MARBLE walls and ornate chandeliers in the subway stations? A fare of only 7 cents - a figure that hasn't gone up since 1935? And the stations are clean. The cars are almost free of graffiti. What's more , none of the passengers seem to be on the lookout for muggers or purse-snatchers.
Where are we, anyway?
Hint: Take the next stop for Red Square, or stay on three more for Gorky Park.
In a city where things usually fall far short of the ideal, Moscow's metro stands out as a notable exception. While the Soviet Union lags behind the rest of the industrialized world on so many counts, its capital can boast one of the world's best subway systems.
It's also probably the most interesting - a word that doesn't apply to many of the world's urban rail transit systems.
For starters, there's the architecture of some of the system's 115 stations. The Byelorusskaya Station, named after the breadbasket region of the Soviet Union, has sculpted shocks of wheat on its white plaster walls.
The Komsomolskaya Station, named for the Communist Youth League, has stunning mosaics on a vaulted ceiling depicting the muscular workers and sturdy peasants of an idealized Soviet state.
Stop in the Novoslobodskaya Station, with its stained glass windows, and you can almost forget you're in an atheist state. At one end, a huge mosaic shows a triumphant woman holding an infant aloft, while doves flutter overhead carrying banners proclaiming ''peace.'' It certainly looks religious, until you realize that the backdrop is a huge hammer and sickle.
Many visitors to Moscow rank the subways, along with the Kremlin, as one of the city's most memorable features. Indeed, the state tourism authority, Intourist, regularly conducts tours of the subway, which is known offically as the Order of Lenin Moscow Metropolitan Named After V. I. Lenin.
Still, Moscow's subway is more than a tourist attraction. It is the primary means of transport for some 7 million Muscovites daily. It carries the same number of passengers as the subways of New York, London, and Madrid combined. The total is more than 2.3 billion riders a year, making it the world's busiest metro. And with 123 miles of tracks, it's the world's fifth longest.
Of course, there is the inevitable grousing that commuters worldwide bestow on their means of transport. Most complaints center on overcrowding.
Still, the majority of Muscovites seem to have an almost proprietary pride about their subway. Pausing to gesture at the entrance to the Kolkhoznaya Station, a man in a brown suit says, ''This is Moscow's face, so to speak.''
And Moscow, it might be added, doesn't like its face smudged. This society, which stresses collectivism, encourages its citizens to mind other people's business as well as their own. And that means trouble for anyone who casually litters in a subway station. He will undoubtedly draw icy glares - and perhaps stern demands to pick up the trash.
''I'm very intolerant of that sort of thing,'' says a blond woman in a maroon blouse. ''In one case, I told someone, 'How can you throw anything on the ground when there is so much beauty around?' ''
''We have this principle,'' agrees chief economist M. A. Lebedev, ''that the place where nobody litters stays clean.''
The same is true of smoking. There are no signs prohibiting it in stations or cars, but it simply isn't done. Transgressors run the risk of being berated and scorned, and the threat of such public humiliation works far better than signs.
During the 1980 summer Olympics here, city officials placed ''no smoking'' signs in the cars in three languages to prevent foreign visitors from being verbally abused by irate Muscovites.
A small army of more than 20,200 workers keeps the metro running from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Fully half of the total are women, and the metro operates a kindergarten for their children. There are other employee benefits, such as a subsidized cafeteria and, of course, free subway travel.
Like virtually all Soviet enterprises, the metro staff seems a bit padded, with some workers apparently doing little but watching the passing crowds. Mr. Lebedev concedes that ''we have a few too many people.''
Still, the metro has introduced automation, notably in the form of two computerized systems, one for spacing trains and another for increasing their speed.
Indeed, there is an emphasis on speed throughout the system. Trains whisk along at up to 55 miles per hour. In some stations, digital readouts clock the time between trains, down to the second. During rush hour, the trains can be spaced only 80 seconds apart, making them a shade faster than New York City subway trains.
Even the escalators leading down into stations move a nearly four-feet-per-second clip - a figure that Mr. Lebedev says is almost 50 percent higher than international standards.
Those escalators are also extraordinarily long, because Moscow subway stations are set much deeper into the ground than those in other major cities. This, according to many Western sources, is because the stations are also designed to serve as bomb shelters.
Not so, says Mr. Lebedev. The reason, he says, is ''hydrologic conditions'' just below the surface that forced construction at deep levels.
Be that as it may, the metro stations were used as bomb shelters during World War II.
There are occasional reports of disrupted service because of flooding, burst steam pipes, and electrical fires. Because of the Soviet government's passion for secrecy, such incidents are given only minimal coverage in the government-run press - if they are mentioned at all.
An escalator was the cause of the only serious metro accident in recent history. One collapsed in 1982, and there were reports in the foreign press that up to 15 people may have died.
The subway system was also the scene of the worst act of terrorism in the Soviet Union in recent decades: a 1977 bombing that killed seven people and injured 37 others. Three people, believed to be Armenian separatists, were executed in connection with the incident.
Officials won't give exact budget figures for the metro. They simply posit that 7 million people ride the system daily, paying 5 kopecks (about 7 cents). The actual cost of transporting them is said to be 4.9 kopecks per person.
Although officials claim that the system has been profitable since it opened in 1935, one official concedes that it is now on the verge of losing money.
''Soon it will become a loss, and it will be compensated for by the state,'' says Mr. Lebedev.
However, the ruling Communist Party has pledged to eliminate subway fares entirely when the egalitarian state of true communism is reached.