The Story of Night Flight

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The Swedish-owned nightclub Night Flight at Tverskaya 17, next to Pushkin Square opened up back in 1991, and quickly became part of the Moscow expat landscape. It is now so well established and integrated that it seems almost inconceivable that the club wasn’t there at some time in the past. However, it was not all plain sailing setting up Night Flight, there were many unforeseen challenges involved. Moscow expat Life met with three founding members of the club; board members Sonny Lundkvist, Yuri Giverts, and General Director Anna Cherny who told us about the early days.

The original idea for the club was Sonny Lundkvist’s. “At that time [the late 1980s] I travelled to the Soviet Union regularly as I was in the travel business, I had a travel agency in Stockholm, and I arranged tours to Leningrad. We started to work with a hotel called Karelia there, and worked with a manager there who asked us one day to tell him about discothèques, because he had heard that we had discothèques in Sweden. So we did, and they had a nice place in the basement where they opened what I think was the first discothèque in the Soviet Union, called Eldorado, on the 1st of September 1989. I was young, 22 at the time, I had no money at all, but we started talking about starting something in Moscow, after all, that was the capital of the Soviet Union. We then met some people in Moscow, and about 6 months later we found the place where Night Flight is today, at Tversakaya 17, which at that time was called the Ice Cream Café. It was a government run outfit, run by a company called Tver, which handled restaurants in central Moscow.” Yuri Giverts explained: “This governmental company participated in many joint ventures with foreign companies, like McDonalds, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Hut and so on. I was asked by the Moscow Minister of Trade if I could participate in negotiations with some Swedes who wished to open a night club in Moscow.”

Things went faster when Yuri came on board, Sonny added, and 6 months later, a company was formed, but not without some blood, sweat and tears. Yuri explained: “even to register as an investor was not so easy, because you had to have a lot of different approvals. For a foreign company to start to work in the centre of Moscow, even in the restaurant business, meant official permission from the KGB. We also needed approval from a whole range of different Moscow organisations, from the department of business of the Moscow government, to the technical department, and finally, you had to register the company in the Ministry of Finance. This was really complex, you had to know how to prepare the documents, and identify the key points. You had to describe everything, who the foreign partner is, what kind of investment these partners will be making, etc., etc. Then they would check everything, invite you for special meetings, when you had to defend all the points in your plans.”

But gaining permission to register and open the business was not the end of the story. Yuri elucidated: “The biggest problem was when we started to create our own product. At that time, the shops were totally empty. The Swedish partners had to bring everything in, to build the club. I mean EVERYTHING – glasses, porcelain, candles, toothpicks, screws, wallpaper, EVERYTHING. Of course we also had to bring in normal alcohol, which was authentic and not criminally-produced. This all came in on several trucks, and arrived on the 15th of August 1991. Now it just so happened that on Monday August 19, 1991 there were tanks on Tverskaya, because the Putsch had started. It was not funny at all. We came to Pushkin Square and put our hands on the tanks. The guys who were in them did not even understand where they were. We said: “guys, please don’t kill people.” Sonny at that time was in Stockholm. “We sent some Swedish builders with the materials to Moscow. I remember so well how on the morning of the 19th, we got a phone call from one of them, who had walked to the Intourist hotel to make an international phone call to Sweden. He said that the team was asking: ‘what is happening, there are a lot of tanks in the streets,’ I bought a ticket and flew straight to Moscow. I remember the girl at the check-in desk at Stockholm airport said: ‘But you cannot go there, there are tanks on the streets!’ I said that I must go, I think I was the only person on that plane. I was met at the airport by our lawyer at the time, but he could only take me as far as Sokol as the streets were closed from then on.”

Despite everything, Night Flight opened on the 25th of October 1991, which was a major achievement. The first clients were foreigners, “many of whom did not have a place to meet, eat and drink”, Yuri explained. Sonny added: “From a market perceptive, we were not crystal clear about the business concept, but we knew it would work. We were young, and didn’t really know what kind of clients would come, what kind of girls would come, we could not have known as this was a first at the time. But it worked!”

On the opening night, Sonny and Yuri said that they were in a state of shock. Anna Cherny described the situation: “It was absolutely chaos, the bar upstairs was completely packed, it was difficult for people to get through all these people to get to the bar to try to buy some drinks. But that was nothing in comparison to what was happening outside. There was a queue which started outside the Mayor’s office at Tversakay 13, the entrance fee was $15.” Yet things did not get out of control partly thanks to the strong Swedish contingent of staff who were not only managing but working behind the bars.

The club was a real success, and has remained so. When asked why, Sonny and Yuri point out security as being key: Yuri: “We had a few strict rules, firstly that the club should be a very secure place because at that time the criminal world was very active in Moscow. We hired a private security company, the best in Moscow, and we requested help from the Moscow Police. There was always a policemen with a gun right outside the front door, and the gun wasn’t a toy.” Sonny talked about another key reason for success: “We only employed girls, as bar waitresses, attendants, no men at all, but all the girls had to speak English, and that was difficult, because very few people spoke good English at that time. And by the way, we had a rule, and the rules was quite strict, that the club was only open for men who were over 30, and girls older than 21, although according to Russian legislation we could have allowed entrance to girls over 18, but we followed the European legislation. All the girls and men, everybody, was a guest. Everybody paid, and pays the entrance fee, it is not our responsibility what people do in their free time, that is not our business and we have never afforded any special favors or privileges to anybody. We have no private rooms.”Anna added: “From the very beginning, all the girls were from Moscow, 80% of them were students from quite good educational establishments like Moscow university, Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages, some were interpreters, and we had two guys who were military interpreters.”

There have been a few more surprises since then. Sonny recalled one incident: “One interesting situation, which could only have happened in 1994, was when one guy, a famous banker, decided to drive his Mercedes, at full speed, into the entrance. He was under 30, and because he couldn’t get in, decided to come in another way.” The bank offered to pay all expenses, and they settled with us so well that it enabled us to import a whole new entrance from Sweden, it was even flown in, which I think was another first.”
The next major event was the opening of the restaurant, which opened on 8th of March 1993. Again for the restaurant it was the right time, there was not a lot of choice then of where to go if you wanted to have good food in Moscow.

“The most important thing to remember,” Yuri commented, “is the friendship and partnership between the partners. Everybody is still together, we are still friends, we trust each other, just like it was when we started, and that is the most important thing. I can tell you one joke about the opposite to that situation. Some foreign partners came to Russia and started to create a business. They wanted to work with Russians, because the foreign partners have the money, and the Russian partners have local experience. After two years, the foreign partners had the local experience and the Russian partners had the money. So we have a good example of the opposite situation.”