Over the past week or so I’ve been thinking about how most of the posts on this blog could be construed as negative, to say the least. In part that is totally logical; the blog is dedicated to fighting distorted press about Russia, whether that press is biased against or in favor of the country. A lot of my entries deal with the delusional rants of “Team Russia” fanatics who try to present Russia as some kind of great rising empire emerging from the so-called “crumbling” West which, oddly enough, still enjoys far higher living standards in spite of said crumbling. On the other hand I have dealt with many hysterical “anti-Russian” articles, but even in those cases, for the sake of honestly, I’m compelled to report negative facts about Russia. In other words, no, Putin is not “killing people,” but here are actual problems the sensationalist author could have written about instead. So even in defense of Russia, some entries naturally come out negative.
The other major factor behind this phenomenon is that I have an innate aversion to those expatish-sounding articles which paint Russia as a magical, mysterious wonderland, dropping in little Russian cultural references every other sentence so as to display my “authenticity.” When I read one of these articles where every other word is “kvas,” “borscht,” or “babushkas,” along with numerous shoehorned references to Master and Margarita, I just can’t take it seriously. It’s amazing how that style of writing affects people; one time I was having a conversation with an expat writer and he was actually dropping Russian references even though we weren’t really talking about Russia.
The last factor is a matter of privilege. Russophile expats often love writing long lists of why it’s so great to live in Russia, often directed at Russians who express an interest in emigration. Why would they want to leave when it’s so wonderful here? What these writers often ignore is that they don’t live here like ordinary Russians. Aside from having the ability to leave the country as they please, they are typically paid far more than the average Russian, even for the same work. This isn’t exactly as unfair as it sounds. There is usually a reason for the gap in pay, even if it is based on factors outside of people’s control. In any case, there are many advantages to living in Russia which I am hesitant to count because they are connected to these privileges of working abroad.
So in case you, the reader, are wondering why I don’t spend more time talking about positive things in Russia, those are the conditions which shape the tone of this blog. It’s not intentional. For this reason, I have decided to implement a sort of affirmative action and periodically post something genuinely positive and informative to the reader interested in experiencing Russia. So without further ado…
Good things about Russia: Part I
The Moscow Metro
I come from a city which is in infamous for it’s shitty public transport system. As a result, I tended to admire any city with a subway system when I was younger. Now I’ve both visited and lived in many cities with subway systems and while many of them may have aspects which are far superior to those of the Moscow metro, the Moscow metro always wins hands down in any thorough comparison. The main advantages it has are price, frequency of trains, and the fact that its network is so extensive, covering most of the city. But let’s look at a little comparison based on other cities’ subway systems. I hate to sound like an expat writer here, but the Moscow metro is the Kalashnikov of public transport systems. It may not be the prettiest, but it works no matter what.
I have never used the New York subway system, but I know plenty of people who have used it regularly and their complaints are numerous. For me the tipping point was when I was participating in a comments section where many New Yorkers were describing their subway experiences. One woman made a reference to flashers on the subway. Another woman related her story. I casually asked them if this was a regular thing, because the way they wrote implied that it was. Another female New Yorker informed me that it was quite common and related her last unfortunate experience, when a late night passenger sat starring at her, apparently masturbating.
Now plenty of Muscovite women have tales of sexual harassment on the metro, but what they report simply doesn’t compare to the stories I’ve heard about New York’s subway system. Obviously exhibitionists must exist in Russia, but it seems to me that a lot of scumbags here at least observe a certain unspoken agreement that the sanctity of the metro must be preserved. So many people depend on it that the city would degenerate into chaos. For that reason, they somehow manage to resist their compulsion to whip their dicks out in public. Question their motives if you must, but that’s good enough for me.
In contrast to New York, where I have no experience, Prague is actually the foreign city I know best as I lived there for roughly half a year. I don’t remember the Prague metro ever being crowded, but there are only three lines and trains are not as frequent as Moscow. Prague’s system also has a strange paradox because unlike most transit systems, you don’t need a ticket just to get in. You buy tickets which you can validate in various places, including the station entrance, but if you’ve already done that you just walk right down to the platform. Fares are enforced by plainclothes inspectors who ask to see your pass or a valid ticket. It’s pretty rare, but sometimes they will be standing by the exits from a station platform randomly stopping people. This creates a situation whereby if you spend any amount of time in Prague without being stopped by an inspector or passing through a random ticket-checking patrol, you inevitably understand that you could have been riding for free the whole time. Yes, there can be heavy fines for riding without a valid ticket or pass, but that’s only if you get checked. As far as I can remember I had been riding trams and metro trains in Prague for at least a month before an inspector asked to see my ticket, which means that whole time I could have ridden for free. Kind of a dick move there, Prague.
As far as I know, Istanbul’s metro system is relatively new. I only used it one time during the three times I was in Istanbul. I liked the wide train cars, the fact that you could change lines without going up or down any escalators, and the fact that special color-coded stickers which look like footprints can be followed to the other station when transferring. On the other hand, the system didn’t seem to cover much of the city, at least when I was there. In Istanbul’s defense, this is not exactly a city you can go digging up left and right.
Beijing’s stations look super-modern, and I was impressed by what seemed like rather spacious, modern trains. Beijing stations also have special glass panels which help channel traffic on and off trains, as well as force would-be suicidal people to find other means of offing themselves. The main disadvantage of the metro is the fact that you have to x-ray any bags before entering. That and the confusing ticket system where you have to keep your ticket to get out. Shanghai’s system was a little bit more annoying, as far as I can remember. The shocking thing about the Beijing metro hit me the first time I experienced the Monday morning rush. Prior to that, I had been surprised to see that the metro didn’t seem unusually crowded at all. That Monday was different. Imagine being in a tunnel, shoulder-to-shoulder, chest to back with hundreds of people, wall to wall. At transfer stations, this slowly moving mass of people is controlled by a sort of traffic light system, whereby one tunnel full of people has to periodically wait while another one empties into the other station. The Moscow metro can get ridiculously crowded on a daily basis, but I’ve never seen anything like what I saw that morning.
The T is the first subway system I ever rode on, so it holds a special place in my heart. Having said that, I was in Boston in 2012 and the infrequency of trains and the price seemed really noticeable. That and you can be run down by the trains in Park Street station. The Moscow metro has truly spoiled me.
All British people I know share the opinion that the London Underground is essentially the public transport equivalent of Adolf Hitler. I found the fare system ridiculously complicated and the trains were apparently designed by hobbits. Also I learned that when you hear “mind the gap,” they really mean mind that fucking gap. It’s not even a gap, it’s a goddamned cliff. Also instructions in London often tell you to “alight” at a particular station. I do not “alight.” I’m not a fucking butterfly. The only advantage the London Underground has over the Moscow metro is the fact that it is in London and not in Russia. That’s it.
So there you have it, folks. Other subway systems may possess an advantage or two over that of Moscow, but in the end the Moscow metro either wins because it simply has more advantages of its own, or because that other system also has a glaring flaw, be it frequent station closures or an unusual preponderance of public dick-wavers. For the time being, the Moscow metro conquers all.