by Hank Leukart
September 6, 2012

A palpable history

Exploring Russia’s past in a famous McDonald’s, the Moscow Metro, and a Cold War bunker.

A mural of the head of Russian novelist Dostoyevsky decorates the Moscow Metro’s Dostoyevskaya Station.

A mural of the head of Russian novelist Dostoyevsky decorates the Moscow Metro's Dostoyevskaya Station. (view all Moscow Metro, Russia photos)

This is the second essay in a series about living like a local in Russia. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.

M

OSCOW, Russia — “During the Soviet period, people never knew where the next danger would come from,” Olga tells me as we drink beer in Moscow’s Johnnie Green’s (Irish) Pub. “During that time, finding a trustworthy Russian friend was very difficult —but, if you found one, you would be friends for life.”

Earlier in the day, I met Olga’s husband, Pavel — a DJ at a Moscow eclectic-rock radio station and lead singer of the appealing Russian rock band The Super Powers — while eating pirozhkis (egg-filled dough) and drinking mors (a traditional cranberry drink) in one of my favorite Moscow cafes, Lavka Bratyev Karavaevih, near famous Patriarshiye Pond. Pavel introduced himself to me when he saw me reading the classic Russian novel The Master and Margarita, and I told him that I got the idea to stay in an apartment near the Pond because one of the book’s pivotal scenes takes place in the park surrounding it. After talking for a half hour, Pavel generously offered to take me out for the evening for drinks with his friends.

“Of course, things have changed now, right?” I ask Olga. “I mean, Pavel started talking to me out of the blue this morning!”

“Yes, people want to meet people now,” Olga says. “They are curious! They feel like they can trust people.”

Olga’s analysis seems accurate. After all, her husband Pavel is just one of many genuinely friendly Russians who have approached during my time in Moscow, curious to meet me. It’s a refreshing change from the fake, sugarcoated, ultracompetitive, aloof attitude worn by many urban-dwelling Americans. It’s also an example of how, while Americans barely seem to remember their past, Russia’s complicated history is always palpable, bubbling below the surface of Russian life.

“Life has been hard for three generations of Russians,” Pavel explains, as he sips his beer. “My grandfather flew in the Russian air force during World War II for America and Russia. My parents raised our family during the Cold War and the grim transition away from Soviet Russia. When I was growing up in the early 1990s, we were all listening to Michael Jackson, but there wasn’t much food to eat. People joined gangs, those people became powerful, and that’s one of the reasons Russia is so corrupt today.” As I listen to Pavel talk about growing up during Russia’s tumultuous post-Soviet transition, I remember the famous photos and videos of 30,000 Russians waiting in a line stretching over a mile in 1990 to visit Moscow’s first McDonald’s in Pushkinskaya Square. I realize that, though my friends in Moscow look much like my friends in the USA, their lives have been very different.

The next day, as I walk from my apartment to the Chekhovskaya Metro Station, I pass a McDonald’s restaurant, one which I have ignored at least 15 times before. This time, however, that famous 1990 photo of Russians waiting in line for McDonald’s materializes in my head, and I realize that I’m standing in front of the same historic restaurant. The opening of this McDonald’s, in a country that had been Communist for over 70 years, was a watershed in free market capitalism. I walk inside and, stand, staring curiously at its interior, in a way that I’ve never looked at a McDonald’s before, gaping at hundreds of customers chewing Big Macs and guzzling soda. Deciding to violate my never-eat-at-American-food-chains-abroad rule, I walk up to a cashier.

“One large French fries, please,” I say. I’m confused when she giggles and disappears, until she returns with the restaurant’s English-speaking manager. It’s a simultaneously entertaining and unsettling experience to order French fries in a McDonald’s and not be understood. With the manager’s help, after I hand over 100 Russian rubles, she gives me the fries. As I walk through the decidedly upscale McDonald’s, past a “McCafe,” with plush armchairs, gourmet coffees, and large case of rich pastries, I notice that my fries taste identical to those in California. Today, Moscow has become a cosmopolitan city, but as I leave the restaurant, I marvel at this McDonald’s, a symbol of Russia’s modernization but also an ever-present reminder of the country’s recent Communist history.

After leaving the restaurant, I descend underground, jumping on to the gray Metro line to make my way toward Mendeleevskaya Station. While I’m walking to transfer to the Metro’s circular, brown line, I notice the station’s unique chandeliers: collections of silver orbs connected together by bright tubes of neon. They’re eye-catching representations of atomic bonds, and I realize that I’m standing in one of the Metro stations that Marina, my Russian medical-student friend, once mentioned to me when we were riding a train together: a station built to honor Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the first periodic table of elements. When I had told Marina that I didn’t yet understand Muscovite’s fascination with their transportation system, she gave me a list of Moscow’s most interesting Metro stations to visit.

“…while Americans barely seem to remember their past, Russia’s complicated history is always palpable, bubbling below the surface of Russian life.”

So, I decide to ride the Metro without a destination in mind, wandering from station to station to see the art and architecture. As I’m admiring the baroque design, Corinthian columns, arched yellow ceilings, and ornate chandeliers in Komsomolskaya Station, I realize that I’ve been tricked into visiting a museum, something I usually avoid, especially on a trip during where I’m trying to live like a local. Now, though, I’m touring the world’s most functional art and history exhibition, and I realize that a Moscow Metro ticket is the best value of any subway or metro ticket in the world: it’s transportation and an art history lesson in one. I think of the world’s other major subway systems — the dingy and antiquated New York Subway, the super-organized but sterile Tokyo Metro, and the efficient but soulless Shanghai Metro — and decide that Moscow’s system, also known as the Palace for the People, puts them to shame. This, of course, was Joseph Stalin’s intent: in the 1930s, Stalin hoped to overtake the West and build a subway system that could serve as a propaganda tool, illustrating communism’s superiority over capitalism. (Incidentally, he also built a second, mysterious subway system, called Metro-2, used only by government officials for emergency evacuation. No civilians have seen it, but the US Department of Defense agrees that it indeed exists.)

I continue wandering from station to station, admiring the mosaic memorializing the 300th anniversary of Russia and Ukraine’s unification in Kiyevskaya, bronze statues of Russian citizens who reaped the benefits of Russia’s 1917 October Revolution in Ploshchad Revolyutsii, the bas-reliefs depicting the history of electricity technology in Elektrozavodskaya, and the large, eerie mural of the head of Russian novelist Dostoevsky in Dostoyevskaya. I visit Lubyanka, one of the two locations of the 2010 Moscow Metro suicide bombings perpetrated by Islamist Chechen terrorists, and I even try to find the ephemeral Art Gallery Train, which, my librarian friend Dasha told me, showcases works of art from the Russian Museum on one side of the train. But, after waiting for the train for an hour and a half without success, I decide that maybe I’d have a better chance of discovering a secret entrance to Metro-2.

I take a train to Taganskaya Station, where I find myself on a residential street searching for a building which, I’ve read, is a false shell hiding the entrance to a Stalin-built underground bunker, left over from the Cold War era. I wander around confused until I hear a group of men walk by me speaking English obnoxiously loudly and realize that they must be Americans on their way to the same bunker, called Bunker 42. I follow them as they walk next to a nondescript, yellow building and through an olive green gate affixed with an enormous Soviet Union red star. At first, I’m still not totally sure that I’m in the right place, but after we descend 18 flights of stairs until we’re trapped 65 meters (213 feet) underground, I feel more sure that I’ve found the right place but less sure that this strange tour is a good idea at all. Quickly, we’re corralled, with a group of about 20 other tourists, by Vladimir, a guide wearing Russian army fatigues and speaking with a strong Russian accent.

“TOUR START NOW!” Vladimir says. “Follow.” His English grammar is so jumbled and his vocabulary so limited that I suspect he’s intentionally parodying a bad Hollywood Russian military villain. He leads our group — comprised of Chinese tourists, rambunctious University of Michigan students, and some Russians — down tunnels adorned with terrifying, Cold War-era posters illustrating what to do during a nuclear attack, through an enormous steel blast door shield, and into a dingy room with a few scale models of nuclear missiles and two 1960s-era computers sitting next to a world map drawn onto what looks like a piece of glass sitting in front of a blackboard. He extracts two volunteers, a Chinese teenager and a University of Michigan frat boy, from the audience, positions them in chairs in front of the computers, and dims the lights. Suddenly, an ominous music cue begins and a movie screen overhead reveals a radar map showing that nuclear missiles, launched from the USA, are heading toward Russia!

“UNITED STATES ATTACKS US! WE MUST RETALIATE,” Vladimir orders. I can hear nervous laughter and murmuring throughout the room. The Michigan students look uneasy, as though they’re unsure whether the US has actually started a war and fearful that, maybe, the US will send them to a treason trial just for entering Bunker 42. I feel a little like I’ve been shot into a bizarre parallel universe in which I’m a Russian Matthew Broderick in a perverse, Soviet version of Wargames. As I watch, Vladimir tells the two volunteers to simultaneously turn the keys on their launch stations and enter launch codes. Both the Chinese tourist and the American obey. On the movie screen above us, we’re shown a montage of scenes of American life: aerial footage of Manhattan, children in classrooms, and people shopping. We see a missile launching from a Russian silo and then scenes, pulled from Hollywood movies, of America under attack: police officers looking helplessly toward the sky, horrified mobs running through city streets, cars cannoned into the air by fireballs, hundreds of buildings flattened in an instant, and trees disintegrating. Then, the screen shows darkness falling over the American central plains and fades to black, and presumably into a decade-long, American nuclear winter.

The room is silent. No one knows exactly how to react — except Vladimir.

“Follow me to try on gas masks,” he demands. We follow.

Communism may be on the decline, Stalin may be dead, and the Cold War may be over. But, in one way or another, they live on in Moscow.

Read the third essay in this series about living like a local in Russia, in which I probe the mystery of the Russian soul.

McDonald's first Russia location opened in Moscow's Pushkinskaya Square in 1990.

Unique chandeliers in the Moscow Metro’s Mendeleevskaya Station were designed to look like representations of atomic bonds.

Unique chandeliers in the Moscow Metro’s Mendeleevskaya Station were designed to look like representations of atomic bonds.

The Moscow Metro’s Komsomolskaya Station features baroque design, Corinthian columns, arched yellow ceilings, and ornate chandeliers.

The Moscow Metro’s Komsomolskaya Station features baroque design, Corinthian columns, arched yellow ceilings, and ornate chandeliers.

Bronze statues of Russian citizens stand in the Moscow Metro’s Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station.

Bronze statues of Russian citizens stand in the Moscow Metro’s Ploshchad Revolyutsii Station.

A memorial mural adorns Park Pobedy Station in the Moscow Metro.

A memorial mural adorns Park Pobedy Station in the Moscow Metro.

Bunker 42 sits below a nondescript, yellow building near the Taganskaya Metro Station in Moscow.

Bunker 42 sits below a nondescript, yellow building near the Taganskaya Metro Station in Moscow.

Tourists watch a nuclear war simulation in Moscow’s Bunker 42.

Tourists watch a nuclear war simulation in Moscow’s Bunker 42.

Nuclear missiles destroy the USA during a nuclear war simulation in Moscow.

How to See Russia’s First McDonald’s, the Moscow Metro, and Bunker 42

  • RUSSIA’S FIRST MCDONALD’S: In Moscow, take the Metro to Tverskaya, Pushkinskaya, or Chekhovskaya station. Russia’s first McDonald’s is located close to the Tverskaya Metro station entrance on Bol’shaya Bronnaya street.
  • THE MOSCOW METRO: The Moscow Metro has 186 stations and is the third most-used subway system in the world (after Tokyo’s and Seoul’s). Rides cost only 28 Rubles/87 US cents. Most of the stations are worth visiting, but start by seeing some of the most beautiful stations on the circular brown line: Novoslobodskaya (stained glass) and Mendeleevskaya (atomic bond chandeliers and Mendeleev mural), Prospekt Mira (white marble pylons), Komsomolskaya (baroque architecture, octagonal dome, Corinthian columns, and ornate chandeliers), and Kiyevskaya (baroque style, Russia/Ukraine unification memorial mosaic, and Ukranian ceiling frescoes). On the blue line, check out: Arbatskaya (vaulted ceilings and floral reliefs), Ploshchad Revolyutsii (bronze statues of Russian citizens who reaped the benefits of Russia’s 1917 October Revolution), and Elektrozavodskaya (bas-reliefs depicting the history of electricity). Others worth visiting: Dostoyevskaya (large, eerie mural of Dostoevsky ‘s head), Trubnaya (illuminated stained glass mosaics by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli), and Park Pobedy (red marble floors and Tsereteli enamel panels).
  • BUNKER 42: A false building shell hides the entrance to Bunker 42, a Stalin-built underground bunker, left over from the Cold War era. To get there, take the Moscow Metro to Taganskaya Station. Then, walk north on Gonchamaya (Гончамая) and turn left on Pyatyy Kotel’nicheskiy, a small residential street. On your left, you’ll see a large, yellow building with the address 34 Gonchamaya (Гончамая). Bunker 42 tours run from 10:30 AM to 6:30 PM on weekdays and 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM on weekends. However, call (+7 (495) 500-05-54) in advance to arrange your tour, because open hours and tour times seem unpredictable. The basic “Declassified” guided group tour costs 1300 RUB/US $40 for non-Russian adults and 700 Rubles/US $22 for Russians. Longer, more expensive, more in-depth tours are also available.

Comments

  • September 6, 2012, 8:25 AM

    Vikas Verma

    Wonderful blog. I like the photographs most. The Mount Whitney photographs are of a perfect place -- no words!