Metro: Slice of Soviet Life. FIRST PERSON: MOSCOW UP CLOSE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S late on a Friday evening in Moscow, and the crowds on the metro have thinned out. As the car approaches the end of the line, it becomes clear that not every passenger is in shape to head out into the cool night and catch a bus for home. ``Let's go, young man,'' an older woman admonishes as she shakes a slumped-over man by the shoulders. ``Better move yourself before the cops get hold of you.'' He's not just asleep, he's drunk. And if he's caught by the militiaman who is making his way toward the car on his routine end-of-the-line check, he could get a black mark on his work record. The woman sees the militiaman, takes a deep breath, and heaves the drunk out onto the platform. The man shuffles to the escalator and out of the law's grasp.

There's something very Soviet about this scene - a scene that is played out many times every day, all over the Moscow metro. It is the spirit of the collective, stranger helping stranger. It is also touching for the fact that the Soviet government would probably rather a foreigner weren't watching. Foreigners are supposed to admire, with the aid of an official tour guide, the opulence of the Stalin-era metro stations and the seeming endlessness of the escalators - not hunker down in an anonymous fur hat and cloth coat to survey the passing scene.

But it is an excellent, and not terribly strenuous, way to watch Soviets in action. And there are many to see: With private car ownership in Moscow still a luxury, most people ride the metro. It is cheap (5 kopecks, or about 3 cents), extensive, and reliable. Word of fatal accidents has reached the West in recent years; but then, aging public transportation systems have been a problem throughout the world.

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Some of my favorite anecdotes about life in Moscow come from the metro. It was there, for example, that I learned that men's briefcases contain anything but important papers. When a man hoists his briefcase onto his lap to survey the contents, it's a great opportunity for all around to learn what's available for sale that day. One day it was oranges. On another, a man revealed several pairs of new shoes, all identical.

Chas pik, or rush hour, offers a chance to meet Moscow's tough-as-nails grandmothers, or babushki. If the train is crowded, you're under 80 years old, and you have a seat, they will lean their linebacker-esque frames over you and glare. Better to give up your spot without a struggle.

If you really want to blend in, nibble on a clove or two of pickled garlic beforehand. Then, just for fun, pull out a volume of the ``Gulag Archipelago'' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In the true Soviet fashion of my-neighbor's-business-is-my-own, your neighbors are sure to take a peek. And they're sure to get a charge.

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