Interview with Chris Helmbrecht

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What brought you to Russia?

When I was 27 I went travelling and ended up in New York fighting for survival. After 15 months in New York I ran out of money but I made my way. Five years later I had a lot of money and I didn’t know what to do with it. Only six months later I lost everything again because of 9/11. Then I took a job in Spain at a IT start up, but the investors didn’t come through and so after nine months working and another 3 months paid vacation, I was unemployed again. I went out of my apartment in Tenerife, looked at the sea and thought: “what should I do?” Just then an old Lithuanian friend who I had known in New York phoned. He had left there for the same reasons as I had. He said he was in Moscow and said that I should come to Moscow, because Moscow “is rocking, lots of business, lots of girls, lots of parties, you will like it.” Two week later I flew to Moscow. That was in 2003.

What was Moscow like for you in 2003?

Everything was horrible; it was a real contrast to sitting in Tenerife where it was nice and sunny. My next move was going to be Barcelona or Paris, maybe Buenos Aires, but not Moscow. After all, it is cold there, and you can get killed in the streets. I made a stop in Berlin for a day to get some winter clothes, because it was 15 degrees below in Moscow. Moscow was exactly as I expected, dark dirty and ugly. The people looked angry and frustrated. My friend really helped me out, he tried to show me the city, he had his own security and a driver, and at night he would change clothes and show me round the bars and clubs. But I still didn’t like it because the people seemed so unfriendly. Even the people I met made no effort to speak English. I decided to leave and never come back. Two days before I left I met a girl. She was not only an incredibly smart and beautiful woman, she was also a ballerina. I thought of her a lot, and then we started to send each other emails and messages. She came to visit me, and I stayed on for another half a year in Tenerife. Financially I could have stayed another year there, I had earned quite a lot of money before and I had cut my costs. But the day came when my landlord asked me if I wanted to sign a lease for another year, and I finally made up my mind and decided to go to Moscow.

How did you find work?

I looked for work but nobody wanted to have me, for two main reasons: I didn’t speak Russian, and secondly I previously always had high-level positions. My background is advertising and the Internet, and I always worked as head of departments, I knew the business and the technology. Although I wasn’t paying rent, Moscow was expensive. Then I had an idea. In America I had a company that used to outsource work to India and other places, so I decided to do the same thing, to set up own company here. The good times returned, I was able to find clients and earn good money, everything was fine. That lasted for about 5 years, then the market dried up and the programmers became too expensive. But in that time I had organised myself, had a work permit and all the permission I needed. I still have an advertising business and that is going OK, although it is not as profitable as before.

How did you get involved with bars and clubs in Moscow?

At the same time as running my business, I started helping managers in bars and clubs in Moscow. I am a musician as well and familiar with the club scene from my New York and Tenerife days. This started as a part-time job, then it became really profitable, and I started dedicating more and more time to it. Then the parties became bigger but I didn’t earn any more or less money. At one stage I was the director of Pasha’s, (now Papa’s) and tried to bring it up to the level of western clubs. I noticed, for example, that it was only 60% full, and people were standing for 15 minutes to get a drink at the bar, things like that. I was even short-changed once, and all of this made me realise how much better the place would be if the bar started to work properly. So this is more than just promotion.

You must have noticed a lot of changes since you have arrived in the world of nightclubs. Are they still getting better?

Nightclubs have changed a lot, they were definitely livelier before, in terms of what you can see and what you can experience. This was exciting for foreigners and also dangerous. There were all sorts of stories about people being overcharged and threatened, some of which are really frightening. Now things are more civilised and the clubs are getting more and more up to a European level. But that means that they are less exciting and interesting for some, but they have got cheaper, at least for excusive clubs. The deposit for a table has come down from €5000 to €1000 for example.

So that means it is not so profitable for the clubs and more are going down now?

I would say that 99% of the clubs are not profitable. The club owners are doing it because they are rich and want to look cool to their friends. There are probably only about 5,000 rich guys in Moscow who have the sort of money that you need to go clubbing regularly. Only 5% of these are foreigners. I have a large database of people who I organise parties for and they can spend between €100-€250 a night, but the people who go to the exclusive clubs can spend a lot more.

Expats seem to be less wild these days. Why?

In the old days, there wasn’t so much pressure on them from the head office of the company they worked for. Russia is one of the fastest growing markets, but head offices don’t seem to understand that Russia isn’t going to grow in the same way as other countries are, and a lot of people have been replaced because of that. When I arrived, the Russian market wasn’t very important, then it became important and the pressure on these people increased dramatically. Russia is becoming more and more like a normal European country these days, not so much room for wild people. Parties are becoming more normal as well.

Are you going to carry on doing parties?

The parties I do are completely different. I have changed the way that I organise them. For the first one or two hours I make sure that the music is low so that people can talk, because that is the reason that many people are there. I think that this is extremely important; you want to meet other foreigners to share their opinions about what is happening. I remember when I first arrived, for the first two weeks I didn’t go out without a security guy, I laugh at myself for that. If you don’t meet other foreigners, you never really get to find out what life is really about here. Not just get drunk and dance the night away, although that is fun.

Are you getting bored with Russia?

No there’s no time for that. Just when you think that things are going well you trip up on something, get a bloody nose, pick yourself up and carry on. I have been here for 10 years and this keeps on happening time and time again. I am married here, with a child. I find myself in a position where I have to stay in Russia. Things are still exciting here and there are still a lot of things I want to do. I have some ideas for Internet start-ups, and I have some investors lined up. But I don’t want to do that because I want to spend more time with my family.
I love the nightlife side of what I do here, but it’s not a business, although I know some investors who want to start a high-end nightclub with me. But I have to explain to them that it is not easy to make money. Some people think they are doing really well, but I think it might have something to do with how much cocaine they have in their noses. So I will carry on with the parties, it’s great for networking and it makes money. I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy and socialising. It’s fantastic.

One thing I have to say about the German community. We have about 20,000 Germans here, and one thing I can’t understand is why so may of them live in the German village at Yugo Zapadnaya. They have their own shops, restaurants and beer houses. I can’t understand why people go to another country and don’t integrate more.