Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

As settings for a post-apocalypse story go, the Moscow Metro is pretty cool. It’s vast, it’s full of secrets, parts of it were actually designed to survive a nuclear war, it lends itself to an episodic tale with lots of changes of scenery. I’m not sure that a whole lot more thought went into it — the author was 23 when he published the first version of the story online — and given the success of the novel, its sequels and the video games based on its setting, I’m not sure that any more was necessary.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Make no mistake, Moscow’s Metro is a marvel. It’s the largest in the world outside of China; it’s the busiest in the world outside of Asia. At a depth of 84 meters, the station at Park Pobedy — which appears in the novel — is one of the deepest in the world, and according to folklore one of the stations designed with a nuclear exchange in mind. Communist leaders intended for early sections of the Metro to be palaces for the workers. Stations built during the 1930s and 1940s — World War II slowed Metro construction but did not bring it to a halt — were decorated to a standard previously reserved for the very wealthy. Though later phases of the Metro were built in a utilitarian style, the old ones are still gorgeous and some of the post-Communist stations have been built with panache. The operations are also a marvel. On many stretches, there is a train every 90 seconds. I don’t think that I ever saw someone run to catch a train, because they knew that another one would be along so soon. The two downsides to the Metro are the serious crowding in the spaces for transferring lines, and the system’s closing time every night at 1am.

In the world of Metro 2033, 20 years after a nuclear war, there are of course no more trains running. A much reduced population ekes out a living in the tunnels, cut off from a fantastically dangerous world above, and split into tiny factions in the world of the tunnels. The tunnels, too, are full of terrors. There are hordes of rats, there are strange noises that drive people mad, there are supposedly other monstrous creatures, there are unexplained disappearances. Settlements keep their perimeters under constant watch, and few people venture from one station to another alone, fewer still survive such a trip.

Metro 2033 begins at VDNKh, a station in Moscow’s northeast, and the last inhabited station on the line. Before the war, the line ran another four stations, with the Botanical Garden as the next stop outward from VDNKh (which is pronounced as a word, “V’dinkh”). Artyom is 24 as the story starts, though he is uncertain of his age. He has vague memories of life before the war, but lost both his parents at a very young age and has been raised in VDNKh by a man named Sukhoi. When he was 14, he and a friend made an unauthorized expedition to Botanical Garden, where they encountered strange and hostile humanoid creatures. In their haste to escape, they were unable to re-seal the exit behind them. Artyom worries that their actions left the entire system vulnerable to invasion.

Very little about he world of Metro 2033 can stand up to scrutiny. An apparently tiny population supports an extravagant number of sects and feuding polities. Appropriately, Communists control the Red Line. A group called the Hansa, named after the medieval trading league of northern Europe, controls the Ring line, a section of relative prosperity. The area across the river near Moscow State University is called the Emerald City and is rumored to still be a seat of learning and knowledge. (My old station is part of this group.) Actual fascists have set up a small but violent Fourth Reich. And so on. There are a lot of guns, and cartridges are the standard currency, never mind that there’s no sign of the industrial base needed to produce either. Glukhovsky sometimes writes as if the war had taken place generations ago, yet all of the characters who are middle-aged or older would have led adult lives before the war. The creatures seen or alluded to are nothing like the actual effects of radiation. No matter, Metro 2033 is a vibe, an atmosphere, an adventure through a dark landscape that owes much to the imagination and nothing to science.

Artyom receives a quest from a man known as the Hunter: to travel to a distant part of the Metro, the Polis below the great library near the Kremlin, and tell them of the dire threat that VDNKh is holding back. Maybe they know of some way to beat back the monstrosities that might otherwise overwhelm the whole Metro. Artyom should bring back that knowledge and, if possible, aid. I think I would have enjoyed the early chapters more if I had realized sooner that the novel is a picaresque. Artyom progresses from episode to episode, but there’s not a lot of connection between them otherwise. They’re designed to show the different systems or ideas that prevail at each station, how people in each react to strangers, and how Artyom manages to make it to the next stage — usually with help from an older male figure who takes an interest in him or his quest.

There are some good bits; here’s a character named Khan (he thinks he’s the reincarnation of Genghis, and who’s to say) talking about time:

See, Artyom, you obviously come from a station where the clock works and you all look at it in awe, comparing the time on your wrist watch to the red numbers above the tunnel entrance. For you, time is the same for everyone, just like the light. Well, here it’s the opposite; nothing is anyone else’s business. No one is obliged to make sure there’s light for all the people who have made their way here. … Whoever needs light has to bring it here with them. It’s the same with time: whoever needs to know the time, whoever is afraid of chaos, needs to bring their own time with them. Everyone keeps some time here. Their own time. … For me it’s evening right now, for you it’s morning — and what? People like you are so careful about storing up the hours you spend wandering, just as ancient peoples kept pieces of glowing coal in smouldering crucibles, hoping to resurrect fire from them. … Explode your hours and you’ll see how time will transform — it’s very interesting. It changes — you won’t even recognize it. It will cease to be fragmented, broken into the sections of hours, minutes and seconds. Time is like mercury: scatter it and it will grow together again, it will again find its own integrity and indeterminacy. (p. 108)

Much later, Artyom gets captured and tortured by people who are much less positively inclined towards him. Here, he illustrates a fundamental fact about testimony from torture: it’s whatever the torturers want to hear, whatever makes them stop, and bears no relation to any truth.

After a while, Artyom finally understood what he needed to do. It was simple — he needed to manage the expectations of the commandant the best way he could. If the commandant asked whether Artyom was sent by Kuznetsky Most [another station], he had to just affirm that with a nod. It took less strength, and the commandant didn’t wrinkle his Slavic nose at the response and his assistants didn’t hit him. The commandant assumed that Artyom was sent with the aim of collecting military information and performing some kind of sabotage. He agreed again with a nod and then the torturer rubbed his hands together with satisfaction and Artyom had saved his second eye. But it was important not just to nod, he had to listen to exactly what the commandant had asked because if Artyom assented inattentively, the mood would worsen and one of his helpers would try, for example, to break one of Artyom’s ribs. After about an hour and a half of this unrushed conversation, Artyom couldn’t feel his body anymore, he couldn’t see very well, he could scarcely hear and he understood almost nothing. …
In the end, they had an absolutely false idea of who he was. They saw him as an enemy spy and a saboteur, who had appeared in order to stab the Fourth Reich in the back, and having decapitated the leadership, to sow the seeds of chaos and to prepare for an invasion. The ultimate goal was the establishment of an anti-national Caucasian [in the sense of the actual Caucasus]-Zionist regime over the whole of the metro system. Though Artyom generally understood little about politics, such a global aim seemed to him to be worthy and so he told them that was true too. And it was good that he had agreed. Because of this he still had all his teeth. After the final details of the plot were revealed, they allowed Artyom to pass out. (p. 185)

Discovering fantastic plots based on confessions was a staple of the Soviet secret police.

Several stations later:

“And why do the stars at the Kremlin glow on the towers?” The question had been tormenting [Artyom].
“Who told you that they glow?” the fighter asked with surprise. “There’s no such thing there. It’s like this with the Kremlin: each person sees what he wants to see. Some say that it hasn’t been there for ages. It’s just that everyone hopes to see the Kremlin. They just want to believe that this holy of holies was left intact.” (p. 406)

Indeed they do.

Like the stories of the Witcher, Metro 2033 came into English because of a video game based on the original stories. I haven’t played the game, so I can’t add anything about the relationship between the two, but it’s an interesting path for a translated work to take. Another interesting aspect of cultural translation is that the character type of a “stalker” — a person in a science fiction story who goes into a dangerous environment to retrieve lost or alien artifacts, first appearing in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic and then Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker — is well known enough to a Russian audience that characters in Metro 2033 are called stalkers without any further explanation of what that means.

Finally, the war that brought the world of Metro 2033 to its current state is presented as something that just happened. There are a few partial accounts from men who were in the missile troops, but there’s nothing about opponents, about who they fought or why or how it happened. In one sense, it doesn’t matter at all. Glukhovsky wants to write about the after, and he wants it to have a fantastical atmosphere, not to get tied down to a real world of history. In another, it’s a sense of political innocence: the world ended, but nothing that the Russians did had anything to do with bringing that about. In yet another sense, Glukhovsky was 12 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The country of his childhood vanished overnight (25 December 1991, to be exact), and he spent his youth amid a confusing clash of philosophies and viewpoints, not unlike what Artyom encounters as he makes his way through the Metro.

The book is good at creating an atmosphere, some of the encounters are genuinely scary even to someone who has read a fair number of post-holocaust tales. I didn’t mind skimming through some of the slower bits, and I don’t think that I missed much by doing that. It’s meant to be a picaresque and something of a coming-of-age story, not a deep character study or an examination of a world that works. Taking it for what it is, I can see how Metro 2033 struck a chord and found enough of an audience to keep it going through various incarnations for a going on 20 years now.

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