Postcards from Russia: Searching for Putin's hidden railway
Editor's note: This is the latest of Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.
MOSCOW -- So, I'll admit it: I looked for the secret entrance. Not long, mind you. I feel like I was pretty inconspicuous, pretty smooth, just another tourist walking slowly and seeming -- seeming! -- as if I was just trying to figure out where I should be going.
In truth, I was gazing. Staring. Scanning. Peering. As I walked through Sportivnaya Metro station on the way out of Luzhniki Stadium, I was doing whatever I could to try to get a glimpse of anything resembling an entrance to Moscow's (alleged) super-secret subway system.
I should say: Moscow's public Metro system is legendary on its own. The version that is for regular, non-special humans has long been a gem of the country. It is state-run, has architecturally magnificent stations which feature soaring ceilings, gorgeous tile designs, long platforms, easy transfers and service which is so frequent and precise that, in all my time here over the past few years, I have barely seen any person ever run to catch a train. Why bother? Another one is usually no more than 90 seconds away.
Connections are easy and the lines are generally simple to decode. Each line has a number and a color, and most radiate outwards from the center of the city. There even a few lesser-known helpful features, like the fact that a male voice announces the stations on trains heading toward the center and a female voice announces stations on outbound routes.
Access is cheap -- about one dollar per ride -- and there is free wifi throughout the system. The only things that feel antiquated about the system are some of the cars (I've seen a few that look to be from the Soviet era) and the seemingly inexplicable job that requires a person to sit at the bottom of the escalators, in a tiny booth, and just sort of watch a monitor that shows people coming and going.
Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia
- Searching for American fans at the World Cup
- What U.S. sport could learn from international football
- In search of World Cup fever on the streets of Russia
- 'The sea is digging a new nipple': Misadventures in Cyrillic
As far as I can tell, this isn't a security position -- there are plenty of uniformed police in nearly every station -- and, generally, the person doing the job just rests in his or her booth watching escalators and looking unsatisfied. So, at this point, I'm both fascinated by and scared of these people.
Anyway, that's how it works with the regular Metro. But speculation about a secret Metro -- possibly called Metro-2 or "D6," to use the alleged KGB nickname -- has existed for decades.
Depending on what you read (and how much you like to believe in organized subterfuge), there is something ranging from a small series of deeply-underground tunnels connecting key Russian government buildings to other locations (including, possibly, an airport) or, in the most extravagant possibility, a secret city for the Russian elite that plays out in a subterranean nirvana.
The latter, I concede, seems unlikely (does the secret city have a soccer team?). But the belief that something exists which would allow top Russians secret passage to a safe space in the event of catastrophic war dates back to Stalin and has been buffeted over the years by a variety of sources of various reliability.
Maybe there is nothing to it. Or maybe it's a gross exaggeration and there's just a few unused train tunnels that could be used if, say, Vladimir Putin needs to go to the bunker.
Either way, I wanted to see what I could see. So I looked. On my out of a game at Luzhniki, I lingered in the Sportivnaya train station -- the station where an entrance is reputed to be -- and looked at the sides of the columns and the backs of the staircases. I examined the walls and even the ceilings, thinking maybe there was a go-up-to-go-down construction.
I saw nothing. It was only when I got all the way to the end of the platform and looked into the tunnel that I thought, just maybe, I spied something. It was there, under the platform level. A tiny rectangle, maybe? Something that looked like a handle? I couldn't tell.
And then, of course, I was blinded by the lights of an oncoming train -- part of the regular Metro -- on its way into the station. Every 90 seconds or so. Just like clockwork.