Riding the Russian Express
The smell of sausages and sweat permeates the air. Thousands of commuters push past me, an inconsequential outsider they have no problem squishing like a bug. I’m most likely the only tourist visiting the working-class suburbs of St. Petersburg, let alone hitching a ride. “Elbows up!” my aunt Tanya beckons as we push into the entrance of the metro station with an unsettling sense of urgency. A highly regarded professor of engineering at the University, she and 2.5 million other commuters take this trip daily, social status be damned.
Our tokens collected and deposited, we begin the 86-metre journey straight down the escalator to hell. The metro in St. Petersburg was first dreamed up in 1820, but took until 1955 to actually be put into action; bureaucracy at its finest, eh? In a country founded off hypocrisy, fear of the unknown and the dire need to protect the motherland, the metro is where the people of this city are at their most vulnerable. I am wildly uncomfortable already.
The natural light of the real world disappears, replaced with neon advertisements plastered to every inch of wall space. Everything here has been planned and executed with the mentality that sacrifice is not true sacrifice if in the name of ‘Mother Russia’. President Vladimir Putin’s new biography is most prevalently promoted, his face radiating through the fluorescent tubes. Beside him, a jolly looking ginger is displayed chowing down on more sausages: “Om nom nom”, the advertisement reads. Down still, deeper into an unknown which seems not to faze my fellow passengers. The smell of sausages gets stronger. How is that possible? Must be what they use to fuel the trains, I joke internally, feeling my naivety beginning to wear off.
My eyes are suddenly assaulted with the most impressive displays of intricacy. Each metro station here is equipped its own unique design and theme, a stark contrast to the conformist blobs of human traffic that run through them. White marble, gold leafing, futuristic neon lights, textured walls adorned with statues. The creativity does not cease below ground; it thrives. Like the past generations of oppressed rising from below, the metro is a creative playground buried underneath the authoritarian concrete above. Coming from a country that actually employed an ‘Agency of Censorship’ that lasted for centuries, these stations attempt to rewrite history.
Doors are open; it’s go time. Me and Aunt Tanya make eye contact as hundreds of people begin a battle to push their way onto a seat, no pleasantries involved. She tries to grab my hand, but my butter fingers slip through and I’m left to my own devices. Salmon swimming upstream, cattle being herded, Russians on their way to work. I have to stop myself from moo-ing. More wafts of sausages.
As the doors close, I watch a lady lose her lunch in order to save her fingertips. Aunt Tanya tells me that the doors on the train have no security sensors, so if you get caught as they’re closing, as many passengers often do, no one really gives a shit. Contrasting to metropolises like Tokyo, where passengers actually form single file queues to board the train, you must fend for yourself here, eat or be eaten. We pack closer and closer together, sardines in a can, much like what we feasted on the night prior.
The doors shut and the cut-off from fresh oxygen shifts the entire carriage. Decade-old wheels screeching, the station’s decadent marble façade in front of me vanishes into darkness within seconds. Suddenly, it is uncomfortably calm. What were once ferocious beasts clawing their way onto this metal box now instantaneously succumb to slumber. A magic spell that has somehow escaped my ears; I look to see the entire train with closed eyes, gently swaying back and forth to the sound of the scraping wheels on decrepit tracks. As soon as the commuters have achieved their goal of securing an oh-so-idolised spot on the train, the reality of the real world and their never-ending schedules sends them all into hibernation for the remainder of the trip.
The metro is where the average Russian citizen finds solace, a place free from worry and protected from the harshness of their individual realities. Where their bodies can automatically alert themselves that their stop is arriving, as if it’s inbred in them since the day they take their first steps. In a country that seems so far from normality, the people in front of me are in their most natural state, dozing off on the train. I am Jane Goodall in the forest of unpredictable creatures, so peaceful that it verges on eerie.
All sense of this absurd state of reality is gone and our stop is next. A small portion of the train softly opens their eyelids, and zombie-crawl to the doors where my aunt Tanya and I are waiting to escape. The train comes to a halt and the energy quickens inside everyone who is not still asleep. I am greeted by a Michelangelo-like mural on the opposing wall. Hand-painted figures an inch-tall pile on top of each other to create this monstrous piece of art, cathedral-worthy without question. The commuters don’t even glance at what has left me with my jaw hanging open. The mundaneness and madness of it all begins to infuriate me, but I stay quiet. Besides, working so hard for such little reward, the least I can do is let them enjoy their ride.
Even if it is cloaked in the cologne of sausages.