Cultural immersion in the Moscow Metro

“Why?” was the most common response to my plans to study in Moscow this fall. My answer was three-fold: to submerge myself in a rich language, a culture that has long intrigued the world, and a region the U.S. has lost focus on since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

I would argue that studying in Russia is one of the most authentic cultural immersions one can have in a world as globalized as ours. Unlike other major capitals, Moscow has a relatively low population of English-speakers, especially in the service industry. One has to learn some of the language to get by, which undoubtedly serves as a lesson on culture as well. It is almost impossible to live in Moscow without picking up the city’s mannerisms.

Rarely do you find American students in Moscow being typical American students abroad: the loudest ones at the bar, making little if no attempt to learn the native language, and posting photos of their international debauchery online.

So then, what does it mean to live like a Muscovite? Let me take you on a ride on the Moscow Metro and show you the basics.

Driving in Moscow is reserved for those who have both the necessary money and nerves. Muscovites take the Metro, a massive transport system that boasts the world’s busiest daily ridership. Designed to be public art, many stations are museums in themselves with statues and massive mosaics.

Get your money out before we approach the ticket window. Do not say hello or thank you to the attendant—common for most money transactions in Moscow. Courtesy is expressed by being timely. Hold on as we descend on the escalator at an impossible angle and a speed that feels like an amusement park ride. Soon though, you’ll be running up and down them like a native.

Look around. Almost everyone is wearing jeans—a rarity during Soviet times, as it is usually associated with Western style. Notice how most women have heels, hairstyles, and makeup. The Russian ideal of beauty for women is still very effeminate. Male style is decidedly European: tight pants, leather jackets, and satchels are ever-present.

Over on the up-escalator, a couple is passionately kissing. This occurence is typical. Metro station make-out sessions next to busts of Lenin are the norm for a culture that values having a significant other. If you date in Russia, be prepared for more traditional gender roles. Boys are expected to be forward and to make decisions, whereas girls are expected to be soft-spoken and to a need a man’s help.

As we reach the platform, four policemen walk past on patrol. Among their tasks is to watch for male youths dodging the year long military conscription—though many others avoid it by attending higher education or paying sizable sums of money. Police can and do, however, stop anybody for a passport check. They also have a reputation for seeking bribes. Always have both on you to avoid problems.

Once on board, do not be alarmed by the apparent silence of the entire car. Many, in fact, are having conversations. Russians speak softer than Americans, especially on the Metro, where being quiet demonstrates respect for others. Make a conscious effort to speak more quietly, as it draws less attention and acknowledges the culture.

Three women and five men in one Metro car alone are holding flowers: giving loved ones flowers is a huge aspect of Russian culture. Wives can expect flowers on almost a weekly basis. If you give flowers, make sure you have an odd number. Even is for funerals.

Upon exiting, you will notice many people loitering in the center of the platform. Russians meet friends in the Metro, rather than the street, due to weather and the complexity of metro stations.

The Metro can take you to most anywhere in Moscow. If you are headed for a night out, remember that the Metro closes every night at 1 a.m. and opens at 5:30 a.m. Muscovites, consequently, either start earlier or start later and commit to the whole night.

Each time I ride the Moscow Metro, thousands of passengers pass before my eyes. I feel the enormity of the city, and I relish my anonymity. From a seat on one of the biggest transportation systems in the world, I witness culture in motion.

So step aboard, sit down, and soak it in.

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This article was first published in the Georgetown Voice on October 29, 2014. View it here.

Photo credit: Laura Kurek