Notes from Underground
I: Down the Rabbit Hole. The first in a series of articles in which Ray Nayler guides us through the stations and tunnels of the Moscow Metropolitan, one the busiest and most extensive systems of public transport in the world, a subterranean labyrinth that serves as a functional museum for Soviet Realist Art, Stalinist hubris, unapologetic kitsch, and state power.
Text and photos Ray Nayler
For those of us who use it every day, descending into the Moscow Metro during rush hour can be a harrowing experience. As you navigate the often slippery marble stairs, worn concave by the feet of millions upon millions, you prepare yourself to be squeezed, shoved, bumped, and crushed against the walls of the trains. You spend precious minutes penguin-walking to the base of the escalators when you have to transfer to another station. And it seems that there is little time to appreciate the more decorative aspects of this subterranean world.
The Moscow Metro is at once a thing of great utilitarian purpose and of great beauty. Referred to in Soviet propaganda as “The People’s Palaces”, many stations of the Metro are living, functional museums to Soviet Realist Art and to the power and breadth of the Soviet Union: black marble from the Urals, Armenian and Georgian symbolic decorations on the walls of such stations as Byelorusskaya, Ploshchad Revolutsiy, Elektrozavodskaya and Aeroport, while blood-red marble from Georgia contributes to the beauty of the Krasniye Vorota metro station.
The Moscow Metro ranks among the most efficient and busiest public transport systems on the planet, with trains that carry over 7 million people daily; more than the subway systems of New York and Paris combined. But where did it all begin? And if we had the time, what is there to see down there?
It is impossible to imagine Moscow without the Metro. In fact, it seems that without the Metro the city would quickly grind, both physically and culturally, to a halt. The Metro is the compass for how people give directions, how much of the city goes to work, to the cinema, to dinner. How do you get to someone’s house? “Take the last car from the center.” It links Muscovites to one another and to the world beyond the megalopolis. This series of articles will explore the history and attractions of one of the most extensive and beautiful public transit systems in the world. For the first article, let’s start with some history, and some numbers.
Construction of the Moscow Metro began in the 1930s. The first line, the Sokolniki, or Red Line, opened on 15 May 1935 between Sokolniki and Park Kultury, with a branch to Smolenskaya which then reached Kievskaya in April 1937. The stations on this line were mostly based on other metro systems that already existed around the world, but soon more “original” schemes emerged, merging Art Deco style with Socialist utopianism, such as at Okhotniy Ryad. And Kievskaya was the first to use national motifs.
Construction continued unabated through the rest of the 1930s, with the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line completed before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War. During the war new stations, including Teatralnaya and Avtozavodskaya, were opening even as the bombs were falling on the city.
During the Siege of Moscow, in the autumn and winter of 1941, many of the Metro stations were used as air-raid shelters. Mayakovskaya, one of the largest stations, was used as a command post for the city’s anti-aircraft batteries. On the 7th of November 1941, the station hosted an underground ceremony to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the October Revolution, for which a podium with a bust of Lenin, surrounded by banners, was set up in its main hall. Trains were stopped at the platforms of this station with buffets arranged inside them and hundreds of seats were brought into the station to accommodate the invited Party members and nomenklatura guests. Stalin himself made several public speeches on the main platform of Mayakovskaya during the siege.
The Koltsevaya, or Ring Line was planned first as a line running directly under the Garden Ring, a wide avenue which encircled the borders of Moscow’s city center. The first part of the line, from Park Kulturiy to Kurskaya (1950), follows this avenue as originally planned, but the rest of the ring line was modified to connect to nine of the eleven intercity train stations in Moscow, forming the hub of a massive, country-wide public transit system designed to connect the center of Moscow with the entire Soviet Union, from Vladivostok to Ashkhabad to Archangelsk. This line, which we will explore in detail in a later article, holds some of the Moscow Metro’s most lavishly beautiful stations.
One legend about the circle line has it that planners were presenting the metro scheme to Stalin, who was drinking a cup of coffee. At the time, the Metro consisted only of radial lines. When they spread the proposed metro map out on the table, Stalin placed his coffee cup down in the center of it and walked out of the room without a word. When the engineers lifted the cup, they saw a brown, circular stain and realized (due to Stalin’s genius, of course) what their plans had been missing. Hence, the coffee-brown color of the ring line. Of course, this is an apocryphal story generally attributed to the personality cult surrounding Stalin – but it makes a great story for visitors to the capital.
The stations on the Arbatskiy (or Arbat) line, constructed during the Cold War, are very deep specifically because they were planned as shelters in the event of nuclear war. Unlike many other metro systems, the Moscow Metropolitan seems always connected to war, with its military murals and celebrations of past Russian victories, along with the preparation for war, and victory in war. Many stations memorialize the The Great Patriotic War and the Soviet victory over Fascist Germany, while others predict in their murals a lasting peace and prosperity that never quite seemed to arrive.
During the late 1950s, the architectural extravagance and lavish decorative motifs of the early metro stations was abandoned, on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev, in favor of a cheaper, simpler, utilitarian style. The standard layout quickly became known as Sorokonozhka or “centipede”, due to the columns aligned in rows down either side of the platforms. During the “centipede” period, stations differed from one another only in the color and design of the tiles used, and many of these stations were very poorly built. By the mid-1970s, architectural extravagance had come back into style, and original designs began to be used again.
The Moscow Metropolitan now consists of 12 lines and 173 stations. Construction of new stations continues to this day, as restoration of the original stations, such as Mayakovskaya also continues.
Next month, we will explore the stations of Moscow’s most venerable metro line, the Sokolnicheskaya, or Red Line.
Moscow Metropolitan by the Numbers
|Square meters of marble:
|Trains per day:
|Passengers per car (average)
|Train miles traveled per day:
||126 meters (Park Pobedy)|
|Number of Employees:
|Average interval between trains: