A Means of Transport

Building character in the Moscow metro

STEPPING onto the rapidly descending escalator at the Belorusskaya Station in the Moscow metro is like going over Niagara Falls without a barrel: you jump on, and far, far below, at stairs' end, you discern a sour-faced attendant sitting in her booth, like a boulder you are destined to slam into at falls' bottom.

"Male passenger in the black hat!" she barks over the PA system. "Take that box off the railing! Metro regulations forbid the placing of objects on the railing! Yes, YOU! TAKE THAT BOX OFF THE RAILING!" The PA system is old; her voice screeches. Even after the passenger has removed the offending box, the attendant continues her tiresome litany, as if lecturing a brood of impudent schoolchildren for the thousandth time: "Passengers! When stepping off the escalator move QUICKLY to prevent obstructions! Do NOT tarry! Step to the RIGHT to allow those who wish to move ahead free passage on the LEFT!"

To descend into the Moscow metro is to grapple with the frustration, rancor, and churlishness that beleaguer Muscovites to this day. It was Stalin who launched the construction of the Moskovskiy Metropoliten, in the 1930s. In doing so he provided Muscovites with more than a means of transportation around the capital; he gave them a chance to harden their characters, to temper their spirits in the forge of Soviet misanthropy.

At both ends of the escalators, attendants -- usually scowling harridans in blue -- hector and berate any passenger who steps out of line, but they select the chelnoki (traders who carry their wares in vinyl suitcases) for special vituperation. The chelnoki exemplify what older Russians regard as spekulyanty, or speculators -- those whom Soviet ideology vilified as capitalists earning an illicit living off salt-of-the-earth proletarians. To keep their prices low, chelnoki use public transportation (subway and bus rides cost the ruble equivalent of twenty cents), and therefore end up dragging their bundles through narrow metro turnstiles. Often at the very sight of a chelnok an attendant will use her shrill whistle to call in the militia to adjudicate; depending on the bundle's exact dimensions, its transportation may or may not violate metro rules. Violations or no, the hardworking traders hardly deserve the vitriol poured over them, and I feel myself succumbing to the malice set in the features of the Muscovites at my side. I grumble that here even something as simple as riding the metro is cause for a gnashing of teeth.

TODAY I board the escalator and begin the descent, my features defensively settling into a mask of indifference. The passengers floating by on the ascent wear the same masks. We are a surly lot, at least outwardly impervious to whatever scorn or humiliation the metro will throw our way. Everything is as usual. A quadritonal signal bell rings out through the PA system. I brace myself for the diatribe.

The attendant, a man this time, begins softly. "Passengers. Dear passengers. Metro regulations do forbid your placing objects on the railing -- as you know. This is for your own good."

Passengers steal puzzled looks at one another. Something is not right.

He continues, his words now resonating with an unmistakably avuncular warmth. "Hold your little tots' hands when boarding, and don't push each other too hard. Husbands, drink less and remember your dear wives! Wives, think of how hard your knights work for you! Be indulgent toward them. All of you, be good to one another. I implore you!" Now the escalator is full of smiles, some gleaming with white enamel, others revealing gold teeth. "There is no need to hurry when stepping off the escalator. As always, the little trains in the Moscow metro will go round and round and round for you. Full steam ahead!"