Moscow Perehods: Underground Blues

It is a daily routine in Moscow to come across a busy intersection, look both ways, and dash across the street hoping that those moments will not be your last on Earth. The last thing I want to do is die young in this city I now call home; so, when I see a “perehod” I breathe a sigh of relief, for I know that a quick, safe transition to the other side of the street is about to take place.

What is a perehod, you may ask?

In English we call them underpasses maybe, or underground crosswalks, or subways, or tunnels. I’ve personally never seen any in the U.S., though I’m sure they must exist. They are ubiquitous in Moscow as they can be confusing, turning into long winding passages with numerous exits and leading to a variety of metro stations and shopping centers. Along the way you may do some kiosk shopping for cheap women’s clothing garments, lingerie, flowers, knick-knacks, and children’s toys, amongst other things. You may even give your digestive track a workout with a hot dog or perehod baked good, which are served not quite piping hot but rather lukewarm – if not downright cold – usually only suitable for those days where you work all day and don’t have time to stop by a cafe. But, they’re not as bad as shawarma.

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Perehods are literally everywhere in the city, from the farthest reaches and corners in the worst neighborhoods to the utmost center of Moscow. Upon exiting Okhotni Ryad metro station, you have the option of walking straight up to the entrance of Red Square using a perehod, if you wish. Or, you can take a side trip into the shopping complex located adjacent and underground to the perehod.

So, when were the perehods built?

Well, the first was built at Smolenskaya station in 1935. Then there was a lull in perehod construction until the late 1950s, with perehods then being built at Oktyabrskaya metro station, near Detsky Mir (Children’s World Department Store) at Lubyanka metro station, and two on Tverskaya Street (formerly Gorky Street), with one at Triumfalnaya Square (previously Mayakovskaya Square) and another at Marx Prospect (now Mokhovaya Street, Okhotny Ryad and Teatralnyy Passage). Since then business has boomed, as it is pretty rare when you are forced to cross a large street (or a small one for that matter) on an aboveground crosswalk.

Today there are more than 400 perehods in Moscow, with 20 having been built in 2014 and another 12 planned to have been built by the end of 2015. They vary greatly in size and length, but some of the largest are in the very center of Moscow, such as the extremely confusing Kitai Gorod perehod complex, which has at least 11 entrances and exits to its dual cross-platform stations.

But how pleasant are the perehods, actually?

I’ve never experienced any violence in a perehod, though if it is dark and you are far away from the center, it’s best to be on guard, as shady looking individuals may be hanging out near the entrances or passing through. Robbery and theft is common enough that you should always be on the safe side anyways. Vagrants and bums also like to call perehods home, though they are usually harmless. Other common fixtures include buskers, always ready to sing a tune or bust out a chord in exchange for some hard earned rubles, or on the more depressing side of things, begging babushkas and bursting-at-the-seams pregnant women (and others) who carry signs detailing their hardships in a post-soviet world. The occasional deformed beggar may be making their rounds in a new-for-them perehod on any given day as well, if they aren’t already a permanent fixture themselves.

Which leads to the greatest mystery of all: who controls these depots of dirty-dealings? Well, there is the mythical “perehod mafia”, which charges “rent” to beggars and shopkeepers in exchange for protection and a space in the perehod. Sometimes you may see a beggar getting a stern talking to from another equally suspicious looking character. Is that the perehod mafia? It’s best to not take too close of a look and walk away, as you don’t want to be a victim of an otherwise safe perehod. Also, it’s best not to give money to these modern-day serfs, as it just reinforces the existing power-structures and keeps these poor people locked in service.

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Also prevalent are illegal “kiosks” (usually the goods are just placed on a blanket on the floor, or if they’re fancy, on a table that breaks down easily) that sell a variety of goods, such as gloves, socks, knick-knacks, and jewelry to unsuspecting consumers. While cheap, the quality is nearly non-existent – it’s best to pass on these Black Friday deals. You may also come across men and women partaking in the time-honored tradition of street marketing, handing out leaflets and brochures for the latest, greatest store in the area. Or you may see African university students selling suspiciously cheap designer colognes and perfumes. Or you can buy some SIM-cards, no passport required, for when you want to get involved in some more suspect business in this busy city.

For the more adventurous souls in Moscow, there are perehods to get even deeper below the city, with some eventually leading to the subterranean river Neglinka, which runs for 8 kilometers under the city and is complete with an “industrial waterfall” and several bridges, including the famous Kuznestsky Bridge. You can also reach the secret metro system used by the Soviet elite through abandoned perehods, but these are even more difficult to get to.

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All in all, the perehods make life a bit easier in Moscow and a bit safer. They provide refuge for the poor and homeless, jobs for shopkeepers, and safety from racing chunks of steel. They may not be the prettiest forms of architecture in Moscow, but they serve a purpose and they do it well.

About Terry 2 Articles
Marine turned teacher, writer, and entrepreneur. Born in Alaska and has lived in Moscow for 3 years.

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