Moscow Gets a Touch of Class : The Soviet Union’s new Hotel Savoy harks back to the splendor of the czars.

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

If he could see the redesigned Hotel Savoy from his final resting place on Red Square just a few hundred yards away, the late Soviet patriarch Vladimir I. Lenin would no doubt be spinning in his mausoleum.

The place gives new meaning to the term “bourgeois decadence” here in the capital of what was supposed to be the workers’ paradise.

It’s not so much the half-dozen nude statues in the lobby or the waiters in stewards’ uniforms or even the gambling casino, a first in the Soviet Union.

The truly revolutionary features to anyone who has ever stayed in other Soviet hotels are things such as room service, built-in blow dryers in the bathrooms and real, fluffy bath towels instead of the oversized dish rags that are the norm.

The product of this country’s pioneer, economic reform-era joint venture company, the Savoy--scheduled to open officially Oct. 3--is meant to be a place where well-heeled foreigners can forget that they are in the land of Lenin.


As general director Sergei Skobkin put it in an interview: “We have sort of built the image in this house--and it is really so--that the business client doesn’t have to feel himself separated from his business any longer when he passes through (Moscow’s) Sheremetyevo Airport.”

At the Savoy, he can tune his television to America’s Cable News Network 24 hours a day, have a draft beer with friends in an English-style hotel pub designed and supplied by one of Britain’s top brewers and dine sumptuously in a restaurant with murals, gold-leafed stucco moldings and a marble fountain, all recalling the Old World elegance of prewar Vienna.

“I really hope one day that all the visitors in our restaurant will be wearing tuxedos,” Skobkin said wistfully.

In a way, INFA, the Soviet-Finnish joint venture company that owns the hotel is only trying to recreate the Savoy’s former glory. The building, just off Marx Avenue near the KGB security police headquarters on Dzerzhinsky Square, was once the residence of an aristocratic Russian family. It was bought by a local insurance company, expanded and turned into a luxury hotel called the Savoy just before the 1917 revolution.

After the subsequent civil war, the new government travel agency Intourist took it over, and in 1958 it was renamed the Berlin in honor of the East German capital.

Etiquette Expert

In early 1987, Intourist and Finnair, the Finnish airline, formed INFA as the first of what Soviet economic reformers hoped would be many joint venture firms. INFA spent the equivalent of about $16 million and more than 18 months to take over and refurbish the hotel, brought back its original name and began what Skobkin called its “soft start-up” in mid-August.

The management wants to build slowly toward full capacity of about 150 guests in order to break in the staff and “secure the level of services,” added Skobkin, a Russian appointed by Intourist to watch after its 51% share in the venture.

Soviet business has not been marked by good service, being commonly seen as some sort of betrayal of the ideal of a classless society. But the Savoy’s owners are overtly courting “high-society travel,” Skobkin said. So they even brought in an international expert on etiquette and manners to spend three weeks instructing the Soviet staff on everything from proper use of cosmetics to appropriate posture.

Finnish managers are in charge of hotel services and maintenance, another notorious Soviet weak point.

In a country long obsessed with giant construction projects of all types, including hotels, the Savoy is small. Skobkin is bitingly critical of “all those concrete monsters which we develop everywhere,” and insisted that for a hotel, at least, “it’s not possible to be both big and prestigious.”

‘Back to the People’

INFA hopes to open other small luxury hotels around the country in places where it can also take over existing buildings from the pre-revolutionary past. It is currently planning the revival of a second old hotel, in Kiev.

“These old houses--they have their own unique atmosphere,” Skobkin said. “We must never lose these beautiful treasures of our past history, and (we must) bring them back to the people.”

For the time being, at least, the people he’s talking about are exclusively foreigners, of course, and 80% of the hotel’s capacity is reserved for Finnair passengers. The remaining rooms must be booked directly with the hotel.

Rubles are not welcome at the Savoy. Neither, for that matter, are dollars nor deutsche marks. It wants credit cards only, in part, said Skobkin, because that helps cut down on the possibility of corruption.

The price of a room ranges from the equivalent of $180 for a single to $550 for one of the hotel’s four two-bedroom suites. A standard double room is $225 per night, and a typical dinner for two might cost $125. At that, the prices are not wildly extravagant by the standards of other, much less elegant Moscow hotels catering to foreigners.

Surreal Experience

Even the Savoy’s unique casino, which is operated under contract by Casino Amherst International Ltd., another Finnish firm, deals almost exclusively in plastic money. Gamblers are encouraged to buy chips on their credit cards, and winnings are paid by Eurocheck, which the lucky guest can cash when he goes back home.

The cashless existence at the Savoy adds to the surreal experience of walking back through its wood-trimmed revolving doors onto the shabby Moscow street outside. Just around the corner from all that luxury, ordinary Soviet citizens carrying string and plastic bags scurry from store to store trying to find the scarce goods they need. Scores were milling around a sidewalk black market the other day, trying to buy an old book or photographs of body builders.

At the Savoy, meanwhile, a woman in the hotel business center called up New York Stock Exchange prices on a computer screen.

Decadence? Skobkin shrugged and smiled, recalling Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reform program.

“We live in perestroika ,” he said.