About 10m above a packed dance floor on a recent Friday night at the elite Moscow club Rai, a scantily clad acrobat performed gravity-defying manoeuvres in a clear floating sphere. Down below, go-go dancers shimmied and the bursts of flames from a fire show raised the club's temperature noticeably. As soon as the fire died down, a cannon boomed out a shower of confetti upon the dancing masses.
Despite, or perhaps because of, troubling signs the economy is facing its worst crisis since the country defaulted on its loans in 1998, Russians continue to throng extravagantly priced night clubs in the capital, where table reservations can cost up to US$6,000 (Dh22,080). "People spend all week worrying about their problems, credit issues and the economy," said Andreas, Rai's head promoter, who is so well known in Moscow's party scene that he only goes by one name. "Now more than ever, our clients look to the weekend for distractions in dancing, drinks and, of course, women."
But it is not all roses at Rai, which means paradise in Russian. According to Andreas, the club has experienced a decline in interest in tables. These days, customers are tightening their belts by walking up to the bar to buy their $20 cocktails rather than splurging for table service. To sell tables, the management is resorting to marketing gimmicks like the No Stress party, in which everyone who reserves a table receives free kielbasa sausages - an ironic nod to the days of meat shortages in the Soviet Union - and a bottle of Dom Perignon. "I like to think of it as a type of humanitarian assistance," Andreas said.
Rai and other clubs still feel confident enough to turn away large numbers of people using a system known in Moscow as "face control". If eager club-goers do not meet a nightclub's dress code or image, they are simply not allowed in. It's common to see crowds of well-dressed, attractive young people crowding the entrance of a nightclub only to be denied entry. During one recent visit to Rai at 2am, approximately 20 people, mainly young women in expensive fur coats, shivered in the cold hoping to be allowed through the gate. Most of them ended up waiting in vain.
Across town, another group of anxious club-goers could be found huddled outside the entrance to The Most, an elite club that boasts gold-plated toilets. An impressive array of cars was parked outside in the VIP area, including two Porsche Cayennes, a Maybach and a Bentley coupe. Inside, long-legged models, men in designer suits and Moscow's so-called golden youth danced to blaring house music in the club's baroque interior. "Does this look like a crisis?" asked Nastya Khodyukhova, The Most's public relations manager.
At the Denis Simachev Bar, a glamorous night spot owned by a famous Russian fashion designer, the management has installed space heaters on the patio in order to increase capacity. One patron, who gave his name as Slava, said while pushing through the crowd on his way to the bar: "The only crisis I see is a shortage of space." Few will deny, though, that Russia is undergoing a serious correction. Its economy is based on commodity exports, and falling oil prices are threatening growth.
The wealthy have already started to feel the pinch. After a decade of strong growth, Bloomberg News recently estimated that Russia's 25 richest people on the Forbes list, known collectively as the oligarchs, have lost $230 billion since the market peak. This group's remaining assets, according to Bloomberg, are worth about $140bn. In another ominous sign of the wealthy tightening their belts, Mercury, Russia's largest luxury goods group with more than $1bn in sales, reported that sales were slowing. Russia is the fourth-largest luxury goods market in the world and in recent years has been one of the fastest growing.
If the crisis continues as expected, Moscow's decadent nightlife could start to feel the pinch. "Many people are afraid that the situation will continue to get worse, but I'm an optimist," said Andreas, the promoter at Rai. "Where else can people come and leave their problems at the door?" * The National