The end of a love affair

I have loved metro systems as long as I can remember.  Those sleek underground trains that rumble through the basements of big cities.  I love the fact that every metro is different – each with its own interpretation of efficient people-moving through functional design,  public service announcements and stick figure diagrams.  I love the metro maps with colour-coded lines, and the fact that in most cities, once you are in the subway tunnel you are free to chop and change and jump on any train racing to different parts of the city.  The best parts of the metro is the wait on the platform – staring down the black tunnel, the anticipation, beginning to feel a breeze of stale air, and then the sound of the carriages reverberating in the tunnel, and small beams of headlights racing towards you until the train arrives with a gale of wind and the whine of brakes, spilling commuters out as new ones jump in.  I love the fact that the subway in New York is a steam-punk rattling  wonder, with decorative tiles around the names of the stations, and that it differs so much from space-age Washington subway, which is more like something out of a silver-clad futurist movie.  Whenever I travel I make sure I take a ride on the local metro to get a feel for  the local lifestyle, and the city’s very own inimitable metro styling.  If I was fabulously rich I would do a tour of the world’s metros, taking millions of photos along the way.

Spending the last four days in Moscow, though, I very nearly met the end of my metro love affair.  The metro in Moscow is serious stuff – a complex network of multi-level tunnels that act as the veins and arteries of Moscow, pumping the 11 million inhabitants to their various destinations.  The Moscow metro  is not optional – its a necessity of life.  The city is huge and sprawling, and traffic in the metropolis is a nightmare.  The only conceivable way of getting anywhere is by descending to the depths on that long escalator and joining the grey masses underground.  So that is what we did when in Moscow – we spent a good deal of time navigating the metro to get to our various concerts and tourist stops.  The crowds down there are well-behaved, the trains come every 30 seconds or so.  All of the signage is in Cyrillic, which was daunting at first, and as you stand on the escalators you are subjected to recordings of community service announcements recorded by a friendly Russian lady: about house fires and how they start, about how to be considerate of your neighbor, of the time of year and the corresponding Russian tradition.  It’s all good. But at some point, after spending your second hour down there that day, you can’t help thinking of parallels with moles, or ants, or other tunnel dwelling hoards that see daylight rarely.

 Built as palaces of culture for the masses during the Soviet era, many of the metro stops are decorated with soviet realist sculpture – each station with its own unique treatment.  Similarly to St Petersburg, it is not unusual to step off the train into a large hall with brassy chandeliers above head, or stone columns carved with images of hammers and sickles, children dressed as red pioneers, or soviet advancements of technology.  Some of the stations have huge backlit stained glass windows sporting art nouveau flowers and red stars.  Others  had over sized bronze models of women and children as revolutionary fighters sporting Kalashnikovs.  I took a few photos of some of the stations but didn’t go crazy – mainly because a slight feeling of claustrophobia and unease that I had, on account of the crowds around me, security cameras and the occasional militia man with a dog parading past.  It was partly also a feeling of distaste mixed with awe, as I looked at art works so obviously created for mass brainwashing, and as much as I like to laugh and wonder at the kitsch of soviet propaganda, the sheer scale and efficiency of the metro system and its ideological dressing was frightening. 

My trip to Moscow also involved some above-ground touring as well – including singing at the Latvian embassy with the ambassador in attendance, a visit to the classic Tretyakov gallery and the obligatory red square and tour of St Basil’s cathedral.  My dilemma about seeing the embalmed Lenin was solved for me, as apparently he is freshening up, and only open to the public some time in April.  Can’t say I was too disappointed though, because with the metro visits I certainly got more than enough soviet kitsch for one visit.

All locked up and not accepting visitors.  Vladimir Ilyich's tomb.

  Fancy a matrioshka doll?  Or three?

3 Responses so far.

  1. Strange that Michaelangelo did not consider a giant red treaded tractor for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? I will not be showing Roboboy that one or he will be proposing a similar installation for his bedroom.
    Looks like you had an interesting trip, and when have you been to New York by the way? All this intercontinental travel is definitely getting me back for gratuitous summer beach photos!

  2. Mook says:

    Hey B-girl :) Yes, parading my trip to sub-zero red square is definitely meant to make me feel better about not being at the beach... I know which one I would choose if given the option!
    Jem and I were in New York in 2001 BC (as in, "Before Children"), we loved it. We stayed with a totally barmy Latvian pensioner in a highrise in Manhattan and spent those few days eating bagels and cream cheese and feeding squirrels in Central Park :)

  3. Alex says:

    I love the metro systems in Europe and the US too!! They are such rich historical time capsules, super efficient and cheap. Your description of the Moscow metro reminds me of Kyiv: there each station is like an elaborate art gallery, decorated lavishly with the theme of the location and cultural significance of the area. I also got a big kick out of hearing the station announcements as it was the first time I'd heard Ukrainian spoken in an official capacity!

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