When Kira Kenney opened the Cafe Idiot in St. Petersburg, Russia, a little over a year ago, a writer from the St. Petersburg Times noted with surprise the absence of Mercedes, Range Rovers and BMWs parked outside. Since communism fell, the influx of foreign luxury cars seen on St. Petersburg streets has signaled a shift in the Russian economy widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And the haves rarely miss a restaurant opening. But Kenney is proud of the fact her establishment has not been frequented by the tinted-window set known as the "New Russians," or more commonly, "the mafia." Just a week before we met with Kenney, a newly built McDonald's - the third in the city - had been firebombed. For a proprietor of a small business who also happens to be an ex-patriot, the fact she's kept them out - and kept out of harm's way - is notable.
"If you're a foreigner, there's special treatment," she said, which includes paying up to keep from being harassed. "I'm lucky to have relatives here, people I can trust."Kenney was born and raised in St. Petersburg, but after living in the United States for several years, where she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, she sounded more American than Russian. When she opened the cafe, she put the papers in her daughter's Russian name.
The idea for the cafe arose out of a discussion she had in Moscow a few years ago with some fellow ex-patriots. "We needed a cozy place to sit and chat," she said. "A place for the type that appreciates those types of places one finds outside of Russia." In 1985, while living in Paris, she opened a cafe in Paris and named it "La Perestroika." Kenney describes herself as an "avid admirer of catchy, connected names."
Cafe Idiot, named for Dostoyevsky's novel and its close proximity to places the author describes in his books, is located in an expanded basement of a building situated along the Moika River.
When her mother died, Kenney returned to St. Petersburg to settle the estate, and she decided to stay. Bookshelves line the entry way bearing mostly novels in English donated to the cafe by patrons bound for the U.S. They are for sale, but Kenney's customers tend to mark the page and read the same book each time they come in. A game of backgammon rests on an old sewing table along with a book of complaints.
By Russian law, every establishment must have one with pages numbered to prevent the tearing out of complaints. "But there have been no complaints," she said, shrugging her shoulders. The back room doubles as an art gallery where the locals show their work. Kenney's work hangs in the two adjoining rooms. The furniture is from her mother's apartment. A former full-length mirror hangs horizontally over the bar. Along with the borscht, jazz recordings are standard fare. When we visited we heard, "When the Saints Go Marching In." The menu is in both Russian and English. One heading reads, "Drinks that keep you sober (An interesting idea!)."
Cafe Idiot hosts a mostly college-age crowd, whom Kenney sometimes feeds on credit. "I see the youth full of new hope," she notes, directing her cigarette towards a large table of students. "They're proud to be Russians. They're very patriotic. When they talk to me, I speak in Russian. I don't disappoint them."