My experience/passion of Russian nightlife began at the end of the world: Vladivostok, the tip of the eastern point of Russia. Tall, heavily made-up ladies skulked in dark corners of the club, smoking profusely, painted eyes latched onto my obviously out-of-place presence. Heavy techno music thudded from overhead speakers. The bar solemnly offered eighteen different brands of vodka.
Yup, I thought to myself. This was the Russia I had expected.
But half an hour later of drinking and silly dancing (because if there’s anything us British know how to do, it’s how to make a fool of ourselves drunk), most of the club was on the floor too: talking, dancing, even smiling. It seemed that the generalisation of cold, distant Russia was nothing more than an exaggerated stereotype; indeed, as I visited Russia in two separate trips and three cities, I realised that the Russians I came to know were in fact the warmest people I have yet to meet.
Moscow was the city that surprised me. By day, train and tube stations were huddled with fur coats and silk hats; individuality felt suppressed and hidden under the grey stark outline of endless tower blocks. But by night, pubs and clubs and parties pulsed from every corner and basement and block, life surging from every resident with the setting of the sun. Smoky live music terraces shimmered alongside pitch-black kitsch bars in art exhibitions. My final night in Moscow was spent in the basement of an abandoned warehouse; vodka and beer flowed in unlimited supply, and men and women alike adorned with glitter and tiaras flittered between the broken beams and benches. In the grey and empty spaces of the city, Moscow nightlife bloomed and flowered every night.
Whereas Moscow was a city of contrasts, St Petersburg was soft and calm, a Cyrillic version of Amsterdam. With excitement, I found that alcohol – indeed, everything – was a fraction of the price of the nearby Moscow. In St Petersburg, the kitsch bars tripled and multiplied. Every person I met had a frightening knowledge of modern art and music. In general, clubs and bars seemed less obtrusive in St Petersburg than in Moscow and Vladivostok; nightlife in the cultural city doesn’t explode, but floats. Friends are easier to meet and make here. After befriending one man for the entire evening, he gave me his harmonica as a ‘memento’ of our friendship. It is generous scenes like these that are common not just in St Petersburg but across the country.
Despite the differences between the three cities for historical and geographical reasons, for me the spirit of the people across Russia more or less was a constant: warm, friendly, and hospitable. Although some stereotypes are reinforced, many are disrupted and subverted by the heterogenous reality of this vast and incomprehensible country.
words and photos by Dannee McGuire, Razz Travel Correspondent