Moscow is the Metro

You haven’t seen Moscow until you’ve taken the metro. Despite its need for modernization, the system is flawless. You can be almost anywhere in the city in 45 minutes. The stations are palaces. The metro is such a part of Moscow culture and aesthetics it is hard to imagine going there and not take it. Not so, however, for many government officials and Novye russkye who have taken to car culture to avoid the swarthy hordes that dwell underground.

Moscow Times editor Mark Teeter tells us that the descent into Moscow’s underworld can cause surprise even shock to these officials and New Russians. Take the chairman of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov for example, who one day decided to ditch his limo for a ride on the wild side of Moscow life. According to the Izvestia article Teeter cites, Mironov was

“shocked — shocked! — to discover that the metro was “overused.” The trip had not been at rush hour, yet a short ride on the dark blue line proved “more than enough” for the chairman to get the picture. “You get pressed up against the wall, and people tromp on your feet, not noticing that you’re the chairman of the Federation Council.”

Not noticing that you are the chairman of the Federation Council! Oh my word! How could such ingrates not know that!? I mean the Federation Council is such an important office in Russia . . .it provides council to the Federation . . . it . . . what the hell does it do again!?

I mean sweet mother of Jesus. As Teeter rightly notes, the real point of all this is elsewhere. “The first, clearly, is that Mironov could be shocked by what he saw — as good an illustration as you’ll find of the disconnect between government and governed. Being in power means never having to use the subway (among other things) ever again — and forgetting entirely what it is like.”

His follow up point is much more telling,

“Which is a shame, as the metro provides a sobering and invaluable sense of context. In a city chock full of pretend institutions — a pretend parliament, a pretend judiciary and now the Public Chamber, a great big pretend NGO — the Moscow metro is utterly real. It does a real job under really difficult circumstances and does it, for the most part, really well. And it has real problems, too, one of which is the second point here. Mironov correctly observed that the metro is overcrowded; what he didn’t observe (or admit to observing) is that in the view of many users it is overcrowded by the wrong crowd.” [Emphasis mine]

Yes the metro is overcrowded by the “wrong crowd” and this makes it a microcosm for how Moscow is divided by race/ethnicity and class. One of the things I noticed there is how there are virtually no old people in the center of the city. The humpbacked babushka, the symbol for the downtrodden of post-Soviet Russia, has been relegated the outskirts, only to pass the through the center by metro car or perekhod. After all, there is nothing for them in the center, and Luzhkov’s kiosk crackdown has made it harder for them to sell goods around the metro entrances. They rarely see the light until they are outside the kol’tso. The same could be said for Russia’s ethnic minorities. They have to pass through militsia document checks come above ground in the center. The only reason why Russia’s immigrant workers from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan find themselves in the center is as cheap labor for its hundreds of construction sites. Besides that they better not venture closer than Tyeplyi stan. It seems, the only unwashed beasts that get a free pass are the packs of stray dogs, who not only use the metro for transporation, but use it so well that they show the uncanny ability to perekhod!

But seriously, Moscow cannot be understood without taking the metro into large account. And Teeter’s conclusion is right on in this respect:

“The metro is not a metaphor for Moscow, the metro is Moscow, its present and its future. It is a permanent flash point, the no man’s land between two wary and untrusting cultures, a zone both must use every day and at close quarters. In it you see the great ethnic-nationality problem as it appears in real life: not the “swarth-enhanced” actors of the Rodina ad (throwing watermelon rinds in front of baby carriages) but many kinds of people trying to get around the city to make a living, all forced to do so in an ever-increasing proximity and at a rising level of discomfort.

Instead of closing down NGOs, State Duma deputies should each take a weekly subway ride and then strike a real blow for civil society by rendering the city’s underground society more civil: With more trains, more stations and more personnel in the system, its long-suffering, harried passengers would be more likely to tolerate each other better — first inside the metro and then above ground, in the Moscow the Duma members actually do see. And the Duma members would win, too. One reason Boris Yeltsin became a genuine popular hero here in the late 1980s was that people saw him coping as they did: “He takes the bus to work.” Has any Russian politician done the equivalent since — or even thought of it?”