Mitya Borisov

Interview by James Casey. Photograph by Stephen Conrad

Drink up! An imbibing impresario imparts his knowledge on alcohol, poetry, and how to make it in Moscow without really trying.

Mitya Borisov is Bad News. Pouring one of the evening’s many doses of vodka, Dimitry “Mitya” Borisov explains the benefits of owning and running a string of successful bars and cafés in Moscow. “The best part is getting drunk,” he barks, thrusting a glass across the table. “The worst part,” he offers, raising his shot, snapping his head back and downing the contents of the glass, “is bribing off the authorities.” Wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, he suddenly jerks forward and rattles his unmistakable maxim, “Live fast, die young.”

As a rule, a night on the town with Borisov will almost always end badly. For one, he is notorious for his alcoholic intake—a flame haired dynamo running on vapors. In a country renowned for its relative indifference to sobriety, this is no small feat. “Everything I have created was under the influence of alcohol, or at least a terrible hangover. This is when I am at my most creative,” he explains before trailing into a diabolical burst of laughter.

The hazy germination of Borisov’s mini empire began during the Russian financial crisis of 1998, when, after losing his job, he founded OGI—an illegal bar, café, bookshop, and performance space in his apartment. “We had no money and were drinking most of what we had lying around, so we decided to open a bar in the flat,” he says. Whilst profits were non-existent—naturally, friends refused to pay for drinks—they hosted a series of influential readings and performances in the space before being shut down by ‘the man.’ “We operated for seven months, it was a miracle. When they discovered us, it was such a major violation that they had no idea what to do.” Thanks, in part, to a sympathetic bureaucratic ear, they managed to avoid what he estimates would have been five years behind bars.

Emancipated, Borisov and his then partner quickly built on the success of their illegal precursor by establishing Project OGI, a basement space near Chistiye Prudy where it still remains. A host of spin-offs spread throughout the city (many eventually faltered), offering the emerging middle-class intelligentsia a respite from the sweeping tides of New Russian tackiness—responsible, ironically, for the chains later failure. Borisov parted ways with OGI in 2001, beginning his fruitful partnership with another Dimitry—Dimitry “Dima” Yampolsky—heralding a succession of successful properties throughout Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

With the face lift that Moscow has endured in the decade since, it’s easy for the average Muscovite to remain nostalgic for times passed. Borisov, though, remains resolute. “It was a great time, but it’s better now. When we started, we were 20-year-old idiots,” he says. “The best time was when Dima and I were living on Sadova Boulevard and everyone thought we were gay. We constantly tried to prove we weren’t, and eventually had to get married and move out.” Shifting forward and raising another hundred grams of vodka aloft, Borisov toasts with exaggerated exclamation. “I’ve been married eight times,” he snarls.

“You don’t know John Donne?” Mitya asks incredulously. The 17th Century English metaphysical poet serves as the namesake of his most recent project, a classic English pub. “I don’t serve Guinness,” he explains. “For me, Irish pubs are like McDonalds.” In fact, writers lend their names to several places within Mitya’s stable: there’s Café Gogol, Mayak (above the Mayakovsky theatre), and Jean-Jacques, a chainlet of bistros named after French philosopher Rousseau.

With Jonne Donne up and running, Borisov is currently developing two new projects which look to be his most ambitious yet. One is a Georgian café in conjunction with local artists the Totibadze brothers and Manana Shevardnadze (daughter of deposed Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze). The other will be Moscow’s answer to Soho House: a private members club catering to the cultural crème of the capital. While this might seem anathema to the warmth of his previous endeavors, Mitya explains that the formula remains the same. “On the outside it will be closed and discrete, but on the inside it will be democratic.”

Perilously close to the bottom of a bottle, conversation trails off, fittingly, to the subject of writers and alcohol. Slurring my own surprise at him not having heard of Dylan Thomas, Borisov is quick to run through his far larger database—Russian and otherwise—of famous drinkers. “Joyce died from alcohol too,” he says, before dispatching the last drops into several glasses and holding his glass high. “Na Zdorovie,” says the table in reply. To your health, indeed.