From Russia With Love …. Part 12: Palaces for the People
If you walk everywhere in Moscow, however sunny the day or take a bus (trolley or otherwise) or a taxi all the time you are missing what in some ways is her biggest treat. It’s not her oldest and its certainly not her most expensive (on your pocket) but come to Moscow and miss out on the Metro and in my view you have missed the heart of the city. When we arrived we took the metro from Bellarusskaya to Tverskaya (though the stunningly beautiful Mayakovskaya is actually closer to our hotel it turns out) and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Despite leaving home at 05:00, despite the normal wear and tear of a 4 hour flight, despite being overwhelmed by trying to dredge the grey cells for some grain of the Russian I had learned all those years ago in school, the Russian I had read I instantly woke up and, I am sure, gawped like a simpleton at that first station. Talking to Sergey we quickly understood that this was not unique. In fact there are multiple stunning stations in Moscow. A little history research revealed that work commenced in 1934 on the first line (Red of course) followed by Dark Blue, Dark Green and Brown (the circle or ring line as it is ubiquetously known). All the lines have proper names but are generally coloquially referred to by their colour. They are like underground palaces with beautiful embellisment – here stained glass, there mosaics, there again stucco but look again and you see that these artworks are homages to the workers. They celebrate soldiers and sailors and airmen but also railworkers, guards, fieldworkers. The women are as revered as the men. Family is celebrated. They are, in my view works of exquisite beauty and further enhanced by their expansive nature – the tunnels wider than I, as a London Tube user these past several decades am used to by a factor of at least 3 or 4.
These stations, this metro is vast. It is deep, the escalators seem to go on and on and they are rapid, to cope with the 7-9million people who travel on the system every day. The trains (lovely rather retro looking and practical rather than luxurious) flash into the stations every 2 minutes at peak times and the longest wait we had was maybe 4 minutes at midnight which seemed a long way north of reasonable.
Like their ballet dancers, the Muscovite train drivers are point perfect. Many platforms have yellow arrows which if you stand on one will absolutely guarantee that you are by a door when the train stops. A male voice announces your arrival – the line, the station and immediately afterwards the next station, a female voice tells you when the train is departing, to mind the doors and where it is going next. And do mind the doors – they are heavy and they slam shut – I would not risk a last minute jump onto a Moscow Metro as so many do on the London Tube.
I shan’t harp on as though I am an expert, my experience is simply that, my experience. I would urge you to go and see for yourself. But I will share with you my favourite vignette. We had alighted by mistake at Ploshchad Revolyutsii and were trying to make it look as though we intended to be there. Taking pictures of the stunning bronzes, Two Brains was well disguised. I was standing, obviously foreign and effecting nonchalance in the way that only makes you look more self-conscious when my attention was drawn by people walking and without stopping nor even hesitating as they passed a bronze of a watchman and his dog each one polished the dogs nose. All of them. The very old, the middle aged, the young, the obviously well-heeled, the obviously less-so, every one stroked his nose. His very shiney nose from all that polishing. Then a father and his possibly 20 month old baby and babushka stopped. The infant wide eyed as first granny then daddy dutifully petted the dog. Then, held aloft, the child tentatively reached out, hands quivering, a look for half wonder-half terror in his young eyes he stroked the nose and then beamed and beamed and beamed as nothing tangible happened to him except that his daddy squozed him and nuzzled him and granny kissed him – because now he too will have the good luck that I have since discovered is imparted by this dog (or actually any one of four dogs all identical one on each platform and one each on either side of the main corridor). Did I stroke his nose? What do you think?
To me, and I have no documented evidence to bear this out, it is just my feeling having experienced these underground monoliths and read about their history, the metro was built, of course to ferry the workers, but as beauteous as can be so the workers were reminded as they went about their day that they were valued, celebrated, equal. These were Palaces for the People.
St Petersburg also has a stunning network of underground stations – smaller but still breathtaking. Theirs, though have firmly closing doors on the platforms so that the trains are isolated until stationary. A reflection on the number of bodies under trains according to one Muscovite friend. I guess we will see the idea adopted across the world (as we have on the Jubilee Line in London) before too long.
PS: A rather welcome echo of the old-regime is that you can travel anywhere on the network for a single price (30 rubles which translates today to 50 British pence, 63 French centimes or 87 US cents) meaning that if you live in the cheaper suburbs and work in the centre you are not paying a larger chunk of your wages in travel than those who can afford to live in the more expensive middle. Fair fares!
I have very happy memories of the Moscow metro in particular, from my visits under Communism. Except for the time when my friend, hoping to exit from one station – and not a cyrillic reader – attempted to go out via the entrance. Bells screamed, uniformed officials converged at a run and surrounded the poor fellow. I had already come out (the correct way) and so could not get through to intervene and explain his mistake! Fortunately, the situation somehow resolved itself without a prison term being imposed!
What a brilliant story and what a relief he wasn’t marched off to jail. Happily things are much more relaxed now though in the lead up to the parade in Red Square there was a heavy police presence but no more than you would expect in any other major city putting on a show (i.e London 2012) 🙂