Shadow City Drifters

Zoe Off

Zoe Off is a social researcher, philosopher and activist from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She works within the framework of Feminist Philosophy, Political theory and Philosophical Anthropology. She is also a member of several Antiwar initiatives in Russia. 

Animation by Zoe Off

Russia has been brutally exterminating Ukraine and terrorizing its citizens for months and years. As an anti-war activist inside the country, I am witnessing a rapid fascisization of Russian society and its intensifying state repression. That has forced me to be preoccupied lately with physical space, its limits, safety, privacy, temporality, and commonality. I work in the fields of philosophy of nature and philosophical anthropology, so I am interested in habitats and life forms. This essay is a record of my habitat since Putin announced the invasion and introduced war censorship.

The prevailing idea among the Russians and foreigners who don’t support the invasion and are against the regime is that as soon as popular attitudes toward authority and war change, politics will change, and everything in our country will change. However, I doubt there is space for a sudden shift in perspective and profound realization in Russia; the opportunity to think and speak critically is being squeezed out of the public sphere. Beyond a simple change in point of view, we need to organize a space where these points of view can be expressed and put into practice. Changing our world does not mean changing a geographical position, but transforming our life form and creating a niche for it from within.


The map of my city is rearranged in the shape of the letter Z. Streets are redirected and painted in the colors of the St. George ribbon. These roads do not lead anywhere. You can not use them but only get bogged down — just like the troops, stuck somewhere they should not be. You avoid looking people in the eyes; you only talk about the weather with an awkward smile and maneuver with euphemisms. Instead of playgrounds, you see graveyards; instead of city squares, you see military recruitment offices; instead of demonstrations, you see long-lost hope.

There is a new border in the city now, not recognized by any state, sealed off by yellow tape with “Extremism” written on it. Shadow City verges on the Z-city in unexpected places, and you never know where you’ll find the borders. Sometimes they cut a taxi car or a family in half. The Shadow City map is moving and changing, expanding when we hear distant voices from other parts of the country and contracting with every new police raid, arrest, denunciation, or suspicion.

I watch my step, my mouth, and my digital footprint. We figured out that if we wanted to stay in our philosophy (or not lose our minds), most spaces here were no longer safe. We started drifting. The shadow streets take you to shadow homes that the former inhabitants left unexpectedly. Cups with leftover coffee, unfinished books, children’s drawings, and unrealized ideas are still there, but the people are somewhere else. Sometimes even animals are left behind in these places, and I met a few of them.

First stop

I asked the drifter what the place was and to whom it belonged. It turned out it was the confrere’s apartment. He had left, but no one could tell where. I was greeted by a giant white dog trying to push me off my feet. It was Sugar, whose name I had known but to whom I had never been introduced. He shared the place with a noiseless black cat who was a shadow of the dog’s active and friendly presence. They disappeared after a while, just like their companion humans.

At the apartment, I felt like a guest without a host. I had many chances to visit before the war, but never did. This visit that could have happened if not for the war haunted me whenever I came here. I didn’t know what to do with the mounting past conditionals that followed me everywhere and clung to every location I was passing by in this city.

I saw a party full of smoke. My step into the place was accompanied by hugs and loud voices, my stay — with drinks and tipsy oversharing. But that was it, the entrance without an introduction nor introducer, just a step among the steps, a wagon for our trail. At first, I noticed the books, the confrere’s tracks, trying to solve the puzzle of the person I might never see. I consumed the titles as if they were artifacts of personality that I might have overlooked, while my attention was twitching from small talk to an abstract discussion, from a self-conscious statement to self-righteous quibbles.

We could have done something, right? Why didn’t we?

Second stop

The second place was a big apartment with a red cat. The home belonged to an activist who I knew, but didn’t know if she knew me. Our tie was fragile, but I knew someone who knew her well and did some direct actions with her. Before the war, this activist had done multiple antimilitarist performances and works of art, which now reappeared in the media and I guess started to make more sense to people.

I always wanted to get to know her better, but something always got in the way. I also used to read her posts on Facebook, which made it weird to sit in her living room now. Without the host, the place became a commons for the drifters of Shadow City. There you could see in person someone you only had met before as an anonymous online. The anti-war zines were lying around waiting to be distributed.

Some of my fellow drifters wore gloves inside because the police had taken their fingerprints during the arrest. They figured their identities would be revealed once the police raid happened. I had to switch my phone off before entering the place, so I circled the neighborhood twice, hoping that someone would meet me and let me in. Once in the building, we had to lower our voices and walk one by one in case the neighbors were dutiful citizens of the Z-city. The habits of Shadow City are peculiar at times, but you never know if they are genuinely absurd or just precautionary. I ask myself every day: Have I gone mad or have I been the most sensible in this mad world?

Third stop

The third stop was in the countryside, the most distant and beautiful place in Shadow City. A white cat was coming for food and petting. There, drifters could also become dwellers and meet others like them. The place welcomed words you couldn’t use, thoughts you couldn’t say out loud, and ideas you couldn’t realize.

Like other locations in Shadow City, it was not an escape from the Z-city, but a place (hopefully) beyond the looking glass. You could build an anti-war tank and cook soup for the public there instead of riding in an armored vehicle in a foreign land and stealing food from the locals. You could make and watch your own films instead of propagandist bullshit. Most importantly, you could look people in the eyes, agree and disagree with them, and deliberately form connections instead of mindless, voiceless zigzagging.

The last stop shifted the conditional. We had been making new movements and communities, but for me, the places where we tried to do that were haunted by lost possibilities, much like forms of protest after the war had broken out. The third stop was created out of nothing, having drifted from the past spaces it occupied, having no history. So it signaled the possibility of taking our bodies and moving them to another future — to the part of Shadow City lit by sun rays.

The U-turn

The stories of police raids always followed me along the way — the stories of those who had left or became hostages of the Z-city. In my dreams, I saw multiple scenarios of the police coming to my home, our to Shadow City, to drifters’ stops. From most of those dreams, I woke up anxiously, thinking about how to leave, where to go, what to pack; how to inform others and speak in Z-tongue to the officer; how to hide our work, thoughts, and artifact.

But there was one dream that stood out. I heard a knock on the door at the drifters’ spot. When the officers came in, I transformed into a cat, just like the one I had met at one of the stops. I was desperate and didn’t want to leave Shadow City, so I figured this was the only way to stay. If Kafka’s ape had to become human to escape the cage, I guess I could become an animal to keep out of one. I would continue to live there and meet other drifters, and if I couldn’t be human anymore, then so be it. Until they start to arrest animals, I guess. So this text would be my “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie.”

In my dream, I was left alone. However, I realized that I was not drifting alone, so I would rather stay in Shadow City by making it the only city I inhabit. The drifters need to find ways to get rooted, conquer space, and move art, education, books, parties, films, demonstrations, and institutions from the third conditionals to the first conditionals, from the unfulfilled past to the possible future with no place for war, terror, apathy. We should all become something else somehow. Shadow City will then become the garden city in the sunshine, growing over the Z-city like the weeds devouring the streets after the apocalypse, welcoming all who had left or been held captive.

P.S. This text was published after the author left the country due to the risk of de-anonymization and the rift in Shadow City that is likely to accompany it. She had to leave her dog and family members behind. Horrendous things continue to happen and being away makes it safer but harder to dream.

This text was originally published in the zine of the commune, initiated by the participants and tutors of the Chto Delat School for Engaged Art.