Gambling is the last thing Russias high-end casino-goers want to do – they’re really only there to see and be seen, says Andrei Navrozov.
The one absolute about a man’s life in Soviet Russia was that chance played no part in it whatsoever. Luck meant dying in the same bed in which one had been born, ideally with the same amount of roubles under what one might describe as a mattress. So when, in the 1980s, the movers and shakers of perestroika began constructing their simulacrum of an open society in Russia, it was important to make casinos part of that strategic illusion, alongside Armani emporia, prostitution, and the stock exchange. Casino gambling might be a totem of Western decadence, but even more potently it was a symbol of the freewheeling, unpredictable, limitless abstraction called opportunity.
The symbol has served the Kremlin well over the past decade, and it is doubtful that the playful expropriation of Khodorkovsky’s property or, more recently, the shell game with polonium against Berezovsky, would have come off as nicely as they did had it not been for the background of that picturesque confusion verging on lawlessness of which Moscow’s casinos are the flagship. The dreadnought, however, has grown obsolete. An edict, in effect from 2009, proposes to remove the capital’s casinos to four ‘gaming zones’, one of which is, literally, in Siberia.
Doubtless, this is good news for London, but in Moscow the old dog still has some life in it yet. In fact, since the glory days of the genre’s earliest exhibition specimens, such as the Metropole and the Shangri-La — streamlined, noisy, Vegas-style operations — a new kind of establishment, conceived as intimate and stylish, has come into being and, more pertinently, into fashion. Created around the idea of a salon privé, the new arrivals on the scene, the Europe and the Arbat, have drawn on London casinos for inspiration.
‘I even went to the Arbat with my mother,’ says Tatiana Stepanova, the preternaturally blonde Miss Russia alumna and Select model, for whom men are but chips in the game of finding a loving and caring husband. As she scrolls through their names on the display of her platinum Vertu, a £20,000 plaything purchased with the winnings of a particularly successful night out, Tanya’s kitten nose wrinkles ever so slightly. ‘I would not go to the Metropole if you paid me,’ she adds, fibbing of course. ‘You understand, the Arbat’s got pathos.’ Pathos? ‘Well, je ne sais quoi then.’
Differentiation, too, is a game, one that every society must play in order to separate the winners from the losers or, as in Tanya’s case, the oligarchs from the boring rich. In this, Moscow’s new boutiques, restaurants, nightclubs and, crucially in this period of transition from democratic oratory to petroleum smugness, casinos, now set the rules. Exclusivity to the people is an American philosophy of limited utility, as it only makes sense to the people, to pensioners in particular, playing slots in Atlantic City until rewarded with a complimentary cocktail of vodka and Mott’s apple juice.
In Russia, even a newcomer to the game realises that exclusivity to the KGB makes more sense. It helps when one’s father is an officer in the FSB, as the successor to the Cold War’s secret police is called, and Tanya’s is.
Yegor Pazenko, a rising star of Russian cinema feted at the Kremlin for his role as a James Bond-style FSB hero in Countdown, agrees that popular places like the Metropole have lost their appeal. ‘You know me, I’d play roulette anywhere there’s a wheel,’ he says, reminding me of his days as a struggling actor in London. ‘It would’ve been easier if I had got paid in casino chips,’ he muses, ‘since that’s where it all went anyway. Nowadays, it’s not what you play or how much you win, it’s where and with whom. Snobbery has become a vital ingredient of the whole experience.’
That the Arbat, and the socially evolved gambler’s worldview it represents, will be the ultimate winner of the casino sweepstakes is self-evident to lifestyle sages like Russian Vogue Living editor Nelli Konstantinova. ‘Apart from dining in outer space, there’s hardly anything left these days that a person with oodles of cash can do which other people with oodles of cash cannot,’ she comments. ‘And inevitably, when it comes to casino high rollers, form must eclipse substance, indeed become substance. The rich want to rub shoulders with those whom they perceive as their betters, not with the merely rich like themselves.’
As a gambler, I find it repugnant that any notion of my pleasure should rest on considerations of politics, sociology, or psychology. Perhaps this is why Moscow’s casinos have yet to see my money. Not that I’ve any left, mind you, but that’s another story.