Moscow. Tuesday night. Tiki Bar. A large group of people talking and mingling: nomads, students, businessfolk and a few token randomers who don’t really know where they are. Nothing unusual about that – unless you remember many of them had never met in person, but convened online via

What is it?

CouchSurfing was set up by a group of four friends in 2003. Their goal was to cultivate international dialogue by creating an open hospitality network in the name of cross-cultural understanding, with free accommodation an added bonus. Six years later, membership has swelled to nearly one million people, and you can find couches to surf the world over – from Baghdad to Birmingham, Caracas to Cape Town.

“I’d often find myself in some strange city, longing for cool people to hang out with,” writes founder Casey Fenton on the site. “I knew there were interesting people, all around me, with stories to tell. I’d wish there was a better way of making contact with these folks.” In January 2004, the project came to life with a global launch.

Local mix

Russia’s first CS members joined soon after, but the idea didn’t really take off for another couple of years. Now there are more than 8,500. The Moscow community, like many other city-based groups, is close-knit yet devoutly open-minded and welcoming. “Having come to Moscow by myself, and not having any family or friends here, CS has allowed me to learn about and explore my new home with a really versatile group of people,” says Diana Agazatian, 26, from the U.S.

“From what I can see, Moscow may be one of the best CS-represented cities in the world. It has one of the largest numbers of active members, who actually participate in the weekly activities available,” Diana continues. A quick glance at the CS Moscow group’s online forum will show you exactly what she means: new posts spring up on a daily basis, with myriad possibilities on offer.

In addition to the weekly gatherings at Tiki Bar, there are clubbing excursions, film nights, polyglot language meetings, dacha weekend getaways, visits to other cities and all kinds of other parties and social shindigs – including the now legendary Sunday sessions. And you never know who’s going to turn up: oily expat sugar daddies, the smooth-jazz-loving Russian chap who pretends to be British, or, if you’re lucky, an anarcho-hippie priest from the Brezhnev era.

Monastic madness

That’s right – no errors here. He doesn’t come to many meetings, but one of CS Moscow’s mythical figures is a fellow named Father Sergey. His Orthodox living community in the city centre became an unlikely hub for visiting travellers; in exchange for a small role in daily tasks, they received warm hospitality on a purely non-denominational basis. “It was a unique experience, an oasis of real life in the temple of materialism that is Moscow,” said Stefano Puccio, one of more than 60 people who stayed at the monastery.

Due to the church’s more traditional activities, the project is currently on hold. But fear not: there is talk of a restoration for Moscow’s likely summer influx of curious CouchSurfers.

What next?

Closely affiliated with Hospitality Club, another online project of similar nature, CouchSurfing is a modern offshoot of the wanderlust travel ethos that began with the ancient art of hitchhiking – itself the focal point of a flourishing underground subculture across Russia. With a website relaunch lined up to celebrate the million-member milestone, a voluntary management team operating from San Francisco and a massive pool of willing participants, the CS cult looks destined to grow and grow.

“The next step is to develop Russian city-to-city connections, so travellers can build their agenda through a network, as well as more international gatherings,” says Dmitry Sivenkov, a Moscow CS Ambassador. “I think the project is going to keep expanding – in another couple of years, hopefully we will have another million!”

Essential elements
• First of all, hit and sign up to create a profile. Once you’re done with the membership formalities, get to work on filling out your page and adding some traditionally daft photos.
• After this initial stage, why not get a few mates to join too and leave references for each other? This is a simple, self-sustainable security process for CouchSurfers, which performs the obvious function of making sure people are who they say they are. A couple of solid references mean you’ll be far more likely to receive couch requests, or pick up accommodation when you need it.
• Check out the ‘Groups’ section of the site, where you can find forums dedicated to all the obvious topics and more. The Moscow community is always busy – feel free to introduce yourself, post threads with any questions or see what activities are going on.

Published in element, 5/3/09.