Moscow’s metro system has got to be the only public transport system in the world that can be described as the most beautiful transport system the world has ever known. Built in 1935 – and still being expanded – it was described by Joseph Stalin as the “People’s Palaces” due to its sumptuousness in an era that was all about austerity and supposed conformity amongst the proletariat.
Given that Moscow is for me almost my third home (Amsterdam and Dublin playing the roles of one and two), one of my favourite day to day experiences in Moscow is riding the metro to and from work. Why? Well, because there are so many unique insights about Russian and Moscow life that one can observe, or, in my own unique way, contribute, that make riding the metro fun. For example….
….I am always amazed and how many bookworms you’ll see on an average commute. It used to be the case that folks would have their head buried deep in the pages of a good book. These days, however, the paper has given way to a myriad of e-reader devices. A Russian classic is almost always typical fodder for your average Muscovite commuter. But some, busy practicing their English, might have either their English textbooks open in front of them as they busily fill in the blanks with a pencil, whilst the train jumps and shudders along the bumpy Soviet built tracks. Or for the more fluent readers, they might be found with the likes of a Barbara Cartland or a John Grisham novel in hand.
The other thing I love about Moscow’s metro is the sheer beauty of if. As I said earlier, it was described as the People’s Palace, and a day underground would easily explain why. Nowhere else would you find numerous murals, stained glass walls, bronze statues, kilometres of marble or vaulting arches as in Moscow. Not all the stations are glorious, I’ll admit, but the larger stations and the ones named after key people from the USSR’s history are all beautifully decorated. I have found myself exploring the underground with camera in hand for hours and hours just soaking up the beauty, the works of art and hidden secrets of this metro system.
The carriages are always busy…..except maybe after 9pm. Which means that seats are always at a premium. But I always enjoy watching young Muscovites readily standing up and freely giving up their seats for those who are more in need….an elderly Babushka, with bags full of produce, on her way to the market to sell her homegrown treasures, an expectant Mother who’s tired and wilting from the summer heat and the lack of A/C in the carriages, or a parent with a young child who would ordinarily get crushed in the ensuing transit of people at every stop, jostling to get on and off the carriage, rushing to catch their connection. Muscovites happily stand up and offer their seat for those who are in more need of it that they. I’ve lived in many places in the world where nobody would even bat an eyelid at the Babushka standing in front of them, about to collapse under her heavy burden.
If you happen to be travelling on the metro in or around 18:00, you’ll begin to notice the traditional “checking-in” of the troops. It’s a daily quirk of Russian life I have grown to enjoy watching as I make my way home.
A platoon commander of the local Militsia (Russian police) will make his rounds to the various stations his officers are based. Their task is supposedly to ensure a constant police presence at each station and discourage petty crime (pickpockets, graffiti etc) but they are never anywhere to be seen except for when their commander is due on his rounds. They will walk in a group, up and down the platform in full dress uniform until the commander arrives, at which they will approach him in full Russian-style goose step, stop and salute him. They then hand over their report books which he dutifully signs and then dismisses them and moves on to the next station. It’s a daily ritual that in my mind rivals the changing of the guard at the eternal flame in the Kremlin, and something to watch out for if you ever take the metro.
Russians, and Muscovites in particular, are not renowned for their public displays of expression. Yes, there is busking, but nothing like the quality or quantity found in London’s Underground….probably because it’s not tolerated by the boys in blue I mentioned earlier. So I always get a bit of a buzz when I wear my earphones and start humming a banging tune to myself and take notice of the funny looks I get from the locals.
The fact is, they know I’m not a native just from taking one look at me. So I already stand-out. But when you start to tap the handrail in sync with the beat of the song playing on my iPod, or quietly hum the tune to yourself they’ll look at you as if you’ve just grown and extra head from shoulders and asked them out for a pint. It’s my little way of contributing to the weird and wonderful collage of people that make up the commuters on the metro. Mind you, they give the same looks to the “Jesus Freaks” who get on preaching and looking for donations to whatever cult or church they are collecting money for.
There’s one other thing I love about Moscow’s metro above all, which probably actually frustrates the shite out of the average tourist….Cyrillic Sign-Posts. Unlike its Sister metro station, St. Petersburg, which has directions in both English and Russian, Moscow ONLY has directions written in Cyrillic. And I love this. It gives me a feeling of having super powers, being able to travel anywhere in Moscow and never getting lost, just because I can read and find my way, especially when there are multiple exits and I need to choose the right one or face an additional two kilometre walk from the other end!
It’s not all roses and fairy dust though. There are things I don’t like about Moscow’s metro, like the amount of black/grey snot that fills my nose after only spending 15 minutes going from my apartment to the office. And it’s a sticky kind of snot that won’t shift no matter how hard you blow.
And then there’s the stinky body odour, made even worse during the summer season, but it’s always there. I can understand the BO problem in the evening…..but in the morning? Honestly, do they not know what a fecking shower is for?
And then there’s the begging Babushka’s. They are not limited to the metro stations, you’ll find them in the underpasses under all the major roads too. And it’s not the begging that bothers me, more the fact that these are people who have been discarded by their government and their people, despite the sacrifices they made for their country. They have had to resort to begging because they can no longer live in the worlds 2nd most expensive city on their meagre $300 a month pension. It’s all the more upsetting when you think that they are someone else’s Grandmother. Who reading this would feel comfortable in the knowledge of their Granny was out on the street panhandling just to make ends meet.
Not to end on a down note, but Moscow’s Metro system really is a unique, fascinating and fun way of exploring Russia’s capital and her people. Go on….buy a ticket 🙂