. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind the Bar

Once upon a time, there were two bars that set the style for Moscow's watering holes. Now, the brains behind them have fresh offerings for Muscovites thirsty for a good time.

oscow now has thousands of bars each with their own merits, some flashy and expensive, some loud and dirty, others mellow.

It hasn't always been this way. A few years ago you could walk around town all night, all dressed up with no place to go. But people familiar with bar life from those days will all remember two names: Jacko's and Bely Tarakan, or the White Cockroach.

Starting in 1991, Jacko, a.k.a. David Jackson, started the Jacko's bars, first in the casino at the Leningradskaya Hotel and then at the Casino Moskva. He left one and then the other after falling out with his landlords.

The bars may have moved around but they set the tone for raucous foreign bars, catering to a mixed crowd of mafia, members of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Peace Corps.

Sasha Ovlinikov is the one-time manager of Bely Tarakan, hangout of the contemporary Russian intelligentsia. It was eventually closed down, but Ovlinikov opened up Krizis Zhanra as a replacement. Other bars like Vermel, Tabula Rasa and Bedniye Lyudi have started up with a similar alternative, mellow ambience, many set up by Ovlinikov's friends.

Both Ovlinikov and Jackson can claim to be pioneers of the Moscow bar scene, and both are back in the limelight with new bars in the offing.

The first time I saw Jacko was in 1993 with friend of mine, Alberto. Alberto was a carpetbagger back then and I first met him propping up the bar at Jacko's in the anteroom of the Hotel Leningradsky's casino. He was working for a questionable Spanish press agency that spent most of its time trying to extract tens of thousands of dollars from naive Russian company directors for "advertising in well-known Western publications," and he spent his evenings either in the Casino ship near the Mezh or at Jacko's.

Alberto, a clever but bizarre individual, had the strange habit of dropping his trousers when drunk. He was standing against the bar with a large gin and tonic in one hand and his Calvins around his ankles when Jacko came over, and I was sure we were going to get chucked out. "All right lads?" Jacko said and clinked glasses with Alberto. I guess he'd seen worse, running one of the first and most popular casinos in Moscow, but I wouldn't like to think what. Alberto, by the way, is now a commander in NATO which, I am sure, has no bearing on Russia's opposition to the alliance's expansion.

Two weeks ago Jacko, a Scotsman, flew back to Moscow after a year and half's absence. Met at Sheremetyevo airport by friends from his last haunt, the Casino Moskva, he was driven straight to Bell's bar on Bolshaya Polyanka. Not having had much luck in the Pacific Rim, where he had been traveling, Jacko was back and looking for a job. "I went to Vietnam to open a casino. There is only one in the whole country you know, run by a guy called Stanley Ho, who did the government some 'favors' during the war. As a reward they gave him a license to open a casino in Saigon, but it is the only one and they are not going to give out another one, so I went on to the Philippines." Things didn't go his way there either.

Within hours of his arrival, he had been offered the job of manager of Bell's with three months to show what he could do. Incidentally Jacko says that he is now "divorced" from both the Leningradsky and the Casino Moskva -- and as in all good divorces, the casinos got to keep the name "Jacko's" and most of the money.

Sasha Ovlinikov was one of a group of actors that set up the Bely Tarakan. Through a muddy courtyard and down a dark stairwell, the bar was in the basement of a building owned by the Russian Union of Theaters.

Originally it was lent to the Tverbul theater troupe as a place where they could rehearse, but they did the place up and used to meet and drink there instead. The interior was designed by Petya Pasternak, grandson of Boris of "Dr. Zhivago" fame -- whitewash, candles and homemade wooden furniture. He went on to design the interiors of Ovlinikov's Krizis Zhanra, as well as other alternative cafes like Vermel, Maxim Maximich (which burned down last winter) and Justo's (at one time the coolest bar in Moscow).

Bely Tarakan was everything that a bar should be -- exclusive but friendly. There were Russian movie stars, poets, artists and singers. One night the group that would become "Mother's Little Helpers" would play an impromptu set, on another saxophonist Igor Butman would jam or there would be a poetry reading by some famous writer.

Ovlinikov's new bar, Propaganda, is due to open Saturday. "It is in the same style as Bely Tarakan," says Sasha, a tall, slightly scruffy former actor. "We don't want to impress people with a lot of money -- to say 'We have spent a lot of money so that you have to spend a lot too.' I am not into all that super-intellectual stuff either. We want simple people to come here and have a good time."

Ovlinikov is working together on the bar with Irina Papernaya, a well-known figure on Moscow's Bohemian bar scene.

"I organized actors and poets in Krizis [Zhanra] in the beginning," she said. "I wanted to organize something grown-up but the young people didn't like it, and after all, it is the people who make a bar." In the Bely Tarakan three years earlier she had complained to me, "Yes, it's very nice here, but all my actors are not acting anymore. They spend all their time in the bar with their friends." On $25 a month there was not much incentive to do much else, and with the bar's popularity came money.

But things began to go wrong. The first was that Bely Tarakan was too good -- more and more people heard about it and it got crowded. Pretty soon the Russian Theater Union realized that the venue wasn't being used to rehearse at all. "The idea was to have a good relaxed place but we didn't know how to organize it well, and it was closed," says Sasha.

Since then a sort of Bely Tarakan mafia -- the former bartenders and managers -- have taken over a large part of the Moscow bar scene.

Among them the former staff of Bely Tarakan now run Krizis Zhanra, Vermel, Tabula Rasa, Bedniye Lyudi and Magnifique as well as several other bars that have since closed down for various reasons.

Of all these bars Krizis Zhanra was the first. Sasha Ovlinikov and Sergei Fadeyev are the owners and Sergei -- also the grandson of literary figure Alexander Fadeyev -- designed the interior. Sergei eventually quit his ownership role and went on to concentrate on designing, with Bedniye Lyudi as his next project. "He was more interested in design than business," says Sasha.

In the same style as Bely Tarakan, Krizis was popular from the first, with the young student crowd and people sick of the swanky Mafia joints. Problems with the neighbors, who tried to get it shut down last summer, have shortened the hours, but the owners were still looking for another venue where they could finally do what they wanted.

Both Jacko and Sasha are adamant that they will charge no cover and have both gone down market from the posh places that the New Russians favor.

"The New Russians may come [to Propaganda] but they won't like it so they won't stay," says Sasha.

"It's very simple," says Jacko. "People want to have a good time and not spend too much doing it."

For details on Propaganda and Bell's, see club listings, pages VII and IX.