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200km/h In The Wrong Lane: A Week In Moscow With t.A.T.u.

This story originally appeared in The Face magazine in about 2002. I was Features Editor at the time and this was one of the most fun/memorable things I got to go and do.

It’s midnight, and we’re doing 200km/h down the central reservation of the highway that runs through central Moscow, in a black shiny BMW driven by Ivan Shapovalov. Every couple of seconds, Ivan flips the control for the car radio on his steering wheel and we’re hit by deafening two-second blasts of country rock music, Sugababes, Britney, the weather report, Abba.

Ivan speeds round a corner, and spots a tiny boxy white police car ahead. We pull level with it and drive the length of the road alongside it. On the wrong side of the road. We peer down through the BMW’s tinted black windows at the bemused driver. “Seen enough yet?” Ivan asks us. The police driver, noticing the enormous intimidating beemer rumbling alongside him, turns his head and looks straight at us. “Seen enough?” Ivan deadpans. We say yes and he accelerates off into the distance.

In July 2003, just after t.A.T.u. came third in the Eurovision Song Contest, the band’s then PR manager, Beata is in a car crash, and in a coma for a month. Ivan wires the money to pay for her treatment, but has to leave her the following week to fly to Japan for a promotional tour with the girls. Without Beata, the trip is difficult for Ivan. On their last night they are scheduled to appear on the country’s number one chat show on Asahi TV. Ten minutes into a live show, Ivan snaps and refuses to let the girls leave the dressing room. The whole of Japan feels personally slighted and Japanese newspapers obsess about the band’s bad behaviour for months.

Ivan goes back to Moscow and decides he’s tired of being t.A.T.u. manager. For a few months the band ceases to exist. Ivan carries on with his life. Julia and Lena spend the summer at home with their parents. Universal and Interscope are left, jilted, with contracts worth millions of dollars that Ivan never signed.

In October, the girls reappear. Returning to the scene of the crime, they hijack a live TV debate in Tokyo between Prime Minister Koizumi and the head of the opposition. By the end of the year, the band is outselling Michael Jackson in the Japanese charts.

At New Year, Julia and Lena announce they will stand for the position of Russian President in the upcoming elections. They make their application, despite entry being restricted to people over 35 years old. They argue their ages combined come to 37.

Wednesday 15th January. 8pm. Moscow. We arrive at the penthouse of the Hotel Pekin. It’s a vast room with eight, white columns stretching up to the ceiling and high, narrow windows on all sides. There’s a U-shaped stage in the middle of the room, and two sets of sofas surrounded by miniature studio lights. Ivan is sat at one drinking coffee, with the half a dozen people that run Neformat, the company responsible for t.A.T.u. A gang of young Russians sit drinking bottles of beer at the other. Out of the window a stream of light flows past, an eight-lane highway running from the outskirts of town up to the Kremlin.

The studio is kitted out like a decadent, turn-of-the-century Russian version of the Big Brother house. In the middle of the room, under a massive Socialist-Realist mural on the ceiling (complete with people of many nations standing smiling on a Chinese-style footbridge). Julia Volkova and Lena Katina aka t.A.T.u. are sat on a pile of cream cushions, being interviewed by a power-dressed Russian TV woman called Tina.

The two girls are animated — like you’ve never seen them. Not the sullen sulky robots of 2003, but professional, charming and beautiful. Julia is in a pink cap with a white hat rolled tight down over it — a little purple embroidered peak poking out over her face. A tiny, ultra-short black skirt, sheer black tights. She’s wide-eyed and chatting at high speed, throwing her hands out as she speaks. Lena sits next to her in tight blue jeans and pointy shoes listening and grinning.

On the wall in front of the girls, a 20-foot video projection shows George Bush on CNN announcing to the world: “TODAY WE ENTER A NEW AGE OF SPACE EXPLORATION.” Behind them, on stage, two techno DJs from Tallinn are hunched over a bank of keyboards and sequencers, making the final adjustments to the song Julia and Lena will record tonight. Wires trail down, off the front of the stage, round a spiral staircase to the floor below, where, hidden in an unrenovated room, surrounded by bleak concrete and tarpaulin, a crew of three watch a set of 16 cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week, filming everything that happens upstairs.

This is Podnebesnaya (‘The Sky Room’), the new home of t.A.T.u. and Ivan’s latest big plan. It’s three days to go until “t.A.T.u. — The Reality Show” debuts on Russian TV. Until a matter of weeks ago, t.A.T.u. was run out of a ramshackle couple of rooms on the ground floor of a housing block round the corner. Now everything — recording, business meetings, interviews — happens here on the top two floors of Hotel Pekin. Down below a billboard straddles a motorway bridge, with the silhouettes of two girls with angel wings, and floodlights shine up onto the ‘Gotham City’ Tower that is The Sky Room.

After the interviews are done, Julia comes and sticks out her arm, offers a slip of a handshake and flashes a grin. Lena’s up on stage. Hair tied back, big headphones slung round her neck, she flips open her lipstick-red mobile. Julia’s leaning over the stage reading and re-reading the lyrics to the song: “My Sunglasses Will Protect Me”. It’s a Russian wordgame. In the song, every line is only one letter different from the previous one, but each means something completely different. “This is my game. This is my game. Everything you see, everything you hear. This is my Game. Black clouds roll across the sky, the sky splits in two. You take the sun and my sunglasses will protect me.”

Timberlake-y guitar kicks in, and Lena starts singing. Each time she tries to catch the tune, her body flips as she stretches for the high notes, her pelvis and hips flipping back and forth. Across the room, Julia mouths the words along with her, willing her to get it right. Lena clasps her fists together as she leaps up to the final note, but her voice strangles. She puts her head in her hands. Julia laughs in sympathy. Lena giggles. Behind a stack of keyboards on the stage, Ivan is sat with a look of concentration on his face. “Staccato!” he instructs. “Yes, sir,” replies Lena with mock seriousness, and salutes him, grinning.

On the video projection across from the stage George Bush has been replaced by maps of Baghdad and Babylon. “The Tower of Babylon” flashes up on the screen. Then “Mesopotamia… Iraq…The Birthplace of Civilisation”. Images of modern day Iraq flash up. An American warship unleashing missiles, splitting the sky — black smoke plumes putting out the sun and a pilot, hidden behind black aviator shades, wreaking havoc on the world below. “This is my game,” sings Lena.

For a moment it seems like the coolest anti-war music video ever made. It seems that t.A.T.u. have thrown aside the easy controversy of lesbianism and teenage sex. Now, it’s war.

But it’s just a coincidence. The Iraq footage is just a Discovery Channel documentary that happens to be showing on TV. The song
finishes and Ivan flips over to watch the stockmarket ticker on Bloomberg.

This is part of Ivan’s dream. The Sky Room is all about ‘real time’ – about the perpetual revolution. That’s why they watch CNN while
they’re recording, bringing 24-hour world news into the heart of what they’re making. That’s why the door’s open for the young Moscow hip-hop crews who turn up to perform for Ivan. And that’s why there are two guys from Tallinn here until late at night churning out hours of new music. And the whole thing is recorded by 16 cameras on the walls and a team of tiptoeing cameramen constantly sneaking into position to film everything we do and broadcast it across Russia.

Ivan’s next step (when they get some more money) will be to have cameras on every continent broadcasting live, realtime footage from capital cities onto the walls of the Sky Room.

The TV interviewer turns her attention to Ivan: “And Ivan, why are two guys from The Face here? What’s so interesting
about what you’re doing here?” “I don’t know,” he replies, “I haven’t asked them yet.”

This is how Ivan ended up us a pop svengali: In 1988, Ivan trains as a child psychiatrist in Volgograd (which used to be Leningrad). But one day, after going to a seminar on ‘mass psychology and manipulating the public consciousness’ Ivan decides to quit.

“Being a doctor is not creative. Doctors help people and I don’t want to help anyone. I don’t believe in it. Everybody can help himself.”

Instead, he becomes a spin-doctor. One of his first clients is the future governor of the local Saratov area. Ivan’s campaign wins him
the local election. In 1993, Ivan moves to Moscow, working in advertising as a copywriter and a director, then as a PR manager
before moving on to American advertising agency Ark J. Walter Thompson (JWT), writing scripts for Ford Mondeo adverts and ‘Flagman’ vodka.

But in 1998, the Russian economy collapses and Ivan’s career collapse with it. He ends up back on the dole with nothing. So he decides to train as a music video director, starting again from scratch. He and another ad company music composer get together and form t.A.T.u.. They write a song about friends of theirs who have died in the Yugoslav war, to be sung by the girls, and manage to get $200,000 of investment for their project. This time, having lost everything and proven he can remake himself, Ivan is completely without fear. Especially when he’s driving.

A few weeks previously, bored of waiting in Moscow rush-hour traffic, Ivan decided he would take a shortcut through the middle of Red Square (kind of like ‘nipping through’ Downing Street to save yourself a few minutes). As he rolled past Lenin’s mausoleum, he was surprised to find the soldiers guarding it firing warning shots into the air. They took him away to be interrogated, sure he was a terrorist plotting to bring down parliament. Eventually, they let him go.

With two days left before the show, the TV company is trying to negotiate with Ivan. It’s not going very well. They’ve signed a
contract with him, but are disappointed that the girls are never in the Sky Room. He’s says he can’t force them to turn up. He invites them every day, but they only come if they want to. A meeting is called in the Sky Room of Ivan, Vitaly, the director, Sergey, the head of Neformat, the company behind t.A.T.u., and all the suits from the TV station. It’s a crisis meeting and with only days left the future of the show is in jeopardy. Like everything else, the meeting is recorded.

That evening, we go to the house of Vitaly Mansky, the documentary maker who has been following t.A.T.u. for the last two years, and is responsible for the Reality Show. His hallway has graffiti from visitors, and photos of his previous subjects: Vitaly and Putin,
Vitaly and Yeltsin, Vitaly shaking hands with Gorbachev and the Pope.

We watch the pilot of the first episode, including that afternoon’s meeting with the TV company. We watch as a woman from the TV company sits and pleads with a sleepy-eyed Ivan in a dark, empty Sky Room. “We’re two days away and we have no show,” she urges, “The girls are never here. What are we supposed to do when guests come and expect to see the girls? People like you Ivan but you’re not the girls.” The scene cuts and we see the woman sat by herself in the Sky Room. Ivan appears from the darkness, puts his arms round her and nuzzles her face, planting a kiss on her. She looks confused and slightly unnerved, and the screen cuts to black.

Back at Vitaly’s, Ivan looks slightly embarrassed — for the only time during our stay. But only for a second. “I think that was a good conversation to show,” he says confidently. Vitaly turns round and gives Ivan a look of death. “Ivan, take your guests and leave. Take them out to dinner for a couple of hours then come back here and we’ll edit through the night.” Ivan stays up until 11 in the morning putting together a completely new version of the show. We go to a club with Ivan’s right hand man Martyn Martan.

Martyn Martan, 29, calls himself special diplomat to Ivan. Whatever Ivan’s latest plan is, Martyn translates it into something that people don’t mind doing. He says when Ivan does them, everything just fucks up.

Before working on t.A.T.u., Martyn was a successful businessman, then owned a jam factory. Then as an ad man, he was one of the
first people to introduce product placement to Russian cinema. Thanks to Martyn, ‘Special Russian Hunting’, a recent film about Muscovites on a hunting trip to Finland features several scenes of characters chatting on brand-new mobile phones and ostentatiously drinking branded vodka. Last year, he released his own debut album and started a magazine. And he and Ivan are currently thinking of buying a London football club for £2 million.

But Martyn’s latest business project is The Sky Room. “The Sky Room is not just a TV show. It’s a system,” he explains carefully, “It’s a chance for Russian creative people and businessmen to go to Europe and to the world.

Martyn wants Russia to be the new Sweden — with him and Ivan delivering the kind of pop music the world wants in the 00’s — just like Abba in the 70s and Roxette in the 90s.

He believes: “The only thing stopping creative people in Russia is that they’re afraid: ‘Ah we’re from Russia. We’re not like Europe or
the USA. Perhaps no one can understand what we want and what we need.’ We want to change that.”

Ivan and Martyn want to channel their projects through this tower, breaking new bands as part of their show. Now HBO’s in talks to buy the format, Japanese businessmen have put up a massive budget for their own t.A.T.u. documentary / manga film and Playboy are coming to Moscow to shoot the girls (except Martyn will insist they can only photograph their heads — and will have to use body doubles for the rest). While the rest of the music industry sweats about scary children ‘stealing music’, Ivan and Martyn are working out their own ways of breaking new acts, generating cash and staying independent. They’re currently deciding whether to sell their second album directly to pirate distributors, rather than bothering with a record company. The pirate network is so well established in Russia, they can actually offer more money than the record labels. Artists have started flogging their albums on the sly — in advance — to the pirates, so they get paid twice.

Martyn takes us to Zima (‘Winter’) a club in a circus tent, set up by friends of his. Inside, it looks like a cross between a ketamine-fuelled stock exchange and that scene in ‘Moulin Rouge’ full of pissed-up aristocrats dancing to Lady Marmalade. You half expect to look up and see Nicole Kidman being lowered down from the ceiling on a trapeze. Red Indians, gogodancers, models in couture ballgowns and boyband bodypoppers take it in turns to dance on stages at either end of the room. Around the circumference are VIP booths — a table and six chairs — that can be hired for $1,000. t.A.T.u. bodyguard Andri picks people out of the crowd and brings them to us to photograph. He brings us two Russian popstars, a podium dancer, a billionaire’s wife and a supermodel.

The crowd at Zima are the very richest in Russia. After the Soviet Union collapsed, everything got sold off by Boris Yeltsin: oil companies, TV, newspapers. Billions of dollars worth of companies were sold off cheap to a handful of businessmen — oligarchs like Guzinsky, Berezovsky and Abramovich — in return for them backing Boris in his election campaign. When it came to Vladimir Putin’s election, these super-rich ‘New Russians’ switched their allegiance to him. It was only when the billionaires decided to involve themselves in politics that Putin turned on them. Khodorkovsky, the owner of the Yukos oil firm was arrested and charged with fraud and tax evasion. Guzinsky went into exile in Spain and Berezovsky to London. He recently bought Chris Evans’ old house. Abramovich also chose to move to London, and bought Chelsea Football Club.

Now, five years after the crash, the money’s starting to spread. With the oligarchs under more pressure than ever, it’s the turn of new entrepreneurs like Ivan, Martyn and the people that run Zima. Like Ivan, they’ve all made a fortune, lost a fortune in the crash, and made it all over again (without the benefit of billion-dollar windfalls). And now they fear nothing. They’ve proved to themselves that the greatest asset they have is their own capacity to make things happen — not their possessions. So, if they risk everything — and lose – they know they can just start again.

Zima opened in December and instantly attracted every DJ, millionaire and supermodel in Moscow. In March, they’re closing it and starting again with something brand new. Just because they want to.

This is the new Russia. Lawless. Exciting. Creative. Risky. Amazing and a bit disturbing. Moscow’s growing in a way that London and New York can only dream of, because people are willing to take such insane risks here. They live fast, drive fast and get killed. And Ivan and his friends are in the middle of it all.

I ask Martyn if the people in this club would listen to t.A.T.u.: “This is the elite. t.A.T.u. is for the middle people. These are
oligarchs, models, the wives of famous businessmen, artists, musicians. t.A.T.u. is not for them. For them, t.A.T.u. is just good

Saturday. 7pm.
All round Russia, people are flipping on their TVs, looking forward to the t.A.T.u. Reality TV show. I sit and watch the premiere with Ivan in the Sky Room. He sits in a huge chair, centre stage, high above Moscow, watching a massive video screen in the dark. All he’s missing is a fluffy white cat to stroke.

In the original edit, the first show was a series of clips of Julia and Lena opening fanmail and recording songs. But Ivan has spent the last three nights, from dusk til dawn, editing the girls out of the programme. The first 40 minutes are almost solely devoted to Ivan’s arguments with the TV company. And Ivan’s in-depth explanations of why “time doesn’t exist”. In the 42nd minute the girls appear on screen for the first time. They’re called to the Sky Room for a photo shoot with famous Russian snapper Klavikho. But he loses his temper with them and it ends up in a screaming match. He tells the girls they’re nobodies. Julia tells him to go fuck himself.

As the credits roll, every mobile phone in the building starts to ring, with people complaining, people cheering and people wanting to know if this means the band is splitting up.

But Ivan sits quietly in the dark and stares at the screen. “We need a new director.” He pauses. “Someone from our generation.” Ivan’s phone rings. It’s Martyn Martan. He’s had everyone he knows call him up in the two minutes since the show finished. “Everyone wanted to see the girls. They’re all saying ‘But where are the fucking girls?’ But that’s what expected. Ivan wanted to make sure it was new. Everyone is shocked and they say “What’s this piece o f shit show? We don’t understand anything.” And I ask them “Will you watch tomorrow?” and they say ‘Of course we fucking will. We have to figure out what the fuck’s going on.’”

As we carry our suitcases out through the hotel lobby, Sasha, t.A.T.u.’s PR manager, runs after us. Ivan has spent the whole night trying to persuade the director not to hand over the tape of the second episode to the TV company. There are two hours until the show is due to air. Withholding it would mean an hour of no TV, limitless rage on the part of the TV company, frustration for the 100,000s who wanted to know the outcome of the cliffhanger that closed the first show and furious rewriting of Monday morning’s newspaper reports about the show’s premiere. Ivan pulls the show.

The following week, episode two finally airs. 6 days late. After Ivan taking control of the first show, Vitaly, the director, has put
together his own edit, paint his picture of the man behind t.A.T.u.. Lena sits with her granny, complaining about how horrible Ivan is, and how disappointed they are in him. Julia complains that Ivan uses psychological tricks on them. “He doesn’t care about anyone and anyone who is good, leaves him.”

As we drive down the motorway to the airport ‘The Final Countdown” blasts through the stereo. We don’t have seatbelts; the taxi driver’s not put his on. Black forests stretch away on either side, there’s snow all over the road and he’s doing about 180km/h. Suddenly there’s a thud as a wall of snow hits the side of the car. Through the side window we see a black Mercedes, inches away, sliding past the rear wing of the car, out of control. The car rotates — slow motion — in the middle of the road, as speeding cars swerve to avoid it. We’re inches away from dying. Our driver puts his foot down and accelerates away, carving his way through the slush and ice, 200km/h all the way to the airport.

Source: Charles Davies’ Medium