Counting the cost of riding the underground with the taciturn English

A returning expat of differences between Moscow and London subway. Source: DPA / Vostock photo

A returning expat of differences between Moscow and London subway. Source: DPA / Vostock photo

Spot the difference: Our returning expat discovers that things are not quite what he’s used to on the daily commute.

It’s nearly nine on a Tuesday morning and the Central Line is completely closed from Liverpool Street to Oxford Circus. The platform I’m on is eight people deep and commuters are angrily complaining into phones, nervously biting nails and muttering curses under their breath.

You might think none of this seems odd, but for me, a veteran commuter on four of Russia’s seven underground systems, there’s something not quite right here.

 Why aren’t the people pushing and shoving each other? Why has no one crammed themselves onto any of the four trains that have come and gone so far?

Once again I realise that I’m not in Russia anymore.

Enter if you dare

Entering the tube is a fairly mundane experience here in London. Tap Oyster card, barriers open, walk through. Not so in Russia, where you’ve got to run the gauntlet of vicious, open turnstiles, eager for their next victim.

After tapping your ticket or feeding in your token (cumbersome plastic poker chips in Kazan, easily misplaced metal discs in St Petersburg) you run the risk of being dealt a crippling blow to the thighs from faulty hidden barriers which have not registered your payment. They shoot out from either side of the open gate accompanied by an incongruously cheerful turnstile tune and the odd piercing whistle-blow of a nearby attendant.

Embarrassing and painful yes, but all in a day’s commute in Russia.

The risk, however, is well worth it. Having travelled into the bowels of the metro on escalators long enough to read a page or two of a good novel, you are met with platforms adorned with bronze statues of idealised Soviet citizens, huge crystal chandeliers, aging marble flooring and brightly tiled murals dating back decades.

Many stations built in the 1980s, like those in Nizhny Novgorod and Novosibirsk, are disappointingly bland and industrial-looking, but recent stations have been designed to look as captivating as those from the 1930s. Everything from Art Deco to Islamic geometric patterns, and dragons can be found on Russia’s metro platforms.

A wagon as big as the Russian soul

I was once told by a very drunk Russian that his soul was as big as the metro wagon we were on. I’m not entirely sure what he meant by that, but wagons are much more comfortable than the narrow dome-shaped ones found on certain lines of the tube, where every square inch is taken up with sweaty bodies during rush hour.

Never have I felt so uncomfortable as when cramped between several fur coat-clad women or squashed into the porcine back of a fellow passenger suffering from the sweltering summer heat.

Despite this, Russians are excellent at organising themselves between stations, asking those closest to the door if they are getting off at the next stop and making room for those who are. The incredulous looks I got last week when I tried this on the Central Line reminded me I was back in 'stiff upper lip land'.

Babushka tactics

As a relatively young and fit chap, I was last in the pecking order when it came to getting a seat on the metro. I easily fell into the habit of giving up my seat for anyone and everyone, following the gallant example of Russian men who, no doubt, would see the “Baby on Board” badges I have noticed women wearing on the tube as totally incomprehensible.

Highest ranking of all, babushkas are unashamed to ask anyone to give up a seat for them, resorting to placing bags of grocery shopping on the knees of non-compliant travellers without a second thought.

None of this seems to apply in London. Seats set aside for pregnant women, the elderly or disabled, are taken by those who don’t need them, grandmas are a rare sight and men actively compete with women in the great seat race.

Don’t get me wrong though, Russia’s metros certainly have their downfalls, some of which I could never understand.

Why, for example, would anyone think that placing maps inside the trains instead of on platforms, where they would be more useful? How are you supposed to know which train you need before you get on it?

What is it that makes the escalator dezhurnie (attendants) feel like they shouldn’t give out directions or information (clearly stated in signs pinned up in their glass cabins)?

And why do the clocks show how long it has been since the last train left, rather than when the next one will arrive?

Despite these, however, I can’t help but miss the metro, particularly the Moscow system, where a single trip will set you back just 28 roubles (43p) and a 30 day pass only 2,350 roubles (£36).

I can only hope that as time goes by I feel like I get my money’s worth here in London, where a single ticket alone costs at least £4.70.


More: A day in the life of a Moscow Metro station bench

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