Privyet, says the crawfish. This one is Russian—you can tell by the red of his carapace. He waves at you from the end of the kind of meal not easily forgotten, Moscow chef Ivan Shishkin’s Fat Party, held last year around the long table at Tapa de Comida not far from Trubnaya Station.
Shishkin—journalist, photographer, chef and raconteur—managed to make delicious a multiple course feast featuring dishes that were all or mostly fat. And here at the end, was this lean and lithe river creature, like a palate-cleanser, an after-dinner mint.
You may have heard about the news from Moscow this week. I have never met President Putin, but I have sat my hours in the Kremlin with his spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who is a delightfully diligent smoker (I don’t want to imagine what would happen if I tried to light up in Jay Carney’s office). Peskov is also a master of the art, to quote Luke Harding’s excellent post Why So Sad, Vlad, of ”You know I’m lying, and I know I’m lying, but—hey!—that’s the game”. So Peskov said that Putin was crying during his victory speech because of the bitter cold and wind.
What Peskov will not say is that those tears were a sign of pressure, a slight fissure in the iron. Simply put: it is no longer fun being Alpha Dog (as US Embassy cables called Putin). He may have won strongly and avoided an election run-off with one of the scabrous curs who were allowed to run against him, but he will have to be a different leader now. He no longer has political capital to blow on powergrabs and graft. So while the real opposition—the blogger Navalnys and old guard Limonovs—who got detained in the streets for protesting after the elections, may be in a dark mood, I think they have won already. Putin 3.0 will be different, because of them and the people that joined them. If he isn’t, then these people will rise and keep rising until Project Putin is over, for good.
Which brings me back to our friendly dinner mint from the river here. Shishkin’s other restaurant, a small speakeasy of a restaurant called Delikatessen located in some back Hof off the Ring, has become something of Stammtisch for me to call home in Moscow. It serves umami burgers and cherry-infused Bourbon to a mix of artists and photographers and tech entrepreneurs and retail workers and whomever else thinks it’s okay to put on a scarf instead of a mink when they go out to eat in Moscow. It is, in other words, just my kind of place. But it’s also, I think, a bit of a canary in the coal mine of Russian life. Not that that particular restaurant needs to survive—indeed, after being a complete sensation when it opened, it has now settled into a more regular crowd, not always crowded, but still always good. But that kind of place needs to survive, the kind of business that opens up because of a feeling that someone had that was unrelated to the structures of power and rivers of money or the national agenda set by Putin and his Kremlin. Maybe I’m not explaining it well, but Delikatessen is independent and that is a terribly important thing for Russian business, culture, life. There is so much of it now in Moscow, even the billions that the Kremlin is sending into high-tech haven’t overwhelmed the true entrepreneurial energy. Putin cannot control, or shakedown, or expropriate this feeling. He does not own the Fat Party. He never has. And if this crawfish had a middle finger, I know he would be raising it toward the Kremlin.