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In Moscow, the night is young

It's 3 a.m. and people are awake. Some are getting groceries, others root canals. The economy has boomed -- and so have the 24-hour stores.

October 28, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — 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.

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