Built on swampland and at points running beneath the Neva, the Saint Petersburg metro system dives deep into the earth. Admiralteyskaya is the deepest station, burrowed 105 meters beneath the city. To reach the trains, one must ride from top to bottom on an escalator for approximately two and a half minutes. The first time I rode it, I looked up at the white, arching half-tube above me, then down. I couldn’t see the bottom past the crowds in front of me.
Familiar only with the New York subway system, and vaguely with that of London, I was amazed by the artistry which presents itself at every station. Each one is gorgeously and uniquely decorated. Mosaics and statues, colors and cleanliness are everywhere — as are the people of Petersburg, who unlike me, have seen the beauty of the system long enough for its charm to fade. Any work of art loses its power if its stared at long enough. The exceptional becomes mundane. So those who’ve been making their commutes daily in this museum-like system go about their business. They pass sculptures like New Yorkers pass the unadorned concrete columns holding their stations up. Some of these local travelers read, others get to work peeling a few layers off. They look at phones or at each other. Then there are the couples who tilt their heads together, crossing necks and kissing amidst the crowds. They share a bit of intimacy in the public of transportation.
I think back to my car at home and the comfort of moving and riding in private. There is something strangely intimate about private movement. The simple retreat of a quiet drive brings much missed solitude. I remember how my dad once called cars ‘a home you can take with you.’ And he’s right. I feel comfort in my car and moreover, I feel unwatched. But, as I have come to know, big cities are marked by a constant presence of people, making the sort of privacy a car provides something of a rarity. The locals have adjusted to the lack of it like they’ve adjusted to the beauty of the stations. Or perhaps it isn’t so much an adjustment as an acclimation. All the privacy and solitude a car can bring are on display here. I note the people on the subway.
The woman with rheumatoid joints rubbing the cold from her hands. The subtleties of age painted under closed eyes. A bobbing head falling down in sleep then bouncing up with a jolt of the car. Floor length fur coats cut from every animal. A middle-aged woman with a frown inscribed deep in her face. Rings swallowed by the fat which must have grown around them with time. The hats, hoods, caps, ushankas, and kubankas. Babies smiling up from their mothers arms or crying or, like me, looking curiously around at the world contained in a subway car. The Russian underground echoes with musicians and the shouts of peddlers peddling products over the roar of tracks. Conversations quiet as the cars slow then rise up again as they set off. Everyone is going somewhere.
Traveling beneath this city seems to give some couples a new bravery. They act at times as if the escalator has delivered them to a lovers’ retreat. On one platform I saw a man and a woman held in a deep embrace, kissing as passionately as one would in a bedroom. Then, just as the doors closed, I watched her lift her leg up and wrap it around him. I thought surely they were about to fall to the ground, but then the metro rumbled and took me to the next station.
Love on the metro is everywhere. People falling asleep on shoulders and earbuds split between friends. Endless couplings and unrestrained, unabashed touching of hands — of lips. Acts of kindness: giving a seat up for a woman with a child or anyone elderly or burdened by too many bags.
The balance of trust on the metro is a strange mixture of paranoia and comfort. For many, the system still stands as a simple way to get to and from a place. It’s reliable transport that should deliver you safely to your destination. But that trust in the rails has been shook, no doubt, by the metro bombing which took place in April of last year. A device hidden in a briefcase ended fifteen lives and left more injured. Since the tragedy, the security has been heightened. Metro stops close down and are evacuated at any report of unattended bags. It happens more often than you’d think.
“Eta opasno,” my Russian teacher warns us. It’s dangerous. She shows us how to hold our bags to prevent thievery and cautions us to keep our hands on our things and be aware. Always aware. And I try to be. But sometimes the shake of the subway sends me to sleep as easy as a lullaby. And sleep is a sort of intimacy, a sort of trust too. I’ve grown a habit of taking short naps on these subway cars leaning up against the walls or sitting up. I’ve never seen so many sleeping people. Closed eyes are something I always viewed as a luxury reserved for bedrooms and couches, something done around family or alone. Not typically on a car full of strangers. But I follow in the ways of the old babushkas falling asleep with their heads wrapped in scarfs. I let my guard down and let the train take me wherever it is I happen to be going. It’s a trust in the tracks which are so consistent in a way cars could never be. The back and forth, back and forth. No turns but a single path. It doesn’t feel dangerous.
Besides, it’s safer than the roads. Russians share a sense of humor about their country’s transportation infrastructure. Outside of urban areas, their highways and streets are known to be little more than dirt and ice.
“Sometimes a map says there is a road, but there isn’t one,” explained my contemporary society professor. The money for the road is gone, but there isn’t a road there. He insinuated the money was likely in someone’s pocket. “Korruptsia.” Corruption.
But bad roads are not the only reason cars seem to make up little of the the traffic here in Petersburg. Aside from the metro, there are several other options for transport. There are trams, trolleybuses, buses, marshrutkas, and taxis. Under the category of taxis: city taxis, Yandex taxis, Ubers or other peer-to-peer ridesharing services, and, most interesting, Gypsy Taxis. This last one is a point of caution. ‘Gypsy Taxis’ are unlicensed taxis which tend to have higher prices and more unsafe drivers. Rumor has it, they tend to listen for non-Russian accents so they can drive the prices even higher.
As for me, the metro has my cash and my time. I’ve grown to love the public intimacy of the commute. The people in love, the sleeping babushkas, the giggling girls. Even the loud rock of the car on the rails has become something of a song. There is nothing like staying up till 5 AM when the metro opens to take a subway car home with the early-workers and club goers alike. I trust them all to let me nap a few stops as I leave off from the city center in the cradle of a subway seat.
Some bonus history: The history of the metro’s construction, like the history of the city’s construction, is long and difficult but with stunning results. Initial stages were completed by 1941 but were halted by the start of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). During that war, St. Petersburg — or as it was then known, Leningrad — was put under siege for two years, leaving scars on the city surface and on surviving citizens who suffered extreme starvation and unfathomable horrors. From such dark beginnings sprouted a metro system of unexpected beauty. Ivan Zubkov, the Director of the metro’s construction, died in 1944. He would never see the completion of the exquisite metro system.