Editor’s Note: Inveterate pub-goer Hugh Gatenby conducts ‘scientific research’ into Russian pub culture, accompanied by his ‘old drinking mate’ (his words) – his sketchbook.
The learned and very observant editor of this peerlessly informative site once remarked that my interest in pubs and bars is an obsession. “Not at all, John”, I protested. “Why, sometimes I can go for days without going into a pub.”
Nonetheless, he had a point. When travelling, I have always looked on pubs and bars as places of rest, of relaxation; to imbibe the local colour as well as the local ales. I however remember that my interest in overseas faux-Irish/English pubs began not in Europe, but when, for my 50th birthday, I was mountain-biking over the Outer Mongolian steppe (a great way to see the country) and I came across ‘The Great Khan’s Irish Pub.’ Irresistible. There were SUVs parked outside rather than warhorses, and its shamrock-festooned interior held no Golden Horde. But in a far corner, nursing his pint of Guinness, was a swarthy, grizzled, thick-set local with a perfect Genghis Khan moustache and who could have stepped out of an etching of the Great Khan himself. My fascination with foreign representations of Anglo-Irish pubs started on that trip.
Wind on a few years, and I find myself living and working in Moscow, occasionally visiting paboi (pubs) and always actively researching what my girlfriend calls pabovedinye – which may be loosely translated as ‘pubology’ Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the near-implosion of Russia in the following years, there was a rush to embrace the West with all of a its cultural trimmings, including that staple of British/Irish life – the pub. Faux-Irish and faux-English pubs flourished, many with owners and even staff arriving from Ireland and the UK. Today Moscow is laden with European-style food-and-drink establishments of every nationality and hue. I cannot think of any city, in my albeit limited experience, where the discerning drinker is more spoilt for choice. So I will just reflect on just a few.
Let’s start with a purely Russian variant. Just off the hugely-upmarket Petrovka street, with its hipster bars and bistros, is a squat, solid two-storey Soviet-era building. Its decay can’t be described as genteel, but but it still has a certain robust dignity – in spite of the boarded-up ground floor windows. Entrance to the establishment, the curiously-named Bar Na Chili (literally ‘Bar on the Chilli’) is through a much-graffitied bombed-out courtyard, which was used in the street-fighting scenes in the 2012 film Stalingrad. Actually, it wasn’t. I just made that up, but it certainly looks the part. Climb carefully up the battered staircase, which probably has seen a bit of street-fighting in its time, and you will find yourself in the fug of a big, warm and welcoming room, with a tiny bar at one end, an impossible mix of furniture, great music, colourful artworks – and even an more colourful clientele. Wonderfully eclectic, it boasts a pleasing student-bohemian feel. Absolutely recommended, and ticks all the boxes – except, maybe, in the ‘Toilet facilities’ box. But I’m sure they’re working on it.
But if film sets of the battle of Stalingrad don’t do it for you, you could always try the classic faux-Irish establishment, the Lion’s Head, on Moscow’s busy Myatnitskaya Street. I remember Sergei (not his real name) the genial manager, who liked to practise his English with me, once asking me, “Hugh! You know England, you know Ireland, and I – not! My pab. What you think? It is, how you say, autentichni pab... authentic Irish pab?” My glance took the cavernous space of the bar, the ornate chandelier, the balcony, the bookcase-lined walls, the giant TV screens. I thought back to evenings in snug little pubs on the West Coast of Ireland, and answered, ‘Oh, yes Sergei. Your Irish pab is completely autentichni!’ .Sergei takes a great pride in his bar, so best not to disillusion him. And in any case, what the Lion’s Head might lack in autentichnost (and with the Anglo-Irish pub being a relatively new concept in Russia, it seems unfair to judge) it certainly more than makes up for in warmth and good Guinness.
In recent recent years a number of real ale (‘kraft beer’) bars have opened in Moscow, as well as in other Russian towns and cities I’ve visited, whose style could be best described as minimalist-hipster-post-industrial. My own local, the trendily-named Kraft Version 1.0 falls into that category – and is none the worse for it. With its breeze-block interior, its simple bar where you place your orders (most Moscow bars are waiter-service) its astonishing range of ales and ciders, bottled and draught, the cheerful bonhomie of its bar staff – it offers the spoilt-for-choice seasoned pub-goer some tough decision making.
Such is the tip of the iceberg of the sheer variety of Moscow pub life. In Moscow, I really would have no idea on which one to confer a ‘Pub of the Year’ award. Depends on the mood. However, in Russia’s magnificent second city of St Petersburg, that would be an absolute non-decision.
There, a friend of mine has set up an wonderful pub, exquisite in its simplicity, called Fiddlers’ Green, situated just off the bustling Nevsky Prospekt. Is the labour of love of Victor, a wiry ex-sailor, linguist and intrepid adventurer, which he has made his paean to the seafaring profession. Service is strictly at the central island-bar (where stools are screwed down ‘in case of storms’) and visiting matelots, and tourists and St Petersburg hipsters alike are presented with a one-way manilla ‘boarding pass’, on which the night’s drinking tally is kept. Should you feel at all peckish, the cook will have chalked up, on the blackboard, much like at sea in days gone by, the meal of the day. And, like at sea, the choice is a simple one – to eat or not. With minimalist décor, its walls are adorned with black and white photos of sailors of many nations; I noted French, Russian, Japanese and American. The place is hung with battered old advertising metal signs, which, like the range of spirits behind the bar, Victor has collected on his travels. What stops this place from becoming just yet another themed pub is his sheer drive and passion.
So, some good advice when visiting St Petersburg, taken from the last lines of the traditional Irish lament Fiddlers’ Green,from which the pub takes its name. It tells of a final resting place, a Valhalla for sailors, and is narrated in the first person by an ageing ex-mariner, reflecting on his past and foreseeing his own mortality:
I don’t need a harp nor a halo, not me,
Just give me a breeze and a good rolling sea,
And tell me old shipmates, I’m taking a trip mates,
And I’ll see them some day on Fiddlers Green.
Well, quite. Cheers!