Last week I returned from a twelve-day holiday in the northeast of Europe, where I’d never been before. We flew to Helsinki, where we spent a few days; from there, we took the train to St. Petersburg; and finally, we took a night bus to Riga, from where we flew back home. It was a wonderful trip, presenting us with a side of Europe I’d never seen before.
When people ask me which city I liked best, or what impressed me most, I find it impossible to answer. I was equally thrilled seeing Matisse’s The Dance in real life in the Hermitage and taking a guided tour through a former KGB prison in Riga; equally impressed with the baroque splendour of the St. Isaac Cathedral and the sober minimalism of the Temppeliaukio (“rock church”) in Helsinki. But given the sheer amount of bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through to get to St. Petersburg at all, I would say that is the city that, of the three, I wanted to visit most, because of its historical and cultural significance in Russia’s long history. As a good portion of our trip was spent underground, navigating St. Petersburg’s metro system, this is the first aspect I want to talk about.
When we arrived at Finlandskiy Station after a four-hour train ride past farm fields, pine forests, frozen rivers, dilapidated wooden houses, and the expected grey communist monoliths, all dusted with a layer of snow, our Russian encounter began with a journey on the metro. On the pavement in front of the station, people were descending into darkness through a gigantic, square maw, down a flight of slippery-looking stone steps. We suspected it led to the metro, but, not keen to brave the icy stairs with our suitcase and to become acquainted with the less salubrious side of the city just yet, we walked on until we found the entrance to the nearest metro, Ploshchad Lenina. Upon entering, we were immediately faced with the man himself looking down from a glittering wall mosaic, backed by an enormous red-and-gold flag. Though, as we were soon to discover, images and symbols from the Soviet era occur regularly on the city streets, Lenin in all his glory seemed incongruous here with the fairly drab interior of the hall, as well as with the rather glum-looking crowd passing by him without so much as a glance upwards. Like an old propaganda poster someone had forgotten to take down.
Moscow’s metro stations are famous for being palatial, not least because most of the marble from the demolished Reichstag in Berlin was carted off by the Soviets after the war and used for a makeover. Stalin intended to make the metro stations museums for the people – interestingly, while built by Soviet labourers, the metro system was designed by British engineers, who were promptly deported after finishing the job because they knew the system too well. But the St. Petersburg metro can certainly compete. As in Moscow, something as ordinary as commuting serves as a daily reminder of the cultural and historical highlights Russia boasts. Stations are named after the 1917 revolution, after famous authors like Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and after Petersburg’s previous identities, Petrograd (the city’s name between 1914 and 1924, under Lenin) and Leningrad (from 1924 until the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991). On one of my visits to Berlin, I visited Treptower Park, which is in itself a memorial to the Red Army soldiers who died during the Battle of Berlin — so I knew the Soviets like their statues big, with handsome, stocky Russians looking down imperiously, and their murals traditional, with streaming flags, romantic peasants and machine guns all equally rendered as faithfully as in a 19th century bronze. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to see the metro doubling as a hall of heroes. The entrance halls featured ticket booths in polished dark wood; the platforms themselves were often decorated with wall mosaics, marble statues and pillars, chandeliers and accents of gold. Even the ones completed after the Stalinist period, like Ploshchad Lenina, though less opulent, were impressive.
Using the metro turned out to be quite the adventure. For 45 roubles you can buy a token, a small coin, which allows you to enter through a small portal. Safety first, though; on our first journey, our suitcase was taken aside and scanned by policemen before we could continue—it was comforting to see they were taking security quite seriously, as it had only been a week since the bombing in the St. Petersburg metro. On the other hand, near the door were three scanning portals through which everyone had to pass before entering, and they constantly gave off a dull beep; it sounded like you were on a game show and people kept buzzing because they knew the answer. I suspect if someone was carrying a weapon they would give off a different sound, a bad beep. Grim-faced policemen were standing off to the side, keeping an eye on the stream of people passing through.
We stepped onto one of the three escalators in a row, and off we went. And went, and went—I thought we were on a journey to the centre of the earth. It took at least three minutes before we got to the platforms, which are about 70 metres below street level. A chipper voice echoed through the tunnel, advertising something or other—not hard to imagine a similar voice declaiming “Comrades!—“ and the latest propaganda some decades earlier. Having read so much about the city in its earlier incarnations, and given the emphasis on the city’s past in tourism, I found it difficult to divorce it from the image I had in my head. The space between the escalators was dotted with lamps and signs—some for theatre shows, others showing idyllic pictures of a meadow with a poem in Cyrillic cursive (looking rather like a condolence card), and now and then, faded pictures of strawberries or lemons, without any writing. This mixture of the traditional and the modern—the room for advertisements, but not used to a full extent—is one that characterises the city.
Usually when we used the metro, we had to walk about ten minutes before we got to the right track; up the stairs, down the stairs, round the corner, through a tunnel. A timer next to each track counted off how long it had been since the last one had left, which didn’t seem very useful, but at least they came every three minutes or so. The metro station nearest to our address was Ploshchad Vosstaniya, “Revolution Square”, and was decorated with bronze plaques of Lenin. We grew used to passing by him, his fist frozen in the air, whenever we went out for the day. The metros were nearly always packed, though, naturally, the further away from Nevsky Prospekt (where we stayed) we went, the emptier they were. On the escalators and in the metros, the people appeared to keep themselves to themselves, though occasionally there’d be a couple, a group of friends, or a parent and their child, who were openly affectionate with one another. Nobody appeared to be nervous given the recent attacks, and I wasn’t either.
Below are some photos of the stations we saw.