Taras Grescoe on Subterranean Gulag Baroque


Grescoe travels the paradoxes of history and art in the Moscow metro @ World Hum.

I‘d come to Moscow not only to see the hell emerging on its streets but also to see the paradise beneath them—and because no straphanger’s round-the-world journey would be complete without a trip to the legendary Moscow underground. New York’s subway has grit, London’s Tube has history, and Paris’s Métropolitain has glamour. But Moscow’s Metro, I’d been told, had something I’d never seen in an urban transit system: full-on, unabashed splendor.

I knew I would need a guide to this sprawling museum. Anastasia, in her late twenties, fluent in English and French, had volunteered to play the docent, and we’d arranged to meet at the terrace of a café surrounded by musical conservatories, a ten-minute walk from the Kremlin gates.

I apologized for arriving late. “You took taxi?” she said. “From now on, take Metro. Is fastest. With Metro, you can be anywhere in Moscow in thirty minutes. When you take car, you can never be sure.”
The tour began at Komsomolskaya station. After pausing to applaud a sloppily dressed string quintet’s precisely rendered version of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, we followed the crowds to a line in front of a ticket booth in a high-ceilinged vestibule. As my turn approached, Anastasia whispered a magic incantation into my ear; I repeated it, and the woman behind the glass handed me a cardboard ticket.

“Diesyet bileti,” ten tickets, is the “Open, Sesame” that unlocks the gates to Moscow.

Every Metro station, explained Anastasia as she strode ahead of me, shares a few common features. First, you will encounter banks of turnstiles, inevitably overseen by grim-faced women in late middle age. When things are quiet, these uniformed babushkas sit in plexiglass booths doing the Cyrillic version of word-search puzzles. When rush hours approach, they run about like fierce little dogs, blowing their whistles at fare skippers and rule breakers. (We watched as one such attendant yelled, in vain, at a long- haired woman in flower-print bell-bottoms and a matching linen jacket who strode willfully through the gates, preceded by a giant black poodle.)

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