James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

One Wild Night in Trump’s Moscow Kompromat Palace

The view of the Kremlin from the Ritz-Carlton’s rooftop restaurant.

One Wild Night in Trump’s Moscow Kompromat Palace

Vodka in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton

I, like my classy, soon-to-be President, once had a wild night at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. It was 2011, and I was in Moscow wrangling a profile of the mildly erotic, defrocked spy Anna Chapman. Good fortune (and connections, always a valid currency in Moscow) had gotten me a decent rate at the hotel, where most of my interviews would take place. But then somehow I, a working reporter with a canvas messenger bag and sensible shoes, was upgraded from the 1 percent to the .0001 percent. I was moved into the Club Level on the 10th floor.

Not that the rest of the Ritz is shabby. It sits on one of the most coveted lots in all Eurasia, second from the corner at the end of the magnificent Tverskaya Ulitsa. Cross the street and you’re at the Kremlin, where Putin spokesman Dmitri Peskov once spent an afternoon with me chain-smoking Marlboro Reds and autocratsplaining democracy. A bit further and you’re on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov once caught four bullets.

The lobby of the Ritz is as gilded as our new White House north, a delicate waiting room for petro-princes and coltish escorts. The standard rooms are suitably overstuffed: little music boxes of chiffon and chenille. But the real velvet touch is found on the 10th and 11th floors, where the rooms have tables and antechambers, where the pile of the rug is a touch deeper, the rustle of the curtains a shade more sensual.

In truth, I had been going to the Moscow Ritz-Carlton for years. On assignment in 2007 for TIME’s Putin Person of the Year issue, I went to the newly opened hotel’s O2 rooftop lounge and found it “mostly empty except for a few prostitutes in glinting lamé and spiky heels.” In subsequent years, I watched it mature into a hotel that catered more subtly to the predilections of both new money and old. The lounge kept its name, but replaced the syphilis buffet with $200 sushi platters. The commanding view of the Kremlin remained.

From all my years in and out of that hotel, I know one thing for certain: if some corner of the hotel had indeed been turned into a high-thread-count urinal by Trump, it would have been on the Club Level.

These rooms presumably also would have been the most glamorously bugged of them all. I was not short on paranoia on my visit five years ago, given that I was in town asking peevish questions about Kremlin-backed startups and a former spy. And yet, on my first night on the Club Level, I did what any prole would do: I invited some old friends over to party.

I did it in part to share in my good fortune, and maybe also to gloat a little. My fortunes vis-a-vis my Russian friends had always been a shifting thing. I had brought them desperately desired Levis as a high-school exchange student, and later awed them with my Ralph Lauren cologne. But then, as we grew up, I became nearly penniless while at least some of my Muscovite friends had begun earning hefty petrodollars. So when I landed on the Club Level, I felt a sudden desire to be social. I called up Kirill A., who was a successful truck dealer in Siberia back in Moscow for the week, and Ivan S., a restaurateur who brought his wife and an unknown quantity of vodka.

To bring us back to the buzzword of the moment, there could certainly have been kompromat from that night. It would just not be exciting to any Russians. We drank riotously, laughed thunderously, toppled furniture and sang and shouted and smoked enough cigarettes to make our little corner of the Club Level look like La Cañada Flintridge during wildfire season. By the time I woke up the next morning, my suite smelled like the sweatband of Tom Waits’ fedora. But even though I proceeded to get prodigiously sick and then stumbled disgracefully through the blini bar in the Club Level Lounge, it was nothing special. Keep in mind that when the Kremlin tried to discredit married men in the opposition by filming them with prostitutes, everybody shrugged. So long as boys weren’t involved. So it went with my kompromat: to Russians, it was not a scandal, it was a Tuesday.

Nor did I receive as much as an arched eyebrow from the impeccably discreet hotel staff. Instead, I stayed out my week there, interviewing oligarchs and entrepreneurs and even managing to lure Anna Chapman herself for coffee on the rooftop lounge. That week also coincided with the end of the brief Medvedev summer. Putin had just announced that he was returning to the Presidency, and all the light went out of the reformers’ and the innovators’ eyes. I haven’t been back to the Ritz since.

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