© Frank Herfort

Moscow from below

  • TEXT DIANA LAARZ

Palaces and prefab blocks, ­talented newcomers and ­venerable institutions: The ­Moscow Metro connects them all  – at 90-second intervals

  Station 1: Khovrino

Ivan Lepskij is in a hurry. He and the other boys rush into the dining room of the FC Dynamo Moscow boarding school. One day, the 11-year-old says between mouthfuls of macaroni, he wants to eat from the buffet with the other professional soccer players in the dining room upstairs. Ivan, who comes from Kamchatka in the Pacific Ocean, 6500 kilometers from Moscow as the crow flies, has already made it quite far, but has bigger plans. Talking to his parents on the phone (10 p.m. his time, 6 a.m., theirs), he says: “First I’ll play for the national team, then Real Madrid.” His present club, Dynamo Moscow, is a first division club that’s been limping along in the lower third of the league table, but hopes are high that the World Cup will inject it with more dynamism. At least afterwards, it will be able to play home games in its own stadium again, which has been undergoing refurbishment for the big event for years. The club’s current training facilities are on the edge of the city near Khimki Forest, some 30 kilometers northwest of Red Square. It’s here that we begin our tour.

 

The State Historical Museum on Red Square, in the center of Moscow

The State Historical Museum on Red Square, in the center of Moscow

© Frank Herfort

There are two things you can always depend on in Moscow: gridlocked traffic above ground and a model of efficiency below. A train stops every 90 seconds and the Moscow Metro transports 2.5 billion people every year. It is also considered the world’s most magnificent subway. We take the Line 2, the green line, south from Khovrino station, a purpose-built affair with glass swing doors marking the entrance to the underworld. The train hurtles beneath the residential blocks of this gray bedroom community at 100 kilometers an hour.

Checking messages at Dynamo Metro station

Checking messages at Dynamo Metro station

© Frank Herfort
Sonya Serova manages the Ziferblat café

Sonya Serova manages the Ziferblat café

© Frank Herfort

  Station 10: Tverskaja

The city’s historic center begins just past the Dynamo stadium. Peering out of the train windows, you see Soviet mosaics, arched vaults, white marble and chandeliers. Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin commissioned the best architects in the country to build these “palaces for the people.” The escalator takes us up to the area that was populated by artists and writers in the 19th century.

We almost miss the Ziferblat café because the sign is barely visible. “We wanted to change that,” says Sonya Serova wrily once we are inside, “but we forgot.” The second-floor café rejoices in a mishmash of old furniture, crooked but comfortable. One of the guests is plonking around on a piano, another is performing an elaborate tea ceremony for friends. It’s hard to distinguish the guests from the people who work there. Serova asks: “Which alarm clock would you like?” The clocks, all of them fleamarket finds, reflect the café’s concept. The name Ziferblat means clockface, and guests pay for the time they spend at the café: three rubles per minute or about three dollars an hour. After two hours the price goes down. There are different kinds of tea and coffee, plus cookies and fruit, but you serve yourself. Nobody goes to the Ziferblat to fill up on food or drink as fast as possible. Instead, it’s a place to meet and make friends. Serova, 23, is the manager. She studied art history for a while, “maybe one day I’ll finish my degree,” she says, but now, she spends every precious minute in the café. There are places in Moscow with better coffee and more elegant seating, she admits, “but the Ziferblat has emotion.” The café opened seven years ago, an eternity for this fast-paced city. It marked the beginning of a more leisurely era. Muscovites are learning to enjoy their city, hanging out or strolling around, lounging in hammocks or riding bikes along the Moskva River. “Our city is much more laid back than it was 10 years ago,” says Serova.

 

Igor Tsvirko and Kristina Kretova practicing ballet at the Bolshoi Theater

Igor Tsvirko and Kristina Kretova practicing ballet at the Bolshoi Theater

© Frank Herfort
The Mercury City Tower

The Mercury City Tower

© Frank Herfort

  Station 11: Teatralnaya 

Our next ride on the Metro is very short and ends at Teatralnaya Ploshchad (Theatre Square), a station announced by crystal lamps set in bronze chandeliers. Out on the street again, we suddenly find ourselves in the heart of Moscow, between the Kremlin, Red Square and the GUM luxury department store. The monument to Karl Marx has his famous rallying cry: “Workers of the world, unite!” engraved into the granite. On the far side of the next intersection lies the Bolshoi Theater, the building for which the square is named. Muscovites like to point out that the Bolshoi is a few months older than the United States.

Piano melodies lead the way to practice room No. 2 where Igor Tsvirko and Kristina Kretova are rehearsing the passionate, painful final scene of Don Quixote. You can see the muscles rippling in Kretova’s back and hear Tsvirko’s breathing as he lifts her into the air. “Now what?” he whispers to to his partner, who replies breathlessly, “the arabesque!” A few bars later he lands on the floor with a thump. “Stop!” the teacher calls out, shaking her head disapprovingly. Igor Tsvirko laughs.

The Bolshoi Ballet ensemble numbers more than 200 dancers. Tsvirko, 28, and Kretova, 34, are principal dancers, the highest rank in a ballet company. Their teachers are often former Bolshoi stars themselves, and like all ballet dancers, these two will remain students throughout their career. The Bolshoi devours them whole. Tsvirko dances Don Quixote one day, Spartacus the next, then a role as a French revolutionary. “On stage, I get overwhelmed by emotions,” he says, “which is often very hard to bear.” Tsvirko and Kretova take off their ballet shoes and slip into fur-lined boots to keep their tendons and ligaments warm. The next rehearsal is in two hours.

  Station 17: Kashirskaya 

Rounding a bend, we continue south, the Metro cars clattering along. Some of them still bear the red star insignia. The cars were built in St. blocks, a small park and a rusty children’s playground recall the 1960s. We are headed for the Na Kashirke Gallery, a flat-roofed courtyard building. Inside, Galina Vorobyova scrunches up her eyes, then opens them wide again. She does this when she’s evaluating a student’s painting. “Let’s start over” she says.

The gallery opened in the 1980s to introduce locals to art. Today, after surviving many years of turbulence, it proves that art can make it big, even in the suburbs. The director, Galina Kuzmina, is constantly on the lookout for contemporary art. One wall shows installations made of birch bark and salmon skin by an artist from Udmurtia in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Another room exhibits seven decades’ worth of women’s magazine covers: women tractor drivers and doting mothers – a commentary on the role of women in the Soviet Union.

Some neighbors stop by in the afternoon to paint. Galina Kuzmina sits down with them. The teacher, Galina Vorobyova, is an artist who usually works with children. She says adults are more difficult because “they have forgotten how to observe properly.” She shows them three tulips. “You have to look closely” she says, to see that one has the air of a confident beauty whereas another is bent like a woman in prayer. Galina Kuzmina is thinking about her next exhibition. Working title? Laziness. “We need to get away from all the stress,” she explains.

MOW

,
waiting for the Metro looks like an exercise in meditation, but the wait is never long

Waiting for the Metro looks like an exercise in meditation, but the wait is never long

© Frank Herfort

  Station 19: Tsaritsyno

After Kashirskaya, the distance between stops grows longer. Moscow is spreading out into its hinterland, and with it, the Metro system, which has long become a city beneath the city where 36 000 people work. We float upwards on the escalator only to be met by derelict buildings and broken paving stones, although a magnificent sight awaits us around the next corner: There, on a hill about 20 kilometers from the center of town, is Tsaritsyno Palace. Catherine the Great fell in love with this spot overlooking Moscow in 1775 and ordered a fairy-tale castle to be built; today it is a museum.

Julia Kiseleva, a museum worker, treats us to “Russian history in fast-forward mode.” During the summer, Muscovites hold picnics on the lawn in front of the cavalry buildings, and in the winter, go for sleighrides in the snow. Kiseleva praises the Russian empress’s prescience: “She chose Moscow’s most romantic spot, although she was a bit erratic.” That’s putting it mildly. When the empress visited the half-finished palace, she didn’t like what she saw and had parts of it torn down and ordered Petersburg until the mid-1970s, when the city was still Leningrad. The train spits out its passengers at Kashirskaya, where rows of apartment a new one built. Construction only stopped when Catherine died in 1796. “According to one story, she flew into a rage when she couldn’t climb the stairs in all her finery,” Julia Kiseleva tells us. It’s one of many stories. The palace was neglected for 200 years and trees grew amid the ruins. Some of the buildings were used for communal living in Soviet times. In 2005, the mayor of Moscow decided to restore and complete the ensemble of buildings. So Tsaritsyno has become what it was always meant to be: a magical haven, not just for an empress but for about five million people who visit every year.

  Station 23: Alma-Atinskaya 

The green line continues on for a few kilometers and then we reach Alma-Atinskaya, the end of the line. But the city doesn’t end here. The Moskva River flows sedately behind residential buildings. Its current moves away from the city, but we want to go back. By car, it would us take several hours get back into town, so we descend once again and take the Metro.

© Cristóbal Schmal

1. Café Ziferblat 
2. Bolschoi-Theater
3. Galerie Na Kashirke
4. Zarizyno-Park


Getting there

Lufthansa flies up to five times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to four times daily from Munich (MUC) to Moscow (DME) in June. Use the app to calculate your miles.
Download here:
miles-and-more.com/app