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Notes From Underground V: The Light Blue Line and the Moscow Monorail
Text and photos Ray Nayler

The Moscow metro, despite its syllable-heavy station names and often Cyrillic-only signs, is probably one of the easier metro systems to navigate on the planet, even for foreigners. This is clear to anyone who has ever tried, for example, to explain to a visitor from out of town how to use the Washington, D.C. metro and ended up with a lost, angry friend who waited 15 minutes for the wrong train and wound up someplace in suburban Maryland.

Timiryazevsaya Monorail Station

However, there is one section of the Moscow metro that is perennially confusing to visitors and even locals, and always requires a parenthetical explanation when giving directions: the Light Blue Line. Much of the difficulty is attributable to two stations, Smolenskaya and Arbatskaya, which bear the same names as stations on the Dark Blue Line but do not connect to them in any way. As we will see, how this line ended up so tangled has as much to do with history and politics as with city planning.

Although the Light Blue Line is #4 on the scheme of the Moscow metro, it includes a number of the system’s oldest stations, including Alexandrovsky Sad, Arbatskaya, and Smolenskaya, all of which opened as part of the Red Line on May 15, 1935. For this article, we will ride through these three stations along with Kievskaya, completing a tour we began in January with the Red Line. We will then take a detour into the “future” with a ride on the Moscow monorail.

The original Moscow metro, opened in 1935, consisted of a “Y” extending from Sokolniki and branching at Okhotny Ryad to terminal stations at Smolenskaya (Light Blue) and Park Kultury (Red). We will begin our tour in the first station of what is now the Light Blue Line, Aleksandrovsky Sad. Originally called Komintern, Aleksandrovsky Sad station is in many ways one of the metro system’s oddest. Not in the original plans because of its dangerous proximity to the Lenin State Library, the station was essentially a widened tunnel with two platforms located on either side of a parallel set of tracks, in the Parisian style, rather than a single platform in between two separate tracks as is the usual design for Moscow metro stations.

Construction, begun in 1934, immediately encountered problems as a result of a nearby system of ceramic sewage pipes carrying millions of buckets of waste into the Moscow River. A clever engineering solution was found, however, with the sewage being diverted along the same tunnels used for the metro. After this, the station was completed in record time. A footbridge was later added, connecting the two platforms.

Monorail Train

Following the dissolution of the Komintern, the station was renamed Kalininskaya in 1946. With the opening of the Dark Blue Line in 1953, the station was closed to the public, then reopened in 1958 as part of the Filyovskaya Line. In 1990 the station was briefly called Vozdvizhenka before the system settled on the present name, given in honor of the garden near the Kremlin.

Arbatskaya is an excellent example of the difference between early and late Stalinism in architecture. Simple in design, with a double row of columns faced in Crimean marble down the central platform and a 5-sided aboveground vestibule with “Metro” written on every side, the station follows the same classic design as Sokolniki, Smolenskaya, and Park Kultury, in sharp contrast to the bombastic rococo of the late Stalinist Arbatskaya on the Dark Blue Line. This later style, often derisively referred to even at the time as “Novsovrok,” a clever condensation of “New Soviet Rococo,” was a result of the maniacal acceleration of Stalin’s personality cult. But when this more modest station was opened, the purges of ’37 were still in the future, and the gulags not yet at their full capacity. During World War II, Arbatskaya’s roof was pierced by a German bomb. Many of the 1930s stations were close to the surface, making them vulnerable to attack from above. Thus the construction of the Dark Blue Line, during the Cold War, was deep underground, where stations could serve as shelters in the case of conventional or even atomic attack.

Smolenskaya is another example of this early, classic architectural style — a nearly exact copy of Arbatskaya, the station features columns clad in icy gray marble, but little else differs between the two. Smolenskaya originally had two exits, but the expansion of the Garden Ring resulted in the demolition of one of them. There are still two sets of stairs from the platform, but one leads to a dead end. The demolished vestibule was nearly a twin of the one still found at Chistiye Prudy. The traffic level through these three older stations is noticeably lower than the other Moscow metro lines, contributing to their strange, halfabandoned feel.

The Light Blue Line platform of Kievskaya, opened on March 20th, 1937, serves as another perfect contrast to the platforms on the Dark Blue Line and especially the mosaic-heavy station on the Circle Line, which we will be covering in detail next month. Designed by the same architect as the Red Line’s Komsomolskaya, the Light Blue Line Kievskaya has the same light, open feel as that station, with octagonal columns faced with Gazgan marble rising to a ceiling of lighted circular coffers. The floor is intricately patterned in traditional Ukrainian style, executed in red, black, and gray marble.

Destined by 1953 to be scrapped completely, new life has been breathed into this line by the construction of Moscow-City and the opening of the Mezhdunarodnaya business center, turning a relic of the city’s past into a part of its future development.

M. Kievskaya

Nothing, however, says more about visions of Moscow’s future than the Moscow Monorail. Initiated in 1998 and opened to passengers in 2004, the Moscow Monorail connects the VDNKh exposition grounds with Timiryazevskaya on the Gray Line. The Moscow monorail, originally opened in a “touring mode” with tickets costing 50 rubles and trains at intervals of 20 minutes but now operates as a regular piece of the city’s transit network, with tickets priced at 19 rubles and trains arriving every 5 minutes. The monorail currently extends only 4.7 kilometers, but with a sevenfold passenger increase following the lowering of fares, there are plans to extend it to other areas of the city that lack metro access. This contradicts a statement earlier in 2007 that expansion of the Moscow monorail was “inexpedient” and needed to be “rethought.” The trains travel on a single track 6 meters off the ground, through a total of 6 stations spaced 700-800 meters apart. The trains are shockingly high tech after the Moscow metro’s increasingly ancient and battered rolling stock, with air conditioning, heating, full automation, and even multilingual signage. The trains have been modified by Russian engineers to withstand the harsh Russian winters.

Running through a somewhat dismal section of Moscow, the Moscow monorail still has the feel of a novelty, like Disneyland’s except that the view of the Magic Castle and Matterhorn is replaced by the industrial unsightliness of train tracks, endless housing blocks, and the unforgivably ugly Ostankino Tower. Toward the eastern end, as we close in on Ulitsa Sergeya Eisensteina, views are brightened by a lake and the Stalinist wonderland of VDNKh. However, it may be this very utilitarianism that saves the Moscow monorail from an early grave: Now that the fare has been reduced to a more plebian level and they have stopped treating it as some sort of tourist attraction, the monorail may be destined to become an integral part of Moscow’s overloaded system of public transport. The trains are pristine, the stations streamlined and beautiful (though likely abysmally cold in winter) and the uniforms of the attendees are, to continue with a theme, something straight out of Disneyland’s recently refurbished Tomorrowland.

Next month we return underground with an article about the Circle Line, which contains some of the Moscow metro’s most impressive stations.

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