Metro Zombies

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November 9th 2009
Published: November 9th 2009
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The Moscow metro (underground / subway) takes up so much of my life here, represents such a vast cross-section of society and inspires such a mind-boggling mixture of awe, respect, pity, frustration, fury and disgust that it deserves, at the least, a mention.

Approaching a metro station you must first walk past an area of crappy food stands selling such delightful specialities as dog, cat and rat shawarma, grease dripping down the mounds of meat and collecting at the bottom in pools while the white flesh being roasted pulsates with fat as it revolves next to the grill. Most of these places have a single tall circular table next to them with a diameter of perhaps three feet where at any time of the day, be it eight in the morning or eleven at night, you will see people knocking back beers. In the morning they will often be suited petty businesspeople on their way to work, stopping for a quick kebab, hot dog or pie and a "Baltika" or "Siberian Crown" to help them face the day ahead.

Next comes the descent into the subway tunnel. There are various obstacles to overcome at this stage. Often you must first wade through clouds of smoke pouring from the rubbish bins that stand on either side of the steps leading underground. They are the traditional place for metro users to throw their still-burning cigarettes before entering. Crowds coming up the other way are another problem (I should note here that an average of seven million people ride the metro every day, many times more than it was designed for, so overcrowding is severe). Black men handing out flyers for services that you never will and never would need are also a hazard (note: this is the only place in Russia you will see a black person. What they do when they are not here I have no idea). Pitiable babushkas (grandmothers), almost as wide as they are tall, doing their best to totter down to the platform while swinging a bag about a third of their own size in each hand, are perhaps the most difficult obstacles to bypass at this stage of the gauntlet. They move at an agonisingly slow pace and never in a straight line, meaning that you almost end up hopping from foot to foot as you attempt to predict their trajectory and understand where a gap will appear between it and the crowds coming the other way. And just as you think you've done it the black guy may still jump into your path and offer you discount tickets to a balsamic vinegar tasting event.

Though I will come back to the subject of babushkas more than once, for they are not always all that they seem, it is here worth remarking on the fact that in London you simply do not see people of this age and frailty using public transport on their own. In Moscow, however, they are among the metro's most numerous patrons. Whereas in London most elderly people get looked after (whether by relatives or in a care home) and never have to take public transport on their own, it seems that here many families simply do not have the means or the time to provide such care. The average monthly wage is US$400, about the same cost as the cheapest single room you can rent in an apartment. Food, clothes, everything is expensive. People have to work ridiculous hours for very little reward. Pensions are not enough to live off and drive many elderly people to homelessness and begging. Even in the depths of winter you see them plowing through the snow being driven horizontally into their faces on their way to pick up the cheapest loaf of bread or collect their meager pension money from the other side of town.

Babushkas, since right now I am not using the metro and am therefore in my right mind and not being infuriated by you barging me out of the way, I salute you.

On your way down the steps you will often pass one or several heart-rendingly desperate beggars. I will describe some of these types beginning with the most prevalent. Seen so often as to be almost unbelievable, there are the young men missing both their arms. Rumour has it that they are people who owed money to the mafia and as punishment had their limbs chopped off and sent to beg in the metro tunnels to repay their debts. Sometimes though, if I have the audacity to glance at them for more than a few seconds, I fancy I can see a bulge around their stomachs where their arms are hidden under their shirts. There are the men and women who stand all day holding a sign saying "Help me please - my child is dying" or "Help me please - I need bread." There are legless veterans of the war in Chechnya, now abandoned by the government they served and left to live off other people's pity. There are the elderly women who spend their lives prostrated with a crucifix on a necklace hanging visibly on the ground in front of them. There are the elderly women, white as ghosts, exhausted and on the verge of collapse who sing (or rather screech) in the metro tunnels all day long. Their song is so excruciating that it makes my face involuntarily screw itself into a ball but so pitiable as to make one's heart bleed.

Less depressing inhabitants of the central Moscow underground tunnels include a variety of fairly talented musicians and, just before the swinging doors which I will mention in the next paragraph, rows of babushkas selling everything from fruit and veg to puppies and kittens to gigantic purple balloons.

Once into the subway tunnel you meet the first of several cunning booby traps that attempt to impede your progress towards the platform: the swinging doors that lead to the ticket
Way out to the townWay out to the townWay out to the town

During the winter months I come to think of it as meaning "way out of the darkest corner of Lucifer's realm"
barriers. Around them the most peculiar phenomenon occurs, and one that no one I have spoken to has been able to explain: wind collects there. In some stations the blast is so strong that you can barely walk against it but it surrounds the metal and glass doors by a radius of less than a metre and does not disappear at the rare moments when they are stationary.

In Moscow it is not the custom to hold doors open for anyone else. This aspect of impoliteness is unusual because on the trains themselves people behave in a chivalrous manner almost completely unheard of in Britain, but I will come to that later. Now these doors are pretty heavy things and when someone who has just gone through lets go of it and the wind catches it in the wrong way it can swing back almost 360 degrees at a speed that would literally be enough to knock out an elephant or brain a person unfortunate enough to be about to enter either by this door or the one to its left. When entering, if the station you are using has a particularly bad wind trap, you must either wait for the door to complete its swing before going through yourself or dive forward and make sure you get hold of it before the other person lets go.

Next you must push your way through the crowds and jump over the packs of stray dogs before you can brave the fiendishly designed ticket barriers. Whoever created them decided, for whatever reason, to make it so that if you run, walk quickly or even vault over them without passing your ticket through, they play a very loud, very annoying and very high-pitched tune. At the same time two poles shoot out from either side, too slow to impede the runner or vaulter but at exactly the correct height and timing to stab a man right where it hurts, from either side, if you merely passed your ticket in the wrong way, did not notice that it had not registered and continued strolling through.

There is a strange species of babushka who lives next to these ticket barriers. I will take a moment to describe her now because she looks identical at every exit and entrance to all 177 metro stations in the city. She lives in a tiny box about two metres tall with a floor of less than one square metre. The walls are largely clear plastic so she can watch the people going through the ticket barriers. She wears a blue uniform vaguely reminiscent of that of the militsia. She is in her mid fifties, extremely fat and has short grey hair. Her face is set in such a robotic scowl that you know she has never smiled. Her job is to watch the people going through the barriers. Every time you enter or exit the metro you hear that loud, high-pitched tune at least once as someone enters without paying but this babushka is too old and overweight to do anything about it. Once in a blue moon, however, she is armed with a whistle which she blows at the offender from within her box. I have seen perfectly respectable-looking mothers instructing their infants on the correct method for jumping the barriers while the ever-present watcher looks on from her box without flinching.

Here I salute you, ticket barrier-watching babushka, because I am not currently in the metro, am not attempting to reason with your blind bitterness and get you to let me take my bike through, am therefore in my right mind and able to appreciate that you put up with a mesmerisingly boring and soul-destroyingly pointless job for around $350 a month.

After the ticket barriers you must descend the escalators to the platform. This is not always as easy as it sounds, depending on the station, the time of day and the time of year. Unlike the English, Russians rarely form orderly queues. Instead what happens can be something like a rugby scrum if very few people are involved or an incredibly slow stampede if there are many. Here I will describe the usual situation at a central station at rush hour in winter when many more people use the metro because of snow and ice on the roads. In short, you have hundreds of people trying to file into a narrow space, all of them in a terrible rush to get to work and all of them incredibly annoyed at the other objects (human beings) that are getting in their way. Some dodge, duck and dart their way to the front if the opportunity arises, others (often babushkas) swing their bags and use their elbows to force people out of their way while still others, trying to retain some pretense of calm amid the chaos, merely shuffle forward in a straight line. Usually, the overall visible effect of this is that of a crowd packed so closely together that they are unable to move forward more than a few inches with every step, shifting from foot to foot in a manner that makes them sway like a crowd of ridiculously slow zombies in a 1970s Romero film. I have seen such a crowd filling a 30-foot wide corridor from wall to wall and stretching back a hundred feet. If the barriers of this mass of people are formed by walls, there is very little chance of pushing to the front. If, however, there are merely metal railings it is very easy to bypass a large section of the "queue", jump the railings and end up fairly near the front. I do this almost every day when I am in a rush.

When you are near the top of the escalator the real pushing and shoving begins. People (often babushkas) throw you out of the way to beat you onto the moving stairs. I would at least understand if they were going to run down the escalators on the left, but often they just squeeze their way into the stationary file of people standing on the right or, worse still, simply stand on the left and block everyone else's way. I have seen screaming and fighting at this stage of the metro assault course.

The journey down the escalators, sometimes up to five minutes to reach the world's deepest metro stations-cum nuclear fallout bunkers, affords you a moment of relative peace when it is almost possible to blot out from your mind the carnage you have just forced your way through and that which is yet to come.

Occasionally one of the escalators is unmoving and being cleaned by the women who work 72-hour shifts keeping them, the trains, the platforms, the rails and everywhere else in this underground kingdom one hundred per cent pristine. It is rare to see so much as a scrap of paper lying on the floor, partly due to their work but also because Muscovites really respect the cleanliness of their metro system. I have never observed anyone drop any litter or eat any food in the metro, although drinking beer is fairly common. The only instances of littering I can think of are the occasional person who leaves their beer bottle rolling around the floor of a train carriage.

At the bottom of the escalators lives an equally pointless babushka as at the top. The two differ only in their functions - in terms of appearance they are exactly the same. This one lives in the same box, never leaving its confines and constantly watching the escalators. The only feature inside the box is a shelf with three buttons on it. Each one stops or starts one of the escalators and the sole reason for this babushka's existence in the metro is to push one of these buttons when the metro is getting crowded enough for an extra escalator to be needed, then again when there are less people around and one can be shut down.

Once off the escalator you find yourself in a hall with a platform on either side. Even in the outskirts the stations are aesthetically pleasing but in the centre they are nothing short of magnificent. I cannot imagine that any other country's underground network can rival the stained glass of Novoslobodskaya, the exquisite murals at Kievskaya, the enormous ornate chandeliers at Komsomolskaya or Ploshchad Revolyutsii's row upon row of statues whose hands you will usually see people stop and clasp. The artwork and architecture at these and countless others is more worthy of a cathedral than a metro station.

The Moscow metro is much easier to navigate than the London Tube so there are usually no problems working out which platform you need to use or which station you need to transfer to. If you do have problems and it is not rush hour at a busy station, almost anyone will happily point you in the right direction, often with a look of urgency on their face as if they are dealing with a matter of extreme importance. Many will even take the time to walk you to your destination or come running after you if they see you turn the wrong way.

The metro map is infinitely clearer than the twisted mess of lines criss-crossing, looping and doubling back on themselves that is the London underground plan. Moscow's is simply a circular line with eight others cutting across it. Looking at it, you can immediately understand the quickest way of getting from point A to B.

The trains themselves are mind-blowingly efficient. In over a year spent in Moscow and averaging at least a couple of hours per day on the metro, I can count the number of times when I have had to wait for longer than five minutes on the fingers of one hand. Usually two minutes is about the maximum. And, whereas in the London Tube there are announcements to inform passengers about the rare occasions when the lines are actually working, I have never seen a single Moscow metro line down.

Once in the hall, the main thing to worry about is the militsia. Almost all the ex-pats I know will tell you that they feel safer in Moscow than in their home town, be it London, New York or Sydney, and that the only real thing to worry about here in terms of your own safety is the militsia. In any one station at any time there will be an average of ten of these shaven-headed thugs, usually prowling the length of the platforms in bands of five. Anyone they suspect of being a foreigner will be stopped and asked to produce their passport and Moscow registration in the hope that these documents are not forthcoming and an opportunity for a bribe will therefore arise. When stopping you they even have the audacity to salute you as if both parties did not already know exactly what was going on. Of course, the darker your skin the more often you will be stopped. Who can blame them, however, when their salaries are barely more than the cost of renting a room?

I must say that a year of heavy metro usage had a serious effect on my character and state of mind, not so much because of the hellish conditions within the carriages themselves but more because of the overcrowding on these platforms. In particular the "queuing" where people push, shove and prod you and the constant blocking of your path as someone cuts across you as you walk, forcing you to jolt to a halt or almost trip over them, these two things which at first I found hilarious gradually lost their humour and ended up embittering me to the point where I began deliberately doing the same to other people and muttering expletives under my breath at anyone who did it to me.

On the platform is where all hell can really break loose. I will here describe a series of events that occurred every morning at rush hour for six months during winter when I was living at Begovaya on the purple line, notorious for its overcrowding even by Moscow's standards.

You arrive at a platform to find crowds of people already jostling for space as near as possible to the edge, every one of them hoping against hope that the train will stop so that a set of doors opens directly in front of them. The blast of the approaching train echoes out of the darkness of the tunnel and people tense up and begin to look nervous. As it flies past the platform hundreds of pairs of eyes try to scan the windows to see what the situation is like inside.

The train stops. The doors open. To everyone's horror there is apparently not a square inch of spare space inside. The doors have slid back to reveal a solid wall of people, the nearest (those who had been getting crushed against the doors during the train's journey) now clinging to whatever they can find in an attempt to avoid bursting out onto the platform.

A few people lucky enough to have been waiting in the right position (in front of where the doors of a marginally less packed carriage happen to be when the train stops) find a place. The others can be divided into two groups - "The Meek" and "The Desperate." While The Meek stay behind on the platform cursing and glancing at their watches, The Desperate (I am a member of this group) scrum down as if in a rugby game and drive themselves full force into the wall of people standing in the open carriage doors. This is met by cries, yells, insults and expletives from those already within. The tactic gains you a place in the carriage eighty per cent of the time. The other twenty per cent it is simply too crowded and the people cannot be driven back at all. Once inside everyone is crushed up against everyone else, unable to move, chest pressed against chest and sweating into one another's clothes. The smell can be horrific, particularly if you are next to someone who has not washed or who reeks of vodka, stale tobacco or worse, urine.

You can judge how full a carriage is by how much you fall over when the driver unexpectedly slams on the breaks. If it's empty and you are not holding onto one of the sweaty and grime-encrusted metal bars, you will go flying. If it's relatively packed then the mass of bodies will just sway slightly. On the worst days when I have ridden the metro nobody has moved an inch.

Once you are in, or sometimes before you have a chance to get in, the doors slam shut. Then they open again. Then shut. then open. Then shut. I have seen this process go on for over a minute, although sometimes it happens once or twice or not at all. If the carriage is not too packed, latecomers may grab the doors, even if they only open by a few inches, and try to pull them apart to get on the train. I have even seen an enormous burly skinhead rush up to the train and wrench the closed doors apart with his bare hands. Occasionally people who do this sort of thing get their clothing or bags trapped in the slamming doors and cannot move away until the train stops at the next station. Usually it is the back of their coat that gets caught so they have to stand embarrassedly next to the doors but facing away from them, twiddling their thumbs and staring at their feet to avoid looking into the faces of everyone else who is standing near the doors.

Inside the trains are, thankfully, much more spacious than those on the London metro. It is, however, clear that while a lot of effort has been put in to ensure their smooth operation, none has been made to make them aesthetically pleasing. The seats are brown plastic and often torn or stained. The floor is also brown. The walls are beige. The windows have ages-old graffitis scratched onto them. Above the doors colourful stickers advertise the sale of university degrees, driving licenses and Moscow registration for foreigners. They are not fakes: the money goes to the university as a bribe to issue you a real degree, supplementing the income of the teachers and lecturers who earn a mere two or three hundred pounds a month. Occasionally you will see a young and desperate Central Asian youth darting from carriage to carriage slapping up these adverts, risking arrest for a pittance. Written above some rows of seats are the following words: "Places for invalids, elderly people and passengers with children," harking back to a time perhaps when there was actually space enough in a metro carriage for this direction to be followed.

Nowadays, everyone just sits wherever they can. At a less busy station at midday in summer, there is some jostling on the platform, some pushing and shoving (usually by babushkas), some poking and prodding (again usually by babushkas). Everyone again wants to be standing where the train's doors end up but now it is with a higher purpose in mind: not merely getting into the carriage, but actually being able to make it to a seat. When the train stops and the doors slide back the crowd attempts the impossible feat of popping through the doors in one go. People push, people shove, people jump to try and beat the others through the doors. Babushkas, so infuriatingly slow when you happen to be walking behind them and trying to get past, seem able at this point to call on some hidden reserves of ungodly energy and superhuman strength, flying like a bullet out of a gun through the fighting crowd and almost invariably being the first into the carriage, no doubt having spotted an empty seat through the windows as the train drew up.

When elderly people, people with disabilities, pregnant women or passengers with children are unfortunate enough to be left standing after the mad rush for seats, someone will almost always stand up to offer them his place. I think this is admirable behaviour and have no problem doing it, other than the fact that there exists a certain type of babushka who believes that this is not you being courteous, this is her God-given right and there is no need to say thank you or even look at you. I can spot this type of babushka from a mile off and when I see one hobbling towards me when I have a seat, I pretend to be asleep. The trouble is, however, that not many of them (the actual figure is less than 30%) view being asleep as a valid excuse for not giving up your seat. In this case you will receive a rude awakening with a jab in the ribs by a toothless ball of flab, wrinkles and facial hair who expects you to know exactly what she wants and therefore says nothing, merely scowling at you instead as she bends over you and breaths in heavy rasps. In general, however, people behave very courteously inside the actual carriages. If a disabled person staggers in, people will help him to a place and look after his crutches while he sits. If you fall asleep and somehow manage not to hear the voice announcing that the train has reached the end of the line (there is a peculiar type of metro sleep you develop over time where you doze but are somehow ready to spring into action the minute your unconscious mind registers the name of your station) people will shake you and attempt to wake you up. Sometimes if the sleeper is blind drunk this will not work and he will be carried off on the train into the long dark of the metro tunnel past the end of the line, ending up at whatever subterranean cleaning depot is to be found there.

Very occasionally one may witness a display of utter barbarism or sickening disrespect for fellow human beings in the carriage. Vicious fist fights, men grabbing women's breasts, skinheads spray-painting a fully conscious Central Asian, a pervert sitting next to you taking photos of young girls, a man vomiting all over someone else who does not even flinch or change his expression, merely removes his jacket, puts it in a plastic bag and carries on standing where he was. There are often drunks asleep and taking up whole rows of seats. Sometimes they cannot be moved and remain there even when the carriage is at its fullest. One time I saw some sort of marine pick up the drunk and make him attempt to stand on his feet. When it became apparent that he could not do so the gargantuan marine literally kicked the skinny young drunk out of the doors at the next station.

Beggars sometimes wander from one end of the carriage to another asking for alms. They usually take one of two types. One is an adult with a child who they say is dying. Another appears with enough regularity to light a spark of suspicion in my mind: a fairly young, slightly dark-skinned woman with a face that hints at some sort of mental disability enters the carriage bent to a right angle and supporting herself on a stick. She drawls out a few words before hobbling down the carriage while holding out a hat in her free hand. Maybe one in twenty people give these beggars money and they exit when the train stops to try their luck in the next carriage.

I should point out that the problem babushkas you may encounter in the metro are a minority. There are many more kindly old dears who would never dream of asking for help with anything, let alone for someone to give up a seat. They dress well, carry themselves proudly and are possessed of an exceptional dignity. Though their manner may seem somewhat brusk when, as a newcomer in Moscow, you ask for directions, this is just the Russian way. No one laughs or smiles in public unless they are drunk. A pretense, a shield if you will, is kept up every minute of every day while in public then lowered again the minute a Russian enters the company of his friends or family. Newcomers in Moscow often remark on people's coldness and unfriendliness but I can honestly say that when met in social situations rather than in shops or on the metro, Russian people seem to me to be warmer and more hospitable than any other nationality I have encountered in Europe. Outside of crowded, polluted Moscow this is true even on the streets and in shops. People are friendly, polite, interested in foreigners and prone to giving presents. But these are all stories for another day...

Everyone sits or stands in silence with their metro face on, gazing glumly into space, no two eyes looking into one another unless there happens to be a pair of lovers somewhere in the carriage. I often try to look up to steal glances at the people sitting opposite me while they are looking away somewhere. I find the faces of the very elderly particularly fascinating. I often fancy I see there sadness mixed with a certain resilience, resignation, frustration or even despair. Their lot now is not easy and what some of them have been through is beyond all comprehension, for many will have caught the tail end of Stalin's purges when, some sources say, fifty million of their friends and family were sent to die in Siberian prison camps for crimes they did not commit. The first-hand stories from the few brutalised and half-insane survivors of these camps exceed, I believe, even the horrors of Nazi Germany. But again, that is a story for another day...

One of the only times I have seen people lose their metro faces was when a crowd of schoolchildren entered the carriage. The screeching, lurching train was throwing them around all over the place but for them this was not just another intolerable daily routine as it was for everyone else; it was a new experience, an adventure! They were laughing, screaming and playing with one another and as they did so, over a period of several minutes, some of the long faces, drooping eyelids and ferocious scowls all around them began to break into the hints of smiles. I could barely believe what I was seeing. Each one of these newly-grinning people was thinking the same thing: how nice that these children are not old and jaded like us, how nice that they relish a new experience and dive head first into it, how nice it would be to be able to laugh like that once again. Would these kids one day develop metro faces like everyone else? Who knew, but seeing them here and now was enough to give you hope for Russia's future.

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9th November 2009

Отличный блог!
Yep, sounds about right! Moscow is a fascinating city but every day there made my head hurt. Your 'angle' on the commute is spot on: you describe the unappealing parts without whinging and throw in the beautiful bits at just the right moments.
9th November 2009

Ed, you never fail to amaze me. For such a simple plot such as a metro station, you surely can write!!!! I certainly enjoy "simple experiences" loaded with all the interesting details such as this blog. Reminds me too of some of Jonathan C's blogs on simple plots, loaded with details. Sorry for the comparison. But you, Jon and Jason (aspiring nomad) surely top my list of fav bloggers.
9th November 2009

The best story I have read on travelblog by far. thank you.
10th November 2009

thanks for the kind words guys!
2nd December 2009

Being in the Moscow metro is one of my travel fantasies. But the fantasy up until now has been about crystal chandaliers and marble, and excluded beggars, babuskas, drunks, militisia.... But, I am always interested in human life, so they will add an extra dimension to the experinece when, I finally do get to Moscow. ''Of course, the darker your skin the more often you will be stopped. Who can blame them, however, when their salaries are barely more than the cost of renting a room?'' I can and do blame them. The dark skinned people likely earn less in Moscow than the Militsia do. '' Each one of these newly-grinning people was thinking the same thing: how nice that these children are not old and jaded like us, how nice that they relish a new experience and dive head first into it, how nice it would be to be able to laugh like that once again.'' Nice that somebody can see the joyful side of children. I often wonder why people so often only see the noisy, messy aspect of children. I as a parent often dispair about how modern societies view children.
26th December 2009

the word 'good' does not suffice
outstanding writing. if you're not writing elsewhere, thanks for sharing your skill with us here on TB. it's a true pleasure reading you.
6th January 2010

Blog of the year, for the Europe/Adventure cathegory
Check this out. :)
3rd September 2010

true story
oh my god! it's hilarious! no, really. i'm your fan now
28th October 2010

Thanks for the photos. They bring back memories of my time in Moscow. I loved the stations.

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