I have a strange relationship with Moscow’s most famous branch of Jean-Jacques cafe, located on Nikitsky Bulvar and recently the site of a police crackdown during Vladimir Putin’s inauguration. I don’t understand why it is the focal point of so much resentment and, equally, so much self-righteousness. I just think of it as that one place where good, cheap wine is available and no offensive music blares – but apparently, I’m the minority.
I first saw Jean-Jacques mentioned in a political context by nationalist writer Yegor Prosvirnin, when he said that Jean-Jacques was like “the doghouse” of the wishy-washy liberal opposition. This was back in February, before Putin was re-elected.
The inauguration of the once and future president on May 7 saw patrons of Jean-Jacques being dragged out from behind the tables of the outdoor portion of the cafe as riot police went in to clear Nikitsky (the nearby John Donne pub was also affected) – like a stark reminder that, “Hey! You guys live in Russia! And in Russia, you don’t just get to eat breakfast outside on a sunny day when your leaders are driving by!”
People say that if opposition members hadn’t been in attendance at Jean-Jacques, nothing would have happened. I disagree. A lot of people in Russia still think that power must be great and terrible to behold, and the police are attuned to this principle. For them, Jean-Jacques happened to be in the way of the greatness and terribleness of power that day – so it had to be dealt with. It all made for a particularly ironic contrast with France’s inauguration day, where newly elected Francois Hollande’s motorcade actually obeyed traffic rules.
After the inauguration debacle, the lovely Lyubov Mulmenko, a wonderful playwright and a friend, famously wrote about the riot police and pointed out that those of them who had to go in and clear the cafe most likely resented having to deal with the “f*cking bohemie.” For Mulmenko, the cliquish nature of the cafe is a glaring reminder of how distant the so-called “revolutionaries” are from normal people, riot policemen included.
Nevertheless, the first person to bring me to Jean-Jacques was foreign journalist Olaf Koens, one of the least pretentious people I know. It was the winter of 2010, and I was only beginning to consider the possibility of moving to Moscow. Having missed escargot since my days of living in Durham, North Carolina (possibly the foodie capital of the South), I bravely ordered some. Olaf warned me that the results could be disastrous. They were OK. Since then, I have had great escargot there. And, once, completely awful escargot. Jean-Jacques is hit-and-miss – a cafe with a French name and a capricious, distinctly Russian heart.
Later, I fell in love with a director and rediscovered Jean-Jacques as a gathering place of gossipy theater people. Alexey and I soon decided to procreate, and back in the early stages of my pregnancy, Jean-Jacques was one of the few establishments that didn’t make me want to vomit, aspiring actresses hitting on my husband notwithstanding. Spotting my condition at once, the normally rude hostess would try to seat me wherever the air was fresher. Alexey was only beginning to get into documentary filmmaking then, and because I was his first big subject, we now have a bunch of footage of me crying and otherwise acting the hysterical pregnant woman against the mirrored wall, with a gloomy reflection of director Nikolay Khomeriki drinking with his friends at a nearby table. Politics? What politics?
It was at Jean-Jacques that I celebrated my reunion with wine a few months after giving birth to our son, with the hostess and the waiters returning to their cheerfully rude selves. And while I imagine that the real members of the “f*cking bohemie* know dozens of other places of similar caliber, I’m a mother with a full-time job and have no time to seek them out. Which is why I never thought of going to Jean-Jacques as making a statement.
The fact that there is something “political” about Jean-Jacques is a testament to how unused Russia is to having a plain old middle class. Really exclusive places, of the sort where the city’s actual elite congregates (possibly while cackling villainously, although maybe not), don’t inspire nearly as much debate – not only because they’re shrouded in mystery for mere mortals, but because they’re viewed as normal and inevitable.
I was reminded of this when I ran into the daughter of some wealthy people I used to know. Her brother had once sought to audition me for the role of wife, charmed, I’m told, by the prospect of American citizenship. I don’t regret not having entered that particular revolving door (no, really!), but relations with that family have been somewhat strained ever since. His sister may have wanted to remind me of the opportunity I passed on – and seized up in mock-horror when I invited her to have a drink with me later that day.
“Just don’t tell me you still slum it at Jean-Jacques,” she said, screwing up the pretty face she inherited from her trophy wife mother. “Oh you do? Poor, poor you.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.