A conversation

Two men meet on the corner of Liteiny Prospekt and Nekrasova. One wears a brown boilersuit; the other, a pair of baggy trousers, mittens and an old, fraying sweater. Both have beards. They embrace warmly - three times. Then they have the following conversation, which becomes more and more impassioned and gesticulative as it progresses:

"Yolki palki!"

"Yoli pali!"

"Yoli pali!!"




"Yoli pali!!!!"

At the end of this exchange the two embrace one more time - if anything, even more warmly than before - disentangle their beards, and go their separate ways.

What to make of this?

The majority of people on the corner of Liteiny Prospekt and Nekrasova at the time make very little of it.

They continue walking or queuing or drinking, not having understood a word.

But then this was no ordinary conversation. It was a conversation between Mitki.



Friends, bottle-companions and brothers and sisters of Dmitri Shagin, that is. A group of perestroika artists, writers, poets, musicians. To be more exact: a group of underground artists, writers, poets, musicians. But 'group' is slightly the wrong word - suggesting a degree of organization of which Mitki are incapable; 'bunch', maybe, would do better, or 'crowd' or 'huddle'. And the emphasis on art and creativity is wrong too. Mitki are not Mitki because they wave some artistic banner. Nor, for that matter, because they dress or talk in some particular way. They are Mitki because of the way they live - bumping along the bottom of Soviet society with barely enough to eat or drink, yet with no shortage of good humour, conversation or ironical wit. Perhaps the defining characteristic of Mitki, though, is their tenderness. Mitki are tender because the world they live in (USSR, Leningrad, late 20th Century) is not. They are tender to each other, tender to strangers encountered on the streets, tender to the alcohol they drink. Their tenderness is demonstrative, insistent, almost formulaic - an exhibition of exaggerated gestures, loving dimunitives and bear hugs, all of which reassure the recipient 'you are one of us, we're real people, we're not like the rest'. This is tenderness as political statement, as protest.

Mitki on the phone

Mitki do their utmost to pretend that people they come across share their approach to life i.e. are also Mitki. Here is a telephone conversation between Dmitri Shagin and Alexander Florensky, in which Dmitri Shagin asserts a Mitkovian intimacy with two people he hardly knows at all.

Florensky (picking up the phone): I'm listening.

Shagin: (diffidently, sorrowfully, after a long pause in which he wheezes inarticulately): Shurka? Shurochek ...

Florensky: Hello, Mitya.

Shagin (caressingly): Shurochek ... Shura ... A-a-ah ... (Then: in an anxious voice, after another pause): How are you? How are you doing over there?!!

Florensky: Not too bad. I have Kuzya with me.

Shagin (showing unlikely tenderness towards Kuzya, whom he hardly knows at all): Kuzya! Kuzyunchik ... Little Kuzyarushka's with you ... (Pause): You've got Kuzenka there with you?

Florensky (irritated): Yes.

Shagin: A-a-ah. So you and Kuzenka are having a good time? (After a pause, suddenly anguished): And where's my sistryonka, my little sister?

Florensky (slightly hostile, guessing that Shagin means his wife, Olga Florenskaya): Which sistryonka would that be?

Shagin: I have only one sistryonka: Olyinka ...

Florensky: Olya's at work.

Shagin: Olyinka ... (With great seriousness, as if revealing an important secret): She's my sistryonka, you know ...

Florensky: Mitya, what's the purpose of this call?

Shagin: Dik! Yoli pali ... Dik! Yoli pali ... Dik ... Yoli pali!

Florensky (irritated): Mitya, that's enough.

Shagin (affectionately, reproachfully): Shuryonok, yolki palki ... you silly ...

Florensky (unable to contain his irritation): Enough!

Shagin (in anguish): Shurka! Bratok, brother! You're my brother, my bratushka. How could you? ... To your own brother?!

Florensky angrily bangs down the phone. Dmitri Shagin is left highly satisfied with the conversation.

Mitki, Vladimir Shinkaryov and Alexander Florensky, Leningrad 1990

Mitki at work

It is not in the nature of Mitki to waste valuable drinking time in gainful employment. Fortunately, they have never had to do so: they have always managed to find jobs where consumption of alcohol has been one of the main clauses in an unwritten job description. Most famously, they worked during the 70s and 80s as technical attendants in kotelniye, the vast boilerhouses supplying centralized heat to whole blocks of appartments, to whole estates, sometimes to whole districts of the city. This was a comfortable niche: boilerhouse attendants work one day in three or one day in five, and usually have nothing more strenuous to do than twiddle a few knobs and eye a few gauges - activities which by no means interrupt the more serious business of being a Mityok (i.e. encounters with friends, bottles of vodka and the occasional canvas). As compensation, 70s and 80s Mitki received immunity from prosecution for parasitism(1) and the sum of 70 rubles a month. 70 rubles may not have been enough to finance a lifestyle of continuous debauch, but it was certainly sufficient to leave the Mityok with room for choice as to what to put down his throat: solids or liquids. The majority of Mitki, of course, wasted no time in choosing liquid nourishment.

How to simplify your life: a few tips

Life is tough. Life in Russia is extremely tough. Life in Leningrad (St Petersburg) is tougher. Here are some ways in which the Mityok lightens the load on his overburdened soul:

1) Food: food can be prepared in advance to save time. One resourceful Mityok used to go out every month and buy 3 kilos of low-quality meat jelly (at 30 kopecks a kilo), 4 loaves of bread and 2 packets of margarine. Carefully stirring all these ingredients together in a mixing bowl, he cooked the result and ladled it into a 10-litre jar. The finished dish could be eaten hot or cold, three times a day, and lasted the whole month.

2) Drink: how to visit flats where consumption of alcohol is frowned upon, and still have a good time. This simple and elegant technique was invented by Dmitry Shagin himself. Going up to the door of the flat to be visited and ringing the bell, the Mityok with his other hand smartly whips the top off a bottle of portwine and, using the 'rifle' method, downs the contents in one go. His host, on coming to the door, sees him standing there absolutely sober and, greeting him warmly, sits him down at the kitchen table to drink tea. But hardly has the Mityok managed to stir in the second lump of sugar when his eyes begin to wander unsteadily. When his host reprimands him, he merely says: 'There, that's got you, hasn't it!', and laughs softly.

3) Queues. The Mityok never lets the business of queuing get him down. To prove his point he will once a week join the slowest-moving queue he can find, crawl slowly forward for two or three hours (or however long it takes for his turn to come round), and then suddenly walk away. Giving up his place, he will let drop some obscure remark along the lines of 'Oh, it's Tuesday today, I quite forgot', or 'Yoli pali, I don't believe my eyes. It can't be! It can't be. It is! Pushkin! Bratyok! Brother mine!', and walk away in a hurry.

4) Drink: the Mityok can hardly afford to keep himself in bread, but this does not prevent him drinking great wine. Taking a bottle of the cheapest, roughest bormotokha that ever cost less than 50 kopecks, he will examine its label with profound attention, poring over the provenance of the grapes, then down a glass of the revolting brew in a single gulp and joyfully pronounce: 'Great wine!'

This is not because he does not realize what he is drinking; it is simply that, from the point of view of the Mityok, the foul taste of bormotokha is insufficient reason for not enjoying the stuff.

5) Conversation. Conversation a la Mitki is very simple. The Mityok has no need for a large active vocabulary, as just two or three phrases are sufficient to cover his basic conversational needs. 'Dik' and 'yoli pali' are enormously rich and expressive phrases which can mean almost anything - depending upon context and tone of voice. In the first conversational exhange above, for instance, the first Mityok might be asking the second for the time (the second replies that it's already past nine and too late to make a dash for the shops; whereupon the first proposes to make a dash for a restaurant instead; whereupon the second declines, referring to a lack of money) - or the whole exchange could equally well mean nothing at all.

The Mitki: so what?

It is easy to miss the point of the Mitki. They can seem to be merely the product of their time - charming perestroika layabouts taking advantage of the new freedoms available at the end of the 80s to jokingly propagandize a mock-serious 'unofficial' culture.

It is possible that the Mitki missed the point of the Mitki too. At least, if they imagined that the culture they had constructed for themselves was something radically new, they were mistaken. Mitkovism is important, but it is only a new name for a set of attitudes and values which go back much further and deeper than the Mitki themselves. Tenderness, solidarity with one's fellows, an attempt to be good or kind or human in spite of the almost overwhelming pressure exerted by circumstances to be unkind, vicious, unfeeling, inhuman: these are essential Leningrad/ St Petersburg values.

In a sense there have been Mitki in St Petersburg for almost as long as there have been communists. Kharms and the OBERUItists were prototype Mitki. Then came Dovlatov, Brodsky, Rein and the artists at Pushkinskaya 10. And in a broader, extended, sense the name 'Mityok' can, I suppose, be given to anyone at all who perseveres with the unlikely project of trying to be a human being in St Petersburg.

(1) Unlike Iosif Brodsky, for example, whose work as a translator of Polish and Cuban poetry did not prevent him being judged a parasite at his trial in 1964, where he was sentenced to five years exile from Leningrad with compulsory labour. Return