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"Anti-cafes" are flourishing in Moscow
"Anti-cafes" are flourishing in Moscow
Frank Nienhuysen

MOSCOW – Natasha writes "Frank, 11:20 a.m." on a slip of white paper and hangs it on the pin board behind the counter next to "Nina and Katya, 10.55 a.m.," "Sergei, 11 a.m." and other names. Then she opens an antique cabinet filled with dozens of old alarm clocks and watches, all different, but with one thing in common – none of them work.

Symbolism plays a big role at the Clockface Café. Every guest puts their clock of choice – on which time has stopped – on their table. It may seem paradoxical, but the idea is for this to make you forget time even as the tab here is contingent on how much of it you spend in the café. Every minute costs two rubles, which means an hour costs 120 rubles ($3.80).

You could order, say, a frothy Caffè Americano, drink up in ten minutes, and leave. That would be quite a deal – even at cafés in inexpensive neighborhoods you’d pay more, and this one is on Moscow’s fancy Tverskaya Street, between Pushkin Square and the Kremlin.

But that’s not what people do here. Guests ensconce themselves on couches and armchairs in and among Singer sewing machines, a piano, lamps with fringed shades, a portrait of Pushkin, shelves of Jack London books – spread over nine small rooms. The net result is part artsy café, part chill out lounge, and part grandma’s living room.

“Anti-cafés”

For their money they get coffee, tea, toast, biscuits, and as much as they want. They also know that no matter how much time they actually spend here, there’s a ceiling on tabs – nobody can be charged more than 480 rubles ($15.25).

The idea has really caught on and there are now many imitators – so-called “anti-cafés” that also charge by the minute and hour. But Ivan Mitin was the first one to come up with the idea, and he’s asked me to meet him where his other Moscow Clockface Café is, two subway stations away.

Up a narrow iron spiral staircase and I’m in what looks like messy student digs from the 1960s. Mitin, 28, is just back from London. This is where it all started he says, in this very room, three years ago. He started inviting friends and neighbors, who in turn brought their acquaintances, and he had an old suitcase he left open for people to throw in whatever amount of money they could.

"More and more people kept coming, 50 a day, so the space quickly developed into a café." A year later he opened the first Clockface Café next door. Now there are two in Moscow, others in St. Petersburg, Rostov, Kazan, the Ukraine. And soon, Mitin hopes, Berlin and London.

Why is it so successful? "I’m not selling my customers tea and coffee,” Mitin says. “I’m selling them time.”

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Coronavirus

Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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