Russian Owner of London’s First Pay-per-Minute Café Talks Utopia

January 9, 2014 | Marina Galperina

Ziferblat is the buzziest brand new café in London, landing in the Guardian and Time Out yesterday. It’s the first pay-per-minute in the UK — just being there costs 3 pence (5 cents) per minute and the rest is free. Just pick up one of the old fashioned alarm clocks and for about three bucks and you can make yourself a coffee with the espresso machine, munch on any available cookies and vegetables and use the internet for a whole hour.

It’s unique and all the hype in Shoreditch, but owner Ivan Mitin has already opened 10 such communal cafés around metropolitan Russia. ANIMAL just caught up with Mitin to dig beyond the immaculately-decorated interior and the mis-matched cups by the communal kitchenette, behind the shared shelves of books and records. There’s something very warm there. Mitin’s project is socially Utopian. I haven’t visited Ziferblat, but by the end of our exchange, I forgot we were talking about cafés.

Named after clock faces, the Ziferblat chain pegs itself as a “social space you treat like your home,” with each visitor becoming “a sort of micro-tenant of the space.” According to their press kit pdf, two years since the first Ziferblat opened on Pokrovka Street in Moscow in 2011, Ziferblat remains “first and foremost a social project, and not a business model.” They’re located in some of the hippest neighborhoods of St Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod and their photos give you nice vibes, varying on the location. One is a labyrinth of communal rooms, another is a vintage office boasting a pet goldfinch, another is a theater. Some have house musicians, some host exotic language seminars and environmental activist meetings.

We’re looking into this from a distance, and from a distance, it all looks idealistic, sophisticated, so well laid out and meticulously decorated. It’s almost curated and completely free of themed “Soviet” or “Russian” kitsch. It’s also free of the kind of grittiness we associate with DIY spaces in New York and consistent to Mitin’s Utopian brand. Yet, Mitkin insists there’s no commercial sponsor and that Ziferblat thrives on profits and donations. There’s a hint of ’60s loving freak-wave communalism, but not really. According to Mitin, it’s manifesting the same basic human desire to congregate and share, without the pollution of political manipulation. Mitin specifically insists this has nothing to do with kommunalkas — federal Soviet communal apartments, notorious and mythologized for absurdly decrepit living conditions — no matter how many times I pushed the concept on him.

What he did tell ANIMAL was sweet, enthusiastic, with a kind of functional idealism and a side of biscuits.

Ivan Mitin at Ziferblat in Shoreditch, London

ANIMAL: Why do you think this chain has been so popular in Russia? Do we have a natural leaning to communal living and socializing? 

IVAN MITIN: I think that Ziferblat can be popular in any comparatively evolved society. And Russia is not the most obvious example of this, where one can start projects of this sort. I was just born there. I grew up and was physically there at the moment an opportunity to do something came up. In London, considering the last few days, this idea has been received even warmer and with no less popularity.

I can’t say if our success owes anything to the history of communal life in Russia. Kommunalka was pushed on us in Soviet schools; it’s not some archetypal desire of the Russian people to divide living space.

Ziferblat on Pokrovka Street in Moscow

How is the London public receiving it?

They’re in awe! People really like this idea. Many Londoners — British, American, Indian, Russian, etc. — are more sensitive to the nuances of details of Ziferblat. They are a lot more calm, are more polite to one another. The patrons wash dishes in the little kitchen, make themselves tea. They bring salads, charmingly get to know each other.

This, thank God, is happening in Russia, but there are some people who just don’t understand this — they’ll start guffawing loudly or yell nonsense as they play their guitar and so forth.

Have you considered opening a café somewhere in New York?

Yes. But we need some time. I have no idea where. To decide on a location, I’ll need to come to New York and wander in the streets of this big city. In London, I needed a month to decide on the ideal neighborhood — Shoreditch.

Ziferblat in Shoreditch

So, the philosophy of communal living and sharing resources really don’t reflect in your model of paying to be in a social/cooperative space as opposed to “services” or “goods?”

I really don’t think kommunalka has anything to do with it. Or Russia. The desire to unite the first thing we feel. It’s characteristic of primates. It has been present in all nations and sparked up here and there. It’s just that Russia has the most recent historical instance of this happening and because of human foolishness it was turned into the squalor called “USSR.”

We all want to return to a fairy tale we had in childhood, when you were surrounded by people who love you unconditionally. This feeling manifests differently throughout history and can be easily manipulated — that’s how cults, movements and Fascism arose.

I think Ziferblat is principally different from such things; we don’t invite guests to position themselves under some sort of flag, to be a clog in some big machine. We are firstly concerned with individualism and internal freedom. We provide something of a haven in a big city of pretenders. It’s like a treehouse but for adults. People gather to build a place for themselves, to be open with one another, to hide “from the adults.” In a treehouse, it’s impossible to play these games of “customer” and “waiter,” because every human as an individual cannot be a servant to another. Everyone dreams about this — Russians, Etruscans, Ethiopians, etc. I don’t have illusions that Ziferblat is a cure for all misery, but we’re trying to get close to that feeling.

(Photos courtesy Ziferblat)