The Moscow Metro is the quintessential Communist machine, an ingenious system of efficiency, elegance, and courtesy fused with brute force. It is a transit puzzle as much as it is a friction-free means of getting from Point A to Point B, a great leveler and an egalitarian experience. No matter where you started, this is now where you are. Oligarch, proletariat, bourgeois, babushka: we are all in the same class when we’re on the Metro. The homogeneity is extreme.
My wife and I got tossed into the mix at Belorusskiya, one of the busiest stations for the morning rush, and one of the most pivotal. From it, commuters can transfer to three different lines. The noise of trains coming and going played a persistent soundtrack in my head, even later in the day, long after we’d returned to street level and were far above the shriek of steel wheels and the clatter of iron rails. I stood before a riotously painted onion dome cathedral in the middle of Red Square and listened to an a capella choir sing Russian hymns, but I couldn’t shake the feel from that morning of the subway car as it trundled through its tunnel, the wheels grinding to a halt, its doors slamming open.
This was a sink-or-swim save-cation for me and Kath, an eleventh-hour rescue of our foundering marriage. No martini bars for us, no luxury resorts, no couples massages or paragliding under perilous circumstances. With time ticking on our togetherness we needed something ageless, something sturdy, something enduring to shore us up—and of course there stood the Kremlin. It was grand. It was inspiring. It had survived conquest, false Tsars, and the Golden Horde. I flattened my palm to its red brick, as if through an odd osmosis it could transfer to me the strength to repel Napoleon, to drive out the Grand Army. All I felt was a coarse dry chill. Should there have been more? Was I numbed out? I glanced at Kath, who was fiddling with the aperture on her camera. When she got the setting just right, she looked not at me but through the lens at the Spasskey Tower.
Even at the foot of a citadel sad things can happen. Fortitude and endurance are no guarantees. The Kremlin had known turmoil, right? Revolutions, executions, civil war, upheaval. Why should things be free and easy for me?
That night, Kath moved out of our Moscow hotel room and took a separate one for herself on a different floor, kind of a shocker since we’d scarcely begun to process our marriage in earnest. “Too awkward,” she said, keeping her distance.
When I lay awake, unable to sleep, I imagined standing on the platform at Arbatskaya, 300 feet below Moscow in one of the magnificently ornate stations for which the Metro is famous, and I envisioned the well-articulated earthen space above the tracks all the way up to street level like a three-dimensional chessboard—tunnels laid out at various depths, trains criss-crossing through the tunnels, the lines stacked and orderly. Mining equipment had drilled through unforgiving bedrock back in the ’30’s, and the thought of that tonnage, that stone depth, not to mention the labor that moved it all, served as a reminder of the hard place I suddenly found myself in.
Once Kath and I returned to Iowa, I knew my attention would drift back to more immediate concerns, our falling-apart marriage chief among them. I knew impressions of the Moscow Metro would fade. Mundane Midwestern days would pass without my mentioning the Metro to anyone.
Six months in, though, friends grew impatient. The Metro had become my inner life—not merely my inner life but the length, breadth, and depth of my inner life. I did not even have a personality any longer, so composed was I of the Moscow Metro.
No wonder Kath left me.
One summer evening over sparkling wine and spring rolls my brother was visiting from Chicago. He leaned back against the railing on the deck and threw a quick glance at Kath, who had agreed to come over just for the evening. She had taken a pied a terre across town while we sort of but not really worked things out, which for all practical purposes meant we were Splitsville. My brother arched an eyebrow and then looked at me. “Sis, you act like nothing ever happened in your life until you rode the Moscow Metro. You act like there was a stagnant period Before the Moscow Metro and now this exciting period After.”
Kath grabbed the tongs and checked the tilapia on the grill. Her eyelid twitched, a tiny flicker of a tic.
I leaned in a bit toward my brother, as if sharing a closely held confidence, and smiled. “Have I ever told you about all the socialist art in the Moscow Metro?”
“Yes,” he said. “You have. In fact, you sent a postcard.” He held up his hand. Everyone had had enough of me.
Staring down at the tilapia, Kathy appeared to shudder.
The Moscow Metro had taken up residence in my life like a window on a desktop you always keep open no matter how many other things you’re working on, no matter how many times you have to nudge that window aside to get at something else. You keep it open; it stays open. Always without fail there is a sliver of it visible along the desktop’s periphery.
I have yet to close that window.
Occasionally I focus my mind’s eye on how lavishly appointed the Metro stations are, their high-vaulted ceilings afire with chandelier light. Some stations resemble extravagant wedding cakes. Their plaster walls are as smooth as fondant and are decorated in buttercream pastels that have ivory filigree, paper white latticework and snowy spires that look piped on like royal frosting. The trains rush into these well-lit confections as if bringing guests to a luxurious tea party. Quite often I see the Metro as a living gallery of murals and mosaics, frescoes and friezes, stained glass windows and statuary, gold leaf and fourteen different types of marble. More times than not I hear the piercing squeal of brakes punctuated now and then by the clackety-clack of wheels on steel. Frequently I wonder about the nine million people who ride it each day. I don’t think about individuals—sheer numbers augur against that—but the human wave, the surge tide of rush hour riders, an uninterrupted flow of accountants, bankers, bricklayers, clerks.
Moscow is like a gigantic reservoir of passengers who get conveyed to the Metro on a downward cascade of escalators, sort of the reverse of salmon ladders or a fishway. When the doors of an arriving car open, the passengers burst out in a torrent as if under pressure, like the gush from spigots turned full blast. After that, boarding passengers stream in, sometimes filling the cars to capacity, like water seeking its own level. These passengers recirculate among the stations, as if coursing through an elaborate baroque fountain. This keeps a river of people constantly moving beneath the city.
And the river runs deep… Some of the stations doubled as bomb shelters during WWII, the depth and solidity insuring safety. It can take three minutes for even a swift-moving escalator to reach the very bottom. Once there, a warm, dry, and spacious cathedral awaits the harried commuter. The wide platforms and arching pylons can resemble in one glance a Greek temple or a theater lobby, an Egyptian tomb or the entryway of a five-star hotel. During rush hour, people weave back and forth in an impromptu choreography, all of it backed by the hydraulic huff and chuff of train doors sliding open and closed.
In the time since my save-cation with Kath I have convinced myself that if only she would return with me to Moscow and ride the Metro again, she could see it the way I see it—and then we’d have a better chance, then we’d be okay, then we could make a go of things. The Metro has obviously become for me something of a Lourdes shrine, maritally speaking, or a Medjugorje in marble, concrete, and steel.
Pathetic, I know.
Kath doesn’t see things the way I see them. That’s why we are crashing to a halt. Riding the Metro again would not change that. Our property will get divided up, some to me, some to her, but Moscow will be all mine.
I’ll stroll its streets—and Kath won’t be there. I’ll make the transfer from Tsverskaya to Chekhoskaya and pass only strangers. Moscow was the third Rome, a medieval city of churches, a wooden city at one time, and I’ll receive it with the same stoic countenance of the Pushkin statue that has weathered a hundred seasons outside its namesake Metro station. I’ll sit next to people on the Sokolniki line, and none of them will ever be Kath.
There are some things even a save-cation can’t save.
In January I fly back to Moscow by myself to think things through. Aeroexpress runs from Sheremetyevo Airport to Belorusskiya, a major hub on the Metro’s “ring” road around the city, and the ride from the airport takes about thirty minutes. I sit gazing out at the profundity of a Russian winter: spruce forests blanketed under a snowy load, their boughs sagging toward the ground like the shoulders of those who have given up. In suburban neighborhoods I see the “trudge paths”—spontaneous walking routes to the nearest train depot, all of them beaten down out of knee-deep snow by the volume of foot traffic back and forth, back and forth each day. The white season lies heavily on monuments and landmarks. Almost everywhere I look work crews are shoveling snow from rooftops and Stalinesque high rises.
It’s the kind of scene that accessorizes well with self-pity.
I scarcely have time to wallow in it, though. At Belorusskiya I hit an intense mid-day commute and get churned up all at once into the kind of human meatloaf that results when several thousand people, many of them clad in winter furs, are all trying to funnel onto one escalator so as to make a transfer between busy stations. This is full-body contact, ankle to forehead. When you are being smashed together with your stuff, trying to transfer like this to Mayakovskaya, you get caught up in the crush, maybe even spun completely around a couple times before you actually even see the escalator. If you’ve just flown overnight from New York, as I have, and your body thinks it’s 3 a.m. but in Moscow it’s high noon, all this has the hazy feel and non sequitur logic of a dream.
I am saddled with a roller bag that is sometimes beside me, sometimes pincered in the whirl behind me or thrust up against the hamstrings of the person in front of me (who doesn’t seem to mind!) or suddenly shoved against my belly. It’s comical and over the top, something worthy of a quick text message to my wife: “Wow! Am being ground up into a mass transit casserole!”
How exotic to receive a message from Moscow—! Who doesn’t want something from Russia with love—?
At least a thousand people heave forward in front of me, and another thousand people behind me. The populace shuttles me along. At that point the “machine” is not merely the Metro itself but something constructed entirely of human intent: Must. Reach. Escalator. No time for second thoughts. No suddenly remembering, “Oh! I left my purse lying on a bench back there!” Or “Ooops, I’m going the wrong way.” This, now, is the only way. I feel like mechanically separated meat.
Which is a little bit like death—not le petit mort the French so relish, but Death, as Emily Dickinson would write it. The Death that takes you in mid-sentence or mid-year or mid-life. There’s never a good time for Death, never a moment when you’ve unloaded the dishwasher, fed the dog, gotten all your storage tubs of yarn put away after a wild weekend of knitting and you sit down in the lavender twilight, feet up and say, “Okay. Now. Right here and now. Come on, Death. Take me.”
Death does not respect preferences.
It interrupts dinner with all of its well-celebrated uncertainty: no dessert for you. It doesn’t pause for a commercial break, and it doesn’t give a two-minute warning. You can’t “have another.” Loss of control, loss of choice, loss of what we cherish: these are the things we hate about Death. Death is the Skype screen frozen for forty-five seconds in mid-blink—and you end up looking like Uncle Walt on a bender. It is the mean photographer who doesn’t let you get the spinach out of your teeth but snaps the picture anyway and doesn’t allow a retake. Death knows the spinach doesn’t matter, the teeth don’t matter, the picture even ultimately doesn’t matter, nor does the finger pressing the shutter release to take the picture matter.
Mortal preoccupations on things of this world don’t balance well against those that lie Beyond.
Death knows this, and so do we—but we act like we don’t. No matter what hand Life has dealt us, Death will throw down that final trump. Yes, the deck is stacked. We live a long time distracting ourselves from this knowledge.
These are not exactly my thoughts as the chop and grind of passengers extrudes me toward my transfer at the Mayakovskaya Metro station, but they capture the flavor of it. My marriage has ended. I am thinking about Death. And I am alone.
Even if Kath were here with me a rip current of riders could tear us apart on the platform and toss us into the swirl. At first, only a couple of people would come between us, then seven, then fourteen. Eventually something like an ocean of winter hats and eider down parkas and knotted scarves and chinchilla would sweep us apart. I could no more save her than she could me. We might try stretching our hands toward each other, we might desperately thrash and flail. Aren’t drowning people always getting desperate, always getting panicked, always grasping out wildly when going down for the third time?
Installed in the ceiling in Mayakovskaya station are thirty-four different oval niches, tile mosaics that depict “Soviet Skies.” Bomber planes in formation, Ukrainian women threshing wheat, an athlete throwing a javelin—all of the panels show a typical scene framed against the sky. The people are idealized, the colors boldly unreal, the scenes propagandistic in their optimism. In one of the mosaics a sailor stands at the prow of a battleship, signal flags at the ready. He shades his eyes and peers across the water as if trying to read the flags of another sailor on another ship barely within sight.
When I’m walking under “Soviet Skies” I find myself looking up all the time—and not at what’s before me. People flow in twin streams around me, and I feel like both the rock and the hard place. It’s not the path to longevity, I realize—but when I’m holed up beneath Moscow in its gloriously grand Metro that doesn’t seem to matter. I could stay in Mayakovskaya forever.
Barabara Haas’s short stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Western Humanities Review, The Wapsipinicon Almanac. She is a repeat contributor of prose to The Hudson Review, The North American Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.