthday I’ve ever been party to.

"There must be something wrong when a person leaves his motherland," the young Moldovan waitress Alyona said. "And for us it’s that there’s no money." The Uzbek had followed her husband to Moscow – he works construction in podmoskovie, and they’ve seen each other once since the spring. In Uzbekistan, she’d left a $12/month job as a nurse and trusted her parents with her three daughters, aged 15, 13, and six. Incidentally, she was the only one of the women to say that she believes in love. Lena, a waitress from podmoskovie, doesn’t. She’s a single mother with a two-hour commute to a 24-hour shift to make a little extra money.

But how much money could it possibly be? No-one would tell me, although the Dagestani said she’d come to Moscow because a friend had told her she could make $500 a month. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. Their salaries are probably about $150-$200 a month, including whatever they manage to steal and hustle. This in what is considered one of Europe’s most expensive cities.

Remarkably, they didn’t have many harsh words for their boss, who ran three cafes and a pharmacy in the Rossiya. Each cafe is staffed by three workers at a time, nine total, meaning he probably spends less than two grand a month on salaries. They excused his stinginess (in a year and a half, he’d given a single raise… for 50 rubles) with, "well, he wouldn’t have gotten where he is by being generous."

Later that night, however, I’d get a chance to challenge that. It was three in the morning and my friend Steve, an American, and I had just failed to convince a couple of whores to come go-carting with us. (The Rossiya has Russia’s only underground two-floor go-cart track, and the staff doesn’t mind how drunk you are while carting.) Then Steve, hearing an acoustic guitar at one of the lobby bars, went up to see if he could play a song or two. For 200 rubles, he got the guitar and proceeded to sing a stirring unplugged rendition of Grand Master Flash’s "Close to the Edge."

That was all it took to win the hearts of the two bar girls, as well as Mike, a drunken American who was studying to become a minister before he discovered Russia (he’s since given up Christianity), and Artur, who ran four cafes in the Rossiya. Artur was wearing a Kermit-green vest and, like most of the managers at the Rossiya, was Caucasian. He seemed like a worldly fellow, having learned his English in Chicago. He was a generous cafe owner – he bought my friend drinks on the house. It was exactly the kind of scene you could only stumble upon in the pre-Luzhkov-pafos days, the kind of experience that is fast going extinct.

The Rossiya’s building appears solid and monolithic, but is actually a complete mess inside. It’s difficult to imagine a less efficient use of space than the massive courtyard. It’s treated like a Petersburg dvor, with no clear way to navigate it, piles of refuse lying around, and a menacing feel. It is completely useless and unused.

The Rossiya, with 2717 rooms, is the largest hotel in Europe and held the Guinness World Record back when it was first built in 1967.

Amazingly, the Rossiya was designed by Dmitri Chechulin, the same architect who built the Kotelniki, one of the Seven Sisters or Stalin skyscrapers, the greatest of all of Moscow’s post-Revolution buildings. Clearly Chechulin found Stalin more inspiring than Khrushchev, since the Rossiya lacks the drama of his other giant creation, with the former’s wedding cake fetish replaced by what look like huge shoe boxes.

Inside, the renovated parts feel like a late Soviet version of an Ikea hotel design. Everything has the same vibe as provincial Intourist hotels, only it isn’t threadbare. It’s almost as if the Rossiya, through its massive economy-of-scale orders, is single-handedly supporting a Soviet hotel furniture factory – it is the Mothership of provincial hotels, whose plastic lights, blue carpet, rippled wallpaper and vertical blinds are all styles you won’t see outside of the former USSR.

Walking the endless corridors, you can almost believe that the communist system could have worked, at least on the top floors, where the newly-installed old-school Soviet hotel furnishings have been installed. Several of the bottom floors are still awaiting renovation, with worn, orangish rugs, neon strip lights and stained wallpaper. But even on these floors, the cafes have done themselves up – a testament to the vigor of competition. Or to the fact that any time there’s a renovation budget, someone gets to wet their beak.

The Rossiya’s full of enterprises that go beyond what you’d expect from a hotel. There’s a movie theater, concert hall, the aforementioned go-cart track, a sauna/strip club/whore house, another strip club, at least five places that serve sushi, drug stores, night clubs, bars, a restaurant on the 21st floor with the best view and worst food in Moscow, a Nissan dealership, slot halls, fashion boutiques, all run independently from the hotel.

There’s no real logic to any of it. On the 12th floor with a view of the Kremlin, I had a beer for 50 rubles, while on the first floor with an inferior view a draft beer cost me 250r. It was poured out of a Bochka tap, although the waitress insisted it was Heineken.

The clientele that the hotel attracts are also all over the map. In two days, I bumped into various European tour groups (this is a huge market for the Rossiya, which claims it has served over 2 million foreigners over the years), the CSKA basketball team’s administration and several of their cheerleaders at the karaoke bar Moskovskaya Vremya, an American weightlifter with a wookie-hairdo and buff translator babe, hordes of teens at Diamond Hall’s student-only party, hardened ex-pats who’d spent the night before at the Marines’ Ball and were now drinking coffee with a view of St. Basil’s, businessmen from the regions, and of course a diverse group of slaves from the CIS serving everyone.

Sex in the Rossiya isn’t as blatantly for sale as it used to be, although two aggressive strippers still try to coax men in the East Vestibule into their club. While it isn’t tough to find a whore, prostitution has become more subdued. They no longer call your room every 15 minutes asking if you want company, but the cafes can get you whatever you want. Nowadays, whores still hang around the cafes waiting for business, but not in the throngs of yore. Lena, the server from podmoskovie, said, "They don’t make as much as you might think… they have a lot of expenditures, you know." Everybody, from the servers to the security guards to the hotel administration gets a cut of the take. Lena figures that sex is the second-biggest service the hotel provides, after shelter.

The issue of who and what controls the Rossiya is an issue that we at the eXile have to treat extremely delicately for obvious reasons. The best way to handle this subject is to draw from material already printed in the Russian press, because it involves people whose bad side we don’t want to wind up on.

While it’s 100 percent owned by the City of Moscow (which is why Luzhkov can decree that it’ll be condemned), it’s controlled by one of Russia’s richest Chechen families, the Dzhabrailovs. Hussein Dzhabrailov is the first assistant director of the Rossiya, but numerous newspaper reports claim he is actually in charge. If so, there are many reasons why Hussein would want to remain discreet, not the least of which is the fact that in 1997 then-director Evgeny Tsimbalistov was shot dead in his podyezd.

Hussein Dzhabrailov made headlines when he ran for President of Chechnya against recently-assassinated Ahmed Kadyrov back in 2002. He eventually backed out of the race. According to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from October 2, 2003, Hussein quit after receiving a visit from Putin’s right-hand operator Vladislav Surkov. The pressure was so bad that Hussein allegedly switched off his cell phone for a week.

Hussein isn’t the only member of his family with presidential aspirations, either. His younger brother Umar, who controls the Plaza Gruppa real estate empire, ran for president against Putin in 2000. The Plaza Gruppa, which for some reason wasn’t included on Forbes Russia’s recent list of the 200 largest private Russian companies, is valued by Compromat.ru at several billion dollars. Its assets include the shopping centers Okhotnyi Ryad and Smolensky Passazh, several three-star hotels (although not the Rossiya), and the Radisson Slavyanskaya.

Ah, the Radisson… which the dear reader will recall was the motivation behind the hit on American Paul Tatum. Tatum was shot dead in the heat of a dispute over who controlled the hotel. His highly public battle was with Umar Dzhabrailov, who has strongly denied any involvement in Tatum’s murder. In a statement from Tatum several months before he was killed, he alleged that he was expected to pay a million dollar bribe to senior member of the Moscow City Government in order to override a half million bribe paid by… Umar Dzhabrailov. The statement was only published four years after his death in the local press. No-one was ever convicted of the Tatum hit, but the official Tatum fingered for bribe-pandering is, according to published reports, deputy mayor Iosif Ordzhonikidze, while Tatum’s brother, in interviews given to ORT television during the wild Duma election campaign in late 1999, accused Luzhkov of approving the hit.

The Dzhabrailovs and Ordzhonikidze were widely reported to have been tight for many years, but they had a falling out that became public after a bizarre episode involving an apparent assassination attempt on Ordzhonikidze in 2003. It was the second attempt on his life – in 2001 he was shot in the stomach but survived.

The 2003 hit was as strange as it was shocking. While driving down Rublyovskoe Shosse on his way to work, a BMW with blue militsia plates cut off Ordzhonikidze’s armored Volvo. Three men in ski masks jumped out and unleashed a hail of pistol fire on the car. But, as the car was bulletproof, it was all for naught. Ordzhonikidze’s bodyguard shot back and allegedly hit one of the assassins in the heart. Police later "discovered" the assassin’s body in the burnt-out beamer, who turned out to be Salavat Dzhabrailov, Umar and Hussein’s cousin.

Later, Hussein would tell Izvestiya that Ordzhonikidze organized his cousin’s murder and set it up as if he was killed while trying to assassinate him. Hussein dismissed talk that he or his brother was responsible for the attempted hit. "We knew Ordzhonikidze had an armored car… You don’t really think in that situation we’d use Stechkins and Makarovs?" Hussein explained. In fact, he said, he had helped suggest to Ordzhonikidze the very type of armored car that saved his life.

Violence seems to dog the Dzhabrailovs. A couple of years ago, Umar’s top bodyguard, Viktor Lisitsyn, died of a gunshot wound to the head minutes after checking in to work at Umar’s place on the Novii Arbat. The death was ruled suicide.

Nobody knows the real reason for the Dzhabrailov – Ordzhonikidze split, but some speculate that it could have influenced the decision to tear down the Rossiya. Ordzhonikidze carries a lot of weight around the city administration and signs off on much of Moscow’s redevelopment. If the Dzhabrailovs are on the outs with him and Luzhkov, as widely assumed, tearing down the Rossiya could simply be intended as a serious blow to their financial power. Others speculate that as Luzhkov’s power is waning and Putin’s chekisti move in to feed at the trough, the Rossiya is an obvious target. While the Rossiya’s website claims that it had a profit of only 7,000,000 rubles (a quarter million bucks) on earnings of $30 million in 2003, it’s safe to say the real numbers are much higher. After all, they also claim to have 65 percent occupancy, which even at the lowest rates would put their earnings well above $30 mil.

Just a stone’s throw away from the Rossiya are two other major five-star hotel projects that have run into problems and delays –the Moskva, which Luzhkov now threatens to turn into a park, and the former Intourist just across the street. The Intourist was torn down at least two years ago, and yet they haven’t been able to build beyond the foundation to date. One day it’s going to be a Hilton, the next day a Ritz Carlton, while the Moskva has already passed from being a Four Seasons to a swell spot for a green park. It’s like an Abbot and Costello skit. So why start on a third large-scale five-star when two others in the neighborhood can’t even get their shit together? It doesn’t make sense. According to a Russian hotel expert I spoke to who asked to remain anonymous, "Westerners are afraid to put their money in, and Russians are too busy investing in real estate that is more profitable, like Grade A office space and elitny residential properties." At best, Western hoteliers prefer to manage these hotels for a cut rather than face the kinds of ownership issues that Tatum faced.

Furthermore, the source claims that the reason why Luzhkov floated the idea about leaving the Moskva as an open square and underground parking is that investors have baulked at the size of the project, estimated at $300-400 million. If that’s the case, creating another giant lot in the site of the Rossiya in hopes of developing four or five hotels with 2000 five-star rooms between them at an estimated cost of a billion dollars is patently insane. It certainly wouldn’t help Luzhkov’s stated goal of creating 2 million rooms for the 2012 Olympics, up from 900,000 currently.

One possible motivation for razing the Rossiya is the choice contract for the demolition, although at $40 million it’s relative chump-change. If it goes down, something will eventually be built, as the Rossiya stands on literally the most prime real estate in all of Eastern Europe. However, as my source said, never underestimate the role incompetence and corruption play in these matters. Maybe it is about the demolition contract, now that the Moskva job is over. Maybe someone wasn’t paying for his krysha to keep the Rossiya standing. But it certainly doesn’t make market sense to replace a profitable mid-priced hotel with a hole, when two other holes are still smoking next door. There’s only so much demand for holes in the Red Square hotel market.

Aleksandra, the 23-year-old cafe worker from Samara, thought there were three possible reasons why they’d get rid of the Rossiya: to keep snipers from getting a perfect view of the Kremlin (hey, she had good looks, and that more than made up for her bad theorizing), mafia influence, or to restore a church on the site. But she wishes they wouldn’t touch the Rossiya, in spite of its possible threat to Putin. "So many people work here, and what’s going to happen to them all?" she wondered.

There’s no shortage of work for them elsewhere, but most of it is far away from the Kremlin, in hotels with names like Druzhba and Sevastopol, places that would be happy to have someone with the customer-service skills learned at the Rossiya. But her point stands: there’ll be thousands of personal upheavals, from the wage-serfs on up to the Arturs of the Rossiya. As grotesque and atavistic as the Rossiya can be, it has still managed to preserve some of its humanity. A relic of the Soviet system, it doesn’t seem so bad compared to the depressing alternatives – more Marriotts, Holiday Inns, Ibises. At least the Rossiya, with its archaic rhythms and managed chaos, lets the workers be inefficient. It has a humanity that would disappear with its destruction. The Dagestani told me she gives regulars larger helpings, and her birthday party, miserable as it was, would be hard to imagine during the workday at a Holiday Inn. The Rossiya, when all’s said and done, has more character than any boutique hotel out there.

But that’s all beside the point. It isn’t its failure to compete that’s bringing it down. For all the talk of market forces in Russia, it isn’t hard to see that it’s making money. Maybe not as much as it should or could, but much of the hotel has been renovated and work continues apace, despite rumors of its demise, and counter-rumors of its no-longer demise. The point is, it seems, the decision to keep it or kill it will have nothing to do with the market.

It was certainly a statement when it was built, and its destruction is a response. Luzhkov seems to be saying the market, and serving mid-priced customers from around the CIS and tour groups beyond, isn’t as important as New Russian elitism and corruption. That’s why so many Muscovites have defended the Rossiya as a symbol of old Russia and the humanity of the Soviet Union. Indeed a recent Ekho Moskvy poll revealed that 70 percent of Muscovites wanted to save the hotel. Muscovites don’t want to see it go because they it’s the next victim in a process analogous to Starbucks-ification, without Starbuck’s accessibility. In Luzhkov’s Moscow, the average Ivan has no place inside the Garden Ring.

Next week, on November 19th, the rights to develop the Rossiya space will be "auctioned" off in a "tender." Demolition could be starting next year.

Who would have thought that Soviet kitsch could started looking good and represent such humanity? As one of my friends said, "Given the choice between new kitsch and old, give me the old."

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