Over here in the Motherland, I have been thinking about (and, coping with) some (in)accessibility issues. As I have mentioned here before, lots of public spaces in Moscow are unfortunately difficult, if not impossible, to access for those with mobility aids and mobility issues. An example of classic post-Soviet inaccessibility is the ubiquitous pedestrian underpass, or “perekhod.” You see in the 1930s Comrade Stalin decided that the streets of Moscow needed to be wide. Super wide. To accommodate not only the new Soviet automobiles that he and his engineers imagined would soon populate the streets, but also to accommodate Soviet aircraft. That’s right; the streets of Moscow were supposed to be able, in the event of an enemy invasion (whether by the Germans or those evil American capitalists across the ocean), to function as landing strips for Soviet fighter jets. So. The medieval mercantile and residential districts, with their narrow, winding lanes that once abutted the Kremlin wall, were summarily bulldozed and the street widening commenced. Thus, most of Moscow’s streets, as we know them today are too big to be traversed on the surface. Recognizing this, the Soviet engineers wisely installed functional pedestrian underpasses under every such modern avenue in the city. Function, is of course, relative. In order to get from one side of the street to the other, one must first be able to access these underpasses. And that means going down and then up stairs. LOTS of stairs. This is difficult if you have trouble walking. This is impossible if you use a wheelchair. Well. Almost impossible. There are ramps. Or rather I should say, “ramps.” They look like this:
Hmm. I know. How the hell, right? I have seen one or two wheelchair users attempting to use these contraptions. Usually young male amputees. Usually with the assistance of at least one friend. And usually after all parties involved have consumed A LOT of alcohol. Said attempts, at least the ones I have witnessed, seem to succeed ~50% of the time. Notably, I have never seen anyone attempt to go up or down these contraptions in ice or snow. So the moral of the story is this: These “ramps” are pretty much impossible to use, which renders the underpasses inaccessible to wheelchair users, which makes it difficult for someone relying on wheels to get from one side of the street to the other. So. If you use a wheelchair, you are stuck, either one your own side of the street, or more likely, my Russian friends have told me, at home, in your apartment. Which sucks. Period.
But behold! A breakthrough in the understanding of the logic of Soviet engineering. I mentioned the inaccessibility of the underpasses to an American friend who spent most of her childhood in Moscow during the Soviet period. As the oldest of five kids, she often helped her mother haul the babies around town in their strollers. And as I kvetched about the folly of the underpass wheelchair ramps, she stopped me mid-sentence, “Oh wait. You thought those were for wheelchairs. Those aren’t for wheelchairs. Those are for prams. The were built to accommodate the exact dimensions of the standard Soviet pram. The wheels of the pram go on the ramp, and the mother goes in the middle, on the narrow set of stairs, so that she can push. That way she can get her baby up and down the underpass stairs without having to carry the heavy pram+kid. My mom used to do it all the time…”
So sorry Soviet citizens/wheelchair users. Sorry post-Soviet wheelchair-user-Moscovites. Just kidding. The underpasses weren’t supposed to just be difficult for you to access. You weren’t supposed to access them at all…