My Childhood in The Moscow Subway
by Nikita Zameshaev, Associate Editor
I remember my head spinning when I last walked around Moscow; it is a big city, and I was a small child – but that’s what I loved about it. The moment I stepped foot outside of my grandparents’ one-bedroom apartment, I was surrounded by the stereotypical eastern European buildings, a dire reflection of the quality of life back in the Soviet Union that refuses to be painted over. If I were to see it now, I’d see the beat-up cars with missing license plates, the transparent walkway across the highway that is no longer clear due to graffiti, and the great-grandmothers sitting on the corner bench, gossiping about anyone who walks by. However, all I saw 13 years ago was my home.
My home was just on the edge of Moscow, in a neighborhood that was famous for the awful smell its energy plant produced, but what I recall instead is the beautiful park right next to it, which smelled of flowers and freshly cut grass. In this oasis, my grandfather taught me anything he could get his hands on. He is a military man: not one for many words, but his stoicism crumbled in front of his grandson. After daycare, he would pick me up, take me to that park and teach me how to ride a bike, play soccer, or anything else we could think of. The numerous injuries I collected those summers must have astounded the observant grandmothers, but to this day, my grandfather will always take pride in having taught me how to ride a bike.
However, my favorite memories are far more uneasy. I recall curling up into a ball under the front seat of his old car so that the police wouldn’t see a 5-year-old illegally riding in the front. It was always a fun game; he told me when to duck, and I perfected my swift curling up technique. And just like with all games, sometimes you lose, like when my grandfather was stopped for an arbitrary check-in. You can imagine the surprised look on the officer’s face when he saw a child hiding in the front seat with the meanest-looking man you can imagine sitting at the wheel. Fortunately enough, Russia was never not corrupt, so after finding out he was speaking with a Sergeant, the officer pleasantly asked us to be on our way. 13 years later, I have a different perspective, and of course I could comment on the corruption in the Russian police force or the unsafe driving habits that are commonplace back home, but if I don’t stop to think about it, the only thing I really remember is how happy driving around with my grandfather made me.
My favorite memory I have is taking the Moscow subway; after all, what little boy doesn’t find trains fascinating? The city’s transit system is a complex net of various subway lines which were impossible to navigate as a child, but once again, my grandfather came to the rescue. The moment you take the stairs underground, you are swarmed with men and women trying to get to work, pushing you around with briefcases twice the size of a five-year-old’s head. While Russians generally speak less than Canadians, the noise was still profound and overwhelming, simply due to the amount of people running up and down the stairs. However, I never seemed to pay it any attention as I was concentrating on the smell. To someone who hasn’t taken the Moscow subway, it is impossible to convey the smell of the train tracks, but it is completely different from anywhere else. Google tells me that creosote produces the smell, which is a chemical concoction used to preserve the railroads, which sounds absolutely disgusting. And perhaps it does smell awful, but growing up, that smell was paired with the absolutely stunning architecture below ground, with beautiful art and design elements often plated with gold. Whether the smell was truly bad is irrelevant to me, since the alluring architecture and rumbling metal machines made the smell all that much sweeter.
After moving to Toronto, I made new memories during high school, ranging from exploring the city to staying a week at Wasaga beach to simply sitting all night at a park bench with like-minded people talking about absolutely mindless things. Now, time has passed since those newer memories, and my friends and I miss them as well. We feel as if everything was simpler, and we long for this simplicity. While high school was far from my favorite segment in my life, only a couple years later I feel the bad memories fade, as my mind keeps running back to that park bench with my friends.
I’ve come to realize that I only recall the best parts of my childhood in Moscow, with the bad ones pushed out now that so much time has passed. Perhaps, I was annoyed at my grandfather for taking up my free time by putting me on a bike, just for me to fall. Perhaps, I was irritated by how long it took to manually roll down the window with that half broken handle. Perhaps, I was bothered by that creosote smell so much, I was counting the stops until I could finally leave the subway and have a breath of fresh air. The idea that nostalgia can change your whole perception of the past is unsettling: you end up having memories that are often far from the truth. However, I choose to ignore this. I want to remember the feeling of accomplishment when I finally didn’t fall from the bike. I want to remember the laughter that filled the car when I returned to my seat from the hiding position I assumed when passing a police station. I want to remember the fascinating architecture and fast trains which made my commute with my grandfather so much better.
And that is exactly what I remember when I return home, venturing below ground to encounter the oddly welcoming smell of the Moscow Subway.