A Rough Guide

PHOTO by Tigran Shirinyan
Homeless tour guide shows visitors the real St. Petersburg

Reports have recently surfaced in Russian media of a homeless man providing city tours of St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect. Lenta.ru journalist Anastasia Fedorova took a stroll down Nevsky given by the unique guide.

An elderly man is standing in front of the Admiralteyskaya, the deepest underground station in St. Petersburg. In his hands is a battered sign - “Nevsky Prospect Building By Building” - hanging round his neck by a worn lanyard. He just looks like another homeless man, just slightly more neater dressed and cleaner beard. “I don’t know why I have to carry the torch for all the tramps in St. Pete. I am not a pop or movie star. I just talk about Nevsky Prospect, that’s all,” he says in an irritable but endearing tone. Homeless for 6 years, Vyacheslav Rasner became the city’s best-known guide in spring 2016.

The Daily Routine

Every morning the former geography teacher wakes up at 4 a.m. in the flat of a retired woman, who puts him up in her kitchen. He makes his way to the other side of the Neva on foot, continues to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, then takes the underground to Gorkovskaya station to start his day.

“If I don’t turn up, everybody starts looking for me and asking where I am,” he says.

There aren’t many things to do, other than feed the dogs, greet the commuters hurrying by, some of which occasionally treat him to breakfast or coffee, spend a couple of hours sitting on the kerb with a paper cup for small change – and read another book on local history to prepare for the next sightseeing tour. The books are either bought with “donation money”, as Vyacheslav puts it, or borrowed from the Mayakovsky Library. He uses the sources to verify the data and improve his language: “I can’t very well falter – one must talk fluently and confidently,” he explains.

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Rasner gives three sightseeing tours a day, focusing only on Nevsky Prospect

At 8:45 Vyacheslav is already waiting in front of the Admiralteyskaya station. The first tour of the day starts at 9 a.m. Most consist of local residents, however there have been several groups from Moscow and a large group from A-Trip community, Yaroslavl, who have been eager to see the celebrity guide in person.

Owing to his eccentric attire of stained trousers, battered shoes, old carrier bags in his hand, the crumpled sign with the name of the tour dangling from plain grey rope, Vyacheslav stands out from the host of regular guides brandishing clipboards with bright-coloured company logos. There aren’t many bookings for “excursion with a tramp”.

Some people join the tour along the way, fascinated by the story. Most, however, learn about him through the Walking with Rasner group on the Russian social website VKontakte. The group is run by Svetlana Kotina, a volunteer of the outreach organization Nochlezhka (Flophouse) providing shelter and social services for the homeless. Svetlana first met Vyacheslav a year ago near Gorkovskaya metro station and bought him a cup of coffee. She was the one who made him think about giving excursions – an idea which took off this spring.

Today, Vyacheslav provides three walking tours a day, focusing entirely on Nevsky Prospect; the last one sets off at 3 p.m. The guide turns in after 7 p.m. as he has to get up at dawn.

A Mutt’s Life in a Shared Flat

In his previous years, Vyacheslav worked as a guide in St. Peter and Paul’s Fortress. Even after losing his home, he carried on attending the meetings of the Local History Club where he has been a member for over 35 years.

Vyacheslav’s problems started in 2005, when he was living in a communal flat and sharing his two rooms with 6 cats and 18 dogs. The animals sometimes walked freely in the yard and accompanied their owner on shopping trips. After an official complaint from his neighbours, the Leninsky District Court ruled that the pets should be handed over to the animal shelter.

Vyacheslav declined help from animal rights activists, who insisted he should relocate to the countryside and then a group of con artists offered to find him an apartment in exchange for his room. Although it is not known whether he was evicted from his new house or left of his own accord, the 59-year-old Vyacheslav soon ended up on the streets. He lived rough for six long winters, sleeping on sidewalks or construction sites. His dogs kept him warm during the cold season and he continues looking after them now. Following his contact with the team at Nochlezhka, Vyacheslav is gradually getting back to normal life. At present, lawyers are working to help him find permanent accommodation.

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The first walk of the day starts at 9 a.m.

Vyacheslav made his debut as a guide at the end of March 2016 during the Open Map festival which encouraged locals to share their views of St. Petersburg. His academic approach, extraordinary memory and eloquence, in stark contrast to his difficult life story and less than presentable appearance, made Vyacheslav extremely well-known — all three of his Open Map tours were delivered to bustles of avid listeners. Later Mikhail Patlasov, laureate of the Gold Mask national theatre award, invited Vyacheslav to appear as himself in “The UNTOUCHABLES”, a documentary play about homeless people which premiered this May.

His long-time friend Lyudmila, former guide at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, helps Vyacheslav in his search for housing and inspiration. She introduced Vyacheslav to a woman who put him up a while ago.

Lyudmila fully understands Vyacheslav’s predicament: several years ago she too lost her Nevsky Prospect apartment to “black realtors” and had to stay in St. Peter and Paul’s Fortress or at her friends’ for three months. She is now retired and lives with her son, but plans to run excursions together with Vyacheslav in the near future. As yet, she is helping him anyway she can: “There are few walking tours along Nevsky, but an abundance of tourists. It would be interesting to explore new routes and take visitors down avenues not normally explored”.

“The average homeless person in Russia spends around 7 years on the streets,” says Nochlezhka social worker Pavel Lyaks. “Vyacheslav’s case is exceptional because of a number of factors: Svetlana found him and was willing to help, and his background and great people skills contributed to make this project so impressive. However, it would be impossible to train homeless people to be guides on a mass scale. Nochlezhka specializes in social rehabilitation, so we are primarily looking for simpler jobs to help people get back to normal life, find housing and forget about homelessness as quickly as possible.”

The Arterial Street

Two smiling women come up to the homeless man, hand him a sandwich and money, then wait patiently nearby. In 10 minutes, they will be taken on a walking tour from Admiralty Prospect to the Moyka River; the side of Nevsky is the guide’s choice.

“At first, I told them about the length of Nevsky. A lady comes up to me and enquires about the price. I said, 250 roubles. I gave another guy an individual tour for 500 roubles, we meant to walk all the way to the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and the Trinity Cathedral, but in the end we only made it to Vosstaniya Square because it was taking too long. It turned out I helped them discover a lot about St. Petersburg even though they had lived here all their lives. They thanked me and even paid me extra,” Vyacheslav says.

The original route has been cut back, but even the shorter walk lasts about one and a half hours. Vyacheslav has a story to tell about each and every building: he knows when they were constructed or altered, what they were situated — from the modern Bukvoed bookstore opposite the General Headquarters arch, who it belonged to, where the first beef steak was served and when the former Aeroflot ticket office at 9 Nevsky Prospect will be finally converted into a luxury hotel.

“The Peter-and-Paul Fortress is the birthplace of St. Petersburg, and Nevsky Prospect is the city’s principal road,” Vyacheslav begins in a deep well-trained voice. “Each building on Nevsky has its own story, but first let’s see where Nevsky came from. There are two key buildings along the way, №15/59 and №18/57 on the corners of Nevsky and Moyka Embankment. The first was constructed in the 18th century for Chicherin, St. Petersburg police chief. The second was owned by Kotomin; it currently functions as a deluxe hotel with a rooftop swimming pool, but used to accommodate the Petrograd House of Arts back in the 1920s and was visited by Herbert George Wells. After our tour, continue down Nevsky and make sure to see the Passazh and Gostiny Dvor arcades. And the Anichkov Palace, of course – this is where I have worked for 25 years on the panel of the Young Guide competition. The palace has a lovely garden.”

“How do you think St. Petersburg should develop? Do you believe it is acceptable to put up new buildings in the city centre?” one of the tourists asks.

“I take a very personal attitude to St. Petersburg. No invader has ever set foot in the city over its 300-year-long history. In the 1990s, when a referendum was held to decide what the city should be called, I voted for St. Petersburg, not Leningrad. The word “Leningrad” is based on the alias “Lenin” – which makes Leningrad a false name. In 1916 the Bolsheviks renamed Bolshoy Prospect on Vasilyevsky Island after Friedrich Adler, so that one of the most important streets had to bear the name of a murderer!” Vyacheslav rants. “It is a good thing that St. Petersburg reclaimed its original name. I don’t mind new development projects as long as they are designed in the classical style and integrate the environment. I also want advertising billboards banned from the historical centre – they are such an eyesore!”