About two weeks ago I took the Almaty metro to Gagarin avenue. It happened to be the same day that I finished reading Metro 2033. Before visiting the metro I had difficulty imagining how people could take shelter and live in the stations. My understanding of what a metro looks like was based entirely on the narrow tunnels of the London Underground, so I was pretty taken aback when I saw the cavernous expanses of the Almaty metro with its high ceilings and open spaces between platforms.

Each of the stations I passed through could comfortably accommodate around 40-50 people in case of a nuclear strike on the city. It’s a happy fact that the preparations for such an attack are redundant since Kazakhstan pursued atomic disarmament.

I made some observations while reading the book:

Glukhovsky brings up these questions in an indirect way, leaving the reader to answer them. In the short term you’d want to save the food, but once it becomes clear that you can’t live underground forever, wouldn’t you want to save some relics of the former life on the surface?

There’s a great passage towards the end of the book where Artyom justifies his quest to himself.

Why was he doing this? So that life could continue in the metro? Right. So that they could grow mushrooms and pigs at VDNKh in the future, and so that his stepfather and Zhenkina’s family lived there in peace, so that people unknown to him could settle at Alekseevskaya and at Rizhskaya, and so that the uneasy bustle of trade at Byelorusskaya didn’t die away. So that the Brahmins could stroll around Polis in their robes and rustle the pages of ancient books, grasping the ancient knowledge and passing it on to subsequent generations. So that fascists could build their Reich, capturing racial enemies and torturing them to death, and so that the Worm people could spirit away strangers’ children and eat the adults, and so that the woman at Mayakovskaya could bargain with her young son in future, earning herself and him some bread. So that the rat races at Paveletskaya didn’t end and the fighters of the revolutionary brigade could continue their assaults on fascists and their funny dialectical arguments. And so that thousands of people throughout the metro could breathe, eat, love one another, give life to their children, defecate and sleep, dream, fight, kill, be ravished and betrayed, philosophise and hate, and so that each could believe in his own paradise and his own hell… So that life in the metro, senseless and useless, exalted and filled with light, dirty and seething, endlessly diverse, so miraculous and fine could continue.

I took it to mean that Artyom’s quest is both useless and essential. It’s useless because those living in the metro have no other purpose than to survive, if the entire bunker system were wiped out the world would carry on, humanity would die away and be replaced by a new species (this is brought up a few times in the book). All the cultural and collective achievements of humanity lay crumbling and shattered by nuclear apocalypse. The future species to inhabit Earth might find its remains decaying in the dust. The best the survivors can do is preserve as much of their past as they can and die away gracefully.

On the other hand the metro is the last bastion of the human race, clinging onto survival in defiance of its own self-destruction. So long as people still live there’s a hope, a chance that humanity might rise again. Having learned from the past, people would vow never again to use weapons against one another, choosing instead to live in peace.

The climax of the story has a really fantastic twist which gives a completely different perspective on the rest of the book. It’s really tragic and I can’t say more than that without spoiling the ending.

If anything I think all International Relations students who have to deal with nuclear arms control should be encouraged to read this book. You can’t start to talk about how to win a protracted nuclear conflict without having to imagine the consequences.

Still, my lucid dreams of post-apocalyptic landscapes are no less fanciful than the clinical and scientific language with which experts discuss the potential annihilation of our species. We must keep the image of apocalypse in mind whenever we talk about the prospects of nuclear war. ☮