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Party Line

By Bill Thomas
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page W14

While Moscow has transformed itself into a virtual carnival of capitalism, the subway system is a Soviet theme park honoring Russia's communist past.

It's morning rush hour under Moscow, and several hundred commuters have just boarded two subway trains headed in opposite directions, leaving me with the platform all to myself. Hundreds more will be arriving any minute, but I've got plenty of company already.

Saint Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. (Silvia Otte)

_____Fall Travel Issue_____
The Roads Less Traveled (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
Frontier Land (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)

The Ploshchad Revolutsii Metro station, three blocks from the Kremlin, is decorated with dozens of larger-than-life bronze statues -- soldiers, farmers, students and factory workers -- a whole cast of comrades straight out of some forgotten Five-Year Plan. Beside me is the likeness of a schoolgirl with a book in one hand and a rifle in the other; just ahead there's a Bolshevik border guard keeping his eyes peeled for any unusual activity. As more trains come and go from the station, I'm sure the guard, if he were real, would agree it's a pretty strange sight: throngs of modern-day Muscovites off to work, not in steel mills or potato collectives, but in banks, trade associations and consulting firms.

Kolya, a local political operative I've known for years, can't believe I want to spend an entire day exploring Moscow by subway. The crowded Metro may be a way of life for millions; however, Kolya, who moved up to expensive cars in the mid-1990s, isn't one of them.

"I hope you know where you're going," he says.

I do, too. Not only do many of the old stops have new post-Soviet names, the whole subway system has been through an identity crisis. A decade after capitalism began, descending into Moscow's Metro is like entering a subterranean time warp, a shadowy network of stations and tunnels that crisscross the city like a communist catacombs. The party line may have flopped; just the same, the propaganda is all down here in what could be the most ambitious underground art project ever conceived.

Kolya calls to say he's meeting a client for lunch and won't be joining me. Like most young professionals in Russia's bustling capital, he's too busy taking care of business to be interested in Soviet times.

"Let's get together later for a banya," says Kolya, referring to the Russian version of a sauna. "You'll need one."

ON MY FIRST TRIP TO MOSCOW, 15 years ago, a colleague told me there was only one way to learn the city. He warned it could be risky. I might be questioned by the KGB, have my pockets picked, and come away smelling like a combination of garlic, vodka and bad Russian perfume.

"Interested?" he asked.

Ten minutes later, I embarked on my first Metro ride, and I've been hooked ever since. The Moscow subway puts ours to shame. For one thing, trains run every two minutes or less, as opposed to every five to 10 minutes in Washington; for another, the flat fare of 7 rubles (about 25 cents) is such a bargain it's almost free by D.C. standards.

These days rubles are the required, if not always welcome, form of payment in Russia's market economy. After double-checking my supply, I grab a Red Line train for Novodevichy Convent, whose adjoining cemetery is the final resting place for scores of Kremlin VIPs, many of the same ones who promised, somewhat prematurely, to bury us. With reminders of Soviet Moscow getting harder to find, a visit to Novodevichy seems like a good way to start the day.

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