Rubbing The Rust Off My Russian
“That’s the first time I’ve pan-handled in a foreign country,” Glen said. “Or any country,” I added.
Glen and I walked off the overnight ferry from Helsinki rolling our luggage and studying the map of St Petersburg, Russia. My “immediate immersion plan” was to find the nearest ATM, get some rubles, buy some metro tokens and take the underground subway to our B&B. No sissy taxis or tour guides for us. Unfortunately, step one – get rubles at an ATM – wasn’t easy. Where are all the ATMs?
“Will you sell me some rubles for dollars or Euros?” I asked a sweet looking woman in my best but rusty Russian. I went on to explain to the woman on the street that we only needed to trade enough rubles to buy two metro tokens so we could get to our lodging. She shook her head, gave us two metro tokens, and said smiling, “A gift from me to you. Welcome to St Petersburg!”
After profuse thanks and smiles Glen and I made our way into the underground metro system and saw a row of ATMs from various Russian and international banks. Maybe we should have asked that woman where to find an ATM instead. But finally were able to buy enough rubles to see us through our three days in this historic and friendly city.
I had been on a different Russian metro many times way back in the 90’s – Moscow. My last assignment as an Army officer was conducting nuclear weapons inspections around the Ural Mountains, close to Siberia. We usually spent a couple of days in Moscow enroute to our destination and on the way home. So this trip was interesting to Glen as his first trip to Russia, and fascinating to me to see how far things had come since I was there in the shaky days of the Soviet meltdown. Right now I wanted to compare the Russia of 15 years ago to the ultra-capitalistic Russia of today. For over 20 years I had used my Russian for work – now it was so rusty – thankfully I didn’t have to use any past perfective participles (I never liked those much anyway) and we got by just fine.
A little background history on this famous St Petersburg metro (opened in 1955) and their “longest escalators in the world”. Back in 1703, Peter the Great decided to build a city on a rotten, fetid swamp. “By nature we are fated here to cut a window to Europe” (Alexander loved Europe). Thousands of Swedes and Russians (serfs had it bad) died in the process of building a city on an uninhabitable marsh, but finally a wooden fortress was erected, and St Petersburg was founded.
Fast forward some 250 years later, and someone invented the St Petersburg Metro. To compensate for the fact that the city was built on a swamp, most of the stations were built far below the ground (back in Cold War days they served nicely as nuclear bomb shelters).
As former residents of Washington D.C., Glen and I are used to metros and the deep underground escalators that accompany them. But words cannot describe the depth and rapid descent of our first escalator ride into the St Petersburg Metro. We were on the system’s deepest station, Admiralteyskaya, which is 105 meters (4,550 ft) below ground. And steep. Anyone with height issues better close their eyes. But there must not be too many agoraphobics in St Petersburg because their metro serves over two and a half million passengers a day, making it one of the busiest metro systems in the world. And finally, the metro artwork – the main reason I wanted to start Glen’s first trip to Russia underground in the subway. Have a look at the artwork and interior designs of some metro stations in St Petersburg:
This reminded Glen and I of the Space Race of the Cold War era. Seems so harmless now but at the time we used to really worry they would get to the moon before the USA! Now that we got there????
One of the more ornate metro designs in St Petersburg. Must have seemed decadent during those grey Stalinist years. Actually it still does considering that according to the guide book (2010), 20% of apartments in cities like Moscow and St Petersburg are still occupied by multiple families.
Our lovely metro tokens for 22 rubles per person. You can ride all over town and tour the underground for about .75 cents USD. Nobody sneaks onto this metro – guards at the turnstiles and grim looking but pretty “watchers” placed at the top and bottoms of the escalators. No hanky panky on those long escalator rides! Come to think of it, we did see a bit of smooching during those 3-4 minute rides. Waste not a moment.