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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Move Over Moscow

With an explosion of new, and infinitely hipper, venues, Peter the Great's city has taken over as Russia's clubbing capital.

By Vijai Maheshwari.

Asia faces down Europe along St. Petersburg's historic Griboyedova Canal: the MTV-bright, onion-domed Church of the Resurrection flaunts its Asiatic effulgence at the more staid Renaissance-style Kazan Cathedral on Nevsky Prospekt. But, in a nightclub in a basement underneath one of the ancient stone houses that line the canal where Dostoevsky's angst-ridden characters once stalked, the classic confrontation is transformed into harmonious synthesis.

In the recently opened Marilyn Club, television monitors beam soft-core porn into the Zen-inspired chill-out room, which has walls painted over with inscriptions from the I Ching and Lao Tzu. Teenage girls in hot pants and Marlene Dietrich eye shadow lounge along cushioned benches before heading off to the Egyptian room, where they will dance in the shadow of the fantastic beaked characters that once graced the tomb of Tutankhamen. Near the coed toilets there are Times Square style, coin-operated porn booths, where couples disappear for a few brief moments of privacy.

"This couldn't happen anywhere else," says my companion, wondering at the nonchalance of the revelers, who were barely glancing at the erotic images pulsing out of the television monitors everywhere. "There would be too many sickos hanging around."

At 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, the line outside Marilyn's is so long that it stretches all the way along the Griboyedova Canal to the Church of the Resurrection.

Forget Minsk, Kiev or Kirov. In the other parts of the former Soviet empire, one always gets the sense of a desperate need among the provincial tusovshchiki to imitate the glorious example of decadence set by Moscow: chrome bars, pulsing techno music, dark shades and gilded casinos. Moscow's high-octane Titanic Club has been replicated a thousand times over in the decaying provinces. What is more, the provinces have a dangerous tendency to over-imitate and out-do the capital in certain areas -- the girls are often bitchier and the thugs much more ready to throw a punch.

St. Petersburg, Russia's cultural capital, has always been different. There is an eclecticism that permeates almost every aspect of the city's night life: a funkiness that expresses itself in the most unexpected ways. In a whore-infested dive bar near the Hermitage, for example, there are tiny crocodiles in aquariums and a bear sleeping in the foyer. The yuppie Tribunal bar plays the Gypsy Kings and Moroccan Rai music, and is frequented by Russians learning to belly dance. Even in the Metro Club -- a teen hangout where patrons are forbidden to chew gum for fear that some young Lolita might swallow it during a frantic dance and choke herself -- there are painted transvestites leaping about on the second floor.

"We've never looked to Moscow for inspiration," says avant-garde designer Svetlana Petrova, whose recent show was called "Chechen Christmas." "We look to the West, and inside ourselves."

And now with Moscow money flowing back into St. Petersburg, and the economy slowly beginning to revive itself, Peter the Great's city seems to be finally emerging from its post-Soviet slump. The signs of progress are evident everywhere: 24-hour shops and sushi restaurants have sprung up around Nevsky Prospekt; five-star hotels are being built with a furious energy; taxi drivers speak English; and the club scene is exploding. Petrova says that more than 100 clubs have opened in the last year.

Even if this is an exaggeration, on a recent weekend St. Petersburg convincingly demonstrated that it is Russia's city of the moment.

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 revelers jammed the opening of the hi-tech Port Club, located in a former movie theater just behind St. Isaac's Cathedral. Conceived by famed St. Petersburg designer Mikhail Bartin, and funded by a young cigarette magnate, Port vigorously heralds the birth of a new aesthetic, one that makes Moscow's clubs seems drab in comparison.

There is an Internet cafe with tables built from titanium salvaged from rocket scrap; a recording studio for musicians; a performance room with a giant animation screen manipulated by a VJ, who morphs images onto each other; and a dance floor like a soccer field, complete with surround sound.

Port's walls are painted a trippy electric blue, with wave-like metallic structures attached to the ceiling of the chill-out room, which divides the dance floor from the Internet cafe.

And there are windows cut into the floor of the entranceway, so that clubbers can gaze down three stories to the surging mass of people waiting to get in.

The Muscovites there that night were flabbergasted. "This is much cooler than Moscow," mumbled Leo, a banker who parties at Propaganda and the Jazz Cafe. "I never thought this could be possible."

The hipsters were much hipper than Muscovites, too. There was nary a Hugo Boss jacket or pair of Versace pants in sight. Instead everyone looked almost, well, European -- like revelers in Stockholm or Prague or London.

"In Moscow, peasants dress in Versace and think they're sophisticated," says Viktor Sologub, whose Chemical Brothers-like electronic band, Dedushka, is the new rage of St. Petersburg. A Beastie Boys-like figure with a big shaved head and spindly arms, Sologub worked as an architect in Switzerland for a couple of years before returning to his home town to jump start his new band. During a recent concert, he performed in the nude, while a famous Russian clown barked out the lyrics to their sampled music, which includes Russian Orthodox chants and snippets from Hollywood films. Now they're working on a new album with pop icon Boris Grebenshchikov.

Bands like Dedushka often play at the charmingly decaying Griboyedova Club on the Griboyedova Canal, which might be the only truly experimental music venue in Russia.

At 6 a.m. Saturday morning, the Port club is still packed with E-ed out revelers: a girl twitches in a corner in her baby-doll dress, while a group of grungy English clowns stage an impromptu performance-art piece. Drunk partyers trade stories about avant-garde musician and famed music producer Brian Eno and the Pet Shop Boys, who have de facto moved to St. Petersburg in the past year.

I am finally introduced to Mikhail Bartin, the designer of the Port Club. "I wanted to do something different," he explains. "Not just a club, but an integrated cultural space, that would use revenues from the discotheque to promote the cause of art." Every few seconds, someone taps him on the shoulder and tries to drag him away. "It's great that there are still such people in Russia, that they haven't emigrated to the West," says Camilla, a young art student from Moscow who had come up for the opening.

I ask Bartin why aren't there such people and clubs in Moscow.

"There will be," he answers with confidence. "Soon Moscow is going to start imitating St. Petersburg."

And he might just be right.