In Moscow God moves in mysterious ways. This city serves up kindness and punishment in equal measure, constantly keeping you on your toes. 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.
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 to cheer fellow passengers with warm smiles and understanding nods, but I just seemed to frighten them or make 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.
The station doors are one of the most inexplicable examples of human thought that I have ever witnessed. These wooden beasts 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 you in the face, you could probably die. A few months ago 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 to open.
In London, when you go into the underground you put your ticket in for the gates to open, and you go through. Here, there are no gates––just gaps. But you have to buy a ticket and put it in, otherwise you trigger a censor and rods will shoot out and smash your legs. I once saw this happen to a man. He was trapped 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 get quite infectious and I realised something had to be done.
At the station 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 nice time on the metro. My wish was promptly granted.
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 probably the softest things 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 while donning 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.
J.W.D. Lewin is an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, studying French and Russian. He spent last year in Moscow, studying, teaching, translating for Human Rights Centre Memorial and reviewing art galleries for the Moscow Times. When he graduates he will no doubt return to Russia for round two.