Metro Mayhem

It’s pouring in St. Petersburg this morning, and as I am not feeling a 20 minute walk in the rain, I’m taking the metro to school. Petersburg has an estimated 62 sunny days per year, so I end up taking the metro fairly often. I live just a few blocks from the Технологи́ческий Институ́т station, where I can grab either a red or blue line train.

To get into the station, you have to pass through a metal detector. It beeps when I pass through it, because I obviously have metal on me, but it’s rare that the guards actually stop and search people. There’s always a decent number of officials, both police and metro employees, monitoring the entrance. In 2017, a terror attack killed 11 people at this station, so security is understandably tight. I scan my Подорожник card at the turnstile and, blessedly, still have a few rides left before I have to reload it. If you don’t have any money left on your card, the machine sets off a very conspicuous alarm and flashes red lights. The metro here does not operate on the honor system in the way Berlin’s does.

It’s a short ride to my school from this station – just one stop on the blue line. The real delay comes in the form of the escalator. Because Petersburg is built on a swamp, metro lines were constructed insanely deep, where the ground is more solid. It takes about 5 minutes to descend the full length of the average escalator – and these ones move faster than those in the U.S. On days when I’m running late, they are the bane of my existence. My host mom straight up refuses to take the metro if she doesn’t have to for this reason. But most of the time I like the escalators, because their length makes for excellent people watching.

As I prepare to step onto the escalator, the babushka in front of me waves over a young man who’s just entered behind me. She instructs him to carry her suitcase down for her, and he obliges unquestioningly. If a babushka tells you to do something here, you do it. I hop on a few steps behind them.

The following is a list of some of the people I pass by as they ride the escalator going the opposite direction:

  1. Guy in a pink blazer carrying a bright red McDonalds balloon.
  2. Bald man in a blue Россия (“Russia”) tracksuit with a Nike gym bag. His forearm tattoo reads “Stay Hungry” in English.
  3. Somber woman in purple scarf carrying three sunflowers. Flowers in odd numbers are only for funerals.
  4. A pair of teenage boys attempting to make eye contact with women passing by.
  5. Two military men with buzzcuts in green uniforms.
  6. Three police academy students. Their school is two blocks from my apartment.
  7. Man carrying pink flowers in a yellow wrapper, stems facing up (this is how everyone here carries flowers).
  8. Young girl in pink hijab texting animatedly.
  9. Elderly man in black leather blazer and white turtleneck chewing gum.
  10. Teenager in Nirvana sweatshirt with safety pins attached around the hood, framing his face in metal.
  11. The top of a brunette woman’s head is just visible. She sits to rest her legs on the ride upward.
  12. A babushka fiddling with her grandson’s school uniform collar.
  13. Every few feet, a couple stands on two steps, faces almost touching but not quite. PDA is a huge thing here, especially on the metro escalators.

When at last we reach the bottom, I head towards the blue line track and await the next train. They generally come every three minutes or so – there’s a count on the wall showing how long it’s been since the last train left (2:03).

The platforms for most lines look like this: as in the DC metro, you stand at the edge of the open track to wait for the train, which you can see approaching down the tunnel. The exception to this rule is the green line.

When engineers designed green line stations, they were particularly concerned that they might flood during a rainstorm. For this reason, storm doors seal the entrances and exits to the trains. The platforms for the green line look like plain hallways, with large steel doors lining each side. When trains arrive, these steel storm doors open to reveal the train cars. You see a lot of people racing to catch departing trains on other lines, like the blue one I’m waiting for, but few people dare jump through these storm doors when the warning comes that they’re closing. The steel will give you nasty bruises if you get caught in it.

My train finally arrives, and I join the throng of people pushing to make their way into the car. An interesting phenomenon of Russian society is that people wait very closely together in lines. The woman standing behind me is about six inches away as we push into the packed train. Over the intercom, the conductor announces the name of this station in Russian. Because this is a newer train, a translation in English follows…but by this time we’ve already pulled away from the platform. Sorry, tourists.

It’s about a four minute ride to my stop, so I make sure I have a spot near the exit. As we near Сеннáя плóщадь station, people getting off begin to move towards the doors. “Вы выходите?” the woman behind me asks. (“Are you getting off?”) This phrase is a key one to understand if you’re going to be riding the St. Petersburg metro. It’s common courtesy to let those exiting the train pass by you. Other common courtesies include being quiet (even in packed cars, noise rarely gets above a murmur), and giving up your seat for the elderly or disabled. I’ve seen Russians chastise strangers for forgetting to sacrifice their seats.

When we get to Сеннáя, almost the entire train empties in a massive wave of people. This station is a major transfer point, and it’s rush hour. Alas, the station officials have only one escalator going in our direction, while three are moving down towards us. After successfully funneling approximately 5000000 people onto one escalator, and riding that escalator several minutes upward, we’ve almost made it out. All around me, people reach into their backpacks for umbrellas. I pull on my rain jacket, having removed it on the train because I was sweating profusely.

Collectively, we brace ourselves to enter the rainstorm…..and emerge to a perfectly sunny sky. Shrugging off this dramatic change in weather, we stow our umbrellas back in bags and jacket pockets for the rain that will, inevitably, return within the hour.

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