For three years the Hungry Duck was the wildest club in Moscow. But after seeing off the mafia and the cops, the outraged politicians finally did down the Duckby Douglas Steele / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s over, folks. I’ve been managing the Hungry Duck, Moscow’s (and maybe the world’s) most notorious bar, for over three years. Now I’ve decided that it’s time to close. Anyone starting up a bar or club in mid-1990s Moscow had to be prepared for some delicate bargaining with some pretty scary people. The Hungry Duck was founded by a mixed group of Chechen and Kalmyk businessmen. You don’t hear much about Chechen-Kalmyk joint ventures-for good reason: four of those guys are dead now. The last, a Chechen named Roman, died recently. He had just finished three years in jail for murder when he bumped into me and our engineer, Tony Kelly, on the Arbat last September. Immediately, he started threatening me. Tony freaked out and pretended he didn’t understand Russian. So one of my Cuban workers translated and told me that I was to meet Roman the next morning at a well-known expat bar, to discuss business, or else he’d kill me. I thought: “Oh, great!” The next morning, I met him-along with a very large contingent of anti-crime special forces who accompanied me-and that settled that. A week later, I asked the special forces guy what happened and he said: “Don’t worry about it, Doug, he won’t bother you again.”
Shortly after that, an expat manager from the bar where we had met told me: “Doug, did you hear the news? Roman’s dead.”
“What do you mean, he’s dead?” I asked.
“Yeah, he had a heart attack.”
Tough business. I received about half a dozen death threats myself, some of which went well beyond the threat stage. One night a group of Chechens invited me into their car to discuss business. They were slamming the car door on my leg, trying to pull me in, and it was only with the help of a brave Cuban bartender from the Duck that I clawed my way out of the car, avoiding what probably would have been a one-way trip to a quiet forest on the outskirts of town.
If it wasn’t the mafias, it was the cops. I have sat through raids on the club by just about every law-enforcement body in Moscow. During a raid last January, the cops carted off everyone who “looked like” they might be on drugs. How these officers could tell who was and wasn’t on drugs, purely by sight, I can’t imagine. In this case, everyone was clean. But they still managed to drag 79 of our customers down to the 18th precinct station, some of whom had to wait all night to have a police needle stuck into their vein. During the biggest raid of all, 52 officers from five different law-enforcement agencies smashed their way into the bar. There were grunts in camouflage and ski masks; tax police rifling through the waste baskets; narc dogs sniffing customers’ crotches; health officials sniffing the food; and militia men in full infrared night vision gear keeping watch for any snipers on the dance floor.