“What is Putin’s favorite female name?” roars the announcer of a Vladimir Putin-themed quiz at the opening of Putin Pub in Bishkek on Saturday October 11. “Alina!” the crowd chants back in unison, referring to the former Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabaeva, long rumored to be the Russian president’s lover. “Not Lyudmila?” the announcer goads, name-checking Putin’s ex-wife. “No way!” comes the decisive reply.
Aside from the quiz, ubiquitous Putin paraphernalia, and alcoholic drinks named after both Kabaeva and Putin’s political patron-turned-rival, the late Boris Berezovsky, the Putin Pub, located in a southern suburb of Bishkek, has a strangely familiar feel. The pub’s smart phone-wielding administrator, a stout man with a mane of black hair and a pencil-thin beard, seems to have been in charge of every newly opened Bishkek restaurant-pub in recent memory, for instance.
In a nod to the stealth military operation that laid the foundations for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, wait staff wear the word “#вежливыелюди” (Polite People) stenciled on the reverse of their uniforms. Thankfully these waiters are far more communicative than the unexplained army types who mysteriously surfaced on the Crimean Peninsula in February before calls for a referendum to join Russia. But bringing the onion rings while they’re still warm seems to be a challenge, as it is for waiters in almost every Bishkek gastro-pub.
As opening night progressed with games of beer pong, live music and Putin trivia, a man referring to himself as the pub’s owner, Ernest Japarov, declared he is no Putinist. “I just wanted to create a warm place where people could enjoy a lively atmosphere and not take themselves too seriously,” he told EurasiaNet.org. Between downing vodka shots with his friends and posing for photos with attractive women, Japarov disclosed that Putin Pub is not his first project. He claimed to be behind Aroma pizza bar and Johnny Pub, two other popular venues for young Bishkekchanini with disposable income. Japarov did not say how he got into the restaurant business, but expressed satisfaction with the Andy Warhol-like depictions of Putin wearing a Kyrgyz felt kalpak hat. “You can like him or not like him, but Putin is a person of scale,” Japarov explained.
Across town, Putin Pub’s slightly more refined competitor, Obama Bar, may face a rebranding decision as Barack Obama’s presidency enters its twilights. Putin’s presidency could theoretically last much longer than Obama’s, but Japarov and company might want to consider how long the “Crimea is Ours” absinthe-and-peach cocktail will taste sweet. The Bishkek restaurant-going crowd is nothing if not fickle and there is little to distinguish these themed restaurants popping up all over town in terms of fare and atmosphere. For the moment though, Putin and his bar are riding a wave.