“I’m on the metro!” The well-dressed man next to me on the escalator going down into the depths of Oktyabrskaya barked into his cellphone. “No, I haven’t gone insane! The storm chased me in here! There’s no movement on the roads - I had to leave the car by the restaurant!”
When traffic in Moscow grinds to a halt, it’s easy to spot the car-owners who are suddenly required to descend into the metro - for them, it’s akin to descending into Hades itself.
Afisha magazine recently ran a survey on how Muscovites behave in traffic, and got some choice quotes from people who would rather spend hours in a jam than mix with the riffraff.
“I don’t like the average Muscovite,” said survey participant Ksenia. “He’s poor, he has poor taste, he’s in a bad mood, he has bad manners. Whether after a difficult working day or in the morning, I don’t want any contact with this average Muscovite. I want a protected space, like a bubble.”
Yet the Moscow metro in particular can be a mixed bag. Nowadays, you’re just as likely to sit next to a contemptuous, perfectly coiffed man and observe an equally contemptuous chihuahua peeking out from his Louis Vuitton as you are to be squeezed next to a babushka fresh from the provinces, loud and obnoxious and in possession of an intimidating set of metal teeth.
It seems that people like Ksenia, who take pains to highlight their class status, have other issues with public transport entirely - and that’s an issue of privacy. Moscow is the most populous city in Europe. Even the more expensive apartment blocks can make one feel boxed in from all sides. The crowds are relentless.
But no matter how crowded the roads get, a car is still a car. Even a beaten up, Soviet-era “kopeika” of the sort that one can still spot very occasionally allows you the luxury of being contained within a box, protected against people’s chihuahuas and metal teeth.
Go to any budget car promotion at a shopping mall - within five minutes, the salesguy will mention that not only this little KIA Picanto or Lada Kalina is simply GREAT, it will also allow you to get the hell away from the nightmare of public transport!
“You can take this one to the village!” A salesguy told me over the summer, as I peered into a shiny KIA out of sheer boredom. “Just imagine - being able to get away on the weekends!”
“Everyone else tries to get away on the weekends as well,” I said.
“And that’s why you can order a great stereo system! You can listen to music to your heart’s content while stuck in traffic!”
I have to admit, he made it sound tempting. It’s no wonder most young people I know are shopping around for car loans.
“They’re out of their minds!” A man who gave me a lift recently said as he grimly took stock of the traffic on Moscow’s Garden Ring. “There is no room for their damn cars on these damn roads.”
“Um, you have a car,” I pointed out.
“I had it first! Before driving became impossible!”
“You can always go down into the metro.”
Predictably, he looked at me as if I had just invited him to take a stroll through the Chernobyl nuclear plant facility.
“The metro rubs off on you,” he said after a pause. “It’s why car owners tend to be nicer people. They aren’t nearly as rude as those who ride the public transport.”
Five minutes later he was yelling at the guy who cut him off to go perform a complex sex act on himself. The offending driver, however, remained blissfully unaware. And then it hit me - cars in Moscow really are bubbles. Bubbles of self-contained rage. That’s why they strike their owners as essential. In a car stuck in Moscow traffic, no one can hear you scream. It’s not that the people on the outside are obnoxious, it’s that you can be as obnoxious as you want while on the inside - and that is an infinitely comforting thought.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.