Exploring the multiple layers of Saint Petersburg under the ground. Part 2.

I had only two hours left before my train departs back to Helsinki. The original plan was to walk to Narvskaya metro station, take photos and observe to what kind of places the Pokéstops were assigned, to see if I find any players, stickers, graffiti. Navigating on the actual streets took a bit longer than I expected. The good thing was that Finljandski vokzal was on the same Red metro line with famous for their decorations Avtovo and Zavod imeni Kirova stations, the oldest stations of Saint Petersburg subway (Finljandski vokzal is located on Lenin Square and it is a station from where trains to Finland depart and were recently members of Communist Party organized a symbolic ceremony celebrating 100 years since Lenin’s arrival from hiding in Europe to lead Russian revolution in 1917). I hoped to spend some time in the metro. In Helsinki it would take about 35 minutes to get from the city centre to the last station in the eastern neighborhoods. Perhaps in Saint Petersburg it would take the same half an hour, but only if you don’t have to change metro lines.

Photo: Narvskaya metro station upper hall

Now it was the time to go underground. The building of Narvskaya station is a classic example of massive Stalin-era architecture. Today the upper hall of metro station one can find a combination of old and new:  you can buy old-fashioned metro coins from ladies behind small windows, alternatively you can buy modern travel cards from a machine. In the station I see two teenagers with their BMX bikes on the floor, looks like they are waiting for their friends or perhaps can’t go to platforms with their bikes. Besides metro tickets and coins right here in the station upper hall one could also buy tickets to a theater or concert or get cash from an ATM right under a group sculpture of workers that surround a man with a flag and sign “Glory to Labour”.

Photo: Boys with bikes in Narvskaya metro station upper hall


Before entering the escalator I passed through the metal detectors that wouldn’t react to my laptop, keys and perhaps would not react to any other metal objects in bags and pockets of other travelers. This brings to my mind an article by Robert Rosenberger where author refers to  Latour’s notion of mediation: “the way that humans and non-humans work together through networks to enact an agenda, or a program of action”. Metal detectors in metro resemble a classical example of speed pump –  when police delegates its function of control to a physical object. Similarly metal detectors in the metro station even when they are switched off, could just by their presence prevent passengers from bringing  dangerous objects with them. Massive presence of metal detectors at all stations also mediates a message about control and safety on the metro.

Under video surveillance the escalator takes a traveler through the lines of dozens of light boxes with commercials.

“Are you a spy?”, an old man with walking sticks asks me immediately when I walk into the metro train car while holding a DSLR camera in my hands

“Yes I am and I even have my spy ID with me! Do you want to see it?”

We both laughed. He was a wise old man. Indeed I came to metro to do some observations and take a few photos. Yes, there was irony in his voice, a kind of irony when you understand that it isn’t only irony.

To fulfill my role of a “spy” I immediately raised my camera and took a photo of people on the platform and Soviet-style decor.

Photo: Narvskaya metrostation

This is one of examples of metrosociality. As Russian researcher Oksana Zaporoshets noted in her writings, there are at least two types of settings that determine social processes, the norms of conduct in Russian metro. First setting is when the metro is crowded, there is minimal contact between travelers. The other setting is when the metro car is almost empty, strangers start to talk to each other, a new solidarity emerges among them. Some passengers are more active, others less actively involved in informal control in the metro.

An interesting question is about the source of the norms and rules that travelers are setting for themselves to obey and also to control that others obey these norms too. Perhaps the semi-ironic question about the spy in part reflects the old Soviet norm of being alert to anything different, foreign, and it was partly maintained by the physical environment. Indeed it takes time for me to get used to overwhelming presence of Soviet and Communists symbols in Saint Petersburg metro and on the street. My Russian friends say that they do not think about the meanings of topographic names, the names are just there disconnected from their connotations. I see plenty of controversies that are also reflected in present day Russian politics: a liberal economy in a semi-authoritarian political system.

Conflicting messages in urban topography

Post-communist Russia lives on the on the Soviet map, just as residents of Saint Petersburg live in in administrative capital of Leningrad region, or schoolchildren study at Princess E.M. Oldenburgskaya Gymnasium 157 located on Proletarian Dictatorship street. The Narva metro station is located on former Narva square that since 1923 had a name of  workers strikes – The Strikes square- Ploshchad Stachek. Maoz Azaryahu writes in his analysis of commemorative street names in European cities, the street names assist people to orient themselves across the urban system, they also powerfully render natural specific historical narratives that ultimately serve the goals of the ruling sociol-political order.  Can’t escape a mixed feeling of irony and sadness:  in present day Russia opposition political movements, rallies and workers strikes are strictly repressed and it was well demonstrated by mass detentions by on March 26 rallies across Russia (only in Moscow around 1000 people were detained for participating in a rally).

In the middle of Strikes Square stands a massive green Narva Triumphal Arch built in 1814 to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon, in February 1917 a massive workers strike took place in this neighborhood, workers set on fire the arch (together with city archives stored in it). It was the beginning of Russian revolution. In 1917 giant green warriors made of copper couldn’t protect the arch, today they stare at a man with red flag on a huge Soviet mural on the building in front of arch, surrounded on both sides by two outstanding constructivist buildings-monuments – the Gorkiy Culture Palace and Kirovskiy store.  The combinations of Tsar-time and Stalinist-Communist monuments and street names  reproduce the historical narratives of Russia winning the the wars (Against Napoleon or Great Patriotic War) and leaded by strong autocratic leader (Tsar, Lenin, Stalin, Putin)

Neither giant green warriors nor most of people passing by the Stachki square can’t see the virtual fights between fictional Japanese creatures that take place on Pokémon Go Gym right under the arch. There is a hybrid reality, loosely structured networks of games and social media, they are globalized and localized at the same time. It remains to be seen if in combination with totalitarian symbolism (discourses of urban toponyms) they will lead to strengthening of Orwellian “doublethink” or democratic pluralism.

Photo: Kirov Plant metro station

I got out of the metro train on the next stop called Kirov Plant (station was named after Kirov plant, former Putilov plant,  where  workers went on anti-war strike a February 1917). Kirov Plant station is just as Navskaya and Avtovo (and many other old metro stations) are filled with Communist symbols, texts glorifying workers, crankshafts, hammers and other tools in a form of sculptures and decorative elements. On Sunday noon there is not may travelers in the metro car. These are some old people and almost none of travelers had mobile phones of tablets in their hands, rather unusual that nobody was reading a book at that moment. Perhaps many of them took a short ride on metro.

Photo: There is no time to read a book on a short metro ride

Avtovo metro station is one of the iconic stations in Saint Peterburg. It resembles more of a palace rather than a metro station. There are two young metro workers chatting near a booth in the middle of a station. A girl is checking her make up using he smart phone as a mirror. Here and on all other stations I visited that day I saw cleaners cleaning stations by hand or with machines. Perhaps this explains why I didn’t see a single sticker or a tag, every station was very clean. This is a huge difference comparing to Helsinki metro.

Photo: A girls  is using her smartphone camera as a mirror to check her makeup at Avtovo metro station-palace

Somewhere between Rebellion (Vosstaniya) Square and Academic (Akademicheskaya) metro stations two young street musicians suddenly entered the metro car. This acoustic intervention was so powerful that people who had head phones took them off. Sounds of a flute and guitar completely filled in the car replacing the monotonous mechanical noise of a train. Musicians walked through the car and literally every single traveler donated some money.  It was a form of solidarity for young musicians.

Video: Musicians in Saint Petersburg Metro from Digital Youth in Media City HKI on Vimeo.

Approaching the Akademicheskaya station, one of last stations on the Red line I noticed that every metro traveler  had a book or a mobile device in their hands.

Photo: Readers in metro somewhere between Rebellion (Vosstaniya) Square and Academic (Akademicheskaya) stations

Photo: Akademicheskaya metro station

Museums and galleries of a city

Saint Petersburg is a city museum. The metro in Saint Petersburg is a museum too. Perhaps it is a very convenient model for very conservative political elites: the city is a museum, and the country is a museum too where citizens should not claim themselves a right to touch, move or change the museum artifacts. Different forms of control are present in the museum. Formal control is usually represented by police, security guards, and metro workers, metal detectors and CCTV cameras. Informal control is also present all the time. If formal control is based on laws, regulations and their interpretations, then informal control is based on values, norms and unwritten rules. These are much wider and more surveyed. Also there is a huge space for variation of value based interpretations. Old babushkas and other senior metro travelers are empowered to guard the order in this museum of metro, and city filled with red stars, praising the “dictatorship of proletariat” and strong leader. But there are also other layers of the city, the street gallery of youth cultures, the virtual layers of geolocation games and apps.

These are multi-layered urban spaces, where conflicting ideologies coexist in architecture, street names and commercials, where virtual spaces of the apps appear to be more stable comparing to constantly transforming urban environments of artworks of street artists. It is no wonder that young people notice the internal ideological conflicts omnipresent in the city landscape and they a looking for rational explanations.

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