Metro in St. Petersburg is now an intrinsic part of everyday life of city inhabitants. It was opened in 1955 (it was the 2nd subway in Soviet Union after the Moscow one). And today it is one of the most popular transports to move around the city. Someone appreciates it for the convenience, someone for its speed and for the opportunity to avoid traffic jams, someone just enjoys the smell of the subway and its beauty. And someone hates it for its crowdedness, but does not have a chance to avoid it regularly.
It is not possible to imagine contemporary St. Petersburg without metro. Moreover, the proximity of the subway to the place of living is a big advantage and it is very much appreciated by citizens, it is also reflected in the prices for accommodation – the closer the house to the metro, the more expensive the apartments are. To live in the walking distance to the subway is what many Petersburgers, including me, are aspiring for.
When I first visited St. Petersburg 10-15 years ago and went down in the subway, I was surprised how deep it is. You take the escalator and it goes, and goes for long-long time, and it seems like an eternity, until you get to the platform. During this ride you have the time to check the map, to read a book, and to observe other passengers.
Some stations also surprised me a lot – they were ‘closed’ – the trains passed behind the walls, and they could not be seen from the platform. On the platform you can see only the iron doors that open with the arrival of trains, letting passengers to get into the car. According to one of explanations, these ‘closed’ stations were safer: passengers could not fall on the ways under the train, and if there would be a flood people on the platform would have time to leave the underground. For me, as for tourist, it was on the contrary unusual and a bit scary: what if the door does not open at the right time, or opens, but does not coincide with the car door, and I could not get on the train or to withdraw from it? Such stations agitated my imagination creating images of flooded trains, abandoned paths and secret shelters.
At that time a trip on the metro was an adventure for me, part of the tourist charm of St. Petersburg, and I was in a hurry as soon as possible to get underground. I enjoyed it and I thought how great it could be to get used to the subway: to use it every day going for a work, to read books, to sleep in the car, to learn to navigate underground without a map and information tips. I thought that to become a free user of the subway means to become a local.
And now I live in St. Petersburg and almost every day I go down to the metro. I learned many stations, I know where to stand on the platform, in order to avoid the crowd, I know how to “kill time” on the escalator. Metro has become usual and mundane for me. And I did not even understand when I have stopped to be a new-comer in it, how I have ceased to be surprised and to notice what is happening around. I became local and it was great. But at the same time when I started my observations for the project I found out that it was much more difficult than I thought: subway hided from me behind the everydayness.
I mentioned in my notes: «I do not know what I need to fix in my field diary, everything seems fairly obvious and straightforward, so “usual”. Describe the space? But it is possible to represent it through the photos. Describe people? But they are ‘ordinary people’ – quite diverse, but still very familiar: men, women, poorer and more affluent, youth, adults, pensioners. And it’s just so a lot of them around. To fix actions? But people all do the same things – sit / stand / walk with the phone, read, sleep in the trains. As a result, I decided to record everything that catch my eye, trying to get surprised by the details”.
How to break through the mundanity of the subway? The simplest way is to slow down, to stand still or to sit and to look around. And it seems so simple, but to make a stop in metro is already a breach of its usual rhythm. Petersburg metro is full of movement. Passengers infuse into the flow of people and move in the predicted direction – from the entrance to the train, from one train to another, from the platform to the escalator. The stop sometimes occurs when passenger is waiting on the platform, but it does not last long – 2-3 minutes the most, and the train is coming (of course he/she can have the chance to get some break in the car, and even to sleep a bit, but not at rush hour). On the platform it is also possible to sit on a bench for a while and wait for someone or something but you will feel that the waiting here is temporal and slightly alien, uncomfortable. To be in motion in subway is much more ‘natural’ thing.
And this ‘naturalness’ is needed to be overcome by the researcher, it is necessary to return the look and habits of ‘tourist’. Then the metro starts slightly to open its secrets: you will have an opportunity to feel its rhythms, to see how people choose routes and make their stops (maybe even automatically), how they seek quite places and build the distances, trying to isolate themselves from others, how they go all together, but remain alone at the same time.