Notes from the Underground

Text and images by Paul Ackers

‘Everybody you meet knows something you don’t’

Throughout my teenage years, I felt a great deal of pressure to say the right thing, to fit in. As a naturally enthusiastic person, the cool posturing of my peers came much less easily to me and I wince looking back at my attempts to be hip; I was perhaps too feverish in trying to recruit for the Young Ornithology Club (even flashing my YOC membership badge) and learned the hard way that teenage girls really aren’t interested in discussing their favourite Ninja Turtle. Even in adulthood, conversation doesn’t always come easy and I am constantly finding new ways to embarrass myself as I try to avoid another uncomfortable silence – until Moscow. In the few months I have been in Russia, my small talk has been given the makeover it so badly needed from the most unlikely source imaginable: public transport!

The Moscow Metro enjoys a fine reputation and it’s not difficult to understand why given its sheer size, beauty and singularity. Everybody seems to love (or hate!) at least one little thing about it, as I found to my great delight over lunch with colleagues recently. As we all sat quietly in the canteen, perhaps racking our brains as to why cold salads are so regularly served in subzero temperatures, I decided to ask (in preparation for writing this article) if anybody would mind sharing their favourite Metro station. Rather than my usual table-clearing act, I set the conversation alight! I had a great time listening as each person shared why they love a particular station – as if discussing classic albums! Although I once again had to take a backseat as the cool kids reeled off the ‘hit’ stations I hadn’t yet heard of, their enthusiasm was infectious and I wanted to know more.

I’ve heard and read tales of secret water supplies, ghosts, an underground in the underground and even how a coffee cup stain left accidentally by Stalin led to the construction of the circular brown line!

What is it about the Metro that makes it such a good topic for discussion? Maybe it’s the fact that it is amazing in so many different ways; The idea of an underground in Moscow goes back as far as 1875 but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first 13 stations were opened. Shortly after, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of people took shelter under ground during the airstrikes and there were even shops and hairdressers open for business there at this time! The Metro has expanded considerably since then and it now boasts more than 200 stations, 44 of which are listed as cultural heritage sites. Given that the Metro is rightly renowned for its aesthetic beauty, it is also remarkable just how efficient and reliable it is, with waiting times that compare very favourably with other major cities. There are also tons of rumours, quirks and myths about the Metro that lend themselves to a good yarn – I’ve heard and read tales of secret water supplies, ghosts, an underground in the underground and even how a coffee cup stain left accidentally by Stalin led to the construction of the circular brown line!

Whilst a tour of subway stations may not be everyone’s idea of a wild time, I could not help but feel excited as I packed lunch and set out on a greatest hits tour of these ‘subterranean palaces’ dotted throughout the city. I was recommended a route beginning at Prospekt Mira and this seemed like a nice fit given that it was already something of a personal favourite and conveniently close to where I live. The first couple of stations after Prospekt Mira (Novoslobodskaya, Belorusskyaya) are absolutely stunning and fully deserve to be in the conversation for best station. After such an electrifying start, I was slightly underwhelmed (or maybe overtired) on arriving at award-winning Mayakovskaya; I wrote down the word ‘rhubarb’ in my notes, which may refer to its lovely pinkish hue, or perhaps the fact that I was already getting hungry just 20 minutes into my trip. Ploschad Revolyutsii and Kievskyaya were both far too busy to appreciate, jammed with shoppers and sightseers wielding selfie sticks like light sabers, but I had great fun riding up and down the 8th longest escalators in the world at my final stop: Park Podeby. A superb introduction to the Metro and a real feast for the senses, I’d recommend this to anyone – just not on a Sunday.

(I was hoping this article might also provide a platform for some wordplay humour regarding the Metro but I don’t think that’s any way to conduct yourself and I don’t want to lose my train of thought – time to get back on track before I step out of line!)

For my money, the best thing about the Moscow Metro is that at its finest, it elevates the mundane to something truly extraordinary – it’s not strictly necessary that everyday undertakings such as travelling, eating or even conversation be filled with creativity, imagination and flair, but aren’t our lives that much richer when they are? I was absolutely amazed when I actually took the time to explore just a few of these stations and they offer a truly unique way to learn more about the history of the city. Being a teacher, this was also a neat reminder that getting out and seeing things is often the most enjoyable way to learn and experience new things.