In Moscow, the night is young

Times Staff Writer

Movie producer Rauf Atamalibekov had just finished a late-night dinner with a scriptwriter for a film about American and Soviet atomic weapons scientists in the late 1940s, and some fresh ideas had come up that needed further research.

It was well past midnight, but Atamalibekov, 42, dropped into an all-night bookstore, hoping to find information about the history of Russian spies in the United States. He ended up buying a book about Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb effort.

The bookstore, part of a chain called Bookberry, switched to a 24-hour schedule in June after managers found it increasingly difficult to clear the shop of customers at closing time.

“In Soviet times people didn’t shop at night,” said Valery Abel, a Bookberry executive. “They slept to get fit for a new working day, not that they had many options. Now the picture is completely different.”


Not long ago, this capital of communism was a shopper’s wasteland, its drab stores starved for basic consumer goods. Now, capitalism and oil money have transformed the Moscow night. The city teems with 24-hour supermarkets, health clubs, cellphone stores and a variety of other around-the-clock shops and services aimed at busy people with relatively high incomes.

Bookberry’s neighbors include a cafe and a hairdresser that also stay open all night.

Moscow’s economy has boomed thanks to a national windfall from high prices for exported oil. The Russian Federal Customs Service reported earnings of $66.2 billion from oil exports in the first nine months of the year. Combined earnings from exports of oil, petroleum products and natural gas have been estimated at $100 billion or more since 2004, according to government statistics.

Oil wealth has financed a sharp jump in government spending, up nearly 60% this year over 2004, and triggered annual growth in consumer spending of about 10% to 12% since 2003.


One result is a glut of cars in Moscow. Massive traffic jams that tie up streets in the morning and from late afternoon to late evening are one of the most common reasons that post-midnight shoppers prefer the late hour.

“In Russia, in most places, there is no difference between night and daytime wages,” Bookberry’s Abel said. “That is why in Russia it is financially easier to launch such projects.”

For many of Moscow’s more successful residents, life moves at a frenetic pace. The idea of sleeping eight hours a night is out of the question.

“Most nighttime shoppers are energetic people between 20 and 35,” said Yevgeny Dukov, an art institute scholar who has edited a book titled “From Dusk to Dawn: Night as a Cultural Phenomenon.”

“We certainly won’t find among night shoppers such categories of citizens as officials and bureaucrats, state employees like doctors and teachers, manual laborers or old people,” he said. “All of them prefer to sleep at night the way they did in Soviet times. So night belongs to self-made men and women, to businesspeople and to students who just hang around at night for fun.”

Stores that stay open all night typically make enough sales to more than cover the additional expenses. But most places that stay open 24 hours a day view the practice mainly as a service to customers rather than a big moneymaker.

“Our nighttime sales account for about 5% of the shop’s revenues,” said Artyom Alyakrinsky, operations manager for the Svyaznoy 3 chain of cellphone stores. “It may not seem like much, but it is very important for our image.... A majority of our customers at night are people who come in to pay their cellphone bills.”

At the Dolphin Club, which features a gym with workout equipment and a large swimming pool, Olga Skladchikova and her friend Irina Durnova, both 22, were exercising hard at about 1:20 a.m.


“It’s a bit expensive, but it’s still affordable,” Durnova said of the $120-a-month fee for a pass that allows her to use the facilities anytime from midnight to noon. An around-the-clock monthly pass costs $168. She lives with her parents, which helps hold her expenses down, works days as a salesclerk at a cellphone store and studies in the evenings for a master’s in financial management.

Skladchikova works full-time in the billing department of a construction firm, lives with her mother and studies at the Moscow Institute of International Relations in the evenings. She said it would often take her 90 minutes to get from her home to the health club in the daytime. “In the middle of the night it’s just 20 minutes,” she said.

It’s even easy to get dental care at night. Among those offering 24-hour services are some clinics of the MakDent dental chain, whose name, a takeoff on McDonald’s, is meant to convey a sense of convenience.

Dmitry Gruzinov, 24, one of MakDent’s dentists, said the clinic where he works had been open for 10 years, and for at least the last five years it had been open 24 hours a day.

People are pressed for time, he said. “They don’t have time to attend to their teeth, and they have a cavity or something, and the only time they can take care of it is at night.”

At about 11:30 p.m., Gruzinov performed a root canal on a patient who came in with acute pain. He said he doubted that the clinic actually made much profit from its nighttime hours because it wasn’t busy all the time. But being able to assure patients that a dentist will always be available when they need it builds goodwill in a competitive business environment, he said.

Denizens of the night even have a website to help them find more of what they’re looking for. Alexei Bogachov, founder and director of, said the idea for the website came to him in early 2004 when he was sitting in a small post-midnight traffic jam in central Moscow on his way to a store.

“I realized that all those people in the traffic flow were also trying to achieve something they were unable to do during the day, and the idea of helping them get organized after midnight began to gradually wake and take shape in my head,” he said.


The most frequent Internet searches for 24-hour services are for dental clinics, pharmacies and notaries, Bogachov said.

Narine Tumanova, 27, a client services manager at a bank branch, said she shopped late at night several times a month at an around-the-clock Perekrestok supermarket near her home.

“After work, I try to have a good time with friends and relax, and when I get home I realize there’s nothing to eat,” she said. “I go out and buy stuff for breakfast. It’s not very good for your figure to eat late at night, so I’m thinking about yogurt -- or maybe wine,” Tumanova added with a big laugh. “They say red wine is healthy.”

People who shop at the kind of supermarket that stays open all night generally have above-average incomes, Tumanova said. “At a minimum, you have to have a car,” she added.

“Or a friend with a car,” interjected Svetlana Nasonovskaya, 27, also a bank manager who was along on a 1 a.m. shopping mission for a party the next day.

“We’re talking about people like myself who work a lot of extra hours, about people with creative jobs, managers and designers,” Tumanova said. “Usually stores like this are 20% more expensive, but the people who come here have sufficient income to prevent them from thinking about how much yogurt costs.”

Yelena Kopylova, 45, an art expert for the city, recalled in near-rhapsodic terms a recent night out she spent with her design-student daughter. The outing began after midnight at the 24-hour My Paris beauty salon.

“I had my hair done there, and had a tanning session too,” Kopylova said. The $105 expense was “a pretty steep sum for a government employee,” she added, “but it was so pleasant I was not sorry I spent so much.”

She and her daughter then strolled up the street to Bookberry, sipped coffee in its “very cozy cafe” and talked “about things we wouldn’t have time to talk about on the phone in the daytime haste,” she said.

“It is the magic of the night that stops the pace of life for you and makes you forget about your daytime commitments and worries,” Kopylova said. “And even if you have to get up at 6 in the morning to come to work on time, you don’t care now because all this will happen tomorrow, but you are still living today.”


Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.