Fingers chopped off and legs smashed in: The Moscow Metro
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.