Think of the shittiest dive bar you have ever been to. Ok, do you have that image in your mind. Or better yet, maybe you are sitting there right now, belly up to the polyurethaned bar-top with a cheap shot of whisky in hand and a tall-neck Miller High Life, the champagne of beers. If this is the case, turn around, look at the walls stained with the excessive years of cigarette smoke, smoke which saturated those dark, wood panels, giving them the perfect, antiquated look you see today. Those walls, those disgusting walls, which you have come to call home, are riddled with cancer from all the second hand smoke they have absorbed over the years, like a sponge left in the sink, sitting in the moisture left behind, a stink emanating from that yellow porous rectangle. They will probably be given only a few years to live, as the black tar and ammonia oozes from their cracks. Ok, so now do you have your image? If you don’t, then go find a corner bar, the darker, the smokier, the cheaper, the better, and then you’ll have an idea. But in the meantime, for those of you who know of what I speak, good. Think of that place, and then know, you can’t even come close to Bar Moscow.
Hidden down a street in plain sight, sits the single pane of glass which allows a dull smoked light into this lovely shit-hole bar. Wedged between two bars, one a pool hall and the other a night club, the thick, heavy, solid door of this establishment is adorned with no sign, and no indication of opening or closing hours. To walk by, well, one would do just that, walk by. Our first night in Helsinki we looked for it, and using the directions given to us, walked by, oblivious to Bar Moscow. We stared right at the bar, the single glass window, but we shrugged our shoulders, thinking we had the wrong address. It wasn’t until New Years Eve that we found the bar was there, and oh, what a bar.
Think back to the dive bar you were reminiscing about. That bar with the smoke stained walls, wood paneling, and the salty–usually female–bartender that has been working the joint for the last forty years, and looks about as smoke-stained and leathered from the formaldehyde in those cigarettes as the walls do. Yeah, that bar. You know, the bar where you order comfort food, but nothing is comforting about it three hours later. The food that, for some unknown, god forsaken reason, you still order, after so many stints of upset bowels–even though you won’t admit to yourself it was food poisoning, deep down you know its true– which each time you blamed on the popcorn you had at the last bar; wink, wink. Well, still not Bar Moscow.
We didn’t know what we were walking into, Tom, Abby, and I. We had found the bar at the spot we had previously walked past. Squashed between the two bars we noticed the door, and saw it, a small paper sign at the bottom left hand corner of a plate glass window reading “MOKCBA bAP.” We opened the door with hesitance, and entered into the drunk maelstrom of Bar Moscow. It was New Year’s Eve, the Finn’s on the street were already shitty drunk at 8 p.m., and we would be well on our way soon, with a bunch of Russian’s, who, by the way, the Finnish are not so keen on.
I can only imagine it is how a Russian Bar would have looked in the sixties and seventies under the communist regime. The blood red painted walls added a certain level of hideousness to the aesthetic decor, which was lit by two bare fluorsecent lights angled toward each other vertically on the wall. The rest of the bar was low lit with random lamps, and a few low wattage, recessed, overhead lights, which shone down from the black painted ceiling. I felt like I was in a whorehouse. The red room, the low dim lighting, the cheap tacky decor. I was waiting for Mother Russia to come out in leather clad bikini, whip in one hand, cigarette in the other, speaking in broken english accent, asking me if I like pain. Instead I settled for the drunk men who seemed drawn to us like flies, we being the strangers in this bar where everyone knows each other, but doesn’t show it.
Back to the bar you were thinking about. Ok, we have the smoke stained walls, the old bartender with her ratty, hacking cough. We have the shitty decor. Old signage that has been affixed to the wall for fifty years. Programs still adorning the bathroom walls from a time when your great grandfather would have been drinking there. Now you think about the people. The rummies, the drunks, the boozehounds. The guys and gals that live there. That are there at opening, and help the bartender flip the stools at the end of the evening. You have other bartenders on their way to work, who suck down two screwdrivers before their shift starts–you bump into them at the next bar down the line as they pour your drink, their nose red as Rudolf’s and the blood vessels on their cheeks starting to turn purple, the tell tale sign of an alcoholic. Without these characters, these bars are nothing. They exist because these patrons exist. And, so does Bar Moscow.
The Finn’s loathe Russians, so, why have a bar named Bar Moscow in Helsinki? The drunk Russian, Nicholai, reminisced about home with us. Plying him with shots of Zubrokow vodka, he told us about his life and the life of the bar. Nicholai sipped the vodka, slowly savoring the ice cold clear liquid, even shared one shot with us, each of us taking a small sip of the beautifully crafted, vanilla liquor. The owner wanted a bar he could drink in, without being bothered by a crowd, and what better way to keep Finn’s away, than by opening a Russian themed bar. The bar had customers, it was not empty, it wasn’t want for patrons, but the room–and I stress that, it is only one room big–was not full up, especially for New Year’s Eve. So we drank with Russians, in the most hated bar in Helsinki, and the least advertised. Nicholai explained to us that it is meant to look closed all the time. If people do not think it is open, they will stay out.
Your dive bar probably does not have the drunks they do. In fact, I can guarantee your smoke stained bar with the leathery bartender, the shitty decorations, the diarrhea inducing food, and the barflies, does not have these drunks. There are drunks, swaying back and forth, falling asleep on their beer, hand quivering as they put the cheap shot to their lips, having scrounged together pennies to buy the rotgut well liquor that only cost two dollars, and then, well, there are the drunks of Bar Moscow.
The patrons of Bar Moscow were well on there way. The small tables, which were sporadically placed across the room with no specific pattern, were surrounded by metal chairs with bright red vinyl cushions, while drunk Russian’s swayed from side to side atop these seats. At one point in the evening a patron well over served collapsed leaving the bar, taking with him shelves of knick knacks crashing to the floor with a cacophony of disaster. His crumpled form was left on the floor, until he popped up minutes later, like a marionette being picked up by some invisible puppeteer. No effort was made by the bartender to yell at him, help him, or berate him, it was as if nothing happened. All others in the bar just sat there and watched, then turned back to their respective conversations. This dark haired man with a tousled look stumbled out into the night with an ataxic gate, wandering into the cold of December.
The shitty corner bar, the one you have locked in your mind now, it has a feel, an aura, an atmosphere that is just there. This ambience is the culmination of all aspects from the bartender to the decorations, the patrons to the food, the drinks to the prices they charge and advertise. Now to each their own, so I cannot say Bar Moscow has a shittier atmosphere, but I can say, it was the oddest experience I have had at a bar.
Behind the bar sat a plate of stale sandwiches. Made with white bread, thinly stacked with lunch meats, these unappealing triangles being the only food one could order at the bar. Next to this plate sat a record player the size of a small pony, and across the front of this wood veneered box, was a dull green light emanating from the display of radio stations, like a ruler with hash marks of music. The Russian music boomed with a scratchy, tinny, sound from old burlap covered speakers, while throngs of men sang in high tenors and low baritones, laying a strong solid foundation to their national chants. The music was dated, spinning from the scratched vinyl, which was stacked on shelves behind the bar, relics from a cold war and Stalinist Reds. The bartender herself was squat and stout, with greying hair pulled back, a Babushka in her own right. Her gruff demeanor was not broken by anyone that night. And even though she new many of the patrons, no smile broke her stony facade, it was as if she was one of the millions of faceless masses exiled to Siberia. She spoke with a limited vocabulary, her speech terse and curt, smothered by a thick Russian accent, the few words she spoke you thought she was commanding action, like a drill instructor barking orders. But that still wasn’t the oddest thing.
So in your shitty corner bar, the one you love to visit, the one you call home, you have probably been there on New Year’s Eve. You have probably been there with all the familiar faces, although you may not know them personally, or be friends with, you know them, and it is somehow comforting for you. You are there to ring the New Year. The ball drops on the television and you watched Dick Clark there, wishing you a Happy New Year, feeling as if he was a fixture in your life. People sing, pat each other on the back, hug, total strangers, yet familiar faces, you all feel a common bond. In Bar Moscow, well, there is none of that.
They all stood up as the record player came to an abrupt halt. The three of us stared at each other, as we surveyed the room, watching the men and women hold their drinks up, as if saluting in anticipation of some important patron. Reluctantly standing, we followed suit, and the silence was shattered by men chanting in unison that issued forth from the jangling speakers. It was midnight, and patrons stood for the Russian national anthem. People in the bar sang, belting out the words, as if in some hypnotic trance, like Catholics unconsciously reciting prayers and creeds in their bewitched monotone voices. In Bar Moscow, we ushered in the New Year of 2013 with thirty or more drunk Russian’s, belting out their old communist anthem. And tucked away on a side street, in this dive bar of Helsinki, this pariah of the city’s bars, we felt at home.