Moscow’s metro is world famous. It is 75 years old, carries eight and a half million passengers daily, and runs on tracks that are unbelievably deep—state-secret deep.
Each station is glorious in its own motif: Komsomolskaya is martial and mosaic; Novoslobodkaya boasts stained-glass peasants; Paveletskaya has a concourse inlaid like a backgammon board; Ploshchad Revolutsii is a vast vaulted chamber full of crouching brass partisans in bandoliers, bast sandals, and earflaps.
At the Park Kultury metro stop, the platform is lined with medallions of anatomically idealized Soviets engaged in “physical culture.” It is not one of the city’s more glorious stations, but it is sonorous and solid, like the deep end of a swimming pool.
For one long winter I passed by the sleek swimmers and ice skaters twice every night, dressed in chuzhaya shuba, which means in “furs not mine.” I was new to the city and overwhelmed by its most commonplace features. Newspaper stands, for one. Grocery lines, for another. Apprehensive about the quotidian, I swam in the metro at Park Kultury as if it were a petri dish of insecurities.
I was an English teacher at a night school just behind the Park Kultury metro station. The school, in fact, was founded as a vocational center for upcoming cadres of metro workers. In its classrooms, students learned physics based on escalators and geology based on tunnels and underground springs. History 101 was dedicated to the post-war decade of metro-building, and a typical math problem ran thus: Masha enters the metro at Borovitskaya, headed for University. Three minutes later, Sasha goes into the metro at Sportivnaya, headed for Yugo-Zapadna. If the platforms of Sportivnaya and Borovitskaya are each 200 meters long and Masha walks three kilometers an hour while Sasha walks three and a half, and the train enters the stations every minute and half, what is the chance that Masha and Sasha will meet on the train, fall in love, marry and have three children?
It’s a masterful system—the circle line and its articulated tentacles, its triple heart, its multicolored circuitry and steampunk ganglia.
But I measured my days by the clock of the metro’s circle line.
These were days when I couldn’t get out of bed. And I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t get out of bed. So that when I did, it was already three o’clock, the sun was setting, and ravens were gathering in the long shadows of twilight just outside my door. And it would be time to set out for Park Kultury, which is located at 8 p.m. on the clock that is the metro’s circle line.
It’s a masterful system—the circle line and its articulated tentacles, its triple heart, its multicolored circuitry and steampunk ganglia. Among the angular nodes that flex the city’s transit into its outer neighborhoods, the Park Kultury hub offers a path of no resistance. But every night during that dark winter I found myself deflected by its double stairwell and its seven stacks of newspapers for sale.
I recognized that spot in the papers carrying images of the carnage left by Dzhanet Abdullayeva. I loathed that station.
There’s a photographer named Bee Flowers who redefined the Moscow metro for me. Flowers takes pictures from the middle of the platforms—a 360-degree survey folded into a 180-degree panorama. From this perspective, corridors become tunnels and corners become warrens. The floors and walls take on the same fluted contour as the vaulted ceilings. They become physically organic structures, looking like nothing so much as micrograph scans of skeletons—high-resolution images of our bones from the inside out.
There is a smell in the Moscow metro. It is damp and warm, and hints of dust mix with newsprint and cabbage. But that is the smell of much of Russia, and the metro’s smell is unique—unreplicated in the sour elevators or dank foyers of aged apartment buildings and altogether different from the mud-striped floors of the cheap eateries or grocers left to startle us out of the 21st century. If I had to identify what it is about the metro’s humid atmosphere that sets it apart from so much of the city’s internal odors, I would say that it breathes. Walking into the metro is like entering a respiratory system at the moment of exhalation. The doors buckle slightly and if it’s summer your skirt rises, inflated. It is the smell of a well-oiled creature, alive and circling Moscow’s core.
On the radial lines, the announcer identifies the terminal station by name. Not so on the circle line. There is only, “Be careful, the doors are closing. The next stop is Park Kultury. Dear passengers, please make way for the elderly and invalids.”
The voice is cheerful, confident. I sometimes wonder who is the Larisa or Irina whose fate it was to be the daily voice of consciousness for eight million riders a day. Is she dead? Did she record the entire system in a day or a week? Did she stumble over the announcement for Petrovsko-Razumovskaya? “Dear passengers, before leaving the train, don’t forget your belongings,” says a voice even now in my head and I wonder—did she recognize herself as she rattled through the stations, and did she forget, distracted by her own voice, her belongings? And was it her perky greeting that the teenage girl from Dagestan was answering when she set off the explosives that killed a dozen commuters in Park Kultury station on March 29—the second suicide blast of that morning’s ill-fated rush hour.
To hell with the invalids. Make way for vendetta.
Not far from the school where I faithfully dragged my depression each night was a basement where I spent free afternoons with Roma. I went to visit him a year or two ago on a bright summer day that let me laugh at the Park Kultury metro stop because there was no need for me to take the metro when there were so many daylight hours and the gutters were so swollen with pollen.
I hadn’t called Roma to let him know I was coming, which was fine, because in the end, I could not find the basement where he lived. I walked in circles, skirting the hulking Frunze Academy, and passing corners both familiar and lost. Eventually I found myself in front of the embassy for some Middle Eastern sovereignty. The flag concealed all but a crescent moon and the plaque on the door may or may not have read “Emirate,” though it was written in a language that wasn’t Arabic.
There is a smell in the Moscow metro. It is damp and warm, and hints of dust mix with newsprint and cabbage.
There was a dog outside the embassy gates. Mangy, scratching and missing a tail, it looked out at me with the clouded eyes of a beggar in the bazaars of Cairo. For a moment, I had the stupid impression that the dog itself had arrived in Moscow from some Islamic nation where the wise see only the greatness of God and are blind to anything less.
I was just rounding the corner to head back toward the ring road (and yes, the Park Kultury metro stop, which I was determined to ignore) when I heard the sharp cry of a dog in pain and the squeal of brakes. There was a burst of human voices (“What’s to see?” exclaimed one), a door slammed, and the car sped off again…chased by a single expletive, the stressed accent of which I questioned.
I returned to the front of the embassy. There was no one in sight, but the dog lay perfectly still in the middle of the road, his blue eye searching for a match in the cloudless sky above. I remembered passing just such a scene with Roma and his four-year-old son many years before. We had been on our way to the zoo, and when we returned later that day we forgot to avoid the spot where the dog had been killed. Roma’s son had not forgotten and he pointed as we passed to a small red spot and matted tuft of hair.
“Look Papa—there’s a little piece of dog left.”