In a rush hour commute so intimate that someone was able to steal my long johns, I managed to crowd-surf my way from the escalator to the Metro car in the gut of Moscow. As I was carried over and into the car, I saw an elderly man try and get on at the last minute. As he crossed the threshold, the doors slammed shut on him and, with the wrenching precision of a guillotine, cut his head off. It rolled on the floor of the car and came to rest by my foot.
"Oh, the humanity!" the head said, shaking itself.
The part about the beheading I made up, but I would not have been surprised if it really happened, given the sheer mechanical danger of the Moscow Metro. The Metro is a microcosm of the city above it: Decorative, big, crawling with people, an arena where life and death, consequence and inconsequence do battle regularly. It is a scary thing to descend on an escalator and see that the people at the bottom have nowhere to go, and that if more keep coming down, they will be forced off the platform and onto the tracks. But such is life in Russia's capital, city of extremes, of men with gold teeth and women robed in fur.
It sounds dramatic, and it is. Our program recently spent six days in Moscow, visiting the major parts. But no landmark was as awesome as the utter humanity, the sheer scope of everything. In Moscow, everything is big. Architecture explodes from the ground and soars up into the gray skies, eight-lane boulevards unfurl from squares like octopus legs, even the people are either tall or wide or both.
If Moscow weren't so very real, it would be the stuff of fiction. The city is 60 kilometers across and wrapped in its bloated circumference are more than 13 million people, each of whom have developed their own ways to eke out a living, legal or not. It is a place of extremes, and the scarcity of a middle class is the best indication of this.
Muscovites drive clean Mercedes or they take trams. They work for the government or a corporation like Samsung, or they sell trinkets on the streets. There are people who drive Hondas and work at body lotion stores in the mall, but they are an endangered species. The decadent economy termed "wild capitalism" by some is so stressful that people aren't having children, so the population is getting older and dying.
Suitable then, because if I had to describe Moscow in one word, it would be "apocalyptic." The world is slowly ending there, in this Orwellian megalopolis whose intent it was to be hugely successful but which ended up being only huge. But there is a forbidden beauty to the city.
It's not charming like Vienna, rich like Prague, beautiful like Salzburg or an artistic-industrial hybrid like Munich. Moscow is entrancing simply because it's so different from any European or American city.
In a way, it combines American capitalism and European splendor, but then overpowers both with Asian scope. The result is something faintly familiar and wildly alien.
Take the Red Square, a geometric example of the strange sides of Moscow. On one side of it is the elegant, non-confrontational National History Museum and perpendicular to it are the imposing walls of the Kremlin.
Across from the museum is St. Basil's, with a bizarre architecture unique to Russia. And next to it, on the fourth side of the square, is a monstrous shopping mall, which dwarfs the other three national institutions. And just in front of the mall is a stone platform where centuries ago people were executed for fun by Ivan the Terrible.
Moscow still maintains the delicate balance between body lotion and beheadings.