So, last November, when I got a call from Gold’s Gym inviting me to Russia—that is, the free, 15-year-old Russian Federation—I knew I had to go. Gold’s Moscow franchise was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and they thought I might like to get some insight into what the Russian method was all those years ago, what it has transformed into today—and maybe drink a little vodka in the process.

“Nostrovia!” I replied. The Russian equivalent of “cheers.”

After a 10-hour flight, Dave and I arrive in Moscow. Dave Reiseman is the director of Gold’s Gym PR, and he’s come along to help me get what I need, look in on the Moscow franchisees, and maybe drink a little vodka of his own. Looking out the window of the plane, I see that it’s not unlike New York—only nothing is written in English. It’s gray and dreary, but thanks to a bizarre warm front (or perhaps global warming), it’s not cold. It’s in the 40s (Fahrenheit), and I later learn that it’s the warmest Russian autumn in eons.

As we step off the plane, Dave asks, “Do you hear Survivor in your head?” It’s a reference to “Burning Heart,” the ’80s band’s ominous rocker that plays in the background in Rocky IV, when Sly steps onto Russian soil for the first time. Russia is not a country you just walk right into. We fill out landing passes that restate our passport numbers and our business there, and we’re led from one attendant to the next—all in military garb—to have them stamped more times than I can count.

We next meet Costas, the driver Gold’s has sent to pick us up. He knows just enough English to realize we’re the two he wants. Moscow is a city of 11 million people, and the highways are packed. It takes nearly an hour to get to the hotel, when, distance-wise, it should have been roughly half that. On the way, Dave practices his limited Russian, written out for him phonetically by friends. He tries a few words on Costas and mispronounces them fantastically. Costas has been stone-faced up to this point, but all of a sudden, he laughs. Has Dave gotten through to him? Have we smashed the language barrier in a matter of minutes? Costas shakes his head in confusion. “Sorry,” he says. “I speak only Russian.”

Found In Translation
At 7 a.m. the next day, we’re off to visit Gold’s Gym Moscow. Though it’s owned collectively by a number of investors, the primary directors are two American businessmen, Paul Kuebler and Jake Weinstock, plus a local Russian, Vladimir Grumlik. Kuebler and Weinstock both arrived in the early ’90s for finance jobs, and they have become thoroughly Russified. They’re fluent in the language, and Kuebler is even married to a beautiful Russian woman—a former competitive gymnast.