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Russians drink up, refusing to feel the economic pain

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 9:40 PM

MOSCOW - Their country still endures the sting of economic crisis, but long-suffering Russians have no intention of feeling the pain this holiday season. The over-the-top office party is back, sparkling wine sales are bubbling up and the streets are festooned with banners advertising furs and expensive cars.

Vladislav Blyumenkrants knew the good times beckoned when a secretary began dancing with a large yellow snake at a Dec. 3 bash. A partner in a party planning company called Event Alliance, he had been firm when the client, an international footwear company, asked for a Quentin Tarantino party theme, then balked at the idea of hiring many go-go girls without many clothes.

"I had to spend 15 minutes saying we need it for the atmosphere," he said, slightly exasperated. "Any Tarantino party should have girls." Employees parodied their favorite "Kill Bill" and "Pulp Fiction" scenes - Event Alliance provided directors and videography - the exuberant secretary danced with the snake, and Blyumenkrants knew the world was righting itself.

"The crisis is over," he said. "Well, 80 percent over."

The company party offers a distinctive barometer of the economy here. Such parties didn't exist in the Soviet years; people simply drank at work. Then, about 10 years ago, with new businesses growing into wealthy corporations and conspicuous consumption de rigueur, lavish, theatrical affairs developed. A flood of oil money paid for high-priced entertainers and carnival-like themes, productions costing $100,000 or more for 400 guests, the more outre the better.

By 2008, when even outre was beginning to look staid, Event Alliance put on a City of Sin pre-holiday awards party for a telecom magazine. Strippers danced in glass boxes and fed guests cake. Boxers fought. One woman lay on a table, covered with fruit for guests to eat. Guests fed a caged tiger (borrowed from the circus) raw meat and a caged woman candy. Women who bared only their breasts looked positively modest.

"We were showing all the sins: lust, anger, gluttony," Blyumenkrants said, declaring the party a great success. "Many of the guests left with the girls."

By the end of that year, the economic crisis was being felt, and hard. By last year companies had stopped throwing around the confetti. Those that had made advance bookings, hoping for recovery, had to forgo deposits on halls because they couldn't afford to pay for the food and drink. Those that still had money were reluctant to show it - 6.2 million people were unemployed.

It was a bleak time for Blyumenkrants and his partner Sergei Gorbachev, for whom excess had offered so much opportunity. Watching as extravagance turned into restraint, they weathered the crisis by cutting costs and putting on children's parties, on which the well-off refuse to scrimp.

For a 10-year-old's birthday, the company created a spy school theme, picking up 50 children from school in a black bus, staffed by actors wearing dark glasses and barking into walkie-talkies. An agent took them to a secret lab, where 30 actors taught them the tricks of the spy trade and conferred diplomas. The children emerged to find the street blocked off and a horse walking toward the birthday girl - a gift from doting Dad. The child mounted and rode off down the street.

Now, with unemployment down to just over 5 million and the economy showing signs of growth, the grown-ups are preparing to party once more, and the new year is their time. The anti-religion Soviets made New Year's the most important holiday, though Russian Christmas is still observed Jan. 7. People no longer drink at work, but today's leaders have accepted that they're celebrating too much to go to work. So the labor code was amended a few years ago to declare a week-long holiday beginning Dec. 31. This year people don't return to work until Jan. 10. The country, with a population of 140 million men, women and children, is expected to consume 260 million bottles of wine and 300 million bottles of vodka during that time.

Earlier this month, ZAO Citibank predicted that Muscovites, the country's most prosperous citizens, would spend an average $630 in December preparing for the holiday, compared with $470 in St. Petersburg and $330 in other regions. Much of that will go to food and drink, whether people can really afford it or not.

" 'Enjoy' is maybe not the correct word for our life," said Vadim Drobiz, director of the Center for the Research of the Federal and Regional Alcohol Market. "The population has concluded the crisis is not yet over, but why dwell on it over the holidays? Think of it like the Hundred Years' War. Life was difficult, but people were born, they married, they worked. People live on."

Alcohol sales, which decreased the past two years, are now rising, said Vyacheslav Odegov, a market analyst. During the first 10 months of this year, $379 million worth of wine was imported, compared with $306 million a year earlier. Imported sparkling wine nearly doubled, from $50 million to $95 million.

"The entire industry is coming back to life," he said. "There's much more variety this year, and many more expensive brands."

By early December, Moscow supermarkets were building towering holiday displays, with pyramids of sparkling wine, mountains of vodka and ranges of colorfully boxed candy. Shopping became the prime Saturday night entertainment, with heavily laden carts crashing through the aisles of the sprawling stores that now dot the frozen landscape.

"It's the main holiday of the year," Odegov said. "If anyone has any money at all, they will spend it now. They will scrimp all year so that the table will look beautiful now."

Huge and heavily decorated artificial trees have sprouted up around the city - with the red, blue and white colors of the national flag playing on the one in front of the Russian White House. Kutuzovsky Prospect, the boulevard that brings the wealthy in from their large suburban homes, is strung with banners for life's little luxuries. Buy your Porsche now. The perfect present: 28 varieties of massage. The new Bentley. Luxury apartments. One banner after another beckons with furs, furs, furs.

The days of black caviar are gone and the tap has yet to reopen on the free-flowing French champagne, but Blyumenkrants allows himself to imagine once again some of his signature office parties, sending invitations in whisky bottles hidden in loaves of bread for a Chicago theme, patting down guests for a Baker Street robbery, occupying an entire train platform and greeting guests with a large military band.

Until then, he is making do with feathers, masks and streamers - and, of course, legions of dancing women unencumbered by very much clothing.

"Naked girls," he said, "are cheap."

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