Mosc-Wow: An Exploration Above and Below Ground
Eleven time zones and two continents. Nearly 143 million people. Forests of spruce, pine, and birch trees. Mountains. Fathomless lakes. Deserts and snowy steppes. The Russian Federation is all of this. So it might seem strange to concentrate on just one city in a country that spreads across approximately 6.6 million square miles. But nearly a quarter of its population lives in urban areas, and in a country so vast, sometimes time and money only allows for a taste, a nibble.
Let’s start below ground, deep within the earth under the city of Moscow, where more than 9,000 Metro trains run along 12 lines that connect some 170 stations.
It’s a Monday, and we’re standing on the platform at the Komsomolskaya station on the Kol’tsevaya line. We’ve hustled down the escalators and joined the Muscovites on their daily commute. There are as many as 10.4 million people living in the city above us (compare this to 8.3 million in New York City), and more than 7 million of them ride the Metro during the week.
During rush hour, we can expect to wait no longer than two or three minutes for a train. But we won’t get on just yet. We’ll wait for the next car, or the one after that. We’ll wander around the station for a bit, which, for the cost of our subway tickets (22 rubles each, or about 75 cents), will turn out to be an inexpensive museum. We’ll breathe out and in. Each city’s subway has its own unique smells, and this one has undertones of robust men’s cologne and exhaled smoke from cigarettes puffed above ground. If we’re lucky, we’ll catch sight of a painted train.
The Metro was first named in honor of Lazar Kaganovich, one of Josef Stalin’s key advisers who turned out to be an important figure in the construction project (it was subsequently renamed in honor of Lenin). Stalin wanted to build a “people’s palace”, a living art museum accessible to every citizen.
And when we glance upward, it does feel palatial. Corinthian marble columns marble reach to the ceiling. Between the elegant chandeliers, a series of mosaics consisting of colored glass, marble, and granite present a pictorial timeline of Russia’s fight for freedom and independence. As the series progresses, Jesus becomes progressively smaller and Lenin bigger.
It’s time to board one of the trains. We’ll hop off at the Novoslobodskaya station, also on the Kolt’sevaya line, where we’ll find 32 stained glass panels, each framed in brass. They are at eye level, but they are unscathed and intact. We’ll consider that a moment. Thousands of commuters and no broken glass. No graffiti.
As with most architectural wonders, we must consider the labor and effort that went into it. Just as the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, and our own transcontinental railroad were built on the backs of unpaid and/or severely underpaid workers, there are reports that this transportation system was built in part by German POWs and by youth brigades that may or may not have been voluntary. So as we admire what surrounds us, we pay silent tribute to those who built it.
We can’t leave the Metro without seeing the Ploshchad Revolyutsii station at Revolution Square. There we will be greeted by 72 bronze sculptures depicting the people of the Soviet Union. Soldiers, aviators, farmers, athletes, writers, industrial workers, and school children. We’ll spot commuters rubbing the nose of the statue of a hunter and his dog, hoping for riches.
In search of fresh air, we’ll take the Arbatkso-Pokrovskaya Line to the Izmailovskaya station. Before we exit, we’ll pause upstairs. Passengers hurry and hustle, intent on making it to their destinations. It can seem impersonal and cold. But we’ll stand still and observe for a few moments. Among the throngs of people, we’ll see an older lady with a large rollie piece of luggage picking her way up the staircase, one step at a time. We’ll vow to go back through the turnstile and help her if no one else does. And then, as we consider how to do this with our nonexistent handle on the Russian language, a twenty-something male will run up the staircase, see her struggling, and stop. He’ll lift the luggage, heft it up the steps, and deposit it at the foot of the staircase. He’ll look back at her, and motion toward the luggage with one hand, as if to say, Done.
And in that brief interchange, we’ll bear witness to a lovely moment of humanity.
We emerge from the station at Izmailovo Park, one of the largest urban parks in the eastern pocket of Moscow.
It’s fall, and the air is crisp and cold. The birch trees offer up a contrast of skinny, white trunks and orange, yellow, and green leaves. Walking paths snake through the pine and birch groves. Mothers pad along behind toddlers who bumble along the paved paths in several layers of clothing. Businessmen take pensive strolls. Bikers pedal down the trails.
In the early 1600s, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich built a model economy at Izmailovo. Over the course of a summer, hundreds of peasant families were relocated to the site. Its parks and gardens boasted such exotic crops as watermelons, cotton, and grapes. Tsar Peter the Great also spent time here during his youth, sailing around the park’s water reservoir.
Only some of the amusement park attractions are open in the colder months of fall and winter. Even though the ride on the Ferris wheel costs about three times more than the Metro ticket we bought earlier (about $2.50) it does afford a beautiful panoramic of the city.
Just before we head back to our room at the Hotel Izmaylovo Vega, we’ll dip into the nearby Izmailovo Market, where we can buy anything from leather pants to matryoshka nesting dolls to piroshki and beer to go.
Tomorrow we’ll go on a guided tour* and stand humbled before the Red Square and the Kremlin. Today’s excursions above and below ground were just a taste of what the city has to offer. But the experience is enough to have us come up with a new name for the city.
*For a fantastic tour led by a freelance guide, contact Anatoliy Lichkin at 79037429599 or firstname.lastname@example.org.