Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In which our intrepid voyager journeys to Muscovy

[My apologies, first, for the long silence here. I've been busy. Second, to those of you who 'follow' this for my periodic rants about religion, for the fact that this post will be all about my current visit to Moscow, which lies outside the declared scope of this blog. I plan to post something on our recent, disastrous elections sometime soon.]

1. Hail to the Moscow Metro, which is a modern miracle. It is desperately overcrowded, carrying (Wikipedia tells me) over 7 million passengers a day. That makes it the second busiest system in the world. And yet, you never have to run to catch a train, because they come every two minutes. And yet they are still incredibly crowded. That is, enough people come into each Metro station every two minutes to fill all the vacant space on each train that comes through. I've been here a week and still haven't sat down on the Metro. And here's a fun fact: There are two Moscow Metros: the public one, and then the 'secret' one that Stalin had built in the 1930's. I was skeptical about the secrecy of it-- thousands of people had to be involved in building it, right?-- but my host Boris would admit only that "some people guessed" that it existed. That one is still used by the military and the government. Recently, though, one line was made available for public use. You can see it, light blue, on the Metro map, running exactly parallel to a dark blue line. It runs, conveniently enough, directly from the Kremlin to Stalin's home.

2. I'm staying in what is frankly a pretty dingy neighborhood. There are very few restaurants, cafes, or large stores nearby. What the area does have are large numbers of tiny shops, stands, really, most of them specializing in just a few items: toiletries, for example, or fruit, or, most interestingly, dildoes. Within a few hundred yards of my lodgings there are perhaps three places to get a cup of coffee (forget about good coffee!), and exactly five places to buy dildoes. This has sparked some obvious questions in my mind about the private lives of the locals, who presumably provide the demand for these shops. I figure they can't just be using dildoes; they must be finding regular need for quick dildo shopping ("Hold that pose, honey. I'll be right back.") The people here don't look particularly outre or adventurous; quite the opposite. And there's no visible gay presence at all.

3. It is fascinating, as I walk around here, to distinguish the shiny new capitalist overlay from the dingy communist-era bulk that constitutes most of the city. I've posted on Facebook pictures of a 70's vintage Metro station with a Starbucks moved in to the ground floor. Contrasts like this, if less stark, are visible all over the city. In Red Square, Lenin's tomb faces the GUM department store, which now houses a huge selection of very pricey Western shops. Only the very rich can afford to go in; the street outside was blocked off so that customers could park their luxury sedans and SUV's near the side door. Escalades seemed to be particularly popular. There are still monuments and places names for heroes of the Revolution. I'm very near Gagarin Park, named for the 1950's cosmonaut. The park is overlooked by a huge statue of the rocketman himself, looking down Leninski Prospekt, jammed with cars while at least one drunk is passed out on the pedestal below.