Drinking for freedom
A new politically themed bar aims to provide a meeting place for St. Petersburg’s opposition activists. According to Gryaznevich, the bar is not about making money, with 5 percent of profits going to political prisoners.
Published: December 26, 2012 (Issue # 1741)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
The banner behind the bar reads “We demand honest and free elections!” The bar is staffed by opposition supporters.
St. Petersburg has a plenty of very diverse themed bars, but the new Svoboda (Freedom) Bar stands out. It is a cross between a pub and a protest rally.
Launched earlier this month, it uses banners, opposition flags and other paraphernalia in its interiors, while drinks are served by activists who double as bartenders.
“Putin is a thief,” chanted opposition leader and anti-state corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny with the crowd, as “Winter, Go Away,” a recent documentary chronicling anti-election fraud protests of the late 2011 and early 2012 was shown on two television screens in the main room, when The St. Petersburg Times visited Svoboda Bar on Sunday.
Sunday’s screening gathered only a dozen people, but Moscow opposition leader Ilya Yashin packed the place — with its 70 seats occupied and about 30 standing in the aisles — when he came to speak with St. Petersburg audiences on Saturday.
The club would like to invite the popular Navalny — the only Russian to be named in Time magazine’s 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people — in person, but the activist has been banned from leaving Moscow, being the subject of three criminal investigations opened against him after the protests.
Launched with a huge party on Dec. 7, a year since protests against multiple violations during the Dec. 4, 2011 State Duma elections began, Svoboda Bar is in a way a child of the massive anti-fraud rallies and St. Petersburg’s answer to Jean-Jacques and Zavtra, the hangouts for activists and intelligentsia in Moscow.
According to Natalya Gryaznevich, the person in charge of the venue’s programs who hosted the meeting with Yashin, the bar is operated by activists from Civic Responsibility, the political movement that emerged in the wake of the anti-fraud protests earlier this year — they work here as bartenders or waiters.
Andrei Pivovarov, a member of the Russian Opposition’s Coordination Council, Andrei Davydov of the Young Socialists of Russia, and Civic Responsibility’s Daniil Ken and Mikhail Lukyanov invested their own savings into the bar. Pivovarov is in charge of the practical aspects.
“The people who created this bar have never been into business like this, that’s why everything is done sporadically, with input coming from those who know how to do these things, and new ideas emerging along the way,” Gryaznevich said.
“As I see it, our activities will flow smoothly into the activities of the bar, where we will be holding events, meetings and debates.”
The Civic Responsibility’s first protest was placing a sign reading “Elections without a choice” next to the Circus on Presidential Election Day on March 3. Since then the group has printed T-shirts with slogans such as “St. Petersburg Without Putin” (some are on display in the bar) and sent three buses of activists to join the notorious May 6 protest in Moscow, which resulted in a number of arrests and investigations.
“We demand an honest and free election,” reads the red banner hanging over the bar, while the walls are decorated with opposition paraphernalia and photographs of protests and arrests at the rallies.
The premises previously belonged to the now-defunct English bar The Tramp which left the space earlier this year in pretty good condition, even complete with dishes and glasses, so no repairs were needed.
The solid The Tramp signs are still seen in the courtyard, where the entrance is, and on the façade of the building facing the Fontanka River, but Svoboda Bar’s own sign was eventually placed over the door for Saturday’s Yashin event. Previously, the place could be found by following opposition stickers placed on the way to the bar by the activists.
“A lot of people came to the opening and could not find us, so first we were saying ‘Watch out for The Tramp,’ but then we installed a promo stand and put a ‘Strategy 31’ banner with [author and opposition leader] Eduard Limonov’s signature on it,” Gryaznevich said.
“Unfortunately, it had been stolen by the following morning.”
One of the reasons for establishing an opposition bar was the reluctance of regular bars and clubs to hold politically-themed events stemming from fears that they would be shut down by the authorities.
“We need a place for holding our political events,” Gryaznevich said.
“Every time such an event is being planned, a problem emerges, because the owners are afraid.”
So far, no threats or warnings from the authorities have reached the management, although three police vehicles with police officers were parked outside Svoboda Bar during the meeting with Yashin on Saturday, while men looking like counter-extremism Center E operatives were seen at the opening earlier this month.
“There have been no checks so far, but we are ready,” Gryaznevich said.
“Perhaps the owners who are not involved in politics are easier to intimidate, but they know that it would not scare us off.”
She compared the bar to “Occupy St. Isaac’s” protest campaign, where both activists and residents concerned with electoral fraud came to the garden on St. Isaac’s Square in the city center, with some staying overnight.
“We’d like the bar to become a place where you can meet your friends, just like St. Isaac’s Square was in the summer,” she said.
“If you were riding on a bicycle, in a car or whatever in the center, you wanted to stop by and see if there were any friends there, and spend some time with them. It is possible to do this throughout the year.”
Svoboda Bar’s location, on the corner of the Fontanka embankment and Voznesensky Prospekt, with no convenient public transport links around (it’s a one kilometer-plus walk either from Sennaya Ploshchad Metro or Tekhnologichesky Institut Metro), makes it possible for it to exist only as a themed bar, with regulars who are ready to attend events as its clientele, Gryaznevich said. Nevertheless, a number of locals showed up at the opening, too, she added.
Svoboda Bar does not stay away from street protests. It invited the Dec. 15 March of Freedom participants for a free drink after the rally, and offered a free drink in exchange for a police report for participating in an unauthorized rally in a Twitter announcement on Monday.
“We’d like to see more new faces here —people who have not yet taken part in protests,” Gryaznevich said.
“For an average person interested in politics, it’s easier to come to a bar than to a rally, because taking part in a rally is a decision, because they might be afraid of being detained even if the rally is authorized or getting their photo taken.”
According to Gryaznevich, the bar is not about making money, but rather about providing the premises for various activities for both activists and local reporters, with five percent of the proceeds going to political prisoners. So far only a limited choice of snacks is available, but Svoboda Bar has already hired a chef and is planning to expand its menu.
Svoboda Bar’s nearest events include a QA session with Denis Bilunov, the Moscow-based activist and founder of the new Party of December 5, due on Dec. 28, and a New Year party on Dec. 31. The New Year party will feature the year’s political roundup, an election for the year’s most odious person, the formulation of a list of laws to be abolished over the next year and an alternative presidential television address due to be filmed by the activists themselves.
“We will not play Putin’s New Year address but we’ll put on our own — the one we would like to hear from the real president,” Gryaznevich said.
Svoboda Bar operates from noon to 11 p.m. on week-days and until the last customer leaves during weekends. It is located on 219 Naberezhnaya Reki Fontanki. Nearest Metro: Tekhnologichesky Institut and Sennaya Ploshchad.