Glory beneath Moscow streets

The 1930s Metro still clips along with Soviet-era efficiency - and a little glamour.

Here in Russia, red tape sill ensnarls most aspects of life. Getting your phone hooked up can take months. And, please, let's not even talk about landing a permit to add a new bedroom to your apartment.

But the subway works like Swiss clockwork. The average wait at the Moscow Metro's 158 stations is just 90 seconds during rush hour.

Just below the hard, gritty Moscow surface - about 300 yards - one of the Soviet era's most famous symbols of Communist efficiency continues to bring world- class service and daily inspiration to the city's beleaguered population.

"When I go down into the Metro, it feels like time has frozen, and it could be 1960 or 1980 again," says Svetlana Tretyakova, a pensioner. "It was one of the things about our life that always worked well. You rarely ever heard anyone complaining about the Metro, and you still don't."

Best known for its palatial downtown stations, adorned with marble columns, chandeliers, beautiful mosaics, and stained glass windows, the Metro was built in the 1930s to instill pride in the Russian proletariat and to awe the world. Today it remains almost as spotlessly clean and graffiti-free as in Soviet times, when a special Metro police force watched over it with unblinking eyes.

While downtown Moscow is virtually paralyzed with traffic, the Metro smoothly moves 9 million people daily.

"No delays so far today on this line," says Irina Malyugina, who works as a signal person at the downtown station of Oktyabrskaya. "People say we work well compared to Metro systems in other parts of the world."

Originally built to double as bomb shelters - which they did during World War II - Moscow's downtown stations are among the deepest in the world. In many stations, the cold-war-era enclosures housing giant nuclear-resistant doors are clearly visible.

The Metro may be bombproof, but it is not comfortable. The standard ride involves hard benches, dim lighting, and doors often slam without warning. Beggars wandering through the cars are another sign that times have changed.

Despite all that, an old-fashioned sense of order prevails and the mood is surprisingly good natured. Any young person who grabs a seat, if someone older is standing, may expect a gentle poke in the legs with a cane or umbrella.

"We inherited an awfully good basic structure, and we have just kept that running," says Konstantin Cherkassky, information director for the Metro. But, he says, underfunding is taking a toll, and some stations may have to be shut down without major new investment.

"What people don't see are the accumulated problems of metal fatigue, mechanical breakdown, and understaffing," Mr. Cherkassky says. "If we don't increase our income, these problems will catch up with the Metro in time."

Ironically, the main reason for the Metro's post-Soviet financial crunch is ... communism. According to still-upheld Soviet customs, more than half the people who ride the Metro every day don't pay a kopek. That includes pensioners like Ms. Tretyakova, municipal workers, soldiers, invalids, federal civil servants, priests, small children - over 100 categories of people in all.

For those who do pay, the fare is just 5 rubles (about 18 cents), for unlimited access to the system's nine lines, totalling 118 miles.

"It's not cheap. It really adds up if you ride twice a day," says Olga Smirnova, a teacher. Her salary, fairly typical in Russia, is $65 per month. "But compared to other prices, it seems more reasonable."

One thing Metro officials really hate to talk about is accidents. They claim to have no statistics. It is known that about 50 people annually commit suicide - perhaps taking their cue from Lev Tolstoy's heroine Anna Karenina - by throwing themselves beneath onrushing Metro trains.

"We have about 60 cases of smoke every year, and sometimes there is fire too," says Cherkassky. "Occasionally there are fights," he adds. "Vandalism is a growing problem. We all dread nights when there are football (soccer) games in Moscow. We need a lot of extra police. Young people today can be quite unruly."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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