Moscow’s Hungry Duck bar was for a few brief years in the late 1990s the planet’s craziest and most infamous bar. The only bar known to have been denounced in a national parliament (over 30 times) and subject to countless police raids, witness to hundreds of brawls and more bare-breasted women than a Hugh Hefner houseparty, there has never been another bar quite like it anywhere. Former manager Doug Steele gives us the story of the end of the Hungry Duck: the most notorious bar in the world.
There has perhaps been no bar more infamous than Moscow’s Hungry Duck during its heyday in the 1990s. It boasts among its accolades such titles as “only bar ever denounced in a national parliament” and single-handedly defined new limits of debauchery as young Russians threw off the shackles of the USSR together with most of their clothes. Starting as a duck Ã l’orange restaurant, it ended its life with Nigerian strippers performing sex acts on the bar with willing patrons to the Soviet national anthem. Open for a little over three years, the Hungry Duck saw hundreds of raids, arrests, brawls and miscellaneous acts of depravity. This is the story of the Hungry Duck: the world’s most notorious bar
The following article is published with the kind permission of Doug Steele, who managed the bar for three years between 1996 and 1999.
I managed the Hungry Duck, Moscow’s (and maybe the world’s) most notorious bar, for over three years. When the time came for me close up, it wasn’t the threats or the hassles that finally wore me down – they were there from the start and anyone starting up a bar or club in mid-90s Moscow had to be prepared for some delicate bargaining with some pretty scary people.
The Duck was actually founded by a mixed group of Chechen and Kalmyk businessmen. You don’t hear much about Chechen-Kalmyk joint ventures. And for good reason: four of those guys are dead now. The fourth, a Chechen named Roman, died shortly before closure. He had just finished doing three years in jail for murder, when he bumped into me on one of Moscow’s main streets. Right away, he started threatening me. Our engineer freaked out and pretended he didn’t understand Russian. So one of my Cuban workers translated for me and told me that I was to meet Roman the next morning at a certain well-known expat bar to discuss business, or else he’d kill me. I thought, “Oh, great!” The next morning, I met him, along with a very large contingent of special forces officers who accompanied me, and that settled that. A week later, I asked the special forces guy what happened, and he said, “Don’t worry about it Doug, he won’t bother you again.”
Shortly after that, an expat manager from the bar where we met told me, “Doug, did you hear the news? Roman’s dead.”
“What do you mean he’s dead?” I asked.
“Yeah, he had a heart attack.”
I had received about a half a dozen death threats myself, some of which went well beyond threat stage. One night a group of Chechens invited me into their car to discuss business. They were slamming the car door on my leg, trying to pull me in. It was only with the help of a very brave Cuban bartender from the Duck that I managed to claw my way out of the car, avoiding what probably would have been a one-way trip to a quiet forest on the outskirts of town.
And if it wasn’t the Mafias complicating business, it was the cops. I’ve had to sit through raids on the club by just about every law-enforcement body in Moscow. During an riot police raid last January, the cops carted off everyone who looked like they might be on drugs. [Moscow had just passed a law allowing police to detain anyone who “looks” like they’re under the influence of drugs.] In this case, everyone was clean. How your average officer could tell who was and wasn’t on drugs purely by sight I can’t imagine. But their guesswork was good enough to drag 79 of our customers down to the station, some of them waiting all night in the 18th precinct’s meeting room to have a police needle – a clean one, I hope – stuck into their vein. During the biggest raid of all, the one we like to call the “Global Raid,” a grand total of 52 officers from five different law-enforcement agencies smashed their way into the bar. There were grunts in camouflage and ski masks, tax police rifling through the waste baskets, narc dogs sniffing customer’s crotches, health officials sniffing the food, and troops in full infrared night-vision gear keeping watch for any snipers on the dance floor.
But despite all the hassles and threats, we kept doing our job of bringing together large numbers of happily inebriated Russian girls and lonely expat men. Others, such as expat women (who couldn’t compete with the sensuous Russian girls dancing on our bar-top) and some Russian men (who weren’t happy to see their girls getting all that hard-currency attention), might not have appreciated us, but the Duck went on doing what it was meant to do: making Moscow a warmer, even a downright hotter place.
A lot of the things that became Hungry Duck trademarks started out as simple adjustments to the small space the club gave people to dance in. The whole dancing-on-the-bartop thing began at a Pepsi Foods corporate party shortly after we opened. They’d been drinking and wanted to dance. That’s what’s so great about Russians: they’re not as self-conscious and inhibited as Westerners. My philosophy was just to let them do what they want, see where it went, because it was clear that the customers knew exactly how to enjoy themselves if only given the chance. My only job was to market it. After word got out that customers not only got away with dancing on the furniture but were actually encouraged, others started doing it too. From there, it just snowballed.
The Duck tradition of young women dancing on the bar-top wearing little or no clothing also started as a practical adjustment to conditions: it’s hot as hell in there during the summer, and a few ladies, under the influence of a few beers, took off their shirts for comfort. And since that seemed popular with the customers and comfortable for the dancers, it became a tradition of its own. Again, Russians aren’t as ashamed or scandalized about showing their bodies as most Westerners, so I just let them do what came natural, and enjoyed it. Looking back, it was all pretty innocent. We never had anybody up there getting paid to take their clothes off.
So without putting any effort or real planning into its image, the Duck got a reputation as one of the wilder, sexier places in town. Maybe it had something to do with all the people who’d fall off our second-story balcony. One time, I walked up to the Duck and saw a girl fall off the balcony and onto the concrete below. I ran up to help her – one side of her face was raw and bloody – and asked her if she wanted any first aid. She came to, stood up on her own, and told me that all she wanted was to get back inside the Duck, and ran back to the entrance.
We had to make adjustments, of course, learning as we went along. As in the matter of security. We started soft, trusting in our customers’ finer instincts, with only two discreet guards at the door. But after a few nasty brawls in which beer mugs and barstools were used like medieval weapons, we had no choice but to hire some serious security – the sort of people who look like they want you to try something. Unfortunately, we found that people who look like that usually are like that: the bouncers kept trying to provoke our customers into doing something stupid, just for the pleasure of beating the shit out of them. Two fights in particular stand out in my mind: once, I saw literally thirty separate fights going on at once in the bar area. Teeth and blood were zipping from one end to the other. Anyone unlucky enough to have been there was happy to crawl away with just a few welts or a loose bicuspid.
Another time, a narcotics cop from the 18th precinct who was notorious for planting drugs on poor prostitutes in order to force them to give him free sex went on one of his usual drunken off-duty binges. He was a real pain in the ass, always lurking around the Duck. One night, he cased a pair of girls, and dropped a baggy of drugs in one’s cleavage, then slurred to her that she was under arrest unless… Right then, the girls’ boyfriends, both of whom were big guys, ran up from the bathroom and asked what the hell was going on. The narc repeated the accusation, and was just starting to accuse the boyfriends of being the girls’ protection racket when one pounced on him, beating him savagely, and literally knocking the cop’s eyeball out of its socket. I remember seeing him all bloodied up shortly afterwards, with his eye partially hanging out, and saying to him, “You really look bad.” He was eventually transferred out of the 18th, to all the cops’ relief.
All that violence wasn’t what we had in mind for the Duck. The Duck was supposed to be about love (or at least sex), not war. We fired the Nazi bouncers and went with more discreet security who, shall we say, pacified the men on a more permanent basis, meaning that by 1998, barroom brawls were already a thing of the past.
Cops and robbers we could handle; what finally brought down the Duck was a third element: the respectable, puritanical elderly folk of Russia. The Soviet people. In May 1998, our esteemed Duma decided that it needed to tour nightclubs throughout Russia, get to know the people at play, that sort of thing. But sometime during their tour of Moscow’s lower-rent nightspots, some of our people’s deputies, especially of the [Communist leader] Zyuganov persuasion, got more than they could handle. Bare breasts on a 40-foot-tall bronze maiden representing the glory of socialist agriculture was one thing: the live, tender breasts of a Russian girl dancing on the bar-top, particularly for the benefit of foreigners – that was something else again.
So even if certain government types – most notably, LDPR member and then Labor Minister Sergei Kalashnikov – really dug what we were doing, the more dignified, virtuous members of the Duma were already fed up with such sights, already preparing to have a major tantrum on behalf of Soviet morality, by the time they filed into the Hungry Duck. Well, that night happened to be one of our infamous Ladies’ Nights. The show involved some fairly graphic interaction between Dylan, our Nigerian male stripper, who was wearing gold spangles and little else, and several female volunteers from the crowd, while the Soviet hymn blasted through the speakers. As you can imagine, a bearded 50-year-old former red director from Chelyabinsk is not likely to be pleased as he watches a pale Russian beauty submit to Dylan’s, er, charms. One of the deputies, a communist, is still smarting from that shocker. In a speech to the Duma, he denounced Dylan and the Duck for promoting miscegenation, crying, “If this were Washington, they would hang that Negro!” Seeing more than 600 girls, many of them more or less naked, dancing on every available tabletop, counter, and chair was just too much. Some of the Duma members found this performance distasteful. They’d probably like all of this to return to the days of sex in apartment block doorways.
Right at the same time, we started gaining too much attention. Our manager appeared on Russian TV and not long thereafter so did Dylan. Speed-INFO, a mass-circulation tabloid that is sort of the National Enquirer of Russia, ran a huge two-page spread that featured a doctored interview with a non-existent fourteen-year-old Russian girl who claimed to have performed oral sex inside the Duck, claimed to have been a regular since she was twelve, and claimed to have been gang-raped. All this attention took place during a short period of time.
So the Duck acquired a formidable new enemy from all this unwanted fame, an enemy far scarier than the Mafia or gangs of drunken junior flatheads. The Duck was located in what was a House of Culture in Soviet times. All sorts of famous artists sit on the board of building’s directorate. The building’s director, a famous ex-ballerina named Olga Lepeshinskaya, whose claim to glory is that she used to perform solo for Stalin, started hearing scandalous tales about the Duck and decided to have us expelled. She called a meeting of the Building Committee, invited me, and tried in a brittle, patronizing way, to explain why the Duck would have to go. She was a trip: not only did she boast openly of her closeness to Stalin, but after she’d praised the history of this glorious building in which she lives, she said, “So you see that it is really quite impossible to have a Negro dancing with our Russian girls in a club here.”
Once she turned against us, no matter what the other members of the building’s board said, we were through. In Russia, artists are elevated to a higher level than probably anywhere in the world. I’m not sure why this building was handed over to her after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that’s how it happened, and no one, not even top officials, would dare upset her. Russia’s top artists are untouchable, like ayatollahs. Soon, every damn regulatory agency in greater Moscow was suddenly interested in going over our club with a magnifying glass. First, we were raided and briefly closed by the Economic Crime Police. Then four City Duma Reps came by in a tight, paranoid group so wired, they wouldn’t even tell us which agency they were with. They weren’t above checking out the booze, though; they loosened right up after a few rounds, then promptly left. Three of them spewed all over our bathrooms and offices. You can imagine what the report to the Mayor’s Office must have smelled like.
This was only the beginning. Sooner or later, every agency with the power to shut down a nightclub in the Moscow region (and plenty more without) made a special trip to check us out. All of a sudden, every cop in town was hanging around, just waiting to tag somebody for anything at all. The result: 164 criminal complaints against the Duck in just three months. 164!
Once there were enough complaints on file, they started pushing us to close down. Last December, the pressure became almost unbearable. Any excuse would do. First they issued an order to cut our hours back far enough to bankrupt the Duck. They demanded we shut down at 11:00 – as in 23:00! That’s not usually a good closing time for a nightclub this side of Salt Lake City. Then they called in the Fire Marshal. He had been recalled from vacation in Sochi especially to come check us out and shut us down. In Russia, no official gets called back from his Black Sea vacation unless there’s a coup, and even then they usually wait it out by the sea. In order to stay open, we had one guy hired full-time whose job was one thing: greasing palms to keep the business from being shut down. But at some point, as agencies closed in from all sides, even he couldn’t manage to keep the spiders at bay.
By the end, the hassles got to be non-stop. The only question was who would come by next to find something to nail us for. We were getting used to building inspectors, fire marshals, and all that, when suddenly there was a new twist: on Dec. 9, the Economic Crime Police seized all our computers and files. It took us two months to get them back. Then they switched tactics again: the Health Inspector, whom we also hadn’t seen much of, suddenly showed up and decided our dishwasher was in need of immediate repair, and that the Duck would have to be closed for cleaning. This was all in early December. Then in mid-December came the mother of all raids, more like an invasion really, the “Global Raid” that I mentioned above, when an army comprised of every kind of cop and official, 52 of them in all kinds of uniforms (and some just in leather jackets and black slacks) stormed the Duck all at once. At ten in the evening. Can you believe that? 52 heavily-armed cops and paramilitary troops, just to bust a near-empty club – because who goes to a club at ten in the evening (unless it’s Ladies’ Night), especially in Moscow?
The single biggest raid of all, in terms of sheer numbers, was the one they carried out supposedly to find drugs. That was in mid-January 1999. Three busloads of riot police troops shoved their way in, picked people seemingly at random off the floor or away from the bar, “under suspicion of being on drugs,” and started pushing the people they’d grabbed out to the buses. It took forever just to get all those people processed and tied up and put in line, and shoved onto the buses – I’d‘ve been freaking out from the whole thing, drugs or no drugs. Then finally they shuttle these suspects – 79 customers in all! – down to the 18th precinct to be tested for the presence of drugs in their system. They didn’t even say which drugs. I don’t think those guys were drug experts in the first place. Their way of testing these 79 people – people who’d just been out dancing – was to stick a needle in their vein and draw a lot of blood. No consent forms, no questions about diseases, just 79 vials of blood. You can only hope – I know I would if I’d been there – you can only hope they used clean needles. I hope they had 79 clean needles on hand.
Look, I’m not naive. Business in Moscow means mending your fences, maintaining good relations – you can’t afford to make enemies. And you don’t try to go it alone; you need a roof over your head, as in a serious krysha [protection]. I did have one, a good one, and until the ballerina got involved it worked. But this time, the powers that be, ranging from Stalin’s favorite ballerina to Duma deputies and others, were bent on shutting us down as a matter of principle. My krysha told me outright, “We’re sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. It seems they’re just going to keep fining and raiding you until they close you down.”
It was becoming clearer and clearer every month that they were going to shut down the Duck one way or another. Any way they could. By last month the Duck, which was really no more than a club where guys and girls could get together for an uninhibited night of relatively harmless fun, had been utterly demonized. Deputies had made speeches denouncing the Hungry Duck 30 times on the floor of the State Duma. 30 times! I mean, “the Hungry Duck: Enemy of the People” – it was insane. All these old, grudging Stalinists directing this dislike at a simple bar – for showing a little skin, some flirting—a place for people to forget about the grimy reality outside. I didn’t like the odds anymore, and they were holding all the cards.
And they weren’t stopping at attacking my club anymore, either: I got word that someone had contacted the Immigration Service to have my visa revoked. The Moscow City Prosecutor charged us with three offenses. Two were so ridiculous they were instantly dropped, and I’ve forgotten them. The third was, “Violating the Morality of Russian Youth.” The law was adopted in the 1930s, and used to read “…Soviet…” rather than “…Russian Youth”; they kept the law, even after ’92, and stuck it to the Duck and me. Corrupting the youth – isn’t that what they got Socrates for? It might be an honor to be gutted for the same thing as Socrates, but it was an honor I could have done without. After all, it’s only a bar, and there are plenty of other places in this world that need a good bar.
I don’t begrudge the ballerina. Her position is understandable. An elderly woman trained in classical arts can’t be expected to appreciate what beauty can be made when all discipline is temporarily suspended. That’s what fun is – letting go. She didn’t understand, and that’s just how it went. At some point, somehow, it was bound to happen.
I tried looking into different venues to move the Duck to, but I realized it was fruitless. City Police Chief Kulikov, a nice, reasonable man, told me that the Duck had pissed off too many important people, and that there was no way the Duck could open up anywhere in Moscow without encountering the same hassles. The Duck closed for good on March 15, 1999, exactly three years after my partners and I took over ownership of the club from the Chechen-Kalmyk group that started it up.
I hear lots of rumours, and get a lot of offers to come manage new places in this or that city, whichever is supposed to be the up and coming place. But I don’t feel any urgency to leave yet. In the meantime, I’m taking it a little easier, managing a more sedate, mature sort of club, and making plans to bring the Duck to the world. Minsk is first on my list, and Sarajevo is next. I’m also looking at Beirut. My kind of towns.
Some Hungry Duck facts:
- When opened on December 8, 1995, offered 13 types of draft beer and a full restaurant menu; by closing, it offered one type of draft beer from Penza and no food
- 8 bullets fired inside bar, 5 in the ceiling, 3 in the floor
- Over 1,000,000 pints of beer consumed
- Police opened 256 criminal cases involving the Hungry Duck
- 43 television networks filmed inside the bar, and three motion pictures shot film in the Duck
- More than 600 magazine and newspaper articles written on the Duck
- Over 2,000 reported lost passports
- Eight police raids
- Two bomb threats
- One kidnapping attempt on owner
- Five death threats to the owner
- Over 250 known “physical altercations” took place inside bar
- 225,000 women visited Ladies’ Night since its inception in January, 1998
- Used up 445 bar stools
- Employed two full-time carpenters
- Ambulance called in over 40 times to treat customers who had fallen from bar counter
- Most arrests by police in one night: 79 on suspicion of narcotics. All subsequently released without charge
- Yeltsin’s wife visited in October 1996 with two Orthodox priests. She did not get on the bar counter and dance
- Most customers in one day: 1,510
- Paid over $1,000,000 in rent
- Paid over $200,000 in “favors” in order to “achieve permission to remain open”
- Only bar ever denounced in a national parliament
- Most ladies on one Ladies’ Night: 920
- 30 separate attempts by non-police structures to close the bar
- Most police involved in a single raid: 52
- Number of Russians fired for stealing: 124
- Number of foreigners fired for stealing: 9, including 4 Americans, 1 Brit and 1 Irish
- Average number of bare-breasted customers on Ladies’ Night at any given time: 15