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Comrades In Arm Curls

An American gym rat tours the Moscow fitness scene

“When we first opened,” says Kuebler, “the word fitness didn’t exist in the Russian language.” Literally. In 1996, the concept of exercise for one’s own self-improvement, aesthetically or mentally, was as foreign to Russians as democracy or blue jeans had been 10 years earlier. For decades, workouts were done strictly to improve sports skills. A strong, well-conditioned body was only useful for bringing glory and honor to the team (if not the entire nation), and the consequences of poor performance were severe. “The Soviet Union felt that the way they could show how strong they were in the world was through their performance in sports,” says Igor Krasnov (speaking through Kuebler’s translations), a trainer in the gym. Krasnov’s father spent his life training Soviet athletes from a variety of sports. “Unfortunately, what that meant is the country forgot about people. In focusing on the best 1%, they forgot the other 99, who may have gotten injured or were not strong enough, and no one felt bad for them. The attitude was that no one was irreplaceable,” and training in general was not for everybody.

Bodybuilding—considered a decadent, Western expression of individual ego over the state—was strongly discouraged. While some factories and universities provided weight rooms and sports facilities, they were usually no better than a basement home gym. If you were an athlete being groomed for, or playing on, a school or amateur sports team, you had better options. Massive, state-run facilities catered to elite sportsmen. The current Gold’s occupies one of these buildings, a 55,000-square-foot expanse that formerly serviced the Young Pioneers—a Soviet youth group designed to recruit young Communists. Complete with a weight room, lap pool, tennis court, salon, and juice bar, to name just a few of its amenities, the Moscow Gold’s boasts everything any American gym can, and then some.

“What happened is that after the Soviet Union fell, farming collapsed,” says Weinstock. “People started moving o­ farms and into the major cities,” chiefly Moscow, “and using the open market to acquire wealth.” As the people had more to spend, they spent it on themselves, and appearance became more important—for both social life and business.

At the same time, the whole country, like the United States, was becoming more health conscious. Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, had instituted the Þrst government initiatives to curb the notorious Russian drinking problem. By the time Vladimir Putin was elected president in 1999, “the whole country had begun to see fitness as a necessity,” says Weinstock. Putin’s rigorous, well-publicized judo regimen vanquished the image of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whose bleary-eyed public addresses and alcoholism had been considered an embarrassment by many. “We had to sort of create the market as we went,” says Kuebler, whose lifelong passion for fitness and eagerness to get in on the burgeoning Russian free market made him reach out to Gold’s initially. “We had to explain to Russians what fitness was for.” Since national pride no longer hinged on Soviet dominance in the sports arena, newly democratic Russians were free to work out wherever and in whatever way they wanted, but they weren’t always sure how.

“When we first began, going to the gym was viewed as more of a trendy thing to do,” says Weinstock. When the gym opened its doors in 1996, 2,000 people flooded the entrance—mainly just to be there. Just as McDonald’s had made a splash years earlier as an American treat to “ooh” and “ah” at, Gold’s was recognized as a Western brand with an incredible “cool” factor. Brand-name equipment in the pro shop sold out almost immediately. “The free publicity we got was unbelievable,” says Weinstock. “People came out looking like they had been dipped in Gold’s gear.”

Having a gym membership also became a sign of status. While clubs opening elsewhere around the country offered varying rates, Moscow, like any major city, had a higher cost of living. Membership to the Moscow Gold’s runs about $1,600 U.S. dollars monthly, more than what most ordinary folks could ever afford—making the gym part fitness center, part social club for Russia’s upper-middle class. Businessmen come there to network as much as to work out, and to socialize with like-minded people. “There were limited social venues at the time we opened,” says Kuebler (in fact, nightclubs as we know them were nonexistent in the U.S.S.R.), “so Gold’s quickly became a place to be seen, meet your friends and colleagues, and unwind.”

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