Exploring the multiple layers of Saint Petersburg above the ground. Part 1.


On Saturday March, 18, DiMe colleagues from Center for Youth Studies at the National Research University High School of Economics organized a SocUp seminar Youth in Media City: metro, street and gadgets. The seminar was divided into two parts: “Young people in the city under the ground” where speakers presented findings of their research projects Helsinki, Saint Petersburg and Moscow subways , and “Young people in the city above the ground” -discussion about street artists, sticker graffiti artists  and geolocation games. Inspired by the successful seminar I decided to have a quick look at the topics of our discussions on the ground and under the ground.  Now I knew what to look at and where to find it: how my perception of a familiar city would change if I explore it through geolocation game, what stickers and graffiti I could find while walking in the city, and what manifestations of metrosociality I could see in Saint Petersburg underground.

The augmented city

It is Sunday, a warm spring morning and I am walking on almost deserted streets towards Narvskaja metro station. I checked the shortest route on Google maps app in my smartphone: it would take around 40 minutes to walk 3 km from Dekabristov Street to Stachek Square, over Fontanka river, Obvodny Channel, passing the Admiralty Shipyards into an old industrial neighborhood.

I am navigating in the city using a geolocation game Pokémon Go. My aim is to see what layers of the city experience are attached to concrete physical spaces but accessible only through the mobile app, what  augmented (or supplemented) urban reality could I observe. Pokémon Go is a hybrid reality game (HRG) and the game play takes place simultaneously in physical and digital spaces, a player is represented as a (customizable) figure and located using GPS on the 3D map of the city where he or she can see virtual objects (Pokémon creatures, Pokéstops and Gyms). The aim of the game is to walk on the map by walking in the real world, to collect items from Pokéstops (these places are usually historical markers, monuments, art installations and migrated to Pokémon Go game from another geolocation game called Ingress), to collect Pokémons and try to take control of the Gyms.  As pointed out by Adriana de Souza e Silva “HRGs influence players’ mobility through urban spaces, increasing the potential to connect with other players nearby, and making people experience urban spaces as hybrid spaces.”  Pokémon Go is played with location-aware technology an the game collects masses of information about movements of players in physical world, there are fears about privacy and top-down surveillance that have been raised about the game (Adriana de Souza e Silva, 2016).

My first discovery along this route was that some Pokéstops were located in the places with restricted access: for instance the backyard of Saint Petersburg Maritime University and Admiraly Shipyards was surrounded by fences building, another example is a backyard of old factory and new office buildings on Staro-Petergoskiy prospect 40, also surrounded by high fences with close doors.

Picture: Two Pokéstops in the area with with restricted access. Screenshot from Pokémon Go game.

A few hundred meters on Staro-Petergofskiy prospect and yet another discovery. I would otherwise pass by this building and a memorial board leaving it unnoticed: on the Pokéstop was marked as The ShKID Republic (a place from a youth novel published in 1927). A legendary place known to almost any boy who grew up in the Soviet Union.

Picture: The ShKID Republic Pokéstop. Screenshot from Pokémon Go game.

The ShKID Republic is the name for “School named after Dostoevsky for social-individual education for difficult-to-educate boys” in other words it was a Secure Training Centre or Secure Children’s Home  – a special educational institution for homeless and delinquent boys. It was one of several institutions of this kind that functioned in Saint Petersburg in the 1920’s. After the civil war and revolution, the young Soviet state had to deal with a huge problem of homeless children and orphans. Also a Russian term gopnik that describes the subculture of lower-class and aggressive youth first appeared in reference to young people living in a similar institution – State Society for Homeless (Государственное общество призора – ГОП-GOP), located on Ligovskiy prospect. In their autobiographical novel The ShKID Republic former residents of this Secure Training Centre Georgiy Belykh and Leonid Pantelev depicted their institution as a place where young delinquent youth was given an opportunity for non-destructive self-organization.

 Mushrooms and Snakes

I continue my walk and soon see a big graffiti on the wall near Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy Valaamskiy Mens’ monastery. The graffiti is signed in Russian: Team Without Face and Splinters. The very same spot is marked as a Pokéstop –  though in the virtual space of the game the photo of the same place shows a different graffiti titled Infected Mushroom. In a few blocks I see another graffiti titled Snake Firm and painted on a 10 meter long wall that stands separately in the open yard of an office building of a pharmaceutics company. In the Pokémon Go game this wall with graffiti is marked as a Gym with the same title and again a different picture. Usually various forms of street art have temporary character, stickers are removed by cleaners, graffiti and tags are painted over by other graffiti or by owners of the walls. The geolocation game allows to preserve these temporary objects of urban public space, mediating them to more viewers who will pass by the same spot playing the Pokémon Go game. The game inherited all Pokéstops and Gyms with their pictures and descriptions from another geolocation game called Ingress made by the same company, at the moment Niantic Inc. gives almost no possibility to players to add the new objects or modify old ones.

Picture: Infected Mushroom Pokéstop. Screenshot from Pokémon Go game.

Photo:  Team Without Face and Splinters graffiti replaced the Infected Mushroom graffiti

Picture: Snake Firm Gym. Screenshot from Pokémon Go game.

Photo: A new Snake Firm graffiti replaced the old graffiti from Gym at the same location.

The Strikes square

My underground trip starts at Narvskaya station on Stachek square. It is a remarkable place. In the middle of Stachek square stands a huge Narva Gate surrounded by four–lane roads. The only way to approach the historical monument is through underground passage filled with miniature repair shops, electronics and bakery selling booths. In the underground passage I repaired my watch in the tiny booth shared by two men: a key maker and watch repairer. It felt that I with my laptop backpack and camera bag occupied the only free space in the booth and any another customers would certainly had to wait outside in the dark passage. Just as many landmarks The Narva Gate can also be found as a Gym in the Pokémon Go game. There are groups of tourists taking photos and selfies at the Narva Gate, among them could be also a few Pokémon hunters. The level of this Pokémon Gym was too high for me and I had no other choice than to continue my urban explorations.

Picture: Warior Pokéstop at Narva Gate. Screenshot from Pokémon Go game.


Univermag – a universal shop

On the other side of Stachek square I found an electronics supermarket to buy Cyrillic stickers for my laptop keyboard. The map on the supermarket’s website told me where it was located. On the ground, it was it bit trickier to find the right shopping mall. The main entrance was locked and people could enter it using a narrow door in the left site of the building. Inside there were many shops, cafés, laundry services and hairdressers but not the one I was looking for. There was almost no space between shops, nowhere to hangout if someone would like to, no place for young people. Apparently, it was a wrong mall. The entrance to another mall was just in the next building that looked like some old research institute or factory. Much later I noticed a sign “Kirovskiy Univermag” on the roof of this five-store building. This Universal shop was named after Sergei Kirov- the a Bolshevik leader who’s assassination in 1934 marked the beginning of Great Repressions in the Soviet Union when up to 3 million people were killed in prisons. Behind another side door opened a huge space of multi-store supermarket where I quickly found what I was looking for. A friendly salespersons pointed to a right shelf were I could choose between a dozen of different styles and colors of Cyrillic stickers for keyboards.

Photo: Soviet mural on the left and Kirov Universal Shop on the right

The two old supermarkets on Stachek Square  were drastically different from the modern shopping malls. In constructivist building of Kirov universal shop or in neighboring smaller mall there was no space for hanging out, or just to sit down, perhaps the only place where young people could meet and spend some time was in a small café or in the metro station on the other side of Narva square, or some parks along Staro-Petergoskiy prospect.

As a living environment the city streets are gallery and museum at the same time. The hybrid reality games and apps add new layers to urban experiences. The city has many layers and mediates many messages to its users. Messages are in graffiti and stickers on the walls, in architecture, street signs, commercials, information boards, and in virtual maps of navigation apps or geolocation games. Sometimes the mediated city strikes  its users with its controversial messages.

To be continued in the next post.


Text and photos by Arseniy Svynarenko

Screenshots from Pokémon Go game, Niantic.