‘Crimson Jackets Felt Out of Their Element Here’

PHOTO by Night Flight Archive
Moscow’s first expat nightclub celebrates its 25th anniversary

Foreign adventurers, long-legged Swedes and KGB approvals: Yuri Giverts, co-founder of the first expat nightclub in Moscow, reminisces on the 1990s and shares his advice for avoiding getting involved with criminal elements.

1991 was awash in memorable events. Some of them are legitimately historic, while others are less noteworthy but still special milestones calling for celebration. One of these is the launch of Night Flight, the first real nightclub in Moscow. Conceived for expats, the club still operates at the same address on Tverskaya Street, catering to foreign visitors and the women who want to meet them.

In present-day Moscow, whose nightlife has witnessed armed police raids, criminal gatherings, restaurant shootings and plenty of drunk dancing, Night Flight seems fairly proper and respectable.

But things were quite different in 1991, when Swedish-born Sonny Lundqvist and Russian native Yuri Giverts decided to open a nightclub in a former ice cream parlour. To register their business, the co-founders had to obtain countless official permissions, including one from the KGB. All equipment and materials, which had to be brought in from Sweden, arrived in Moscow only three days before the attempted coup in August 1991. The club finally opened on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street at the end of October 1991 and is said to have inspired the film “Interdevochka” (Intergirl), which is about a nurse-turned-prostitute who marries her Swedish client. While not attempting to deny this association, Night Flight owners assure that the club was meant as a meeting and eating place for the expat community and never offered the stripteases or shows that were then becoming popular in Russia. Girls wishing to spend an evening at the nightclub were treated like all other visitors, and the only thing that was checked in their IDs was their date of birth – the ladies had to be 21 or older to enter. Giverts, a co-founder of Night Flight, told Gazeta.ru about these times.

Who came up with the plan to open a nightclub on Tverskaya back in 1991?

Our Swedish partners did. At that point, they already had a tiny hotel-based facility in St. Petersburg that was a cross between a Soviet discotheque and a more modern version of a nightclub. However, at the beginning of the 1990s they realised that Russia had good prospects for development and wanted to take things to a new level, which meant they had to expand to Moscow.

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How did they stumble upon the idea?

If I told you they conducted market analysis or anything like that, it would be a lie. They did not. They just responded intuitively to the expat market’s demand for a product that was unavailable on the Soviet market.

Were there many expats in Moscow?

Quite a few. Not all of them lived here permanently; many came to Moscow on long-term business trips to work for all sorts of joint ventures that had started sprouting up in the USSR by that time. However, there were no nightclubs or restaurants providing the atmosphere that expats were used to. The unfashionable Intourist hotels and the International Trade Centre with Soviet-style bars weren’t up to par.

What kind of people came to the Soviet Union in 1989-90?

Risk-taking entrepreneurs. Who else would come to do business in a country with no clear regulatory system, no European-standard hotels and no decent service? Essentially, they were adventure-seekers.

So they tried to do business here?

And they really did! It all began with the Soviet law that approved joint ventures with foreign companies. Today, joint ventures are everywhere, but 25 years ago there were just a few hundred of them altogether. Some worked in the manufacturing industry, some in telecommunications, but most were in the trade sector. Unlike Soviet enterprises, joint ventures were free to set their own prices since they controlled the import of computers and office equipment.

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Most importantly, joint ventures could open settlement accounts and perform currency transactions – a real breakthrough for the Soviet economy. Believe me, when we were starting our project, we used a telex to send visa invitations to our Swedish business partners. We bought a photocopier with dollars. To give you some idea of the 1990s business environment in the USSR, let me just mention that companies needed special permission to use a photocopier. Moreover, they had to keep a record of all their contracts as well as the number of pages copied in a special log.

Where did the records go?

We had to submit them to the Department of Trade and Services. Each photocopy was registered, so if the machine jammed, this had to be recorded too.

What for? Was it some kind of rule from the Communist era?

Of course. It was a precaution taken against the possible dissemination of anti-Soviet literature.

Does this mean that Sonny Lundqvist was the first to enter the Soviet market with a service business rather than a trading enterprise?

I wouldn’t say that. One might say that the first joint venture in the Russian restaurant sector was McDonald’s but it wasn’t. The first joint-venture restaurant in the USSR was called Delhi; it was in Moscow’s Presnya District and was listed as No. 4 in the USSR’s state register of joint ventures.

The restaurant was set up following a resolution signed by Prime Minister Nikolay Ryzhkov of the USSR and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India. Unless I am mistaken, this happened in 1988.

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Still, that joint venture involved India, with which the USSR maintained friendly relations, not the US, with which the USSR had much frostier relations.

Actually, Russia’s relations with the US were not any worse than they are today. Granted, many people with the Soviet mentality tended to see America as an enemy. But official contacts were undergoing a period of thaw. At the historic meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Gorbachev showed a willingness to commit to cooperation with both the US and Europe. There were many other positive developments. At that time, everybody was looking forward to positive political and economic change – an enormous difference from what we are seeing today.

Going back to Night Flight, how did you meet Sonny?

I was invited to provide legal counselling. The Soviet laws treated cafes and restaurants as lease enterprises. A company called Tver, a Soviet-style structure that handled Moscow’s cafeterias and restaurants but had never worked with a joint venture before, ran the place where Night Flight still is today. They had no idea what a joint venture was or how to develop articles of association or a constituent agreement. They were also ignorant about company registration procedures, approvals to be obtained and international business in general. They contacted me for legal advice and this is how I met Sonny. The resulting joint venture was 100% private, without any government capital.

What kind of arrangement was it? Who was responsible for what?

The Russian partners were in charge of the rent contracts and contracts with suppliers and buyers – in fact, any contracts with the Russian market, from phone line installation to meat supplies. The Swedish associates were responsible for club management as well as food supplies and equipment. Mind you, we had to bring everything from Sweden, down to the toothpicks, ashtrays and even the alcohol, for which no wholesale licence was required.

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Did you have much trouble from racketeers in the gruesome 1990s?

The 1990s were a difficult period, it’s true. But I wouldn’t call them gruesome. This was a good time too, a period of rapid market growth. Business was thriving; competition in the nightclub and restaurant sector was low, so one could start with much more limited investments than now. As for racketeers, we were fortunate enough to avoid any contact with criminal gangs. We did realise that the criminal world might get interested in us at some point so we signed an official contract with a private security company that looked after these problems. We specifically demanded that no criminal gang should ever approach our club with offers of “roofing” (protection against other criminals) or any similar services.

I suspect there was a lot of discussion about these issues behind the scenes but we were not involved in them.

So you never actually saw any gangsters in your club?

We made every effort to make our club a safe place for expats. I never checked where our guests worked or what they did, but we had a rule that all male visitors should be over 30 years old. We did see a lot of “crimson jackets” (the gaudily-dressed New Russians who achieved their wealth by criminal methods), but they felt out of their element here. All they ever wanted to do was show off how tough they were. This attitude didn’t work in our club.

Author: Anna Lozinskaya