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Fingers chopped off and legs smashed in: The Moscow Metro

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Joel Lewin


In Moscow God moves in mysterious ways. This city serves up unexpected kindness and punishment in equal measure, constantly keeping you on your toes. Nowhere embodies this schizophrenia better than the metro

In Moscow, every­day life de­presses, de­lights and con­fuses me.  In this city of con­trasts, Ladas and Lim­ou­sines bounce to­gether, bru­tal grey con­crete blocks stand proudly be­side charm­ing onion dome churches and I am for­ever won­der­ing how peo­ple can be so cruel and so kind. Such op­po­sites are thrown into par­tic­u­larly stark re­lief in the metro, where starv­ing beg­gars swarm through gilded cav­erns.

un­der­ground Palaces for the pro­le­tariat

Stalin began the metro pro­ject in 1932, promis­ing spec­tac­u­lar sta­tions that would serve as 'un­der­ground palaces for the pro­le­tariat.' Com­muters are blessed with chan­de­liers, mo­saics, stat­ues and vast halls lined with bronze. The metro is a de­light to be­hold. How­ever, judg­ing from the hyp­no­tis­ing pro­ces­sion of long, life­less faces on the es­ca­la­tors, the nov­elty of these tem­ples has worn thin. The mo­ros­ity is at times over­whelm­ing. I used to try and cheer fel­low pas­sen­gers with warm smiles and un­der­stand­ing nods but this just fright­ened them or made them angry. Pas­sen­gers push pas­sen­gers around. They knock each other over and hurt each other with­out apol­o­gis­ing. The lifeblood of the city surges through these filthy tun­nels and sweeps away all in its path. Some­times this lifeblood is so sexy that I shed tears of lust.

Like all large metro sys­tems, it seems that the Moscow metro is pop­u­lated by car­i­ca­tures. I sup­pose that is the de­fault ob­ser­va­tion made by a brain in a densely pop­u­lated place of pass­ing. The eyes are over­whelmed by so many fleet­ing im­ages that the mind may only re­tain the truly grotesque ones. The reti­nas are burned with im­ages of boils and birth­marks leav­ing a lin­ger­ing sense of some­thing awful.

The metro ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cen­tu­ates the ex­tremes of human emo­tion. A flash of poor eti­quette - a push or a scowl - in­spires ex­plo­sions of rage. A scrap of ten­der­ness turns my heart into a quiv­er­ing jelly. Seven mil­lion peo­ple use the metro every­day. This tidal wave of con­scious­ness leaves a residue of ran­cour and rap­ture. Se­creted emo­tions cling to the tun­nels and ag­i­tate the spir­its of those who come after. You can­not be calm on the metro.

The sta­tion doors are one of the most in­ex­plic­a­ble ex­am­ples of human thought I have ever wit­nessed. The mon­strosi­ties weigh 200 kilos and swing freely on their hinges. They swing so fast and hard that you have to time your entry just right to avoid a bru­tal im­pact. If one hit your face, you would be bro­ken and could prob­a­bly die. In 2011 a girl got her fin­ger cut off. When it’s windy, old peo­ple, chil­dren and small peo­ple get trapped in­side be­cause the doors are too heavy for them.

In the rest of Eu­rope, when en­ter­ing the metro you put your ticket in, the gates open and through you go. In Moscow, there are no gates- just gaps. But you have to buy a ticket and put it in, be­cause oth­er­wise you trig­ger a cen­sor and rods shoot out and smash your legs. I saw it hap­pen to a man once and he was trapped in be­tween the rods in agony until the guard came over to re­lease him. The logic is sim­ple- tempt peo­ple into wrong doing so you can pun­ish them. This cru­elty and gloom can re­ally get quite in­fec­tious and I re­alised some­thing had to be done. At Rev­o­lu­tion Square (Ploshchad Rev­o­lut­sii) the  plat­forms are lined with a bizarre array of bronze stat­ues. A for­tu­nate bronze hound is sin­gled out for spe­cial at­ten­tion. Pass­ing com­muters grope him for good luck, rub­bing their claws on his nose and paws so that these parts gleam brightly. In No­vem­ber I fon­dled the hound and wished for a pleasant time on the metro. My wish was promptly granted.

Now my days pass in a warm furry haze

The first time I en­coun­tered a shuba (Russ­ian fur coat), I thought a bear had been re­leased into the metro. A great shim­mer­ing mass of fur wad­dled through the crowd ahead of me and onto a train. I gave chase, and when the crea­ture turned I saw not a bear, but a beau­ti­ful fur coat with a lady in­side it. The shubas soon bred, and by De­cem­ber Moscow was full of them. Travel on the metro be­came a sen­sual feast.

Shubas are the soft­est thing I have ever had the good for­tune to touch, and in rush hour op­por­tu­ni­ties for touch­ing are ample. As peo­ple crush into the car­riage I care­fully ma­noeu­vre to stand next to a shuba and rel­ish the silk­i­ness. Drop­ping some­thing on the floor of­fers the chance to dis­cretely rub your face down the whole length of a shuba, and then back up again. But more im­por­tantly the an­nual ap­pear­ance of the shuba changes the way peo­ple treat each other. The no­to­ri­ously cruel Russ­ian babushkas (old ladies) be­come re­mark­ably docile the mo­ment they don a fur coat. No more barg­ing and thrust­ing in tight places. No more snarling. The amor­phous masses gen­tly bump into each other and no­body seems to mind.

So now my metro jour­neys pass in a warm furry haze. The dan­ger and the gloom are still there, but they’re easy to ig­nore when you feel this happy.

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