"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Russian Journals, Part Five, Herding the Sheep

(Don't forget, you can click on the photos to enlarge them to full screen.)

Meet Valeria. She was our tour guide for the 12 days of our river cruise in Russia. Vantage Travel calls her a program manager. I called her our guide. I know I have a better picture of her somewhere, but Picassa is hiding it from me right now.

Oh, wait. I know where there's a good photo of her. Hang on a minute.

Here she is. Our baby-sitter, shepherd, and all-around good gal guide.

However, every town we went to also had a local guide waiting for us. Meet Natasha. She led us around Moscow and filled us full of information.

And, yes, every Russian woman was tall, slender, and beautiful. Every one of them. Or, so it seemed.

Usually Natasha, and the other local guides, led the way, while Valeria followed along behind rustling up the strays, and counting noses once we were all back aboard the coach.

Our tour guides were either very, very confident, very, very brave, or very, very sick of foreign tourists, because on our first day in Moscow they shepherded us to the Moscow Metro where we were expected to survive riding the Metro and visiting three different stations. In addition, we were expected to do this as a group, ending up at the same station from which we had departed.

A ceiling in a Moscow Metro station

To make things even tougher for us and to weigh the odds more in their favor, they demanded that we finish with the same number of people as when we started, and they all had to be wearing Vantage name tags. We were not allowed to just grab anybody off the street and add him to our group. In case someone was missing, that is.

I’m thinking the latter—the very, very sick of foreign tourists—was a viable option, because this was September and they had been doing this every week since May with no time or days off. Our group traveled from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The day we were departing the boat to fly home, another group was boarding the boat to begin their tour from St. Petersburg to Moscow.

Wall decoration in subway station

So, seriously, how can they be expected to maintain a smile while answering the same dumb questions day after day, solving problems, listening to complaints, and so on, and not have just a bit of a desire to take the whole bloody herd to the Metro and lose them in the bowels of the Moscow subway system? Really. Then they could take the fast lane up the escalators, cackling with glee, and spend the rest of the day at Starbucks.

Of course then they wouldn’t get tipped and they’d probably lose their jobs, and in this economy, neither is preferable. So, with Natasha in the lead—and lecturing forcefully about staying together and following her instructions—and Valeria bringing up the rear, down into the subway system we went. And I do mean down, because many of these stations are 200 feet underground and did double duty as air raid shelters, bomb shelters, and (it’s rumored) sanctuaries in case of nuclear attack. Turns out the Russians were just as scared as we were.

Now what, you might ask, is the point in riding the Metro. We didn’t use it for transportation—to get from one attraction to another. All we did was travel three stations, get off, look around, get on, go back two stations, get off, look around, get back on another line, go to another station, get off, look around, get back on and return to where we’d started. This was not an exercise in showing us how efficient the Russian Metro is, either. This was something entirely different than what you’d expect.

This was an art tour extravaganza, and none other than Josef Stalin was responsible for it. As with many of the buildings constructed during his rule, the subway stations were extravagant with various colors of native marble, precious materials, beautiful chandeliers, sculptures, mosaics, and paintings. Famous artists were commissioned to provide works for the stations.

The subway was planned during the early part of the Soviet Empire, but actual construction was delayed while the Russians got a couple revolutions and a war (WWI) out of the way.

The first line was opened in 1935. Construction continued through WWII. When Nikita Khruschev came to power, the stations became much more Spartan, as did all construction during his time.

To get down to the subway stations, you have to ride the longest escalators I’ve ever seen. We were told to stand to the right of the steps, because the left is the fast lane. A number of people passed us, jogging up or down on the left during the escalator rides that took two minutes or more, and they run faster than US escalators.

A train comes by every 90 seconds from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. The doors open to disgorge and engorge quickly. Be on your toes and hurry because the doors close automatically. The line has 177 stations over its 189 miles. According to Natasha, you could buy a ticket, and ride the subway all day, getting off at each station to admire the art and architecture. It wouldn't be a bad way to spend a few days.

Eight to nine million people ride this system every day during the week, and if you saw the parking problem in Moscow, you would too.

We visited Smolenskaya, Kievskaya, and (of course) Revolyutsii (Revolution) Square stations.

I think the last one, named after one of Russia’s revolutions, was my favorite. Dark paneling, filled with bronze sculptures depicting every aspect of Russians’ lives, there was one little thing that caught my attention and made it special.

You probably can’t see it in this picture. Here’s another.

Sorry, but those people just wouldn’t hold still. See that hand in the center? Reaching up towards something shiny?

Here’s that something shiny. And take a look at the dude on the left, because there's something shiny on that side, too.

And here’s Kathy, her hand on the bronze muzzle of the dog sculpture. Russians think it’s good luck to rub it. Must have been, because Valeria and Natasha weren’t able to lose us that day.

(For a great site about the Moscow Metro with info and360 degree pictures, go to:



  1. I had no inkling that there were such lavishly decorated subway stations anywhere in the world.

    I agree it would be a delight to see all of them.

  2. They are still rubbing statues for luck. Cap and Patti