The Sounds of Moscow

 

Travelling is not a mono-sensory experience. This thought has always been there, lurking at the back of my head throughout my early wanderings. I only became fully aware of it, though, when I embarked on a long journey with a friend of mine, who happens to be blind. We went down the Transsiberian track together and she drew my attention to many things I would have otherwise taken for granted: the sound of crackling snow, the voices of people arguing at markets, the trashy pop playing on the minibus from Irkutsk to the shores of Lake Baikal (well, okay, I probably would have noticed this one anyways), the smells I would have probably registered, but had never associated with anything I knew.

When I moved to Moscow some time later, I caught myself paying close attention to all the sounds, as if trying to convey the ambiance of this new place to my favourite travel companion. This made me realise how important they were for my perception of Moscow as a whole. Moscow does look different from any other place I’ve been to; it’s majestic Stalinist baroque interwoven with the pragmatism of the 70s and the showoff ambitions of the early 2000s make for quite a unique combination. It doesn’t only look different, though, it sounds different — and I had not known that before coming. I have read hundreds of pages about Russia in general and Moscow in particular, and I have seen plenty of online publications about them. None of those gave me any hint about what Moscow might sound like. To fill this gap, I started sending Sound Postcards: small recordings of sounds that, piled together, make Moscow what it is to me. Here is a small selection of those:

You cannot overestimate the importance of the metro. I don’t know what role the underground plays in London or Paris, but in Moscow it is the thread from which the city is woven. The trains are incredibly loud. It makes it impossible to talk; it’s impossible to think there either. The unbearable roar follows a monotonous, repetitive pattern of high and low pitch, speeding up and slowing down, broken by announcements of station names and general reminders of good manners. This pattern changes abruptly when a train happens to peep outside the tunnel for a moment. The sound, previously crammed into the narrow space, spreads across the entire width of the Moskva River, making the train feel peacefully quiet. This contrast is soothing in a way no words can describe. At the very beginning of my stay there I would hear it every time I was going home, between Avtozavodskaya and Kolomenskaya. The tunnel there ended unexpectedly and the change was particularly well audible (or so I hoped):

The metro is like Moscow itself: there are stations the sole goal of which is to impress and intimidate, and there are the mundane, pragmatic ones, scattered outside the centre, aimed simply at delivering the locals all the way to work and back. The former are just the export face of Moscow and, by extension, of Russia as a whole: a huge Potemkin village to hide the country and its problems. The latter are what real, everyday Moscow is like: they witness the early morning commute, coming home late at night and the permanent deficit of time. Needless to say, these are the latter which draw my particular interest. They are their own microcosms extending their halo many streets away from the actual station. Far from the centre, the stations are also the hubs of cultural and economic activity. At night they are the starting points for the exploration of Moscow’s nightlife. In the afternoons, though, they become impromptu markets selling anything from fresh vegetables through bus tickets to pepper spray. This is what they sound like:

Moscow can be ruthless, and whatever you choose to do here, you can be sure that there’s already someone else doing the exact same thing, and probably doing it better. The competition is very high, so businesses need to find ways to stand out. One of them is hiring people to hand out leaflets and shout catchy slogans near the entrances to the metro stations. I will forever remember the squeaky ‘Iuristy, advokaty, bezplatnye konsutlacii’ I have heard a million times near Sulkharyevskaya. One stressful evening, while flat hunting near Elektrozavodskaya, I heard this lady, who is by far the most devoted, not to say desperate, street vendor I have heard in my entire life:

Certain metro stations are way busier than others. Kurskaya is very close to the top of that ranking: three metro lines and a big train station all intersect here. Thousands of people pass through it every day. It’s no surprise then that its central vestibule draws plenty of street performers. The one you can hear below is, by far, the most interesting one I’ve heard there. I still don’t know what instrument he was playing, but I don’t mind it any more. It only adds to the air of mystery this piece evokes in me.

When it comes to street performers, Moscow can showcase quite a unique selection. They appear wherever there are people, and given the degree of competition, they reach the heights of their creativity to stand out. My favourite one, though, doesn’t need to do that. He just shows up and sings — and that is more than enough. He is an elderly, elderly man, who sets up his accordion stand right next to 1905 Goda metro station. He has two chairs: he sits on one and puts his multiple belongings on the other. He has a microphone, a little speaker and a songbook, and he sings cheerful songs about being young, falling in love, going to war and coming back victorious. He does everything slowly and meticulously, and he never stops until whatever he’s doing is completed. He’s an unlikely role model I found one evening on my way back from work.

Russians love poetry. It’s a part of popular culture here to an extent I have not seen anywhere else. It makes its way out of school and into the everyday conversations, parties in the kitchen, TV shows. It also has its place among the street performers. One day, on my way from the Red Square to Lubyanka, I heard this man, reciting what I believe to be Yesenin’s poetry:

Moscow is a melting pot of cultures: western influences get mixed up here with Russian culture, but also with the habits and traditions brought by incoming migrants from central Asia and Russia’s far east. Given the Western media narrative about Russia, it is easy to overlook how diverse it is. There are dozens of different religious and ethnic groups living east of Moscow, as close as Kazan and as far as Vladivostok – and everywhere in between. I got a tiny sample of it one very late evening, walking past the outer wall of the Historical Museum, right outside Red Square. Those two ladies, wearing as much of their national outfits as the weather would permit, were singing beautifully in a language which definitely wasn’t Russian. I can only guess what they were singing about, but I want to believe they were praising the beauty of the Russian steppes and the freedom they can give.

Music, just like poetry, is of vital importance in everyday life. Russians sing a lot. At an open mic in an expat bar I used to go to, after the obligatory hours of extremely talented (and sometimes not-that-talented) performers covering various hits of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the Russian organiser of the event would take over the microphone and sing a couple of Russian ’80s rock songs. The change of atmosphere in the room was instantaneous, almost physically visible, yet it remains extremely difficult to close it in a simple description. All the Russians present in the room would sing along from the very beginning till the very end. It felt as if they shared one experience, as if they understood each other without words, as if they were a part of a secret society and the song was a sign by which they recognised each other.

It is difficult to argue what came first: the chicken or the egg, but the fact remains that the Orthodox liturgy is centred around music and that for centuries before the Revolution the Orthodox Church played a huge role in society (after 80 years of persecution its influence is now being rebuilt). The priests and the choir sing in Old Church Slavonic, making the service impossible to understand, yet completely entrancing. Below you can hear a liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour which I stumbled upon one early winter morning on my way to work.

It wasn’t a holiday I had been aware of. It was a weekday, early in the morning. As I was walking to work, I saw big screens set up in front of the church. On my way back, an hour and a half later, I heard these bells calling the faithful to prayer. A crowd of people, unusual for the still early hour, were flowing towards the church. I followed the bells and the people and heard the service you have just heard as well.

All of the sounds above — and many more, hidden well in the corners of multiple memory cards, waiting to be discovered — make up Moscow as I know it. They are just as important to me as the towers of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral from all the postcards. Who knows, maybe, having listened to all of these, you’ll suddenly start noticing the extraordinary sounds around you? Please, do — they are definitely worth the while.