After the ban: Cock fights, rat races and illegal gambling dens

After the ban: Cock fights, rat races and illegal gambling dens

Every Thursday at Korona, an entertainment complex on Novy Arbat, all eyes turn to a small ring on its second floor, where bets are taken on who will win a cock fight.

Every Thursday at Korona, an entertainment complex on Novy Arbat, all eyes turn to a small ring on its second floor, where bets are taken on who will win a cock fight.

A scantily-clad young woman holding up the number of the round walks around smiling as eight small balloons and the colors of two football teams - Lyon and Fulham - are attached to each of the two cockerels.

This is not a battle to the death, though.

"The one with at least one balloon left on his neck is the winner at the end of the bout," said the announcer.

With a nudge from one of the attendees, the two cockerels merge together in a flurry of squawking movement as they attack. Balloons burst one after the other. After one emerged victorious, the two were quickly separated and put back in their cages.

Immediately, a spectator watching asked for a new drink. "There's a feather in my beer," he told the waitress.

At the end of the fourth bout, the announcer announced that once the balloons had popped, he would let the birds fight it out. The fight only lasted for another minute or so, but one of the birds began to bleed from a wound.

As one of the attendees cleaned up the cage, he picked something up off the floor - part of a claw that had been torn off - then quickly threw it back down.

Korona was one of Novy Arbat's most famous casinos before the government banned the industry in 2009. It is now a bookmaker, and the games are a way to attract customers, getting them to bet on the battling creatures. It is also reflective of the gambling industry that is still trying to adapt to life after the ban.

A few meters to the right of the cock fight is the rat race. Ten rats are sniffing around in individual metal boxes that they are kept in.

Every five minutes, the boxes open and the rats are lured across a series of obstacles - casino dice on sticks, one of which is decorated with a hammer and sickle - to the small ball of feed that awaits them at the end of the track. Then they go back into the box and it starts all over again.

Lights and a camera are trained on the races, which take place 24 hours a day. The footage is shown for punters in a betting area downstairs, although no one can bet on them yet.

The rat race is still being tested, said one Korona employee. Tests have been going on for over a year after initial teething problems.

The first rats were wild. One even climbed out of the track, escaping from the rat race before being chased around the room by a rat race official, the employee said.

The rats only live for six months to a year. The first batch is long gone, the employee said.

The current batch, a pretty set of white, black and spotted rats, are kept downstairs, the employee said. Judging by the fact that the rats are changed every two hours, there are around 120 rats in the building.


Cock fights were declared unethical by Tsar Alexander II in a 19th-century decree, said Irina Novozhilova from Vita Animal Rights Center, who condemned the cock fights and rat races at Korona.

"It is entertainment for the egotistical," she said. "Unfortunately, there are people who still think they can enjoy themselves by using animals."

No one at Korona would comment for this story.

The government cracked down on gambling after a period of unprecedented growth at the beginning of the 2000s, when a gambling license could be bought for a couple of thousand rubles. Lax regulation and suspected corruption led to a huge number of slot machine halls, or simply stand-alone slot machines, appearing all over the country.

The spread of slot machines was so dramatic - in underpasses, in youth centers - that it was sometimes easier to find a slot machine hall than a baker.

The government's idea was that all casinos would move to four special zones spread around the country, but it was a complete failure. Only one zone, southern Russia's Azov City, has any gambling. The rest are empty.

Azov City is built on a windswept plain, and is a three-and-a-half-hour bus drive from the nearest city. A second casino is in the works, and there are ambitious plans for the zone in the Far East. But it is a world away from an industry that was worth billions of dollars before it was closed down.

Bookmakers, one of the few legal ways to bet, have expanded into that vacuum, said Yury Fyodorov, the head of the National Association of Bookmakers. The big bookmakers are now plush venues where you can eat and drink, he said. Before, they were not much more than a hole in the wall.

It is illegal to play poker for money in Russia. There was an attempt to declare the game a sport, but the government clamped down on that idea. But it's not illegal to bet on other people playing poker.

In a number of bookmakers, screens show a game of cards. No one is visible, and gamblers bet on who will win. The rat race is entrancing by comparison.


Close to Tushino metro station, three men sit on their own, some with beers, watching screens in silence. A photo of Evgeny Plushenko, the champion ice skater, hangs on a wall. He looks excited, clutching pieces of paper in his hand. They do not.

This is Bingo Boom, which sprung up in the wake of the ban and is now all over Moscow. Clients are served beer and cigarettes for free 24 hours a day, seven days a week if they buy a ticket for a game of bingo (minimum price 250 rubles). A sign says that no one is allowed in Bingo Boom for more than 20 minutes if they have not bought a ticket.

The game is not like old-fashioned Bingo, where a caller picks balls out and reads out the numbers for people to cross off on their cards. It is all automated, and players just scan their cards into the computer.

"You don't have to do anything, just watch," said the bingo attendant.

Bingo is an obvious attempt to fill the hole in the lives of those who visited the cheaper gambling venues. If the rich can head off to Minsk, where casinos are still legal, and the really rich to Monte Carlo, then Bingo Boom is the working-class option. With added beer.

But perhaps the biggest legacy of the reforms is an underground gambling scene of epic proportions. Barely a day goes by without a news story on an illegal casino or slots hall being busted by police. Since the beginning of October, underground gambling establishments have been raided in Vladivostok, Moscow - on Ulitsa Znamenka, right by the Kremlin - Veliky Novogord, Novosibirsk, Yakutsk, Kemerovo, Naberezhny Chelny and so on.

Police have raided an incredible 59,000 illegal gambling places, including 610 casinos, since the law came into place. But everyone knows the police are about as close to ending the problem as American police were to closing down speakeasies during the prohibition.

The bookmakers association, which says it fights the illegal venues, knows of 800 locations in Moscow alone.

The association has informed the police, but little has been done. "I would give them a troyechku," Fyodorov said, grading the police at a mediocre C.

One of the biggest law enforcement scandals in recent years came in 2001, when prosecutors in the Moscow region were accused of protecting casinos in a multi-million-dollar racket.

"If they close them, they open in the same place the next day," Fyodorov said. There are numerous reports every year of police raiding a venue repeatedly.

The police returned to a house the day after they had busted a slot hall earlier this month, and found it was working again. Slot machines are very cheap, Fyodorov said, and the owner just buys a new set.

The major problem is that those caught running gambling dens usually get off with fines. Fyodorov suggested that the owner of any building where an illegal gambling place is found should be made criminally responsible.

Back at Korona, the cleaner had cleaned up the ring after the battle. But not the carpet, where a thick bloodstain could still be seen.