MOSCOW -- When the Communists fell from grace, they left many riddles behind, and one of them is the Moscow subway system.
In a nation of patchwork, goldbricking, winks and nods, in a land of delay and roundabout improvisation, in a city of people whose life's work is to sit at desks and say no, there it is: an underground railroad that hauls a metropolis-load of passengers every day and that runs like clockwork.
Buildings may be falling down, airplanes may be sitting idly on their runways, the hot water may be off for two months, the bank may have run out of cash, the dial tone may have vanished from the phone lines, but the subway trains rumble on beneath the mayhem, as unstoppable as the waves of the sea.
Just consider what they do.
On an average day, 7 million people ride the subway; on a busy day, 10 million do. They travel over 150 miles of lines, in 3,000 cars. Between early morning and the 1 a.m. closing, the system's 27,000 employees send out a total of 8,000 trains, on nine lines.
The Moscow subway is the fourth-longest in the world, after New York, London and Paris. It carries the most passengers of any city anywhere. To keep its deep tunnels dry, the system must constantly pump an amount of water equal to one-fourth the flow of the Moscow River.
Why does it work so well? Simple. If it didn't, the whole city would collapse. It has to work.
The big blue trains are packed, always. Riders have to jab and lurch their way on and off. Drunks don't fall down because too many people are around them to fall down.
During peak hours, trains run at intervals of 70 seconds. More than 40 percent of all the people who go anywhere in Moscow go by subway.
"Moscow couldn't exist without the underground," says Dmitri Gaev, the first deputy chief of the system.
And he's not far off when he compares the Moscow subway system to the space program as a national priority. What the subway needs, the subway gets if it's possible.
It shows what the collective will can accomplish when the alternative is unthinkable.
Motormen, the knights of the subway, are paid 11,000 rubles a month -- three to four times as much as a factory worker -- and they're provided with apartments as well. The fare has risen twentyfold in two years, to a ruble, but still the government covers 84 percent of the 5 bil
lion ruble operating budget. (That's about $33 million.)
And yet, Mr. Gaev sighs, it's not like the old days. Nikita S. Khrushchev got construction started in 1931 when he was Moscow's party boss, and the Communists really made the subway a showpiece.
The crazily ornate stations -- with their statuary and mosaics and stained glass, their custom-designed tiles and inlaid onyx columns -- truly glistened before the inevitable economies cut back on cleaning.
If Mr. Gaev ordered 500 kilometers of new rails, the party made sure he got 550.
Now, no one is willing to fashion replacement tiles for the stations, the system is cannibalizing 125 cars for spare parts no longer available, and graffiti are beginning to appear. Construction has lagged behind population, and the trains are ever more crowded.
But still they roll on. In a way, the trains hold not just Moscow but all of Russia together. Two million Russians flock to the capital every day to air grievances, to settle deals, to iron out problems, to find something to buy, to pass through on their way to somewhere else. Most ride the subway.
The Komsomol subway station welcomes travelers from three of Moscow's busiest rail terminals, and every day 300,000 people -- from as far away as Estonia to the west and Vladivostok to the east -- come through it. That's half the population of Washington.
Here in the river of passengers are people carrying vegetables, cakes, ladders, TV sets, books, buckets, rolled sheet metal, flowers, fishing tackle, bread, lumber.
Here are long packed trains, roaring, shuddering, jerking, then rushing -- ruthless in their relentless passage down the line. The cars bear the plaque of the Leningrad Order of the Red Star Car-Building Factory Named After I. Y. Yegorov.
"Rocket plants may close and auto plants," Mr. Gaev says, "but the subway will keep working. If the subway stops, Moscow will die."