Metro in popular culture in Finland and Russia: so different, so similar

 Real/unreal metro

In her blog post titled First Encounters DiMe researcher Heta Mulari wrote that the music video of Freestyler by Bomfunk MC’s  was her first mediated impression of Helsinki metro. Indeed, Helsinki metro is widely present in Finnish popular culture.  Metro stations and metro travelers appear in Finnish music videos and movies. Helsinki metro is a central scene of events in a crime fiction Harjunpää ja pahan pappi (The Priest of Evil, 2003)  by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu and a movie based on this novel. The main characters of youth movie Sisko tahtoisin jäädä (2010) teenage girls are running away from the security guards in Helsinki metro.  A very popular among teenagers and young people pop artist Sanni filmed her music video Jos mä oon oikee (If am real)(2013) on Siilitie metro station and in Helsinki metro depo. Her music video shows realistic scenes of everyday communing of a young lonely traveler and also traveling with a friend.

Sanni Jos

Picture: Siilitie metro station in music video Jos mä oon oikee by Sanni (2013)

In contrast to Sanni, a recent music video by Finnish pop artist Olavi Uusivirta – Tanssit Vaikka Et Osaa (You danced even if you didn’t know how) (2016) completely transforms the metro car into unrealistic imaginary space.

Olavi Uusivirta

Picture: Party in the dark metro car in music video Tanssit Vaikka Et Osaa by Olavi Uusivirta (2016)

In the music video by Olavi Uusivirta people of different age, over-articulated cultures and sexual orientations share a space of metro car were they have a party.  The public and private, conventional and unconventional are mixed and underlined in this video.

Siilitie station that appeared on Sanni’s  music video is a good example of modern urban architecture in Helsinki. Station is made of concrete, metal and glass. During the daytime it is filled with natural light. On contrary, the oldest stations in the center of Helsinki Hakaniemi, Rautatientori and Kamppi were opened between 1982 and 1983 and resemble caves in the granite rock. Some other stations like Itäkeskus, Sörnäinen and Kontula are darker but sometimes on the late Friday and Saturday evenings the atmosphere may resemble a party from Olavi Uusivirta music video.

Time in Metro

The Russian metro and particularly the metro in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are older and also deeply carved in Russian culture. Some older metro stations like Avtovo (opened in 1955) in Saint Petersburg are by themselves objects of Soviet art with distinct architecture, decorations, sculptures and paintings. Many metro stations resemble luxurious palaces, monuments to Soviet Russia. In Post-Soviet Russia the presence of communist symbols in everyday life creates specific cultural context for considerably more free post-soviet society.


Picture: Saint Petersburg, Avtovo metro station. Source: twitter user @VisitPetersburg

Scenes filmed in Moscow or Saint Petersburg metro appeared numerous times in Soviet and contemporary Russian movies. For instance Universitet and Studentcheskaya stations of Moscow metro appear in the film Walking the Streets of Moscow (1963). Park Kultury, VDNH, Botanicheskiy Sad, Sviblovo metro stations can be seen in Night Watch (2004) thriller movie. Some scenes in Day Watch (2005) were filmed in Politeknicheskaya metrostation in Saint Peterburg.

Before the mid-1990’s metro in Russian popular culture was more often associated with romantic scenes. A very popular “42 minutes” (1995) song by Russian pop artist Valeriy Siutkin tells about the temporal aspect of everyday metro travel – spending 42 minutes for traveling 9 stations in Moscow metro:

Every day 42 minutes under ground
Back and forth,
These 42 minutes underground
Combined day by day will become years

Interestingly the music video “42 minutes” expands the temporality narrative and tells in a romanticized manner about interactions between people of different social classes and age in the closed and moving space of metro cars and stations: interaction between young and old people, contacts with unknown people, threat of pickpockets, distinctly visible groups of young cadets and musicians who break the noise of the metro. This song was one of the iconic pop songs of the early 1990’s in Russia.

The narratives of metro in popular culture changed after 1996. Deadly terrorist attacks hit Moscow metro stations and metro trains (in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010) killing dozens of people. It was a period when Russia was fighting against separatists in Chechen republic. The government accused Chechen radicals of the terrorist attacks in Moscow.  At the same time main narratives of metro in art and popular culture become grimmer, filled with sorrow and confrontation.

Russian rock singer Zemfira was deeply emotionally effected by the Moscow metro bomb attacks in 2010 and wrote a song “In the Metro” dedicated to victims of that tragedy. Here are a few lines from this song:

They saw the sky
They saw it together
They fall into the water
Ignited garlands
They spent the money
They hid the tears
They ate each other
They slept with each other
For exactly two years
And rolled on rails
Without interest
In different poses

With love and with duty
And we will live long
And yet we blow up the subway!

Metro counter-culture

DiMe researchers in Saint Petersburg noted that both Saint Petersburg and Moscow metro belong to a category of excessively controlled transport infrastructure. For sticker artists or for any other artists it is one of most challenging and prestigious spaces as the art reaches hundreds of thousands of viewers. Control is very visible and it is part of everyday life, something what every traveler sees on each station: police of the special unit of metro police, video surveillance, metal detectors (usually switched off), metro staff at the gates, ladies in uniforms in the booths at escalators and on the platforms. Informal control is also present, rules of conduct in the metro and unspoken conventions known to every commuter although not formulated in any written regulations. These formal and informal rules became a central theme in a number of artistic events and a very recent music video by Noize Mc rap artist. Metro- the underground is an important scene for Russian counter-culture.

Russian street-art group Voina challenged the both formal and informal rules of conduct in metro by setting up tables with food and drinks in metro car and inviting passengers to join their party. This performance titled “Subway Feast” was dedicated to memory of recently perished poet Dmitry Prigov and took place on the circular line of the Moscow metro late at night on August 24th, 2007. Artists very well demonstrated that the space of metro cars is mostly controlled by informal rules of conduct. Artists together with other commuters made this control and informal rules visible. On the contrary, the spaces of metro stations are strictly controlled by metro workers and police. The effectiveness of the formal control is in metro cars is questionable while informal control in cars is negotiable.


Picture: Feast in the Metro. Voina. Source: Aleksei Plutser’s blog (2007)

One of the leaders of Voina group Aleksei Plutser mentioned in his blog that despite of the presence of video surveillance in the metro cars and stations, the group hasn’t met police officers or metro administration who would attempt to interrupt the artists’ action.

Metro in Helsinki and Saint Petersburg: so different, so similar

Metro systems in Saint Petersburg and Moscow are rich with their past. Perhaps the past dominates and continuously reproduced by the official political and ideological discourses of the “great empire” and “great soviet achievements”. The present of Saint Petersburg metro is crowded with people, cultures, and regulations. There are two polar perspectives on metro commuting. On one hand there is a visual appearance of metro stations – palaces and visibility of control and formal rules. On the other hand there are informal rules and counter cultures. The formal control has its clear limits, it is visible, ritualized and probably ineffective. On the contrary, informal control is less visible, probably more effective and flexible in accepting none-destructive counter cultures.

people-of-our-city_700Picture: People of Our City. Officers of Ministry of interior in Saint Petersburg. Inspector for juvenile affairs.  Poster by Saint Peterburg municipality in the metro train, November 2013. Photo by Arseniy Svynarenko  heta-tom-of-finland_700Picture: Tom of Finland. Digital poster on screen in the Helsinki Metro. 2016. Fragment of a picture by Heta Mulari

Helsinki Metro as a cultural phenomenon has no past. Instead, it is oriented on the present and future. Its present is filled with its routine everyday commuting and involvement of citizens in transforming the metro. For instance the Helsinki municipal project Ole Hyvä Helsinki recruited young people to transform the appearance of metro stations. Pictures and collages made by children and young people do not decorate the walls of many metro stations. Helsinki metro also has well-articulated image of the future. It is filled with technology. There is free wi-fi, screens in each metro car, there is an advanced system of ticketing with touch screens and real-time information on passenger flows and metro trains are ready for operation automatically without train drivers. Interviews conducted by Digital Youth in Media City project tell that formal control is almost invisible in Helsinki Metro. Instead, there are some vague informal conventions and control, mostly demonstrated by elderly commuters.

By Arseniy Svynarenko