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From the depths of Moscow

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The old woman's back was so hunched she couldn't get her chin off her chest. Wrapped in layers of ratty sweaters, she stood meekly against a tile wall, one hand extended. Elderly Russians are everywhere in the subway tunnels beneath Moscow, begging for pocket change. Still, looking at her, I felt a stab of melancholy.

Then four mean-looking teenagers in scarred leather jackets rushed past her. They muttered to one another, turned back and surrounded her.

My stomach clenched in panic. But then I realized what I was seeing. These kids, who slouched and stank of cigarettes and beer, were digging furiously through their pockets, handing the old woman every coin they could scrape together.

Since moving to Moscow seven months ago, I've been schooled in the stark realities of Russian society by daily rides to language classes and the office on the Metro. The vast sprawl of tracks and tunnels seems to offer a direct line into Moscow's soul -- a place of faded elegance and hopeless cynicism, debauchery and destitution, barely contained brutality and touches of kindness.

It's potent stuff, and some days I just don't have the stomach for it. I have to force myself to walk into the station, and spend the whole commute staring at my shoes, afraid of what I'll see if I let my eyes rove.

But there is something in these halls that tells a story about Russia itself, a monument to communist days, when underground palaces, glittering in chandeliers, decked in mosaics and frescoes and Stalin-era sculpture, were built for the common commuters.

Now they are shabby and cramped, the bulbs burning out in the chandeliers, the halls a miserable jam of too many frazzled bodies. Up above, wild Moscow rages along, lawless and mad, cold and rich. Down below, the trains are roaring through the dark, miss this one and the next will be right behind it.

The Metro is where you'll find the people who are just scraping by in the shadow of oil wealth, and the ones who have already fallen through the cracks. It's the haunt of stray dogs and lovesick teenagers, homeless alcoholics and wounded veterans, tourists and bone-weary commuters.

The sight of a stray dog startled me early one morning. He was limping confusedly on three legs in the tangle of the turnstiles. His front paw dangled. It appeared to be split in two, dripping blood, as if somebody had stomped on it. He was glancing around desperately, as though he was looking for help.

Hundreds of commuters clogged the station, but nobody stopped for the dog. An old man bent down over him for a moment, then hurried along. I was on the other side of the turnstile, fumbling for my card. When I looked up again the dog had melted into the forest of legs.

I peered around, but I couldn't see him anywhere. I stared at the rows and rows of students, workers, pensioners -- an anonymous mob, stolid and stone-faced.

Somewhere in this vast Soviet building, a creature was suffering, but I'd never find him. And if I did, then what? He was too big to carry. I didn't know how to find a vet. I had been in Moscow just a few months, and could barely speak Russian.

I had to take my place in the line, and the line moves only one way. If you don't move fast enough, you get shoved in the back. There's nothing to do but clutch your bag to your chest and keep moving.

I thought about the dog all day. I told my Russian teacher about him, and she gave me an incredulous look from between blackened lashes, sparkling lids. "But the people you see on the Metro have horrible problems," she reproached me.

"I know," I said. She was right, but I couldn't help it. I was embarrassed.

Still, I looked for the dog on the way home. I didn't see him. I walked back to my apartment slowly, trying to get the memory of his crushed paw out of my mind, the hopeful, wounded way he'd looked up at the indifferent passengers. The dog was haunting me. When I finally got home, I sat on the couch and cried.

When I first got to Moscow, it was the heat of summer and the press of bodies on the Metro almost turned me into a teetotaler. I couldn't bear the stink of the drunks on the trains, sweating out vodka, their clammy skin clinging to mine like plastic. Empty bottles of beer rolled and clattered underfoot.

Then I'd see young men spring gallantly to their feet to offer their seats to old women, or the way Russians buried their noses in books as the trains screamed through the tunnels, and decide it wasn't such a bad place after all.

But I couldn't get over the cold faces of all those strangers, sketches of anxiety and woe lit in the greenish glow of the massive fluorescent lights, so gothic they're almost beautiful.

"When you take that escalator down and look at those faces, get hit with all of that anxiety, all of the worry, it's incredible," one of my Russian colleagues said. "You are stuffed like a herring in a barrel of everybody else's stress."

In the beginning, it made me acutely uncomfortable. I found myself pondering death camps and purges; bread lines and bank collapse. One day I complained to my Russian teacher: "I never saw anyplace in the world where people are so gloomy. It takes me an hour to get from home to here, and I didn't see a single person smile the whole way. Not one!"

"Do people in other countries go around smiling?" she asked skeptically.

"Well, yes," I said.

"In Iraq? In Iraq they smile?" She was determined to break me, to get to the truth.

"Yes," I said. "Iraqis smile a lot."

"That," she said with a sneer, "is very strange."

One day I was riding out to the university for a Russian class. It was around noon on a Saturday, and the city was shaking itself out of sleep as a few early snowflakes skittered down from the steely sky. The Metro car was almost empty.

I sat staring at a young woman across the way. She must have been up all night. Her hair had been styled, she looked delicate and well dressed, her boots and bag were expensive. Her head sagged on her neck as if she were nodding on heroin. Her eyes, heavy with last night's makeup, drooped shut. Her chin dropped to her chest.

She crashed onto the floor, and the jolt woke her long enough for her to haul herself back onto the bench, where she promptly fell back into her dreams. The stout young mother at her side scooped up her little boy and moved across the aisle, lips set in disapproval.

The young woman fell onto the floor again, this time landing on the feet of the old man at her side. He shook his foot free, irritably. She resumed her place on the bench.

By now everybody in the carriage was staring at the girl, but impassively. A pair of tough-looking men were watching her like wolves. I felt nervous for her. Anybody could have scooped her off the subway car, taken her away, done anything. Who had abandoned her here? How long had she been rattling through the tunnels, waiting to sober up? I glanced at the men again. They were whispering to one another, laughing a little, running their eyes over her slumped body.

Then my stop came up, so I stood and got off. In the end, I was just another face in the crowd, watching, and then moving along.

megan.stack@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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