Moscow’s lesson: Don’t be a cynic.

A miniature of St. Basil’s Cathedral in an abandoned corner of Izmailovo Market, Moscow. 

Before going to Moscow, I had a wonderfully naïve, holier-than-thou attitude towards Russia. Russia was a corrupt and backwards country, and I—the diligent young journalist—was going to uncover all its problems from a lofty bed and breakfast. In case my flippant self-deprecation didn’t give it away already: I had the wrong attitude.

I spent six weeks studying Russian culture and politics through the PIIRS Moscow Global Seminar program, hoping that it would help inform a career in journalism. I learned a lot: Russians love the circus; when it comes to the International Space Station, the U.S. and Russia are on relatively good terms; and Moscow mules taste no different in Moscow than they do in the U.S.

Most importantly, however, I learned that Russia is a democracy on paper, that laws alone don’t guarantee freedoms and that Russia’s problems aren’t exclusive to Russia.

During one of the first classes, Peyton Cunningham ‘20 brought out a stack of nearly 50 sheets for a five-page reading.

“Yup” said Peyton, reading my confused face, “the printer divided up the pages.”

Sure enough, the pages were all nearly blank with a small piece of the text pasted in the middle. The hotel, it turned out, had charged by the page and had taken the time to divide the reading neatly across 10 times more pages than necessary.

We were all swindled once or twice over the six weeks, but we kept a good sense of humor about it. Were Muscovites taking advantage of us because we were foreigners? Probably. Nevertheless, we got the impression that trust is not the cornerstone of Russian society.

As we soon discovered, a Muscovite never asks the police for directions. Always have a friend take a picture of your taxi driver’s license plate. Drivers don’t pull over for an ambulance. The reasoning? The ambulance driver is simply late for work.

“People here in Russia don’t follow the law, and then they complain there is no law,” a guest lecturer explained to us with a smile.

Moscow helped me understand how much people—not police—help enforce the laws. Without public trust, Moscow suffers. Either as a cause or effect, this lack of trust feeds into Russian political cynicism.

Sometimes it was faster to walk the half hour to class than to take a bus or a taxi. Taxi drivers grumble under their breath about the traffic, caused by construction work. Moscow’s prolific—and seemingly arbitrary—construction raises suspicions that the city’s infrastructure projects offer an opportunity for officials to skim budgets. Citizens’ complaints, however, often begin and end as mumbles behind the wheel.

Either disillusioned or intimidated, few Russians seem to feel like they can change anything; and some don’t even want change. Dissent is frightening to the average Russian. The fall of the Soviet Union destabilized Russia; death rates spiked in the 90s; and many Russians simply want to live out their lives in peace. Putin, despite his dubious record, has stellar approval ratings. When asked why they approve of the authoritarian leader, most Russians parrot the same thing: He provides stability.

Yes, there are legal obstacles, but cynicism has made political change in Russia especially difficult. Unfortunately, a similar attitude faces the Russian press.

“Thank God that Russia doesn’t have any censorship,” one Russian official told us. I can attest to the fact that dropping your jaw is a reflex. In hindsight, the statement is true. On paper, there is no formal censorship in Russia. Instead, intimidation inspires self-censorship.

The Global Seminar introduced us to both Russian and Western journalists whose dedication to the truth was inspiring, especially when one considers how often journalists are attacked. When we were in Moscow, someone had thrown foul-smelling chemicals into the house of Yulia Latynina, a prominent journalist and critic of the Kremlin. In September, she fled Russia; her car was set on fire.

Russia’s constitution guarantees the freedom of press.

If Russia and the Global Seminar program taught me anything, it is that laws aren’t enough. Securing freedom requires constant work, participation and a genuine hope for the future. Russia is flawed of course, but over my six weeks in Moscow, I began to care deeply about its people and culture. I appreciated their love for opera. I went skiing for the first time. I met some incredible people—who didn’t laugh too hard when I fell skiing.

Naturally, these experiences make me more disappointed to see Russians content with a broken government and society; and coming back home, I’ve come to recognize the responsibilities that I have to my own country. In Moscow—not Princeton—the words “in the nation’s service, and the service of all humanity” took on a deeper, personal, and more immediate meaning.

The Metro is Moscow

Without looking up from his cell phone, the twenty-something silently stood up from his seat, giving it to an old woman. Similarly, the old woman never looked up from the floor, but muttered what I assume was a thank you.  The subway car was entirely silent except for the beating of metal wheels pushing the car forward. A few were on their phones, but the rest stared at the floor or out the car’s dark windows.  The Metro patrons’ patient silence was surprising to a boisterous American visiting Moscow for the first time, but this was—by far—the least surprising part of Moscow’s subway system.

Peer to St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Bolshoi Theater, the Moscow Metro is one of the city’s most beautiful features. Not only is it one of the largest metro systems in the world, but it also contains incredible art and architecture: Kiyevsskaya station features gilded historical mosaics, Arbatskaya station touts stunning white marble, and Novoslobodskaya station hosts stained glass murals.  I’d be happy to show photos from the inside; however, photography in the Metro is illegal.  Assuming that the University doesn’t want to get in a legal battle with some transportation branch of the Russian Federation, I’ll leave the visuals to a quick Google search.

Regardless, these stations are a great way for our Global Seminar to get to know the city, not only because the lines cover every corner of Moscow, but also because directions are in Russian and English (I’ve never been so relieved to see an alphabet I recognize).  There’s one line circling the city, and then the circle is crossed by a dozen or so intersecting, color-coded lines.  After I mentioned how easy the Metro was to navigate, one Moscovite described the subway system as “a work of genius, that can be navigated by an idiot.” I decided not to take the comment personally.

Stations are open from 5:30am to 1:00am; trains arrive every two minutes; each ride (from entering to exiting the entire Metro) typically costs around 30 rubles, or about 50 cents. Comparably safe.  Clean.  It wouldn’t make sense to get around Moscow any another way.

Despite its beauty, however, the Metro’s history is paired with Russian history; behind each fresco or mosaic, sculpture or name, is a story that helps tell Russia’s not-too-perfect brush with the twentieth century. The Metro was built under Stalin as a kind of “underground palace of the people” and symbol of Soviet success.  It opened in 1935, and its art and architecture helped our class discover the USSR’s political culture.

The aforementioned Novoslobodskaya station’s stained glass murals tells a less innocent story than its Instagram-able appearance would suggest. Under Stalin, the communist regime was atheistic and considered religion a threat. Churches were demolished.  Church officials were sent to camps, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted. Novoslobodskaya station’s design was an attempt to secularize stained glass.

Okhotny Ryad, meaning “Hunter’s Row,” is located near Red Square and has been renamed four times.  Apart from being Okhotny Ryad, the station was also named after politician Lazar Kaganovich (from 1955 to 1957) and Karl Marx (from 1961 to 1990).  In 1957, Kaganovich helped stage an unsuccessful coup; and in 1990, Perestroika made Marx irrelevant. The USSR did not hesitate to erase names that were politically inconvenient.

Each of us researched one station, and these subtleties and hidden narratives were found everywhere. Especially as the class comes to contextualize the recent protests and the Russian government’s handling of the October Revolution’s hundredth anniversary, understanding the USSR’s flexible relationship with its own history has come in handy.

Coming back and forth from class, my rides on the Metro have made me more pensive about how this history has affected the subway’s role in shaping Moscow today.  A few days ago on the circle line, after finishing the last scene of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (one of our assigned readings), I joined the rest of the subway car in patient silence.  An old woman entered, and I promptly stood up, avoiding eye contact.  She sat down and muttered what I assume was a thank you.  I let the silence speak for me, hearing only the beat of metal wheels push the car forward.