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Nightlife Thrives in Post-Soviet Russia, but Many are Priced Out - 2001-12-24

The Soviet Union was famous for its classical ballet, numerous theaters and symphonies. But there were few nightclubs or bars.

Nightlife, back in the Soviet days, usually meant gathering in the kitchen to sing, talk and drink. But things have changed a lot since the end of Communism. Russia today, especially in big cities like Moscow, offers a breathtaking variety of nighttime entertainment, everything from pricey restaurants to clubs and casinos catering to almost every taste. But Russia's nightlife is still not for everyone.

At the Chinese Pilot - one of Moscow's hippest clubs - the band is a half-hour late this Friday evening. But the customers don't mind. The room is crowded with young adults, sipping beers and smoking cigarettes. In the next room, couples gather around small wooden tables to eat dinner under Victorian lampshades and candles.

Irina Papernaya opened the Chinese Pilot with her son a few years ago. She is also the artistic force behind many of Moscow's cutting-edge clubs. Ms. Papernaya opened her first club, called the White Cockroach, in 1993. It quickly became a legend, strictly by word of mouth.

"We made no promotion, but people [talked about it], from one person to another, and it became very popular," she said.

Ms. Papernaya says Muscovites were desperate for nightlife since few clubs or bars existed during the Soviet years. She tells a story about a Russian writer who happened upon some tourists in Moscow.

"Some drunk, maybe Swedish or Finnish people, came to him and asked 'where is the closest bar here?' and he thought a little bit and said, 'I think in Helsinki,'" she says.

Times have definitely changed.

Now tourists and Russians can play dice at the casino, sing pop songs at a karaoke bar or watch a band at the Chinese Pilot.

But while people in the Soviet Union had money and nowhere to spend it, now there are many places to go, but few people can afford them.

For 35-year-old Lena Dyekunova, nightlife means standing near the metro, trying to sell girls' dresses and toys to Muscovites on their way home. Tonight it's bitterly cold - about -15 degrees. It might take her two or three hours to make enough money to buy a beer at the Chinese Pilot.

"I don't have enough money to go out. Before we did. We went to bars. We went to cafes. We went to the theater," he says.

This kind of talk does not surprise Irina Papernaya. She says that while her club is not as expensive as other places, she acknowledges it is too expensive for most, though not all, Russians.

"Main problem now, there's a big difference between people who have money and people who don't have money. Because all things we talk about, all themes, of course I talk about people not with big money. I mean middle class. People who have such money, in the evening to feel okay, and free and go to club," she says.

But there is one form of entertainment that is almost free and just as popular as it was in Soviet times. Television.

Yelena Bashkirova is the president of Romir, a polling company which tracks viewing trends in Russia. She says television has replaced newspapers as the main source of entertainment and information in Russia, partly because newspapers have become so expensive.

"Very many people just cannot afford it, because in the old times Pravda or Izvestia would cost like three kopeks, and in the budget of the family that was just nothing," she says.

Now she says television is the only thing people have left.

Today's Russians, unlike in Soviet days, have many viewing choices, from the American program Baywatch to Brazilian soap operas. This autumn one station released a controversial Russian version of the reality-based programs that are popular in the West. But in the Russian version sex is more than talked about it's shown on television.

Olga is talking about one of her housemates, Margo who earlier in the show took a shower with Sasha, who left the show to patch up his relationship with his girlfriend, leaving Margo to sleep with Maxim.

They are characters on the Russian television show Za Steklom, or Behind the Glass. The contestants live together in a small Moscow apartment for a month and the winner receives a free apartment in Moscow.

The show was an instant success although it is often criticized for the sexual content. Many Russians watch the show, but few want to admit to it.

Twenty-one year old Maria Khodina says she doesn't like i>Za Steklom.

"There are some things that cross over the bounds of morality, and don't need to be shown on television all over the country," she says.

Despite the controvery, or maybe because of it, the show is already shooting a second season which will air this January.

Such options like i>Za Steklom would have been unheard of during the Soviet Union. And the young kids rocking out at the Chinese Pilot probably would have been at home with their parents. But today's Russia is entirely different from the Soviet Union, and tourists no longer have to travel to Helsinki to have a good time.