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
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.
But despite all the hassles and threats, we did our job of bringing together large numbers of happily inebriated Russian girls and lonely expat men. Others, such as expat women (who couldn’t compete with the sensuous dyevushkas dancing on our bar-tops) and some Russian men (who weren’t happy to see their girls getting all that hard-currency attention), might not have appreciated us, but the Duck went on doing what it was meant to do: making Moscow a warmer, even a downright hotter place.
A lot of the things which became Hungry Duck trademarks started out as simple adjustments to the small space the club had for people to dance in. The dancing-on-the-bartop began at a Pepsi Foods corporate party shortly after we opened. They’d been drinking, and wanted to dance. Russians are generally less self-conscious than westerners, and my philosophy was to let them do what they wanted to do and see where it went. It was clear that the customers knew exactly how to enjoy themselves if they were given the chance. My only job was to market it.
The Duck tradition of young women dancing on the bartop wearing little or no clothing also started as a practical adjustment to conditions: it was hot as hell in there during the summer, and a few ladies, under the influence of a few beers, took off their shirts for comfort. And because that seemed popular with the customers and comfortable for the dancers, it became a tradition. Looking back, it was all pretty innocent. We never paid anyone to take their clothes off.
Thus, without putting any effort or serious planning into its image, the Duck acquired a reputation as one of the wilder, sexier places in town. Maybe it had something to do with all the people who fell off our second-storey balcony. On one occasion, I walked up to the Duck and saw a girl fall off the balcony on to the concrete below. I ran to help her-one side of her face was raw and bloody-and asked her if she wanted first aid. She came to, stood up, and told me that all she wanted was to get back inside the Duck. She ran back to the entrance.
We had to make adjustments, learning as we went along. Take the matter of security. We started soft, trusting in our customers’ finer instincts, with only two discreet guards at the door. But after a few nasty brawls in which beer mugs and bar stools were used like medieval weapons, we had no choice but to hire some serious security-the sort of people who look like they want you to try something. Unfortunately, we found that people who look like that usually are like that: the bouncers kept trying to provoke our customers into doing something stupid, just for the pleasure of beating the shit out of them. Two fights stand out in my mind. Once, 30 separate fights were going on at once in the bar area. Teeth and blood were zipping from one end to the other. Anyone unlucky enough to have been there was happy to crawl away with a few welts or a loose bicuspid.
Another time, a narcotics cop from the 18th precinct, who was notorious for planting drugs on prostitutes in order to force them to give him free sex, went on one of his usual drunken off-duty binges. He was a real pain, always lurking around the Duck. One night, he cased a pair of girls, and dropped a bag of drugs into one’s cleavage, then slurred to her that she was under arrest unless… Just then the girls’ boyfriends, both big guys, ran up from the bathroom and asked what the hell was going on. The narc repeated the accusation, and was just starting to accuse the boyfriends of being the girls’ protection racket when one of them pounced on him, beating him savagely, knocking the cop’s eyeball out of its socket. I remember seeing him all bloodied up shortly afterwards, with his eye partially hanging out, and saying to him: “You really look bad.” He was eventually transferred out of the 18th, to all the cops’ relief.
All that violence wasn’t what we had had in mind for the Duck. The Duck was supposed to be about love (or at least sex), not war. We fired the Nazi bouncers and took on more discreet security who, shall we say, pacified the men on a more permanent basis, meaning that by 1998, bar-room brawls were already a thing of the past.
Cops and robbers we could handle. What finally brought down the Duck was the respectable, puritanical elderly folk of Russia: the Soviet people. In May last year the Duma decided that it needed to tour nightclubs throughout Russia, get to know the people at play-that sort of thing. But sometime during their tour of Moscow’s nightspots, some of our people’s deputies, especially of the Zyuganov persuasion, got more than they could handle. Bare breasts on a 40-foot-tall bronze maiden representing the glory of socialist agriculture was one thing; the live, tender breasts of a Russian girl dancing on the bartop for the benefit of foreigners-that was something else.
So even if certain government types-notably members of Zhirinovsky’s party and the labour minister Sergei Kalashnikov-really dug what we were doing, the more virtuous members of the Duma were already preparing to throw a full-blown tantrum on behalf of Soviet morality by the time they filed into the Hungry Duck. That night happened to be one of our infamous Ladies’ Nights. The show involved some fairly graphic interaction between Dylan, our Nigerian male stripper, wearing gold spangles and little else, and several female volunteers from the crowd, while the Soviet hymn blasted through the speakers. A bearded 50-year-old former Red director from Chelyabinsk is not likely to be pleased as he watches a pale Russian beauty submit to Dylan’s charms. One of the deputies, a communist, is still smarting from that shocker. In a speech to the Duma, he denounced Dylan and the Duck for promoting miscegenation, crying: “If this were Washington, they would hang that negro!” Seeing more than 600 girls-many of them more or less naked-dancing on every available tabletop, counter and chair was simply too much.
At the same time, we started gaining too much attention. Dylan appeared on the television show Pro Eto and the mass-circulation tabloid Speed-INFO, the Russian equivalent of the National Enquirer, ran a huge two-page spread which featured a doctored interview with a non-existent, 14-year-old Russian girl who claimed to have performed oral sex at the Duck, to have been a regular since she was 12, and to have been gang-raped.
As a result, the Duck acquired a formidable new enemy. The club was located in a state-owned building which had been a House of Culture in Soviet times. Famous artists still sit on the board of the building’s directorate. The building’s current director, a former ballerina named Olga Lepeshinskaya, whose claim to fame is that she used to perform solo for Stalin, began to hear scandalous tales about the Duck and decided to have us expelled. She called a meeting of the building committee, invited me, and tried, in a brittle, patronising way, to explain why the Duck would have to go. Not only did she boast openly of her closeness to Stalin, but after she’d praised the history of the building, she said: “So you see that it is really quite impossible to have a negro dancing with our Russian girls in a club here.”
Russia’s top artists are untouchable, like ayatollahs. Once she turned against us, we were finished. Soon, every agency with the power to shut down a night club in Moscow (and plenty more without) made a special trip to check us out. All of a sudden, every cop in town was hanging around, waiting to tag somebody for anything at all. The result was 164 criminal complaints against the Duck in three months.
Once there were enough complaints on file, the authorities started pushing us to close down. Last December, the pressure became almost unbearable. First they issued an order to cut our hours back far enough to bankrupt the Duck. They demanded that we shut down at 11pm-not usually a good closing time for a night club this side of Salt Lake City. Then they called in the fire marshal-recalled from vacation in Sochi especially to shut us down. In Russia, no official gets called back from his Black sea vacation unless there’s a coup, and even then they usually wait it out by the sea.
In order to stay open, we hired one guy full time whose sole job was to grease palms to keep the business from being closed. But as agencies began to close in from all sides, even he could not manage to keep the wolves at bay.
They didn’t stop at attacking my club. Word came that someone had contacted the immigration service to have my visa revoked. The Moscow city prosecutor charged me with three offences. Two were so ridiculous that they were instantly dropped, and I’ve forgotten them. The third was: “Violating the morality of Russian youth.” The statute was adopted in the 1930s and used to read “Soviet” rather than “Russian” youth; it was retained, even after 1992, and the authorities stuck it to the Duck and me. Corrupting the youth-isn’t that what they got Socrates for? It might be an honour to be gutted for the same thing as Socrates, but it was an honour I could have done without. After all, it was only a bar, and there are plenty of other places in this world that need a good bar.
I don’t begrudge the ballerina. Her position is understandable. An elderly woman trained in classical arts can’t be expected to appreciate what beauty can be made when all discipline is temporarily suspended. That’s what fun is-letting go. She didn’t understand, and that’s just how it went. At some point, somehow, it was bound to happen.
I tried to look into different venues for the Duck, but I realised that it was fruitless. City Police Chief Kulikov, a nice, reasonable man, told me that the Duck had pissed off too many important people, and that there was no way the Duck could open again anywhere in Moscow without encountering the same hassles. So the Duck closed for good on 15th March 1999, exactly three years after my partners and I took over ownership of the club from the Chechen-Kalmyk group which started it up.
I hear lots of rumours, and get a lot of offers to manage new, up-and-coming places in this or that city. But I don’t feel any urgency to leave. In the meantime, I am taking it a little easier, managing Chesterfield’s, a more sedate, mature sort of club, and making plans to bring the Duck to the world. Minsk is first on my list; Sarajevo is next. I’m also looking at Beirut. My kind of towns.