Dima Zelentsov shakes his head and two twentysomething women, all high heels and sequins, walk away crestfallen. The rejection feels all the more dramatic given its location: outside the gold-and-red khokhloma-covered facade of the Denis Simachev Shop & Bar on Stoleshnikov Lane, a pedestrianised street buzzing with partygoers, just a stone’s throw away from Nobu and ritzy boutiques such as Louis Vuitton. It’s midnight on Friday and a dozen or so of those who have made it into the inner sanctum stand outside smoking, making any refusals of entry akin to a public humiliation. Was it their attire? Or were they not suitably prepossessing? Neither, it transpires.
Zelentsov insists that his quick-fire appraisals are far removed from the usual feis kontrol, where being in possession of the right looks and the right attitude are your passport to Moscow’s bar-and-club scene. What classifies as “right” is anybody’s guess and subject to the whims of whichever of the face control deities happens to be on the door that night. In select spots such as Simachev, the 32-year-old explains, it’s all about connections. First he checks the guestlist and then asks hopefuls who they know. “We don’t have real face control here. It’s about creating an environment for friends and friends of friends.”
Slim and of average height, Zelentsov is flanked by two burly bouncers who allow him to maintain an unruffled air and an inscrutable expression in each of his exchanges. Occasionally, when he discovers a mutual friend, he cracks a smile before lifting up the hallowed rope. Those rebuffed regularly resort to desperate measures, try to sneak in, issue threats or offer money and even sex — which Zelentsov has, on occasion, not turned down. Off-duty, he is just as aloof, sussing out new friends, true or false. Despite his protestations, it isn’t long before he begins to sound like any other face control authority. “70% of people get turned away. We’re round the corner from Conde Nast so have lots of people working for Russian GQ and Russian Vogue come by, so you know, we have to keep a certain standard.”
There is something heart-wrenching about the cries of a cat, which are said to be emitted at a frequency similar to a baby’s to invoke a sense of sympathy in their human carers. Responding to her feline patient’s yowls, Alexandra Galymyna, 26, speaks in soothing tones as if reassuring a child in pain. She tends to a steady stream of patients — cats, dogs, rabbits, rats, the occasional swan — at Centr on Tsvetnoy Boulevard throughout the night, from dusk till dawn. “Several of my relatives were vets and when I was 16 I went to a local clinic and asked if I could help out. I worked there for a bit and fell in love with the job.”
In the waiting room sits a woman with an impossibly small kitten, shivering in the palm of her hand; a Tibetan mastiff with droopy eyes plods out of the operating room, dressed in a canine-shaped hospital gown, head hung in a post-narcotic haze. Whether a night-time traffic accident, a territorial tussle or an unexpected illness, Moscow’s burgeoning population of pet lovers rush to the vet’s at all hours of the day to ensure the health of their animal friends. A monument to their deep affections for cute creatures stands outside the entrance to Moscow’s Mendeleyevskaya station: a bronze statue of Malchik, the mongrel stray who was stabbed on the metro in 2001, paid for by public donations.
As the moon rises over Moscow, so too does the number of animal injuries. New Year’s Eve brings with it an even higher number of casualties, wounded unwittingly by owners and drivers, blotto well before midnight. “It’s like solving a puzzle. When a human is ill, most of the time they can explain the problem or their symptoms but with an animal you have to try and figure it out.” Working the night shift, adrenaline pumping, agrees with Galymyna’s nocturnal temperament. Dressed in apricot-coloured scrubs, she has ministered to the needs not only of domestic but exotic animals too. Acrobats and aerial stuntmen, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists have all walked over from Nikulin Circus around the corner carrying sickly foxes and wolves like babes in arms. “There’s always such an unhappy atmosphere at human hospitals, a feeling of despair that doesn’t exist at the vet’s. Here it’s different. People are so happy to see you.”
The urban horse rider
Clip clop, clip clop. It’s 1am on Friday on Stoleshnikov Lane where luxury boutiques from Chanel to Cartier stand shoulder to shoulder, by day snooty and aloof, by night the reluctant backdrop for the drunk and debauched. Pissed pleasure-seekers tumble out of restaurants, bars and clubs. Three horses stationed along the street await them, ready for a moonlit spin. Clip clop, clip clop. Three women trot around enticingly on their equine rides. “We’re from the horse-riding schools just outside of Moscow and head to the centre to make some extra cash on the weekends. We just hang around bars and wait for drunk people to approach us.”
It’s a surreal sight, urban horse riding. But head to some of Moscow’s busiest not to mention affluent streets such as Old Arbat or Tverskaya on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll be sure to hear the clattering of hooves along the pavement. Sitting in the saddle will be some poor chump whose powers of sensible decision-making have been diminished by drink. “Sometimes they fall off the horses and sometimes they’re aggressive but then we just try to get them off as soon as we can.”
It’s like a scene out of a coming-of-age American indie flick. A couple of humanities graduates, not sure what path to pursue after university, end up working in a bookshop. Fuelled by coffee and Red Bull, they work the graveyard shift to earn a few extra bucks, finding in their fellow workers like-minded souls and possible romance.
But Moskva, across from the statue of Dostoevsky outside the Russian State Library, is no quaint and creaky bookshop. There are no shelves of well-thumbed books that have provided mental sustenance for generations of bibliophiles, nor does it even attempt such a literary atmosphere. This is Moscow 2015, where red leather chairs sit beneath blinding white lights, where branded merchandise and toys rub shoulders with the requisite Turgenevs and Tolstoys, where the whir of the coffee machine is punctuated by the tap, tap, tapping of laptops and the ringing of the till 24 hours a day means only one thing: profit.
While the store attracts a demographically diverse clientele during the day, at night it draws the disorganised, the skint, the eccentric and the lonely. Those in desperate need of that travel guide before tomorrow’s flight or that book for school, those who have missed the last train home and can’t fork out for the cab fare, those who have nowhere else to go. “We get the emos, the goths and others who we call the ‘night freaks’ and we also have regulars like this one guy who’s a teacher or a professor or something who comes in and talks to us about politics and history. We call him ‘grandfather’. One time this guy in a rabbit costume came in, headed straight to the psychology section and started taking selfies of himself. Then he just ran away.”
At the end of their shifts, the bookshop crew head out into the daylight, wired. Back at home, circadian rhythms misaligned, sleep is elusive, says Valery Kelya, 28, who has worked at the bookshop for two years. “If you stay up all night and stay in the same place within the same walls then when you walk out into daylight, your body doesn’t want to go to sleep. I end up hanging out with friends or surfing the internet for a bit. But you adjust to your circumstances and so do your friends and lovers.”
It’s a slow night and Georgy Budagyan, 29, sits in the waiting room, drinking black tea and watching television. Sometimes, on quiet nights like this, when he can muster the concentration, he’ll pick up a journal and catch up on the latest dentistry know-how. Born in Baku, Budagyan moved to Moscow two years ago from Ukraine, where he studied dentistry. “Because of the conflicts in the Caucasus, lots of people move around. Most of my relatives came to Moscow so I followed them here.” Since then, he’s been working 16 night shifts a month at the clinic, from 9pm to 9am. It suits him well. While financial necessity compels some to work unsociable hours, others, like Budyagyan, are nocturnal creatures who are at their most animated at night. “This is a city that lives on a late-night schedule so working the night shift doesn’t make a big difference in my life. I just rearrange everything around it.”
There are around 8,000 dental clinics in Moscow, most of them private, ensuring the city’s pearly whites are kept in good shape. It wasn’t always this way: in 1991, the average 35-year-old had a dozen or so cavities, fillings and missing teeth. These days only some of Budagyan’s patients are emergency cases; most of those who turn up at 1am are in for routine check-ups and procedures at a time of relative tranquillity. “Lots of people who work in entertainment come at night, looking for a time away from the crowds. Once this famous television presenter broke her front tooth and rushed here to get it fixed before her show the next morning.” Finding its way into cavities and porous teeth, winter’s chill doubles the number of patients on Budagyan’s doorstep. New Year’s Eve is especially busy. “We have people come in who have had their teeth knocked out in fights or women in high heels who have fallen face-first onto the icy ground.”
Text: Maryam Omidi
Image: Max Avdeev