Six months ago, despite an economy battered by sanctions in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, the 33-year-old opened a new, youth-oriented café in the heart of Murmansk, Russia’s largest Arctic city.
And he called it “New York Coffee.”
His friends warned him against the idea, and against the name. “It was not in fashion,” he said. “Many people were skeptical and they were saying ‘You will not get any success. You will not be profitable. You will not amount to anything.’”
Last week, youth-run projects in Murmansk suffered a blow when Mr. Pink, a youth house that had offered support to creative initiatives for the last three years, shut down under the weight of political opposition.
But today, “New York Coffee” is still going strong. And it’s one of a growing number of enterprises working to revitalize youth culture in Murmansk, in spite of economic hardship and a declining population.
More than coffee
In many ways, Birlinskiy’s café is more than it appears. It’s in a drab, dingy building on a side street in Murmansk, with only a small sign to attract customers. It’s one of those places that would be easy to miss for those who didn’t know where to look.
Inside, however, the room is bathed in warm light. It’s decorated with comfortable sofas and low tables. Bookshelves along the wall are filled with board games, and a foosball table sits in one corner.
As soon as they enter, patrons are offered coffee or tea. Refreshments here are free of charge – instead, customers pay a fee for every hour they spend at the café.
But people don’t just come for the free drinks. The café posts a weekly schedule of events, from salsa lessons and cross-fit classes to art exhibits and live music. Already, “New York Coffee” has a following of more than 5,000 people on VK, a popular Russian social media site, and members are encouraged to suggest events they’d like the café to organize.
“We try to promote a healthy lifestyle,” Birlinskiy said. “We are strongly against alcohol, smoking, drugs. We try to be active, we try to entertain people. We don’t want people to be sitting still with coffee. We want them to be engaged in some type of activity.”
Sergey Trofimov, 30, is a faithful customer at “New York Coffee.” He stops by every day after work, and makes a special effort to attend the café’s weekly meditation lessons.
Trofimov used to be a police officer, but he disliked the work and became disillusioned and angry. Since he left the police force, the community at “New York Coffee” has helped him get back on track.
“You can come here and see… a lot of different, interesting people,” he said. “I like to speak with people I don’t know.”
A bumpy road
Part-café, part-community organization, “New York Coffee” is filling a niche that Birlinskiy said was left empty during his own childhood in Murmansk.
“When I was a child, I couldn’t go to any places like that,” he said. “We were hanging out on the streets. So it’s a nice place for people, and especially youth, to spend their free time.”
Still, starting up youth-oriented businesses in Murmansk is not a task for the faint of heart, especially not during an economic crisis. Birlinskiy said sanctions have driven up the cost of his supplies, though he is determined not to raise his own prices.
As a result, he’s not making any money, working instead on “sheer enthusiasm.” While he received some funding from a municipal program designed to support small businesses, he also has his own savings on the line.
But the biggest hurdle for “New York Coffee” may simply be Murmansk’s reputation as a cold, industrial city. The city’s population has dwindled since the end of the Soviet era – it’s now just 64 per cent of what it was in 1989 – and many young people don’t see a future for themselves in Murmansk.
Despite the challenges, other youth initiatives like “New York Coffee” are cropping up around the Arctic city. Another “time café” called TEPLO, which also charges by the hour, has been in business for two years. And a youth-run contemporary art centre called ROXY, located just next door to the now-defunct Mr. Pink, has been hosting art exhibits and dance shows since 2013.
Birlinskiy said there is no point waiting for the perfect time to start a new project.
“We are constantly having crisis in this country,” he said. “So we say that we live either before or after the crisis. No difference. You can wait all your life and do nothing. So I just decided to do something.”