It was a chilly August evening in St. Petersburg, when I pushed open the metal doors and walked into Miracle café. After strolling alongside the Neva River and exploring St. Petersburg’s monuments, I wanted a space where I could sit at leisure and make notes, without condescending looks from waiters or spending a bomb on substandard cappuccinos. My couchsurfing host Alexandr had suggested I visit one of Russia’s anti-cafés. These are social spaces that charge by the hour and not for what is consumed. I was promised a comfortable atmosphere, soft music, and board and video games. Moreover, visitors can drink as many cups of tea and coffee as they want, accompanied by cakes and cookies. Hourly prices are nominal and grow progressively cheaper the longer one stays there.
As a budget traveller, this fit perfectly with my agenda. After exploring the city, I could sit reading for hours, or perhaps meet interesting people, while paying under RUB180/₹184 per hour. Inside Miracle café, however, I found much more. Leather-bound Russian classics lined the bookshelves and the muted green and mustard-yellow upholstery was offset by beadwork cushions. An exposed brick wall featured a Native American wall hanging. The sound of guitar riffs and singing from the French club next door wafted in every time someone walked in.
An art club lecture on avant-garde art and music was in progress, and a grainy clip of American composer John Cage’s piece “Water Walk” was playing. Engrossed, a group of young Russians watched the avant-garde artist create a composition with a bathtub, a water siphon, an electric mixer, and five radios. A bespectacled, middle-aged man with long hair smiled at me, signalling that I should join his group. Though he conducted the informal lecture in Russian, it still felt strangely inclusive to me.
Favoured by cash-strapped students and artists in need of a workspace, Miracle café is one of over 30 such establishments in the city. The concept was born in Moscow in 2011, when the city’s commercial establishments were becoming too expensive for freelancers and artists, and gentrification was driving out old businesses. The first anti-café started out in an alleyway in central Moscow, when a group of poetry enthusiasts rented an apartment where people could collaborate. They placed a suitcase near the entrance to promote voluntary donations to run the space.
Eventually, Russian businessman Ivan Mitin, who was part of the original group, popularised the concept with his chain of Moscow anti-cafés called Ziferblat or “clock face” where guests are considered “micro-tenants” of the space they use. After spreading to other Russian cities, Ziferblat now has branches in Manchester, Liverpool, London, Prague, and Ljubljana.
St. Petersburg’s anti-cafés straddle the thin line between commercial and community establishments, and some are funded by donations from large-hearted philanthropists. Each has its own identity and patrons. Freedom café, for example, is dramatically different from the cosy Miracle. It has a grand staircase leading up to its entrance and outside it stands an oversized wooden armchair with geometric upholstery. I considered diving into that chair but restrained myself, unsure of proper etiquette. Inside, the well-lit corridors lined with beautiful art deco posters opened to different rooms. There was a pool room, a reading room, rooms for watching television and playing video games, and a café serving unlimited cookies and coffee. I watched a green-haired girl glued to her colouring book, her legs hanging off the sofa’s armrest. At another table, two bearded men sat discussing what looked like a manuscript, flailing their pens in the air, perhaps arguing plot points.
While Miracle nurtures art, Freedom seems to lean towards cultivating creativity. Both of them provide space for people to just be. I did not feel rushed, the waiters were friendly, and I felt no guilt for using hours of Wi-Fi after having ordered only one thing. My time at Miracle also left a lasting impact on me; I was inspired to delve into an aspect of the city’s thriving underground cultural scene that I discovered at these anti-cafés. When I left St. Petersburg, I looked up the artists I had heard about at the lecture, turning what could have been a hazy reminder of an afternoon at a coffee shop into an inspirational memory.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Buy Time, the Cookies are Free”.
Miracle café Moshkov per. 4, at the corner of Dvortsovaya nab. 20; +7-812-5701314; open Mon-Thu noon to 1 a.m., Fri-Sat noon- 8 a.m.; RUB150/₹157 per hour.
Freedom café Nevsky Prospekt 88; +7-812-5795763; open Mon-Thu noon to midnight, Fri-Sat noon to 6 a.m., Sunday noon to 2 a.m.; RUB120/₹122 per hour.
Ziferblat 81 Nevskiy Prospekt; +7-960-2856946; open Sun-Thu 11 a.m-midnight, Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; RUB180/₹184 per hour.
12 rooms Bolshaya Morskaya d. 19, 2nd floor; +7-812-9237096; open weekdays noon to midnight, weekends noon to 7 a.m.; RUB120/₹122 per hour.
Daisy Smoke Mayakovskogo ul. 27; +7-999-2006719; open daily 4 p.m.-6 a.m.; RUB300/₹315 per hour.
(Rates at most anti-cafés decrease after the first hour.)
Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.