My Prague – Ivan Shvedoff

Ivan Shvedoff, photo: Ian Willoughby

Saint Petersburg-born actor Ivan Shvedoff has appeared in dozens of TV shows and films, including the likes of the fourth Mission Impossible movie. Most recently he has had a small part in a new Cold War project helmed by Steven Spielberg. Shvedoff has been living here in the Czech capital since the late 1990s, specifically in Vršovice. And it is there – in a cool, newish bar named Zenit – that our tour of “his Prague” begins.

Ivan Shvedoff,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I find this place very special because it has its own very special atmosphere. It’s the perfect place for a romantic date. Or for a late night drink – the last drink before you go home.

“If you’re having some interesting conversation with a friend, this is the place you would go around 1 o’clock at night – it could be kind of empty – and you have a last drink, talking about life, watching this beautiful chandelier, or this disco ball.

“Probably you have already recognised that the interior is very eclectic here… I have to tell you that the owner of this place deliberately left three cultural levels on the walls that represent the history of this place.

“In this very room [in the back] there was a shop where they used to sell live fish. You can see the green tiles – there was a tank for the fish here.

“Then there was something like a cosmetic salon and a hairdresser’s. And then for a short time it was a furniture shop.”

And there’s evidence of all the place’s previous lives here still?

Ivan Shvedoff has been coming to this bazaar or years,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yes, you can see it on the walls… It’s a place where you come late at night, have a nice talk and meet very interesting people who also feel kind of sleepless, or in the mood to talk at night.

“I have to tell you that once I was here shortly before Christmas – no, shortly before New Year’s Eve – and I was here with a friend. It was empty except for five people sitting at the table in the corner.

“They were quiet. They were wearing paper crowns, I think from Burger King or something.

“They were sitting there quietly but then one of the guys started drumming on the table and they started singing in a choir, beautifully. I have to play it for you [plays video on mobile phone of group doing excellent rendition of Gloria in Excelsis Deo].

“Imagine that! It was like in a movie. This place has its own special atmosphere – if you think about movies by Jim Jarmusch, or…”

I was going to say Jarmusch.

One man's junk is another man's treasure,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“Yeah, exactly. You come late at night and there’s not many people, only a wise man who’s cleaning glasses and he’ll have a chat with you. You sit there sometimes all by yourself, but that’s a good opportunity to think about life.”

And also you can have ‘coffee and cigarettes’.

“Cigarettes you have to have outside.”

I was wondering if the name has any significance for you because I know the football club in Saint Petersburg is Zenit.

“Of course this place gained my sympathy right away with the title. Because Zenit is the name of the football club from Saint Petersburg which I support. Or used to support.

“For me this word Zenit was like a… mark. But it’s nothing to do with football.”

You’ve been living in Vršovice for quite a long time. In the last few years, I would say maybe three years, it has become this really hip area with lots of new places and has really improved in many ways. But I wonder sometimes if people like you are nostalgic for the pre-hipster Vršovice?

“Yes and no. Because this area still has its own charm. I believe it still hasn’t been ruined by the tourist business and I believe it will stay like that.”

From Zenit it’s about 50 metres further down Krymská St. – the epicentre of hipster Vršovice – to a cluttered emporium that clearly predates the district’s new status. The signs outside read Pawn Shop and Bazaar, though the uncharitable might call it a junk shop. Ivan Shvedoff is a regular customer and he’s evidently not unusual in this – the bell above the door rings throughout our conversation.

Zenit,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“As an actor I pay great attention to props. And there’s no better place for that than an antique shop. Because you come here and you see different stories – you look at any item and you can imagine or even see its history...

“Once I saw here a razor blade with the words ‘Stalin’s Steel’ on it. It’s such a pity I didn’t buy it.

“Whenever I need something for my role I always come here. Or whenever I have some free time I just enjoy being here.

“I have to say that right now at this place they do not have many clocks for sale, unfortunately. But they used to have at least five of them and they were ticking at the same time, so the place had a very nice and interesting sound picture.

“There were many clocks ticking and they always have this radio playing rock hits from the ‘70s here – so there was like a mixture of time being stored here and the kind of presence of modern life, with this radio.”

What I always think when I come to these places is that some of these items are interesting and nice. But most of it is simply junk, no?

“There is a lot of junk. But I do buy a lot of things here, like plates or cups. Probably half of the tea cups I have at home are from this place.

“I bought here a wonderful, fantastic suitcase from the 1930s. It was in perfect condition and looked like new.

The view from Zenit's window,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“I have to say this antique shop is unique in a way, because if you go to any antique shop in the city centre they will look very touristy. They run their business considering the big stream of tourists in the centre.

“So there would be expensive porcelain and expensive watches, whatever. Here you find things which people really sell. People who live around this area – real people, the salt of the earth.”

The final stop on our tour of “Ivan Shvedoff’s Prague” is a place where many have arrived in the city for the first time: the Main Train Station. The station has undergone a major facelift in the last few years with the most recent phase taking in the Fanta Café, an Art Nouveau gem with an enormous dome that since its renovation has ceased to be a café.

“I must say that I liked this place more when it was in a state of decay, before they repainted it.

“First of all, I find the interior here fantastic. They had tables here and I used to sit here and write.

“I write screenplays when I have time and it was the perfect combination, where you have this stream of life passing by you and you can watch people, observe people, and still stay focused on your things. It gives you great inspiration.

Fanta Café  (prior to renovation) photo: Radio Prague Archive

“They had the worst coffee in Prague here, I swear. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need in life – something which brings you down to earth!

“In two of my screenplays the action takes place at a train station and I always thought of this very station, because it’s full of life, full of everything.”

This station looks fantastic in the film Alois Nebel.

“Yes, you are absolutely right. If we speak about genres… every place has its own atmosphere and every place could be seen in a certain genre.

“For me the perfect genre for a train station is tragicomedy. Because here you can spot such characters, you see wonderful situations. And of course this place is full of emotions because people meet here, people depart here.

“The train station is the first thing many people see in Prague. For me it’s also a great place to start a journey.

“Very often when I go for my work to shoot in Germany, for example, I always come here 15 or 20 minutes in advance just to enjoy the atmosphere of the train station.”

You were saying that the Fanta Café looked better before it was renovated. What about the rest of the station?

Fanta Café,  photo: Brunswyk,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Well, it’s being renovated now. They will be doing a lot with the roof above the tracks. Of course the lower parts with the new shops… it’s comfortable for tourists, there are a lot of places you can have some food. Compared to what it was like 15 years ago, when there was almost nothing.”

You could get a hot dog or something.

“Yeah… The ticket office functions well and it’s not a dirty and dangerous place any more.

“In every city at the train stations there are homeless people hanging around… Here there are some in park in front of the main entrance, but on the territory of the station there’s just the pure beauty and poetry of a journey. That’s how I would qualify it.”