Although I met dozens if not hundreds of people through my late friend Dmitry (“Dima”) Vorobyev (1974–2022), some of whom would become real friends, I cannot for the life of me remember when and how exactly I met Dima himself. It must have been sometime in 2005 or 2006, at the latest, because by the spring of 2007 we were already well enough acquainted to give a talk on our beloved city’s “anti-regeneration” movements at a conference on art and urbanism in Hamburg. Benedict Seymour, one of the editors of Mute magazine, was at the conference, and he kindly asked us to turn our talk into a full-fledged article, which we did. It was published the next year, somehow appropriately, in an issue featuring a picture of a cute kitten on the cover. Dima loved cats.
He also adored his hometown, Petersburg, in a wide-eyed, insatiably curious, panamorous fashion that meant endlessly exploring and enthusiastically embracing all its nooks, crannies, back alleys, abandoned lots, outskirts, dive bars, suburbs, new estates, subcultures, and courtyards. A geologist turned sociologist, he turned his “teleporting” (his coinage) from the imperial city center to the “provinces” (some of which, as it transpired, were also in the city center) into an undertaking called Sunday Cafe (in Russian, Voskresnoe kafe or V-kafe for short), a constantly mutating ensemble of serious urbanists and flighty flaneurs who went on long walks through the city that invariably featured a more or less elaborate “coffee break,” which often as not, happened outside, using a tiny camping stove and a Turkish coffee pot to make the coffee.
These walks were not “drifts” in the Situationist sense of the term. They almost always had well-defined beginning and end points (usually, subway or train stations, thus making it easier for the walkers to gather and disperse), and they often had more or less planned routes and even themes. For example, Dima and I did two “Leninist” walks as part of Sunday Cafe. The first, inspired by a book of Lenin-related addresses in Leningrad-Petersburg that I had picked up somewhere, was a fairly comprehensive tour of the Petrograd Side to all the places listed in the book while, periodically, stopping to read aloud choice passages from Lenin’s writings. The second, similarly inspired by a found bit of Leniniana (a late Soviet-era map for teenagers), recreated Lenin’s fateful journey, in October 1917, from his hideout in the Vyborg District to the Smolny Institute. Although several dozen people were with us at the start of this second Lenin walk, only five or six of us made it, several hours later, to the Smolny. I sarcastically thought at the time that this was a stark illustration of modern-day Russia’s utter lack of “revolutionary potential,” and subsequent events have only confirmed my intuition.
Like the nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary movement, Sunday Cafe was nearly always a marathon of sorts and thus prey to attrition and low attendance, especially in the “unseasonable” part of the year, which often makes up most of the year in Petersburg. But sometimes these marathons didn’t entail walking for hours “god knows where” in deplorable weather. In a memorable series of walks, Sunday Cafe saw everything there was to see on the two blocks of Pushkinskaya and three blocks of Kolomenskaya, two adjoining streets (where we both also happened to live at the time) in the city center, conducted over three Sundays in gloriously perfect summer weather. There were whole other words right under our noses, as we discovered, and to sharpen our focus Dima had printed out little tags, reading “This is good” and “This is bad,” to affix to the good and bad things we found along the way, including cars parked on sidewalks (bad) and grassroots efforts to turn parts of the downtown’s notorious labyrinth of courtyards into little oases of greenery and recreation (good).
It was also Dima who dragged me, finally, into the Soviet-era ryumochnaya (“shot bar”) right across the street from our house, the now (supposedly) “legendary” Dvadtsatochka (it was nicknamed that because it was in the commercial, first floor of house no. 20 — dvadtsat’, in Russian — on our street). For years, I had been too afraid to go in there alone, having witnessed many an outright fight there from our balcony, and seen several men removed from the establishment feet first after such scuffles or after particularly earnest drinking bouts. Dima enticed me there with the promise of cheap drinks and eats and a supremely colorful cast of regulars and staff. Although the two of us stuck out like sore thumbs — like the one and a half sociologists we were at the time — nobody minded us being there at all, while I, for one, appreciated being somewhere that the city’s burgeoning pseudo-middle class and then-upsurging hipsters still feared to tread. Unfortunately, the bar was shut down, a few years later, by the discount supermarket chain that had already taken over the old-style neighborhood grocery next door. Fittingly, just after Dvadtsatochka shut down, it served for a week as a location for a retro crime drama that was shooting in the city. Even more fittingly, my tender friend Dima persuaded the outgoing owners to give him the official sign board that had hung just inside the bar’s entrance, seemingly for decades. Among other helpful information, the board listed the categories of patrons who were entitled to be served without queuing: as I recall, they included veterans of the Great Fatherland War (World War Two) and exonerated former political prisoners, along with “invalids” (i.e., people with disabilities). Knowing how much I (literally) admired this sign, Dima presented it to me as a Christmas or New Year’s gift later that year.
It has been forty days since Dima died, which is an important milestone in the Russian mourning tradition. Today in Petersburg, Dima’s friends and loved ones convened Sunday Cafe on a route that took them to the cemetery where his remains are buried. As on the day of his funeral, over a month ago, I wish that I could have “teleported” to Petersburg to go on this walk, although, following its progress on social media in the early hours of the morning here on the other side of the planet, I couldn’t help but notice just how sad everyone looked in the photos, naturally. It is not that just Dima, had he been present, would have found way to liven things up. (For example, by lining us against a wall and making us strike absurd poses while having our pictures taken, an entertainment he called (za)bashit’ luki.) He was one of a vanishing breed of Petersburgers, one almost never captured in the city’s world-famous “text.” The characters in the Petersburg-Leningrad writer Konstantin Vaginov‘s novels, published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, have been cited as prototypes for the city’s late-Soviet, perestroika-era and post-perestroika bohemians, and it’s true that when I came across these novels, quite by accident, in the mid-1990s, I had the distinct impression that Vaginov was describing many of my own friends and acquaintances.
But a lot happened in Vaginov’s hometown between his death in 1934 and the childhoods and youths of Leningrad’s “last Soviet generation,” in the 1960s and 1970s. Since I’m definitely not even half of a sociologist anymore, and I’m definitely not an anthropologist, I won’t venture to describe that generation at all. But I will say that its brightest and best members, especially as exemplified by Dima, are worldly, adventurous, warm, funny, open-minded and absurdly well-educated “patriots” of their city in a way that has been utterly at odds with the regime established by its now sadly most famous native son. This blog was conceived, in part, a chronicle of the “cold civil war” between this group of Petersburgers (and Russians) and the regime, a war that now seems to have been conclusively won by the latter.
But even as I write this, solemnly and grimly, I recall an argument I had with Dima after one Sunday Cafe many years ago. We were having supper in a real cafe, a welcoming place in our neighborhood that served cheap, decent food and doubled as a venue for readings, concerts and other events (meaning that it was just the kind of “democratic,” low-profile, grassroots venture that Dima adored and was uniquely capable of discovering in every corner of the city), and there were several other V-kafeshniki with us. I must have been preachifying, as I was wont to do then, about the sad state of civil society in the face of the regime’s growing ugliness and repressiveness. Angered by my sermon, Dima said something to the effect that it wasn’t “our” (Russian? Petersburg?) way to oppose the regime in the sense I was suggesting it should be opposed.
It’s not that now I realize he was right and I was wrong. But Dima knew a thousand times more than I did about the fine grain of Petersburg’s grassroots anti-regime and “a-regime” subcultures, and he hoped, I think, that however bad things actually were then, those communities of grassroots activists, artists and entrepreneurs would still have enough space and light and nourishment to grow into something bigger and better and more powerful that, over time, would simply shunt the regime aside and render it irrelevant.
In any case, as a friend pointed out soon after his death, there was nothing more incompatible than the lifelong pacifist Dima Vorobyev and the regime’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent “mobilization” of Russia’s draft-age population, which, blessedly, kicked off after his death.
But there was a time — which happened to be the time when Dima and I met — when there was a hope, however faint, for a better future. The article that we wrote together reflected that strange interregnum (which was nothing of the sort, of course), and so I will close with a brief excerpt from it, below, and a plea to Dima, wherever he is, that he forgive me for writing so clumsily about him. (This is just a first draft, my friend.) You should have known him. ||| TRR
What has caused ordinarily apolitical Petersburgers to swell the ranks of protest movements headed by political parties whose ideologies otherwise leave them suspicious or cold? The multi-pronged viral assault on the city on the part of bureaucrats and developers that we have briefly described. Strange as it may seem, in contemporary Petersburg, class conflict has been translated into opposed visions of urban renewal and historic preservation. It is precisely the preservation of Petersburg as a gigantic open-air architecture museum and the very particular places people live (with their unique ‘ensembles’ of stairwells, courtyards, archways, streets, squares, and local curiosities) that has become the point around which a more general sense of rampant social injustice has crystallised. A shattering series of crimes and indignities have been visited upon the bodies of Petersburgers in recent decades: widespread corruption, police violence, bureaucratic abuse, racist and xenophobic attacks, the dismantling of the social safety net, alcoholism and drug abuse, a high mortality rate, environmental pollution of all sorts. And yet, since Soviet times, all these risks and dangers have usually been felt to be part of life’s grim ‘common sense’ and thus inaccessible to sustained critical reflection or direct collective intervention.
Why do we see mass mobilisation in defense of the city rather than against such widespread albeit de-individualised injustices? Is it because the destruction of the city is something specific — a matter of real, lived places, places that can be seen and touched and remembered? Is it because the threat of injustice now takes the form of an alien skyscraper on a horizon that used to be peacefully uncluttered? Is it because people wake up one morning and find a fence erected around the humble square where they used to walk their dogs and play with their kids?
The answer to these questions would seem to be yes. First, the now ubiquitous and visible destruction of the city its residents are used to (which includes ‘unbecoming’ tree-filled green spaces in late-Soviet housing projects as well as neoclassical masterpieces), which we have likened to a kind of cancer or virus, has provoked an ‘anti-viral’ reaction. This reaction has taken very different forms. Future activists have followed a number of routes to mobilisation and collective action. Moreover, their first experiences of political engagement, while not always successful, have usually been ‘safe’ enough to encourage further involvement. The usually high threshold to political participation amongst ‘apathetic’ post-perestroika Russians has thus been lowered considerably.
Source: Dmitry Vorobyev & Thomas Campbell, “Anti-Viruses and Underground Monuments: Resisting Catastrophic Urbanism in Saint Petersburg,” Mute, vol. 2, no. 8 (2008)