… although most of the ‘more’ will be about the Metro. I must have spent half my visiting time underground. You know me.
* * * * *
Skyscanner imagines Russia to be one of the world’s rudest countries, and my late April arrival at Sheremetyevo International coincided with much east-west mud slinging over unrest in the Ukraine. I expected a long once over from airport security and at least an occasional stony look in Moscow when I had to show the giveaway navy blue of my USA passport.
Shows how much Skyscanner and I knew. Airport security as much as yawned at my passport, and Muscovites were perfectly friendly. A good Samaritan met on the Aeroexpress even walked me to the Belorusskaya terminal to help me buy a Тройка IC card for the Metro. I encountered only one instance of what some call ‘Russian gruffness,’ when I followed a rail station Information sign to a cubbyhole peopled by three grouchy careerists who looked like someone had just made off with the office coffee maker. They were somewhat less than ambassadorial. I’ll leave it at that.
My fumble-lipped Vy govorite po-angliyski? often elicited self-conscious giggles from the young, as if I were a TV personality polling random passersby with Russian Trivial Pursuit questions. Many of the young did know some English, but seemed embarrassed to have forgotten so much of a language they rarely used.
* * * * *
The Moscow Metro may be justly billed as an underground museum, but it is an extraordinarily busy museum, and about as frivolous and ornamental as a defibrillator. One native dismissed winter drives in her often snowbound city as nearly impossible, and referred to the subway as a ‘lifeline.’ I didn’t stand on a bench and try to tally up riders-per-square-yard, but warn tourists to expect throngs only slightly less formidable than those found in some Asian cities, unless visiting early on a weekend morning.
The best shot I didn’t take was of colossal crowds queuing at the escalators. I never rode a Moscow train as crowded as those I squeegeed into in Seoul and Shanghai, but the masses I saw milling before the escalators beat any glimpsed in Asia. Some of those deep, deep stations doubled as bomb shelters in World War II; only a masochist would want to climb stairs. Twice, I saw station agents chaperone women with small children to the head of the queue, so the little ones wouldn’t be smothered or stepped on in the crowd.
* * * * *
The underground museum is also sorely in need of a house call from Extreme Makeover. Tourists can expect to train wondering eyes at the sleek stainless steel curves of the Mayakovskaya station and the baroque grandeur of Komsomolskaya, but also will see plenty of caked-in grime, stained and buckled wood grain plastic panels, discolored stone work and other signs of neglect. The interiors of the crate-like older metro cars look like they’ve seen steady service since the Battle of Stalingrad (although I still might rate them a notch ahead of the worst of the Muni bus fleet in San Francisco).
Still: those old crates got the job done. I didn’t bring a stopwatch, but would swear that some morning headways were under a minute. “Brutally efficient” was the unoriginal phrase that occurred to me often while underground.
* * * * *
Old fashioned chivalry survives in Moscow; I saw several young men stand to offer seats to elderly passengers. Alas, that chivalry does not extend to the escalator queue. Leave a foot in front of you, and someone will step into it. Nothing personal.
* * * * *
And now, on to some more subjective impressions. A few minutes on DuckDuckGo will likely turn up blogs by polyglot Russian Studies PhDs who know Moscow inside and out. I spent all of five days there, and still can’t say anything tougher than спасибо without choking.
That said, I’m entitled to a newcomer’s impressions.
Moscow felt like a frequently grim city striving for cheerfulness. I boned up on my post-Gorbachev recent events before flying in, and winced when reading of how far the economy had sunk in the Yeltsin era. It’s hard to think of a country that has endured more: in Lenin’s Red Terror, in Stalin’s gulags, in the deaths of tens of millions in the second World War, in the suffocating comatosity of Brezhnev’s tenure and then once more under the mercurial Yeltsin, when ordinary Muscovites hawked cigarettes at Metro stations to supplement paychecks decimated by 245% inflation, and some pensioners begged in the street so they wouldn’t starve.¹
I sensed the weary cynicism that must be felt by many in this country of They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work. One local told me that Russia can feel like a prison, if only because of the salaries. The average is $800 to $900 a month USD; how merrily can a vacationing Russian cavort on that sum while abroad in, say, Sweden, where a typical worker earns as much in a little over a week? The well-connected raked in a mint when the USSR imploded and can ride their limos in Monaco, but the average working stiff? The internet liberates Russians to drink in all the sights of a world they’ll never visit, and read detailed accounts of how they’ve been cheated.
But: the sun still rises for all — a true Communist, that sun! — and the brutal winters end eventually, and life still spares an occasional free day, even if you’re working two jobs to get by. You can stroll Red Square with your family, take your kids into the Ploschad Revolutsii metro to rub the nose of the dog for good luck, watch the artists and musicians on the Arbat. Maybe, just maybe, your country’s ship will come in eventually, and someone besides the oligarchs will be able to get on board.¹ Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia, pgs. 516-517. Think I make this stuff up, do you?