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Pitch Black Void

About the author
Alexander Terekhov is a Russian writer and novelist.

No one will tell you anything good about the Moscow metro. "This year there's been a mass invasion of rats. That's why there's been so many train delays – the engine-driver has to brake when a solid mass of rats rolls across the rails. If you try and drive through them, the rats get rolled up onto the wheels. They like it in the metro – there's plenty of water and refuse, too, even scraps of meat: criminals often dump corpses in the tunnels – they throw them out from the last trains..."

"You see, they had to take the trash cans out of the metro – they're afraid of explosives. There's no way they can nab the terrorists; you expect an accident every minute."

"Once the escalator broke through, and under it there was water, so many people drowned. The only ones to survive were those who managed to hang onto the lamp stands..."

"And now they've started to kidnap people. In a crowd they'd poke 'em with a needle and drag 'em along as if they were drunk.

"The metro is like a whirlpool – you can disappear here without a trace."

Those are probably exaggerations, but the truth about the metro isn't particularly cheery.

A mine-field is spread out under the feet of millions of Muscovites. It could paralyze the capital. The Moscow metro strike committee threatened a warning strike. Through clenched teeth, the strike committee admitted to the public that the metro is no longer safe.

From a leaflet: "At present a difficult if not grave situation has developed with respect to passenger safety... The organization of passenger transport has essentially gone out of control..."

***

Pitch Black Void first appeared in the "Love and Fear" edition of Glas. Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation.

More Glas stories on openDemocracy:

Leonid Latynin, "Sleeper at Harvest Time "

Ksenia Klimova, "A Marriage of Convenience"

Ludmila Petrushevskaya, "The Princess with the Lily-white Feet"

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, "Yellow Coal"

Alexander Selin, "Alpatovka",

Elena Glinka, "Kolyma Streetcar"

Boris Yampolsky, "A Crowded Place"

Alexander Pokrovsky, "Saint among saints"

The metro went cold underground like an immovable crossbar that will be raised only with the rest of the country.

We used to love our metro so much. What happened to our love?

To find out what happened we need the night. Night is love's time.

Night is a pause; it is the bliss of the Miserly Knight. To descend beneath the marble arches and with slow fingers fondle the sacred, leisurely turn down to the left tunnel through the walkway, down the escalator, from a radial onto the circle line, pushing through, to feel on the face the sad draught from the empty halls, to wander aimlessly through the abandoned rooms, touching, sighing, weeping and forgetting where you are right now.

Fewer and fewer are shuffling through the underground crosswalks. The rustling of bright shiny autos on the blackened asphalt, like falling autumnal foliage, grows more and more rare. Night falls with its hairy paunch over the heads of the buildings. The insatiable underground octopus of the metro gathers together a quiet national assembly. It calls night owls in yellow vests who know not the light of day into the deep marble dens to serve the first wonderful love of socialism. A love built without any foreign aid, in the midst of ironic smirking from abroad, built on the bones of eight centuries. It calls them to serve the best underground in the world, the Moscow metro!

The metro coughs into the damp handkerchiefs of the streets, freeing its lungs from the remains of that dog-tired people so unworthy of this first love.

"The last to drag in are the ministerial grocery stores salesmen. From the restaurants comes a tipsy crowd. Not like the ordinary Russian drunk, but dignified. Some guy's walking around right up to closing time. The oddball type. He examines each woman carefully. He'd step onto the escalator and cross himself. And we notice that he often goes up with different ladies. Once when he didn't show up we even missed him. From the Arbat, I wouldn't even call them people. They go around naked. I can understand girls, but she's a size 58, and her back and legs are all showing – yuck! And then the Afghan vets on their way to some celebration, jumped right through the turnstiles, broke all the lamps! But then there's the big events when we close down – perfect order, everyone with a pass, all military.

"At Revolution Square the deaf get together, yeah, those, you know, the deaf-mutes. They used to get together at the Novokuznetsky station, now they hang out here till late hawking duds, selling porno stuff and playing shell games. At night it's dangerous; thugs can harass and intimidate you. They'll strip a drunk in the last car. Or: "Caution, the doors are closing," one of 'em will hold the door just a second and snap off your fur hat – snitch! and he's gone; you try and find him. It seems like even the police could clean your pockets, let alone punch you or say something rude... The bag ladies from the train station ask to let them spend the night."

With one last short jolt the escalator jerks to a stop, and you can suffocate on the silence. The trains are rushing off to the depot, and the weak echo of their hurrying howl floats up from below. The yawning guard locks the doors – it's over. The life of the underground homestead begins.

In the stone bunker under the vestibule two old women wrap washed bandages around their hands. They're escalator operators. Their job is the most dangerous. Narrow dirty gutters lead down, all the way down to the very bottom... At night, the operators have to wipe down every step. They wipe them down with a mythical washing solution that is really just stinky, hand-corroding kerosine. According to regulations it's supposed to be turned completely off, in reality they let it run slowly, drawing their hands through the smacking steel gears. To get through all the steps once takes three hours. They are majestic and meek – like aged Madonnas.

"The machine... Well, it has feelings, you know. You treat her rough and she'll drag you down fast. She'll catch a corner of your clothes and hang onto it. Does anybody ever trip up? Yeah, if they're inexperienced or too tired out. I had four years of schooling. Young folk come, they try it for a while and leave. You can't sleep – the boss'll show up and cut you down to size, take your bonus away. They used to get you for reading even. You're sitting at night, and you start to see things, like someone's in the machine room. You step out to take a look: no one's there, except 380 volts. Anything can happen here, you know, I mean the Kremlin's right next door."

The escalators have been here since the beginning. They've held up pretty well... In the metro the skeleton of the past is best preserved; it's like in the Mausoleum. It's hard to do repairs – you open everything up and then what are you going to replace it with?"

Behind the lemon colored shades in the ticket-collector's window coins are jumping like a ringing whirlpool into the change machine. One hundred rubles, that's 666 fifteen-kopek pieces and two five-kopek pieces. SChMO – stands for Senior Change Machine Operator. She is Aleksandra Nikolaevna Volkova; her collar is white polka dots on a light blue; she's been at it for a quarter century. Her professional ailment is lower back pain. She started as a ticket checker, she tore tickets to make them "invalid from now on."

Dear Aleksandra Nikolaevna, invalid from now on...

"And for the metro they chose only tall, good looking girls... Sometimes we'd be standing at the control point, each more beautiful than the next, all dressed in uniform. They were strict about the uniforms: regulation overcoats with epaulettes, little berets, modest sports shoes. Stockings were required – no bare legs. There was a tunic dress, too, but we tried to hang on to that. We'd pull something black on under the overcoat, not too colorful so it wouldn't show through the openings. How clean it was! In the morning a nurse and the duty master would take over the station; they would take a swab of cotton or gauze and check the dust. Or they'd use their fingers – the index finger for the railings, the thumb for the sculptures, the middle finger for the benches..."

She puts on the kettle and assures me:

"We're all past retirement age. When we leave you'll have no metro... When it got really cold we warmed things up with our own bodies."

***

I walk down the strangely stationary steps between the round lamps that look like puffy pussey willow buds with a fiery little wire worm within. A forlorn figure in a winter cap and repairman's orange vest drags himself up the adjacent path with the humility of a pilgrim crawling into holy places. He doesn't even hope for a burst of kindness from the station master who could with her power bring the escalator to life and with an angel's omnipotence lift up towards the draughty vestibule a soul that has left its duties of labor. You're happy to meet a human being, as if you were in the desert. He is sad, although the aroma of our heroics of labor, the smell of hangover that he drags behind him like an unfolded parachute, suggests that his melancholy is serene.

The station master, Ira, sullenly takes down notes from the velvety voice of the intercom. Surrounded by old telephones with heavy-headed receivers like dumbbells, she sits under the shadow of the extendable hook used to fish off the tracks things lost by passengers: glasses, keys, money, combs, shoes, lighters. Next to the hook – a sample "lost-and-found" form. "Identification card for special privileges in Irodiad Ivanovich Stulev's name. If this document is discovered confiscate and send to our office." In the pauses of the night you forget what era you're in.

"Some of our people are afraid of the intercom," concluded Ira with an intercom announcement. "Is our station kind of gloomy?"

I nod my head, donning a vest with crosses made out of a "light reflecting polymer material" and looking like a Knight Templar on his way to the Crusades. The instructions read, "In case of the soiling of the vest it may be washed out at home."

"No hot meals," Ira counts on her fingers. "All of a sudden some passenger decides to drink a beer in the tunnel, or they start fighting... So it's up to me to warn the train crews, get a policeman into the engine-driver's cab to catch the guy. They barely managed to pull him out of the walkway between the tunnels. And the police walk around behind us pointing out scraps of paper, but as soon as there's a fight – they're nowhere to be found. Someone took the pistol from the sculpture of the sailor, and one of the partisans just needs a push and it'll fall. The hygienist arrives and you got a real circus on your hands. What kind of cleanliness are you gonna find there...? I once found a note in the station: "Lyuba, I waited and waited and waited for you, but couldn't wait any longer," she concludes, smiling happily and dreamily.

***

On the empty platform, in the shelter of the fierce-looking statues, hefty workers from the overhaul repair crew are battling it out at cards. Their speciality is menial, back-breaking work. Theirs is the hardest lot in the metro.

With a quiet grumble a small freight car rolls in – a motor loader model 908DM, full up with tarry sleepers. The crew gets up slowly to load up. Foreman Savelev, a stern man with grey hair, takes a long silent expressionless look at my new little vest and asks lazily under his nose:

"You comin'?"

The freight car flies into the ribbed throat of the tunnel and the dusty wind blows into the open door – foreman Savelev flicks his ashes out of it; in the car they're spitting sunflower shells, sleeping or standing blankly with the eyes of pilgrims at a team huddled together on their spread out jerseys, conserving heat on the windy platform. A little further, at the very end, with the immobility of a snowmaiden, sits a lonely female figure in black motorcycle glasses – the motorman's assistant; she'll wave if anything happens...

Like short apparitions the marble banks of the stations fly by. Once again we pierce the sparse bracelets of light in the endless black sleeve. The light is strung together behind us into a radiant sun. We don't notice the few passers-by, squeezing up against the wall. There is no time at night – there are people who sleep every day and work every night. People who for a quarter century haven't worked in the light of day, and, if they're lucky enough to make it to retirement, if some injury doesn't get them, even then they'll pine for the mute enormity of the lifeless stations, for the blackness and the emptiness – how much they are like us all... No point trying to understand them when we can't understand ourselves. The tunnel – without sky or earth – is like a confessional.

The woman holds up her hand – our stop. The motor loader cuts its speed. The ribs of the tubing go by ever slower, quieter, just barely moving – stop.

The crew sits silently, not moving off their jerseys, like Greeks who have arrived to fight for the beautiful Helen and learnt that the first man to touch the shores of Troy will die.

The woman makes her way to the driver's booth and pulls off her glasses, making herself comfortable on the bench: the two hours that the crew is going to be changing sleepers are her own...

I stick my head out of the booth and try to make out on the rough arches the figures of time: 25 meters of ground overhead, the Pokrovsky line was commissioned in 1938, iron tubing overhead – the cast iron age.

And suddenly the tunnel is wrapped in garlands of yellow light – it's over, the pressure is off, as if the gigantic live rail had gone dead. You can work now, and everyone stirs as if the pressure had been released through human bodies. People jump down, and a booming lingering groan of seventy kilo sleepers follows suit.

"Black, like they're from Angola," the foreman comments on the sleepers.

***

"It has been universally recognized that no other country has an underground system as beautiful and technically perfect and comfortable as Moscow's. Stalin's care for the people can be felt here at every step." I. Novikov, head of the L.M. Kaganovich metro line.

***

The previous night the rotted pieces of sleepers had been cut out and a jack hammer had chopped out from the concrete grainy graves for the new ones. Sledge hammers pound the plates from the rails. The crew overcounted by one the number of sleepers needed and is now carrying, walking in step, the extra one, like a coffin, back to the now fairly distant motor loader.

***

The opening is scheduled for the second week of March.

The architectural layout of the stations and vestibules of the second line is unquestionably a great step forward, a new stage in the architectural expression of the greatness of the Stalin era.

***

In the first days of March 1938, next to the Revolution Square station another event took place, equally worthy of the greatness of the Stalin era – the trials of the "anti-Soviet right-wing Trotskyist block."

"To the firing squad with the miserable fascists!" "No mercy for the trainters!" "Shoot every last one of the villains!"

"There's no place on our Soviet soil for these bloody executioners and traitors!"

The tunnels are like a desert. Once in a while you run into rats and mice. Closer to the street, sparrows and pigeons. Sometimes, very rarely, a cat, like an abominable snowman.

"So... this is our work", the foreman Savelev gestures with his hand; beneath the blows of the sledgehammer a barbed evil spark winks briefly. "All the tools – crowbars, axes and sledgehammers."

Beneath the sleepers oozes slow black water.

"These boys are bison. Right now it's kids' stuff – only forty sleepers in all. But when twelve guys have to change four hundred meters of rail in one night – that's three and a half tons on each guy. People don't take a job like this when they have something better to do. Only for the sake of their kids. There's no one to take care of 'em in the daytime. He comes home from work – takes the kid to school or kindergarten. He wakes up; brings the kid home. You come home Saturday morning, you can't go to bed. Stick it out, then maybe you'll be lucky – you'll fall asleep at night. Here it's strict – no boozing whatsoever."

***

Modernized cars will serve the Pokruvsky line. The cars are painted a light blue and are comfortably equipped. The Pokrovsky line will open for service March 13.

***

The night of March 12 the accused Bukharin was allowed a last word.

At four o'clock in the morning on the 13th of March they began to read the sentence. They finished around four thirty. The majority of the accused got the firing squad.

At six in the morning the first train set off. Along the tracks.

On March 14 the papers reported the following:

"Great excitement reigned yesterday in the metro. Many Muscovites arrived long before the opening of service in order to be the first to ride the new line and look at the stations Revolution Square and Kursky... Passengers at the Revolution Square station took lengthy stops in front of the sculptures... The newly opened line's service personnel, mostly young people, handled their responsibilities admirably."

***

On the night of March 15 1938 the sentence was carried out.

***

I toss a coin among the black sleepers and the sparkling wires of track trailing off into the cold darkness, although I don't really want to come back here. But I won't forget it either. I'm headed in the direction of Revolution square, keeping to the side which you must keep to if you want to make it. The light reflecting crosses burn on my back and chest.

"The court's sentence calls on us to make new conquests!"

Eighty statues at Revolution Station as a symbol of the eighty years we've lived and have still to live?

***

And I walked along like someone superfluous, an alien glob, gobbled down by the bare gullet of the tunnel, where there is only wind and people – the last hostages of Stalin's insomnia. I walked through this underground country from one sector to another returning to my own time; and everything that was around me...

Four embarrassed men jumped to their feet in the dark pretending to be working, in the best tradition of the army, leaning themselves on their shovel handles, examining the passer-by with cautious curiosity...

In the wretched cave, behind the little door, in the uneven puddles of light people swarmed, dodging the water dripping from the ceiling, dressed in work jerseys. One of them, confused, not daring to breath in my direction, moved unsteadily toward the wall, supported himself.

These were the miserable rep-mechs, the repair mechanics, the dirtiest and wettest job. They mend things that aren't worth mending anymore. They grow numb from cold in the ventilation pipes which, contrary to common sense but in fulfilment of regulations, force cold air into the metro in the winter. In the summer they force heat into the street. Every night. On Saturday you won't be able to fall asleep if you don't get drunk.

The track inspectors push their cart along the tracks. Esteemed Anna Alexeevna moves alongside her line. She's a track inspector. Twenty-three years of underground nights for the sake of her children. In her right hand is a lantern, in her left a hammer. At the joints there are six bolts. The solid bolts ring loud and clear. In her plastic bag she has her work log, a cup and her lunch, all the things go into a bag and onto the cart – there's nowhere to leave anything. You can have a cup of tea at the Arbat station or you can ask any station master for one, depending on who it is... She might just run you off.

There's one bad thing – going in the first train is dangerous. You better sit in the first car to be closer to the driver... if something happens...

At first like just another wreath of light, then a whitish spot, then as a white funnel the station appeared ahead. Majestic, unusually large, light, filled with silence and calm, covering up the melancholy songs of the tunnel with a merry harsh happiness. Your foot steps on the contract track (quiet for the time being), and you are already on the platform where the floor washing machine operator is pulling the machine to and fro. It's a MUM, labelled "mummy" by the people. And she'll finish soon, fix her kerchief and have her say, too:

"They used to give out five or six pieces of soap a month. And half a bucket of soda! And now? One piece – one! For three – three! – months. There isn't even any sackcloth for the mops. The cooperatives are a real plague: so much paper from the pies they're selling all over town. My machines... number 30 leaks water, and 41 you can't budge!"

Behind her back is the entrance to the tunnel where night is hiding, and morning, what of morning – it's not for waking up; it's the beginning of sleep. When you know the value of night you don't believe in the morning. Pauses disrupt life, and what is left when we know too much about ourselves?

From the accused Bukharin's last words:

"For, when you ask yourself: if you die, in the name of what are you dying? And then the pitch black void shows itself with striking clarity."

On to the center of the station where the cast iron people stand. A peasant woman, bending over obese chickens, somebody's kind hand has placed a cigarette in her hand; a miner in boots who has never gone on strike; a sleepless engineer, his crumpled scroll laid out on his knees like a napkin; an implacable sailor; the sinewy hands of the partisan in bast shoes; bushy headed little girls over a globe placing their fingers over the wonderful motherland; a woman with a rifle and a woman with a parachute, feet in knitted socks; an agronomist in a smart cap who sits like an iron on the treads of a tractor with a thick fistful of dusty grain in his hand.

Open, astonishingly unfamiliar faces, hand grenades, pistols, breech locks, burning the color of egg yolk from being touched – the hands of their grandchildren passing by have touched them so often. It's as if they are summoning the enchanted generation to stand up, go up the steep escalators, go out in dead columns into the squares, slam shut the bolts on the tunnels, return clarity to a time gone astray, a time that reaches its greedy hands down into the underground constellation, a time replete with strikes, thefts, dirt, emptiness...

***

But first love... all its heart-rending power is in its eternal place in the springtime confusion of downpours, in the intoxicating expanses of April. This love defies all-devouring time, is not doomed to turn into dust, and remains in your every breath, in the avalanche of memories and the abyss of despair like a saviour angel and serpent of temptation. It gives you a chance to justify yourself when you realize in the middle of autumn that life is over... And God forbid that you should meet this first love later, face to face, and see the surrender to time and wordly temptations, the repulsive wilting and previously impossible corporealness, see everything that deprives you of April's torments and the childish-naive faith that she is there somewhere, alive, you're just not fated to meet up.

This would cross her right out, tear, rip her out of your heart, rip her from the secret hideouts of your inner world where, since childhood, reside the victorious swing of the Winter Palace's gates, the roaring lava of the Red Cavalry, the tall blast furnaces and brave smiles, the bitter victory during the Great War and the conquered virgin lands, Siberia and the first, very first day when mother brought you – and you were in ill-fitting stockings – to the monument in the center of town and said, "And this is..."

And what's left then? What will you die for?

Two women – "custodians" – are washing the sculptures with mops. One of them smiles at me:

"The new stations are all chalk and tiles; if a train goes by the tiles crumble... Take the Arbat, it's spotless. I've been here for twenty five years already. Five nights a week. The husband was livid at first, but now, when it's almost time to retire – it doesn't make any difference. Life's all over, eh..."

She leans over the bucket and snorts:

"We were washing the drainage... I say, "Hey Tamara, look here, a rat!" and the rat scoots into the drainage gutter and I'm spraying down there! The rat jumped out like nobody's business – I almost had a heart attack. I even once dreamed about work – we were washing some drainage or other. Look, see, now what with the water, my fingers don't bend – life's all over, all over..."

She walks off into the tunnel and makes her request before she goes:

"Be sure to write about the trash cans – you see they took the trash cans away and now they throw litter right on the tracks," she adds with feeling. "It's no good without the trash cans."

The last service train goes by leaving behind a soft hum; the light licks the walls with chalky tongues – it's always midday here; there's no night; on the benches huddle tired men who have already understood the old lie of the arrow which calls out "Exit to the City"; there is no exit; you can be merciless to your legs and count out the two hundred steps to the top, and the guard will open the spring night that has been won from the winter, a night with the rare shadows of the early workers or the night lovers. And you will be jerked out, stepping into a puddle – there's ice underfoot – it's a joy to crunch ice...

Today you are among those who go along empty streets, nod into a cup of tea, send off children and grown-ups to school and work, brush their teeth with their eyes closed, unplug the television bubbling over with the current congress, draw the blinds with a metallic rustling and let into their bodies redeeming sleep. In order to wake up and with calm despair see how the melancholy midday struggles through the dusty windows with its blind, cold light.

Translated by Nathan Longan


Park Podeby station, © Mark Thomas


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