Tag Archives: metro

Documents, please

Every time I walk past a police officer in St. Petersburg, I look down, up, to the side—anywhere but his face. It’s not that I’m guilty of anything, but here the militsia, as the St. Petersburg police are called, are not known for jolly attitudes and community outreach. They also do not need a reason to ask for your documents, an open request that can lead to questioning in an unfamiliar language and to the gifting of pastel-colored Ruble notes.

I’ve played out the scenario many times in my mind: An officer’s eye meets mine. Nightstick dangling from his wrist—Russian police seem to always have their nightsticks out and ready—he approaches. As I pull my photocopied passport (And here’s the technical guilt: By law, one is required to have the actual passport with him at all times) out of my wallet, he sizes up its monetary contents. He questions me. I tell him—in English—that I speak no Russian, as I’ve been advised to do. He suggests a ruble figure. I comply, replacing my passport in my now-lighter wallet, walking away, if all goes well.

Today, my imagination met reality.

As I walked into Vaselostravskaya Metro Station, a police officer, standing to the side with two others, stopped me. “Документы, пожалуйста,” documents please. As I’d practiced, I told him that I speak no Russian as I unfolded the crumpled copy of my passport. “Ah, American,” he said. And smiled. One of his partners added in a “Hello, American.” The young officer, no club in hand, gave me back my passport, and I was on my way.

Apparently, the police are not looking to bother American students, or to earn an easy several-hundred rubles.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, what the police are looking for is draft dodgers—young men trying to escape their mandatory time in Russia’s military. Spring is draft time, so the police may (they deny this, according to the St. Petersburg Times) be ratcheting up efforts to fill the military’s ranks, in part by checking the documents of young men at metro stations.

Museum Night, Missiles, and Tanks

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

Tanks! Missiles! Cannons! Rockets and rocket launchers!

The Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg is billed as a great place to go to climb on and marvel at military equipment, and in this role, it definitely doesn’t disappoint. The place is full of fighting machines, from historical cannons to the RT-2PM Topol, a massive mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launcher, complete with (mock?) missile.

Kids, and more than a few adults, were climbing on the artillery pieces near the entrance and posing for pictures. Bunches of people walked around, checking out anti-aircraft guns, spinning Topol’s wheels, or watching a free concert set up in the middle of the outdoor museum for Museum Night.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

Even cooler than the tanks, though, were the running battles in the museum’s backyard. As part of the Museum Night festivities, reenactments of Russian military history up to World War II were staged in a large treed yard, dug through with trenches and strung with barbed wire.

Sadly, we were only able to watch the World War One reenactment, but it was plenty awesome. Spectators cheered as Russian soldiers charged out of the trenches, guns spitting fire, cutting down German soldiers.

After the Russians won the battle, kids quickly ran out onto the field, looking for spent casings and mingling with the soldiers. Everbody else soon joined, check out the trenches and hopping the barbed wire. With lawsuits and such, I’m adding this to my list of things that work a bit differently in America.

We walked around after that, mingling with fake Nazi soldiers, knights with swords and shield, and even mock American soldiers from World War II, speaking Russian and some hilariously broken English.

As I wrote about yesterday, we were planning on going to a bunch of museums as part of the Museum Night event. But, as you can probably tell, we spent a whole lot of time at the Artillery Museum.

This was not entirely by choice. We had planned to start the night at Dostoevsky’s house, a museum/tribute to the famous Russian writer. But although Dostoevsky’s house was participating in Museum Night, tickets to the event were not being sold there, a fact that wasn’t in any of the Museum Night stuff we had researched online.

So we went to a Russian pizza place, and then took the metro over to Petrogradsky Island, site of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum, and a bunch of other museums we had planned to visit.

But the metro stop right by all the museums, the one we had planned to get off at was ремонт, or under repair—which we discovered only as our train sped through the darkened station (My roommate Tom wrote about the significance of ремонт in Russia on his blog.). We got off at the next station, still on Petrogradsky Island, but a mile walk to the museums.

Luckily, getting off at that station earned me my first picture with Lenin, which pretty much made the walk worthwhile.

 

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

Traffic lights and metro doors

The traffic lights in Russia are a wannabe racecar driver’s dream. There’s no guessing when they’re going to change—they go from red to yellow to green, giving drivers time to rev their engines and start edging forward as pedestrians scurry for safety. And once they’ve turned green, timers count down to the next red light, so drivers know exactly how quickly they need to speed to make it through.

The life of the Russian pedestrian is less fun. There’s no requirement in St. Petersburg, as far as I can tell, that cars yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Sure, sometimes they’ll slow down for you, but just as often, they’ll speed up—get out of the way or face the consequences.

What’s really fun, though, is crossing the street at a place without a stoplight—it’s sort of like human Frogger. St. Petersburg’s residents apparently have an excellent sense of timing.

But crossing the street isn’t the only place where the state won’t give you much of a helping hand.

When you’re getting on the metro, and the chime sounds signaling that the doors are about to close, you’d best be on the train. These aren’t nice American doors that open if you hurriedly shove a hand in. They close with a sharp thud, and you’re either in or you’re out.

I got “closed on” yesterday—it’s more surprising than painful, since the doors are at least padded with rubber. But whereas in America, one learns to shove an arm into the door to get on the train, here such stupidity doesn’t pay off.

It’s kind of nice, actually.

You have to take more responsibility for yourself—but you won’t be surprised if the striped paint on the street doesn’t make cars magically stop or if your rush to get on the train is rewarded with a bruise.

Smiling

Russians don’t smile. Not the ones that work in the service industry, anyhow. The uniquely American, “Thanks, and have a great day” doesn’t seem to have hopped on the boat to St. Petersburg with McDonalds and Pizza Hut.

At the metro, after you pass your 20 rubles through the window, they don’t even look at you before shoving a gold metro token at you. If, god forbid, you fumble for the correct bills or coins, several Russians are liable to push by you to purchase their entrance fares.

I’ll admit, it’s not like the Metro employees in D.C. are known for their friendliness either, and I’m sure they’ve put off more than one foreign tourist. But subway workers aren’t the only unsmiling ones.

I’ve already written some about the difficult cashiers at the Paterson supermarket, or универсам. From our travel guide, we recently learned that they’re colloquially referred to as гром баба, or thunder women. Makes me feel a bit better to know that Russians also incur their wrath.

Now, the woman I bought tea (another weapon in the continuing war against jet lag) and some food from today seemed nicer, or at least more low key. But she, too, hassled me as I tried to count out correct change (when the smallest common coin is 50 kopecks, that can be particularly tough). And I also learned that she spoke English—when she told me “You too slow” as I tried to put my change away while simultaneously juggling my purchases, because I had decided against purchasing another 6 ruble plastic bag.

We managed to steal a smile from a waitress today, however.

Restaurants and cafes in Russia are notorious for lacking many of the items listed on the menu. _____ нет, there isn’t any _____, is a common phrase for waiters and waitresses. Typically, food is ordered and delivered with as few words exchanged as possible, with the obvious exception of multiple “нет”s. There’s no friendly banter nor facial expressions, perhaps because tipping expectations are minimal, except in the fanciest establishments (apparently, in smaller cities, tipping means that you want to sleep with the waitress. Here, they’re more used to it.).

This means that the waiters won’t constantly bug you, asking you how your food is, or trying to move you along to make room for another table. It also means that they won’t ask you if you want something else, or offer you another bottle of water or soda—the savvy Russian restaurant-goer orders his whole meal, including dessert, upon sitting down.

There were six of us at the restuarant today, ordering Пироги, or Russian pastries, filled with anything from apple or orange to meat and fish. I actually went for a strange fried egg, cheese, and tomato dish, but only because the pastry I wanted – нет. So much of what we ordered was out that after asking for the umpteenth item and hearing the umpteenth нет, we finally earned a smile, and perhaps even a little laugh, from the waitress. Either that, or she was laughing at our mangled pronunciations of Russian food items.

Slideshow: First days in Petersburg

The view from the steps of Primorskaya Metro, a block from our apartment.

The view from the steps of Primorskaya Metro, a block from our apartment.

Click here for a slideshow of photogaphs from my first few days in St. Petersburg.

Accomplishments

The jet lag has been conquered, sort of. It’s 7:30 p.m., and I’m exhausted.

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to list some of today’s accomplishments. You’ll notice that a lot of them involve purchases; talking with people in Russian is tough.

  • Rode the metro to downtown St. Petersburg to watch the Victory Day parade.
  • Bought lunch (but the menu was in English and Russian).
  • Bought a surge protector.
  • Bought water from a vendor on the street.

More later, but for now, it’s time to get out and get some coffee in the interest of the continuing flight against jet lag.