The large room at Tsiferblat

The large room at Tsiferblat (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

How much is one minute of your time worth? Two rubles (6 US cents), perhaps?

That’s what the founders of Tsiferblat think.

Vintage-style clocks at the Tsiferblat

Vintage clocks at Tsiferblat (click to enlarge). Visitors indicate the time of their arrival on a chalkboard and must then carry a small clock with them for the duration of their stay. At leave, the clocks are returned and visitors pay a fee for their visit, 2 rubels per minute.

Tsiferblat, or “clockface” in English, refers to a set of open-to-the-public, almost-free spaces that have recently popped up all over Eastern Europe. The concept is quite simple: you receive access to a communal space for a fee of 2 rubles per minute, all while carrying around a vintage-style clock. There’s free tea and coffee, comfortable chairs and wifi. There’s even a kitchen.

I visited the Moscow outpost near the Kitay-Gorod metro stop completely by chance, as  I was looking for a highly recommended Uzbeki restaurant. Valeriy Kovolev greeted me at the entrance and gave me a hospitable tour of the three-storied space. The first floor contains the kitchen and is open to use at will. (When I was there, two women were baking a cake and offered me some as I ascended the stairs. I politely declined.) The second floor is comprised of two rooms. On the left side is a smaller space. From a certain vantage point, visitors can see a bicycle stenciled to the wall.

The bicycle stencil

The bicycle stencil

The right side is slightly larger and filled with chairs, desks and couches.  It’s uncannily cozy and warm, almost like being in your own bedroom. A small financial firm was meeting in the corner; several other people were engrossed in emotional chatter.

The roof has an exceptional view of Moscow’s architecture and is accessible year-round. A group of students was reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita aloud. I stopped to listen briefly.

Sign at the entrance to the tsiferblat

A sign at the entrance to the Tsiferblat in Moscow

When I think of shared spaces in Russia, I automatically associate them with the kommunalka — the communal apartments in which Soviet citizens were forced to lived. Up to eight different families could be shoved into an apartment at once, separated by thin walls and forced to share a bathroom and a kitchen. Privacy didn’t really exist.

Students reading "The Master and Margarita" on the tsiferblat roof

Students reading “The Master and Margarita” on the Tsiferblat roof (click to enlarge)

While the kommunalka was externally controlled by the government, its residents soon found that these were the only private places in Soviet society. They became sites of dissent, particularly after Stalin’s death. Intellectuals would gather to discuss the West and the gradually dissolving Soviet regime. Secret art exhibitions thrived there, and dissident books and magazines passed from the hands of one person to the next in these spaces.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Tsiferblat is in any way like the kommunalka, but I would argue that what the kommunalka eventually and unintentionally created — a space for occasional free discussion within an extremely controlled and monitored society — is somehow reproduced here, albeit in a modern setting. Tsiferblat encourages discussion and creativity. Communal activities like cooking or debate are a daily occurrence, and readings, art exhibits and musical events are organized both very regularly and spontaneously.

What is most striking about Tsiferblat, given the isolating nature of Moscow and perhaps other Eastern European cities, is its ability to join very different groups of people together into one communal space: a grandmother sips tea next to a group of young students, a French tourist sits across the table from a group of Russian teenagers and a tourist from New York walks through the rooms observing it all.

Ever since Hannah Yudkin was a little girl, she’s had a penchant for Soviet culture, odd foods, short stories, and French artists. Her 4-year stint at Barnard College and 3-year tenure at the Columbia...