The Back Room


A Tea Table’s Progress Toward Decline

Stanislav Snytko
Translated by Ivan Sokolov

In 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist and my native city restored its original name from Leningrad, becoming St. Petersburg again, I was two years old. By day, I was at the nursery, by night, I was on the rug playing with our collie — having no inkling of the scale of changes rocking Europe’s last empire. One day, a mustached man showed up at our place with a three-liter jar of apple juice. The juice was delicious and the man, as I would later learn, was co-runner of the journalist Alexander Nevzorov’s TV show 600 Seconds (the time it took the anchor to present every news item in the city), as well as a friend of my mother’s. His appearance in my life would prove the opposite of fateful, its only trace the words “a peevish child” that sometimes float through my mind; his 600 Seconds, though, would go down in history as the most popular current affairs program from the perestroika era through the early nineties.

The damning judgment of my character by one of the creators of 600 Seconds was nowhere near as harsh as that meted out on many a broadcast to Anatoly Sobchak, St. Petersburg’s mayor, whose name became a byword for the transition to democracy and the fight against the communist establishment (the fight was a sham, but no one liked to notice that). Sobchak faced a major food crisis that year: the Soviet industry, which operated on a centralized plan, was unable to provide the country with even the bare minimum. By the fall, Petersburg grocery stores had nothing left on their shelves save a pumpkin drink. New signs went up: “Store Closed: Stock Out.” Groceries were doled out on the presentation of ration cards — in Petersburg, the official term was shoppers’ visiting cards — which were strictly tied to registered residences. The appearance of cheese or sausage on the table was considered a miracle. Vodka became a hard currency, replacing the rapidly depreciating ruble.

Masha Ivashintsova. A street scene in St. Petersburg, April 1994. Courtesy of Asya Ivashintsova-Melkumian and Egor Ryaboshlyk.

It was only thanks to the United States and Europe that mass hunger was averted. Mayor Sobchak rang up Western heads of state, asking for foodstuffs to be dispatched — the most heroic response came from Germany.

The Taste of Paradise

Meanwhile, our multitasking mayor resolved to revive Petersburg traditions from the era of crinolines, beauty spots, and epaulettes. To this end, in 1991 Sobchak inaugurated assemblies of the city’s high society: politicians, businessmen, and high-profile entertainers sporting mangy evening clothes would converge on Tauride Palace (the seat of parliament under the last emperor) for pompous pig-outs, furnished in the spirit of a dinner party at an aristocratic mansion. The refreshments, according to eyewitness accounts, were more bountiful than gourmet, despite coming from the best restaurants. By the end of every reception, some guests were inevitably seen collecting leftovers into large bags — supposedly, “for the doggie.” 600 Seconds would intercut recorded footage of these balls with shots of empty shelves in grocery stores and long lines of seething citizens. To get back at Sobchak, a band of starving artists inhabiting a famous squat on Pushkinskaya Street used dark rye bread, cookies, and five loaves of white bread to make a dummy of the governor they consumed in a ritual feast.

In photographs from those high-society hangouts, one can spot a puny form in a baggy suit: a gentleman with small, round, chinaware eyes lurking behind Sobchak’s back, peeking out from the tall fur hat of the city’s first lady or lugging the mayor’s suitcase, casting bewildered glances around the room. This gentleman, one retired KGB colonel by the name of Vladimir Putin, entered the mayoral service in 1991 at the invitation of Sobchak, his former teacher, and lost no time in enriching his cronies at the expense of his constituents, thus greatly contributing to Petersburgers forgetting the taste of beef and oranges. (His corruption was exposed as early as 1992, but Sobchak was not going to let anyone hurt his protégé; in lieu of a full investigation, Putin got a promotion.)

Sobchak with Putin glowering over his shoulder
Then-mayor of St. Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak seen gesturing in front of Vladimir Putin in this 1994 Reuters photograph.

Nonetheless, by 1994, the market economy was on a slow roll and Western-type supermarkets sprang up around the city. Consumption made a mind-bending turn from shortages to gaudy plethora as fast-moving consumer goods flooded the country in unheard-of quantities, a tsunami of chewing gums, sodas, chocolate bars, juice powders, and personal hygiene products. One tagline rang through the TV channels a thousand times a day — Bounty: The Taste of Paradise — followed by a hirsute coconut smashing with gusto into the ground, disgorging crystalline milk. Images of happiness in the form of available substitutes appeared like Fata Morgana in the desert of workaday fears, penury, and the collapse of erstwhile values. Just as nearly three hundred years prior Peter the Great was intractable in referring to a handful of structures scattered around the Neva’s slimsy bank as my paradise, so the post-Soviet collective imagination set out to depict liberal capitalism as an Edenic island where palm-trees miraculously bear chocolate bars. 1995 saw the theatrical release of Shirli-Myrli, a farce in which the chase for a gargantuan diamond dubbed “The Savior of Russia” leads to a highly telling finale: the sale of the jewel yields enough funds for the entire population of Russia to move to the Canary Islands.

Noli Me Tangere! 

The democratization wave of the Gorbachev and early-Yeltsin era resounded in Petersburg with a spirited debate on whether the city should begin pushing for autonomy from Moscow. A group of economists advanced, with Sobchak’s backing but without success, the project of creating in Petersburg a free economic zone. Petersburg did declare itself “a federal subject of Russia” via a 1993 referendum, but the matter got no farther than legal formality. Such projects simply were not radical enough in the eyes of those who advocated for an actual economic and administrative autonomy (as did, for instance, the State Duma deputy Galina Starovoytova, who died at the hands of an assassin in 1998). The poet Viktor Krivulin dreamed of seeing Petersburg a free European city, on the order of Hamburg. “Russia,” he expostulated, “has no right to Petersburg.” 

It is difficult to imagine today, but in 1994, when Moscow launched a military campaign in response to a declaration of independence by the Republic of Ichkeria (presently the Chechen Republic of Russia), it was Petersburg Ichkeria approached to mediate the negotiations with Moscow, as if the city were a sovereign political force occupying a neutral niche between the ravenous capital and the mutinous Caucasus. Naturally, nothing came of it: both an independent Ichkeria and an autonomous Petersburg were, then as now, unacceptable for Russian leadership. And yet, in the 1990s Petersburg was still able to maintain its reputation as a kind of eccentric uncle who every now and then goes out of his way to spoil the party for the paterfamilias on the rampage. (Stalin, infamously, was so suspicious of Leningrad that in 1953 he forbade commemorating the city’s two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary; it would not be celebrated until after the “peoples’ father” died.)

Scenes of Bohemian Life 

Petersburg bohemia in the bowels of the Borey Gallery at the Golden Brick Award Ceremony, fall 1994. Photographer unknown; courtesy of the Borey Gallery.

To survive in the nineties (to avoid literal, physiological starvation), some took up shuttling, the risky business of trading in scarce goods from abroad, while others engaged in commerce, the deadly business of changing from engineers to “New Russians.” The rest invented intricate combinations of insufficient, piecemeal wages, only the totality of which could help make ends meet. Scanty earnings from a university instructorship, for instance, could be supplemented by recycling glassware and cultivating tomatoes and potatoes in one’s dacha plot.

As for freelancers — painters, poets, musicians, fashion designers, socialites, bohemian idlers — their lives, their values, and their behaviors in Petersburg were so different from Moscow that it was as though the border between the two cities had already been drawn. And while Moscow’s denizens jockeyed for symbolic capital, searched for recipes to convert air into money, emulated Western institutions, and needled their way into power, Petersburg, true to its solemn infantilism, plunged into the modernist art of living.

There was nothing to eat, nowhere to work, art produced no profits — and yet, the recollections of bohemians vibrate with excitement and sputter with enthusiasm, as if they lived not in a starving, rundown city, where the mob was free to frolic, but a Swiss boardinghouse. Some sold off their books, others paid their meals with invitations to gallery shows, still others churned out potboilers for the papers. Someone drew pretty pictures, peddling them by a metro station to old ladies. A number of people would repast at cocktail parties, making daily rounds of all the vernissages and finissages. The artist Timur Novikov — the legendary Timur! — breakfasted on porridge garnished with bugs…

Neo-Academists Timur Novikov (R) and Andrey Khlobystin posing as nineteenth-century dandies on the Moyka Embankment, 1999. The New Academy was the most prominent art group in the city at the time; having overcome their wild avant-gardism in the late 1980s, in the 1990s they turned to a highly stylized and queer classicism.  Photo: Marsha Novikova; courtesy of the Museum of the New Academy.

And yet. “We’d fall asleep and we’d wake up with a feeling that we were artists,” reminisces the artist Tsaplya (Olga Egorova). “We lived like artists, we socialized and thought like artists. We refused to work on principle […] though we had really nothing in the way of money. We were once found by a group of Western curators, like, ‘OK, come on show us what you’ve made, we’ll fix you an exhibition.’ And there was nothing to show. Our art back then was our life itself.”

The life itself was composed of the same stuff that makes up the life of any urban bohemia, but with a feverish intensity, so condensed it was liable to explode — and, what’s more, with a variety unknown to Soviet people. Raves and squats, underground television and meandering around the city, street performances and cramped bathroom exhibitions, rarefied house salons and drag shows, 96% Royal alcohol with a dash of Pepsi. At the Borey Gallery, exhibits were displayed, performances were thrown, books were published, and just about every day, drowning in a cigarette daze, artists, philosophers, and poets had their hair of the dog, chewed meat chops, and endlessly discoursed on lofty matters. There were ephemeral institutions along the lines of the Institute for the Study of Entertainment or the Mnemonic Theater. There were sexual gambles and ecstatic escapades, kitchen all-nighters and alfresco jaunts, psychedelic experiments and philosophical disputations, seamlessly segueing one into another and fusing into a single continuous event, “one perpetual merry-go-around, only occasionally interrupted by the necessity of sleep,” as the artist Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe put it.

Neo-Academists raving at Aquedelic Party at the Leningrad Railway Engineers’ Institute swimming pool, 1992. Photographer unknown; courtesy Olga Tobreluts.

“Petersburg,” reported the critic Mikhail Trofimenkov, “races on the verge of a nervous breakdown from the salon to the disco, from the Godard retrospective to the neo-decadent ballet. And while such an intensive life is a condition not unknown to this city, the range of artistic experiments and behavior models is astounding. It is only at night, walking home along the Neva’s embankments, that people recall that they live in the ghostly city of Andrei Bely.”

Academics and Blockheads

Official figures show that 1989–1993 saw a fivefold increase in crime in Petersburg. The rampant market fell under the total control of mob syndicates in constant warfare with each other. At nightfall, many grew wary of going out. Marketplaces, residential courtyards, and lobbies were believed to be high-risk areas. My mother likes to remember how she got mugged in broad daylight on an empty street when a guy snatched her purse and bolted. The purse did not have all that much money in it, but my mother still gave chase — dismaying the mugger with feral curses and pummelling him with the loaded knob handle of her umbrella, she was able to recapture her property.

As the state retreated from the public sphere, it was not only banditry that rushed to take its place. Never did street art gain as much freedom to carry out the most wanton endeavors as it did in the nineties. The police and the mob could not care less about the antics of street performers, while officials wouldn’t bat an eyelash when signing papers authorizing the use of urban facilities in the needs of the contemporary art that remained deeply alien and obscure to them: everyone strove to come across as a “democrat.” Looking at the Petersburg of the 2020s, where you can’t sneeze in public without getting detained, you begin reluctantly to idealize the 1990s. No one would have thought then to block off downtown for a second let alone several days, as they did in January 2021, only allowing registered citizens into Nevsky Prospect, all for fear it might come to a rally…

The Palace Bridge show with curator Ivan Movsesyan standing below and Georgy Guryanov’s work top center, the white night of July 22, 1990. Photo: Georgy Guryanov; courtesy Ivan Movsesyan.

In 1990, Ivan Movsesyan resolved to use as exhibition space the Palace Bridge, the drawn-up leaves of which, with the Peter-and-Paul Cathedral’s outline in between, represent Petersburg’s most picture-perfect view. Sobchak chose to support the project of an artist he did not know, ordering the police and the municipal services to lend their assistance. On the night of July 22, the paintings of several artists were hitched to the road by means of steel wires and hoisted up over the thirty-meter span of the drawn bridge facing the Hermitage. The bridge would host two more exhibits during the white summer nights of 1991 and 1992, featuring two dozen artists who were, one way or another, close to Timur and the New Academy. The most swaggering of the “bridge” works was painted by Georgy Guryanov in the treble colors of the Russian flag: against a white background, two colossal phalluses, blue and red, face off like barges navigating a narrow waterway. The very bridge, surging up in the night, is itself a phallic symbol, with Guryanov’s phalluses becoming perhaps the first-ever public manifestation of queer art in Russia (presented even before “sodomy” was officially decriminalized).

Exhibition curator Ivan Movsesyan (foreground) and (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov fixing ropes to Georgy Guryanov’s painting to attach the work to the Palace Bridge railings. Photo: Hannelore Fobo. In the 2019 article “The Kozlov Collection ‘2x3m’ on Palace Bridge, St. Petersburg,” Fobo gives a detailed description of the exhibition. 

Displaying such works in 2023 would bring Guryanov and the organizers of the show before a Russian court of “justice” on charges of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” or some such. At the time, the exhibitions were not scandalous in the slightest: the organizers took no interest in publicity, surrounding their urbanistic gestures of Tatlinesque largesse with the atmosphere of a salon. “The dressed-up bohemia was taking ceremonious strolls along the embankment and exchanging particularly affable bows, a little agitated by the departing summer’s night air,” rapturized the critic Dunya Smirnova.

The Triumph of Neo-Academicism, a gala photoshoot in St. Michael’s Castle on the occasion of the new millennium, December 1999. Photo: Andrey Mushtavinsky; courtesy of the Museum of the New Academy.

In 1996, to spite the Neo-Academists, a different fellowship of artists banded together in the bowels of the Borey Gallery: “the New Blockheads.” Like, Oh, you guys are academics, are you? OK, we’re just blockheads then. The group’s ideologue, writer and artist Sergei Spirikhin, used to say, “I allow myself what almost no one does. When it comes to art, I goof around.” [1]

In the summer of 1996, the Blockheads mounted the most charming, ingenious, and minimalist performance action ever witnessed by Petersburg. Something of the sort simply had to come out of the delicate desolation, the parochial dustiness and decrepitude of the city, with its crumbling facades, its tram rails sticking out from potholes, its cats and potted plants in sooty windows. Artist Aleksandr Lyashko, having gotten hold of a round wooden one-legged table, suggested going on a journey around the city. Joined by peer artists Spirikhin, Igor Panin, and Vadim Flyagin, Lyashko took the table for a daylong walk, making stops at such picturesque locations as the Fontanka Embankment, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the Alexandrian Column, and the Bronze Horseman. Periodically, they’d sit at the table, have some tea (or, according to another account, some beer) and talk about art to the click-clack of Spirikhin’s typewriter. On St. Isaac’s Square, by the very Manège Hall where the Blockheads had recently taken part in a performance festival, the itinerary ended, but its metonymical course trailed off into the hyperborean distance. “Maybe,” sighed Spirikhin in reverie, “instead of entering these doors, we should pass them happily by and head for the sea, sail the sea on and on, for as long as there is tea? And anyways nights never come these days — one twilight glow speeds on the other, and we shall meet the African dawn over tea…” The name of the action was A Tea Table’s Progress Toward the Sunset. [2]

The New Blockheads in Palace Square during A Tea Table’s Progress Toward the Sunset, August 25, 1996. Photo: Aleksandr Lyashko; courtesy of the Brotherhood of New Blockheads.

The New Blockheads did not critique the strict boundary between domestic and public space in Russia, with its three-meter-tall fences and armored doors — they flat-out ignored it, rendering urban space livable, home-able. Instead of taking the city to be a museum, as the Neo-Academists did, they treated it as a studio. All they acted and reacted upon seemed to be made smaller, commensurate with man. Their favorite location was Liteiny Prospect. There, in 1997, they put up a jesting monument “to the indigenous inhabitant of the city” — the mosquito — a finely wrought wire bloodsucker atop the granite basin opposite Mariinsky Hospital. In 1998, when the Neo-Academists announced they were going to commit their “frivolous” works to the flames as a token of their “new solemnity,” Spirikhin decided to fry some eggs over the incinerated paintings of his fellow artists, but was late for the immolation. So he made a bonfire with canvas stretchers in the courtyard opposite the Borey Gallery, cooked eggs with sausage, came out onto Liteiny with the frying pan in his hands and invited passers-by to share his feast. The allusion was to the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda (whose last name means “frying pan” in Russian) and his famous self-epitaph, “The world tried to catch me but could not.”

The New Blockhead Sergei Spirikhin on Liteiny Prospect during Fried Eggs, May 23, 1998. Photo: Aleksandr Lyashko; courtesy of the Brotherhood of New Blockheads.

No Such City

In their project of remaking the material foundations of everyday living and, ultimately, of the total aestheticization of life, the Academics, the Blockheads, and myriad artists located on an imaginary scale between these extremes drew upon the utopian avant-garde even if they appeared to emulate other models (thus, the Neo-Academists worshipped Pierre et Gilles, while the Blockheads adapted Fluxus to “savage” capitalism). In this, they were at radical loggerheads with big history, considering that Russia was not so much modernizing itself as disintegrating into motley, disparate, divergent units. Nor did the outside world inspire much utopian enthusiasm.

The heroic defeat of Petersburgers, the fall and decline of their “tea table,” recalls the fates of the adorable misfits from the modernist novels of Konstantin Vaginov, those aesthetes and decadents who found themselves out of place in the new Soviet era. The Russia of the 2000s, guided by Sobchak’s apprentice, set a course for national chauvinism, while the dandies, the eccentrics, and the experimenters of the previous century shut themselves in their studios, left the country or hung up their axes. As for street art, in the aughts it became aggressive (Voina), in the 2010s switched to self-harm (Pyotr Pavlensky), and in this decade has essentially died out.

As for my personal interest in the 1990s, it developed over the last several years, which I spent between California and St. Petersburg. Searching for forgotten materials about that era, I paid regular visits to the newspaper department at the St. Petersburg Public Library, hoping at some point to transform my interest into something more tangible, such as an independent research project. In spring 2022, I had to cease my library studies. Upon launching their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities did not begin to restrict citizen movement right away, and, without further delay, I availed myself of this dubious freedom — among hundreds of thousands of other people who left Russia.

Today, my home is in California and the “real” Petersburg that exists worlds away appears to me much less real than the Petersburg of the nineties. Reading about those days, I can’t shake the feeling that all of it, from empty grocery stores to art larks, concerns me personally; that, in learning new things about that era, I recuperate the lost details of my own rather than the collective past. Engaging that personal past cannot have anything in common either with rosy nostalgia or with jeremiads against the dashing of all hopes for change. I perceive the Petersburg of the nineties as a complete and absolutely self-sufficient phenomenon, akin to a poem or a geological formation.

The New Blockheads bearing the proverbial tea table along the Moyka Embankment, August 25, 1996. Photo: Aleksandr Lyashko; courtesy of the Brotherhood of New Blockheads.

1. Back then juggling sever métiers was considered a must — the more, the better. A performer, theoretician, writer, and musician all rolled into one was a rather quotidian combination, and that a good musician might prove a laughable painter failed to bother anyone; what mattered was the fullness of presence in all of life’s compartments, not the speculative quality of production, which is why the paintings and other material artefacts of this generation often seem to pale beside the heroic circumstances of their emergence. Note that this does not apply to the New Blockheads, who did not particularly excel in object production, period. (Author's Note)
2.  The quotation in Spirikhin’s geopoetical “reverie,” One twilight glow speeds on the other, comes from one of the foundational texts of the Petersburg tradition: The Bronze Horseman (1833), a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin, cited here in the 1993 English translation by Walter Arndt.
The Russian title of the Blockheads’ performance action ends with the word zakát, which means “sunset, dusk — lit., a rolling down.” Appropriate in Pushkin’s meteorological context, the title presents a perfect summation of the action’s actual trajectories: the temporal, from morning to the decline of day; and the topographical, from the Fontanka River area toward the Bronze Horseman monument overlooking the Neva, i.e. westward, in the classical direction of the imperial expansion under Peter the Great. Spirikhin also intended to evoke a journey along “the symbolic plane of life,” one aimed toward the decline of life itself. That meaning comes close to the historical, Gibbonian sense in which Snytko uses zakát in his own punning title: as the one-legged table would inevitably decline a little while bivouacking on the pavement of the Palace Square, so the entire post-Soviet utopia of the nineties would eventually roll down and out from existence. (Translator’s Note.)

Lead Image: The second exhibition on the Palace Bridge, 1991. Photographer unknown; Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe archive, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art Collection, Moscow.

The Back Room