I saw this article posted in someone else's lj, and asked if I could copy it and repost it here, because I think it deserves a wider audience than it was likely to get in its first home. Given the recent talk in the press about the relative merits of multiculturalism and assimilation (well, okay, maybe it's not the hot topic of the day for everyone, but at least you're aware of it, right?), it seems pertinent. Hope you agree.
November 29, 2005
Moscow's Real Underworld
By Mark H. Teeter
Mark H. Teeter is opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.
Last week, the chairman of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, decided
to leave his limousine in the lot and take a trip on the metro. Afterward,
he emerged from the depths and shared some remarkable views on this novel
According to Izvestia, the chairman was shocked -- shocked! -- to discover
that the metro was "overused." The trip had not been at rush hour, yet a
short ride on the dark blue line proved "more than enough" for the chairman
to get the picture. "You get pressed up against the wall, and people tromp
on your feet, not noticing that you're the chairman of the Federation
A galvanized Mironov vowed on the spot to dramatically increase the federal
share of metro funding. Fine. But the real points here lie elsewhere. The
first, clearly, is that Mironov could be shocked by what he saw -- as good
an illustration as you'll find of the disconnect between government and
governed. Being in power means never having to use the subway (among other
things) ever again -- and forgetting entirely what it is like.
Which is a shame, as the metro provides a sobering and invaluable sense of
context. In a city chock full of pretend institutions -- a pretend
parliament, a pretend judiciary and now the Public Chamber, a great big
pretend NGO -- the Moscow metro is utterly real. It does a real job under
really difficult circumstances and does it, for the most part, really well.
And it has real problems, too, one of which is the second point here.
Mironov correctly observed that the metro is overcrowded; what he didn't
observe (or admit to observing) is that in the view of many users it is
overcrowded by the wrong crowd.
The metro is the venue in which Old Moscow meets the Other Moscow, 19 hours
a day, seven days a week. If you're Old Moscow (meaning an immigrant who
got here first), you may not like seeing vegetable stands run by the Others
(darker than you, eyes slanted differently) -- but you can buy your beets
elsewhere. In the metro there's no alternative. When Others suddenly pile
into your car en masse at Partizanskaya -- loaded with goods and produce,
dynamic and utterly unashamed in all their Otherness, talking loudly into
cell phones in a language you don't understand -- you and your friends,
Ivanov, Petrov and Sidorov, may start to feel resentful or frightened or
both. You can look into your newspaper to get away from them -- and there
read that what Moscow and Russia desperately need to solve their growing
labor shortage is more Others. With any luck, in other words, your metro
car will be more crowded, uncomfortable and scary next year. That was
Mironov's great unspoken message. No wonder he started making promises
right and left as soon he got out.
The metro is not a metaphor for Moscow, the metro is Moscow, its present
and its future. It is a permanent flash point, the no man's land between
two wary and untrusting cultures, a zone both must use every day and at
close quarters. In it you see the great ethnic-nationality problem as it
appears in real life: not the "swarth-enhanced" actors of the Rodina ad
(throwing watermelon rinds in front of baby carriages) but many kinds of
people trying to get around the city to make a living, all forced to do so
in an ever-increasing proximity and at a rising level of discomfort.
Instead of closing down NGOs, State Duma deputies should each take a weekly
subway ride and then strike a real blow for civil society by rendering the
city's underground society more civil: With more trains, more stations and
more personnel in the system, its long-suffering, harried passengers would
be more likely to tolerate each other better -- first inside the metro and
then above ground, in the Moscow the Duma members actually do see. And the
Duma members would win, too. One reason Boris Yeltsin became a genuine
popular hero here in the late 1980s was that people saw him coping as they
did: "He takes the bus to work." Has any Russian politician done the
equivalent since -- or even thought of it?
No one expects Vladimir Putin to stride down to the Park Kultury metro
station after work and dive into the rush hour mosh pit there. But if the
president is genuinely interested in knowing how the old and new versions
of his capital are and are not coming together -- and perhaps doing
something toward mitigating their impact on each other in the great and
unavoidable demographic collision that is already under way -- then he
could at least take one simple step: He could ask Sergei Mironov just
what's going on down there.
Even at second hand, a little more of Mironov's "shock therapy" would be a