In 2003 I visited all 170-odd stations of the Moscow Metro and wrote this for the 70th Anniversary of the system
To say that Park Pobedy (Victory Park) station is deep is to say the Moscow Metropolitan Underground Railway is just a good way to get around. Mounting the escalator, one immediately recalls the posters in the metro showing a station attendant, young, blonde, and cute in her blue uniform. She smiles beguilingly and the text reads: “Yest’ Vykhod.” There is an exit.
This is reassuring. The escalators, among the fastest in the world, whisk passengers along at almost a meter per second. So quick are they that, in 2003, six German tourists were hospitalized when the speed of the steps tripped one, who knocked over the other five. Speed notwithstanding, it still takes exactly three minutes to ride from the top to the bottom of the Park Pobedy escalator. If you begin listening to an average pop song as you mount this monster the tune will end right as its teeth spit you out the other end.
This station serves its namesake, once the grounds where Napoleon and his army staged before entering Moscow, and is now home to a complex of museums, memorials and parks. As a trainload of passengers arrives, there is a collective gasp, a buzz that runs throughout the car. Park Pobedy gleams. The walls and floors are orange, gray, and white, representing the colors of Russian’s first military order. The marble has been smoothed and polished to a metallic luster.
On the occasion of Victory Day most of Moscow seems to be heading to Victory Park to watch the fireworks. As the train empties into the hall, there is the rarest of sights: thousands of Muscovites, mouths agape, staring in wonderment at a metro station. A foreigner turns to his Russian companion to ask why Russians are acting this way.
“Because we have never seen it before,” he replies, himself stunned.
[NOTE: the links in this story are mostly to Metro.ru, a Russian language site that is the publication of record on Moscow Metro. Readers need not know Russian. Just scroll down to see a variety of historic and, at times, recent images of the metro.]
The Moscow Metropolitan has been operating for seventy years. That is 70 years of people leaning against its walls while waiting for friends and lovers; 70 years of vapor exhaled by millions of daily passengers; 70 years of slyakot [dirty slush] brought in on Muscovites’ muddy winter boots; 70 years of washing scrubbing that still makes Moscow’s one of the cleanest undergrounds in the world.
The stations that opened in 1935 are still remarkable today: a repository for acres of granite and mahogany, orlets, porphyry, and semi-precious stones like onyx, and 23 varieties of marble. Its designers intended to overawe citizens of and visitors to the capital of the world’s only socialist state, just as 17th century architects did with the mirrored halls of Versailles, and 19th century visionaries did with the neo-classical muscularity of Washington D.C. But as impressive as these stations are, time has dulled the oldest of them and Moscow has reared generations of citizens on their storied platforms. For tourists, the metro is an object of fascination. For Muscovites, the system is an unapologetic part of the everyday.
It was fitting that Victory Park station was completed just in time to usher Moscow up to Victory Park to celebrate Victory Day. The capital’s very first metro line was completed just in time for another holiday eight days earlier in May. Standing among a throng of Muscovites in 2003, gushing at the wonder their country had produced, it seemed possible to understand for just a moment what it must have been like when the Red Lined opened for official viewing on May Day 1935.
It is an interesting what-might-have-been to consider how the Moscow Metropolitan would have looked had the imperial government of Nicholas II been responsible for the metro’s first stations. The Moscow city council had discussed the possibility of building a metro as early as 1900, but the unlikely alliance of the Imperial Archaeological Society and the Archbishop of Moscow, fearful that construction would damage the city’s ancient churches and other structures, weighed in against it.
With the existing transportation system overwhelmed by the rapidly growing capital, the council revisited the idea again in 1930 and immediately received the endorsement of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. However a tsarist metro might have looked, it is certain that a cash-strapped autocracy would not have spent lavishly on a system largely to serve the working class.
The metro became the most visible salient in Stalin’s war of industrialization. Gigantomania is the term-of-art applied to the first and second Five Year Plans by the economist Nicholai Basili, which chronicled 20 years of Soviet power in Russian Under Soviet Rule. Every plant, Basili wrote, had to be “bigger than the greatest in the world,” regardless of whether or not such massive projects made any economic sense. Magnitogorsk was a massive steel works built to be larger than those of Gary, Indiana—at the time the world’s largest steel producing center. The assembly building of the Chelyabinsk tractor factory had the greatest area of any building in the world, large enough to contain 21 soccer fields, with enough room left over to build dressing rooms for the players. Azbest had the world’s largest open cut asbestos mine.
It only made sense, therefore, that Moscow, the head from which sprung this pathology of vastness would have its won super-project. Experts from London, Paris, and New York advised Soviet authorities against building an underground. Such construction is always difficult, but never more so than in a place like Moscow, where geologists had no idea what would be found under the city’s ancient streets. In a city that had only a few thousand automobiles, the experts said, the money would be far better spent on ground-level transit.
But the metro was to serve purposes far greater than just transportation. The unprecedented depth of the stations would make them ideal as bomb shelters in the event of war. But more importantly, the metro would be a showpiece of what homo sovieticus could accomplish.
In many regards, the foreign experts were right. Moscow’s foundations proved to be unstable and unpredictable—significantly different from what the country’s experienced coal and asbestos miners were accustomed to . The cut-and-cover method (an open trench is dug from street level and then covered afterward) had only limited usefulness, given Moscow’s famously long winters. When miners hit a quicksand deposit, the contents drained from the natural cavity into the mineshaft, removing the support from buildings above ground. Similarly, water deposits flooded the mines. To counter these problems, engineers devised a method of chemically freezing the material around the shafts so that miners could then excavate it like any rock.
The freezing process created its own problem. The walls were frozen to between 10 and 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The concrete in use at the time set best in summer temperatures of 60° or above and not at all below freezing. The concrete had to be heated in order to dry, which meant engineers had to add a layer of insulating material between the ice and the warmed concrete. All these additional steps made the battle of the metro one fought in inches but ultimately measured in miles. Expense piled on top of expense.
Workers began excavating the first shaft in 1932, but progress was slow. In early 1933, with an opening date set for the 1934 anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin assigned his energetic lieutenant, Nikita Khrushchev, to oversee construction. It was a daunting assignment: a rapidly approaching deadline and he answered to Stalin. “When we started building,” Khrushchev later remarked, “we had only the vaguest idea of what the job would entail. We were very unsophisticated. We thought of a subway as something almost supernatural. I think it’s probably easier to contemplate space flights today than it was for us to contemplate the construction of the Moscow Metro in the early 1930s.”
Khrushchev had considerable mining experience and was a tough taskmaster. He may have missed the original November 1934 opening date, but he made remarkable progress. A German writer visiting Moscow in the summer of 1934 recalled that in “every quarter of the city, the earth shook with the ringing of hammers, the banging, bumping and screeching of single-bucket excavators, concrete mixers and machines that turned out mortar.” Once the arduous task of excavating and construction was complete, the architects and designers were called in.
There was no template for how the stations would look, but by the early 1930s the modernists were falling out of favor and socialist realism was becoming the standard for the arts. In architecture, that meant a return to classicism. Doric and Corinthian capitals, coffered ceilings, apses, and colonnades created a visual link with the great civilizations of the ancient world. For the Palace of Soviets station, architects Dushkin and Lichtenberg reached back even further in time. The ceiling of this shallow stations is help up by Egyptian columns, capped by lotus leaves that form the shape of stars on the ceiling. One wag called it the “150-meter ally of palms.”
The importance of this station, now called Kropotkinskaya cannot be understated. It was to serve as a foyer for the actual Palace of Soviets, the greatest building in the world, which was to be crowned with a 100-meter tall statue of Lenin—more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
A competition to design it went through several rounds before settling on a final design. The drawings are impressive, but construction never progressed beyond pouring the foundation (which kept sinking in the soft ground). As the intended seat of power for the nation, this planned building lent great significance to the station underneath it. VIPs came to see it before the station opened. The ever astute Lazar Kaganovich praised it saying it was just “just like a railway station,” while the portly Kliment Voroshilov observed that “it looks just like a restaurant.” Both missed a more appropriate connection. The Egyptian theme was a distinct variation from the style typical of stations of this time, and one must wonder if its architects were connecting it with the Pharaoh-Tsar Stalin.
A month before the metro opened, some English journalists were invited to view the Palace of Soviets and Komsomolskaya Square stations. A Mr. Eden noted that “[the Soviet Union] has used the rich experiences of Europe and America, but taking all the positive and discarding all the negative. The metro was built with purely artistic taste.” He was especially taken with the Palace of Soviets station, comparing it favorable with the best stations in London, Charring Cross and Piccadilly Circus. “The metros of the capitals of the world,” he continued, “ will all be compared against the Moscow Metropolitan.”
In Moscow there were two days of holidays to commemorate the opening of the metro to the public. On May 14, citizens carried banners through the streets bearing a message that would echo in the 2003 ad campaign: Yest’ Metro (There is a Metro). The next day, according to Pravda, when the metro officially opened “the holiday continued when hundreds of thousands of Muscovites filled the metro beginning at dawn, taking a fantastic journey in the radiant, underground palaces, and, full of the unforgettable impression, exited onto the street.” All told 372,337 people passed through the metro on its first full day of operation.
Among the signs present, one read: “The best metro in the world is built.” Of all the things its architects and designers got right, the most important is that riders never feel like they are in a tunnel. That is something no other metro can boast, least of all London’s, which feels every inch a tube.
The mosaics, paintings, relief sculpture and statuary of the Moscow Metropolitan offer a short course in Soviet history—the childrens’ version. The workers reading Iskra, the competition between the Ural and Donbas miners, the happy farm girls collecting wheat or riding tractors—none of the iconography smiling from the walls and ceilings of this lovely web of concrete and steel betrays the fact that the metro was incorporated in the trio of horrors of Stalin’s reign: collectivization, industrialization, and the Great Terror.
The metro was built in a very Russian way: under coercion. Passing the Russian Baroque architecture along the rivers and canals of St. Petersburg there is nothing to intimate the pain of the serfs who built the city under Peter the Great’s sword, or to memorialize the many who died in the process. So it is with the metro.
Yet there are distinct differences between the metro and other Stalinist construction projects—most distinguished by their remoteness. Approximately 100,000 laborers died building the distant White Sea Canal. John Scott, an American working in desolate Magnitogorsk, reported untrained, underfed, and exhausted men falling from scaffolding to their deaths. The gold mines of Siberia’s Kolyma were frigid slaughterhouses where thousands died extracting the precious metal. But Moscow was anything but remote and its builders were not political prisoners.
Yet the metro was a product of Soviet industrialization, a period as famous for the grandeur of its projects as infamous for its leaders’ cavalier attitudes toward both resources and human lives. One of Scott’s more potent observations was that “Russians’ battle of ferrous metallurgy alone involved more casualties than the battle of the Marne.”
As the superintendent of metro construction, Khrushchev took enormous risks. He pushed his crew of 70,000 relentlessly. Shifts ran to 48 hours without rest and Khrushchev ignored engineers’ warnings that tunnels would collapse. Flooding and fires, and casualties, were common. But, unlike the situation with prison laborers, whose plight would not be told for decades, these stories were hailed in the pages of Pravda as “heroism in service to a great cause.”
Moscow in the early 1930s had little automobile traffic and was still struggling with shortages of food and housing. Arguably the city’s residents had greater need for basic necessities than for a shiny new underground train, so surface transportation would have been a more prudent use of funds. And the frequent accidents added to already high construction costs. In 1934 alone, 350 million rubles were spent on the metro. For perspective, 300 million rubles were spent on consumer goods for the entire Soviet Union during the first Five Year Plan.
Funding for massive industrialization projects came largely from grain exports. Activists were sent into the countryside to “invite” the peasants to join collective farms. One activist recalls a gathering: “I called a village meeting, and I told the people that they had to join the collective, that these were Moscow’s orders, and if they didn’t they would be exiled… They all signed the paper that same night, every one of them. Don’t ask me how I felt and how they felt. And the same night they started to do what the other villages of the USSR were doing when forced into collectives—to kill their livestock.” Another activist remembered that every peasant “had a greasy mouth” from the feast that ensued. It turned out to be a last supper.
The images of healthy farmwomen that adorn the metro bear little resemblance to the skeletal figures then occupying the countryside. Writer Boris Pasternak visited some villages in the early 1930s and later described what he saw as “inhuman, unimaginable misery, such a terrible disaster, that it began to seem almost abstract.” The collectivization of the peasantry is one of the sadder episodes of the Soviet century. While grain was sold abroad to buy material and machines, millions starved to death at home. Some of that blood money certainly fell into the coffers of Metrostroy, the organization responsible for building the metro system. It is interesting to note that, before coming to Moscow, Khrushchev was a crucial figure in collectivizing Ukraine, the corner of the Soviet Union that suffered most from starvation. Despite being named for Kaganovich, and later Lenin, Khrushchev’s presence is never far from the metro.
Industrialization and collectivization mark the first half of the thirties, the Great Terror the second, and the opening of the metro straddles the two. No one was imprisoned in the metro, nor tortured there. But given the security organ’s preference for surprise arrests, many were taken in the metro. One author writes of being escorted “through the circular upper concourse of the Byelorussian-Radial subway station on the Moscow Circle Line, with its white-ceilinged dome and brilliant electric lights, and opposite us, two parallel escalators, thickly packed with Muscovites, rising from below.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn made his way to the gulag through the metro.
The next round of stations opened in 1937-38 and expanded the vocabulary of the earlier stations with some standout results. The lighting in Sokol is brilliant. The station has a single line of stanchions that emerge from the benches around their bases, only about four feet on a side, and spread out to the width of the ceiling. Between each of the flowering pillars is a white dome lit by fixtures mounted on the elaborate crown molding just inside the cavity.
This crop produced two stations that are still among the most famous. Mayakovskaya was one of the deepest stations at the time. This is another of Dushkin’s stations. Instead of the thick pylons that held up most other stations, he used thin columns faced with corrugated stainless steel and embellished at the bottom with red orlets, a decorative stone from the Urals. Between the steel ribs of the station are false cupolas with mosaics made from smalt, a type of colored glass. The depictions of the cast—the workers, soldiers, and farmers that are the stuff of proletarian art from Berlin to Magadan—flying airplanes, parachuting, and so forth were based on a series of drawings by the artist Alexander Deineka.
Mayakovskaya was so beloved that the station was reproduced for the 1938 World’s Fair in New York where it won the grand prize in architecture. It would later show up in a painting of Stalin’s 1941 meeting held in that station to mark the anniversary of the October Revolution while the Nazis were poised at the edge of Moscow.
When tourists have time to see only one station, they see Revolution Square. This station, yet another by Dushkin, has 80 larger-than-life statues of the cast crammed under red marble arches. A study of one of the statues, the head of the “student,” is on display at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The figures all look terribly uncomfortable. One worker is holding himself up by his jackhammer, a soldier by his rifle. The student could not have studied very long in the pose he presents.
Just two stations away is Baumanskaya, designed by Boris Iofan a few years later, that also has a series of bronzes. These statues are smaller-than-life, but the chests on some of the men are so puffed up that the figures seem to burst from their confines. This is just conjecture, but with the large men greatly restricted at Revoluation Square and the small ones strutting about in Baumanskaya, it leaves one to wonder if Dushkin and Iofan had something to say about their times.
With Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the USSR shifted to a war economy. As yet another signal of the importance of the Moscow Metro, it was the only major project that was undisturbed by the war effort. Several new stations were completed in 1943 and 1944 and these carried on the incremental changes made during the 1937-38 group. Stalinskaya (1944) is difficult to describe, but is defined largely by geometric patterns and a great variety of colored stone. Paveletskaya is probably the most elegant station in the metro. Its long colonnade of white marble holds a white vaulted ceiling. Where the arches meet there is a golden shield with a hammer and sickle. It is uncluttered and calm.
Naturally war themes were incorporated. At Partizanskaya a sculpture of the beautiful partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya stands guard posthumously (she was hung by the Nazis), while behind her small friezes of machine guns hanging from trees top the columns. Then there is Novokuznetskaya, a dizzying display of workmanship. A bas-relief cornice runs the length of the station, showing what must be the entire Red Army in action. A series of brightly-colored mosaics dot the elaborate ceiling. Between the narrow passageways to the trains are six-foot tall benches with carved scrolls for arms. This station is almost overwhelming and typical of what was to come after the war.
The ring line was part of the original 1931 plan, but no one then could have imagined the power the USSR and Joseph Stalin would hold when it was eventually built. This line was the apotheosis of both. There seems to be no standard for what these stations should contain, as long as it was expensive. Taganskaya is littered with ornate, light blue ceramic murals.
Novoslobodskaya is breathtaking when riders stream past its dozens of internally illuminated stained-glass windows. The red ceramic molding of Kievskaya alone (top of article) is worth stopping to see, but the station also has didactic renderings of the cast, and even one of Peter I, the only image of a tsar in the metro known to this author.
The post-war round of station construction reached its apogee with Komsomolskaya. By adding steel supports the architects expanded the height and width of its arches; this expansive station could contain any two previously built stations. The baroque arcade of white marble columns holds a barrel-vaulted ceiling covered with portraits of Russia’s greatest heroes based on illustrations by Pavel Korin: Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, Kutuzov, Suvorov, Lenin, and two frames of Stalin. These characters are illuminated by chandeliers the size of Yugos. Louis XIV would have felt right at home here, awaiting the next train.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev clawed his way to power. The Soviet Union had not yet recovered from the war and the need for frugality would mark many of Khrushchev’s building projects. In reply to the housing shortage, he ordered the construction of thousands of five-story concrete apartments. These poorly built, “temporary” structures, may of which are still in use today, came to be called khrushchoby, a play on Khrushchev’s name and trushchoby [“slums”].
Underground Khrushchev established a bland template for construction that was used for decades, usually at distant suburban stations: a long, square hall line with square columns, covered in tile with the occasional ornament. This is all. These stations were made in the cut-and-cover method and passengers who lived near them probably felt lucky they were at least out of the weather—some stations in this era (Pioneerskaya, Fili, Studencheskaya, and others) were built even more cheaply, outdoors at ground level.
By the time Khrushchev was removed from office in 1964, the metro was serving 3.2 million riders per day, a considerable increase from the first years of operation (177,000 per day in 1935). He added more than 17 miles of track and dozens of stations during his tenure, so he can be forgiven if some look stingy. But Khrushchev should be credited for one other contribution to the metro. After Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech, the two mosaics of Stalin on the ceiling at Komsomolskaya were removed, as was his statue from the central hall of Kurskaya. Stalinskaya became Semyonovskaya, and Zavod imeni Stalina (Factory named for Stalin) became Avtozavodskaya (car factory). But, more significantly, there was less worry now about being “taken” on the way to work. “The fear is gone,” Khrushchev said. “That is my contribution.”
Flush with oil money in the 1970s and 1980s, the sturdy, expensive style of the 1940s and 1950s came back in vogue. It is said Khrushchev’s insistence on building more, if cheaper, stations, came from his 1959 visit to the United States and his horror at seeing the Los Angeles freeways. The neo-Stalinist stations of this period call to mind the bulky, gaudy cars rolling out of Detroit at that time. The barrel vaulted ceilings, heavy chunks of marble and granite, and kitsch were back, often with peculiar results. Aviamotornaya (1979) has a gold foil ceiling and a statue of what appear to be angels—odd in an officially atheist state. Shosse Entuziastov (1979) has a fist breaking its chains, an immediate reminder to American visitors of the Black Power movement.
There are some exceptions. In Ploshchad Ilycha (Ilych Square, 1979) for example, the massive square red marble stanchions support the ceiling over a floor of gray, black, and red granite. At the end of this somber station is a portrait of Lenin. This station has much calm and dignity and is a tribute far more dignified than the crushing ceremony surrounding the waxen corpse on Red Square.
Through decades of turbulence including the wild years of industrialization, the greatest war the country has ever seen, imperial expansion, the space age, and the Cold War, construction continues on the Moscow Metropolitan. As a testament to the metro’s significance, Russia continued building even as the Soviet Union collapsed and the country faced seemingly untenable economic circumstances.
Many of the station built in the 1990s and into the 21st century are innovative and grand, set pieces with what came before. Chkalovskaya resembles a space stations with its green plastic lights bridging marble on either side of the arched roof. Vorobyovy Gory (under repair from 1984 to 2002) always provides a nice view, sitting as it does on a bridge over the Moscow River. Its large windows are now contained in a renovated, modern station brimming with sleek silver and grey paneling. And the station that began this narrative, Park Pobedy is emblematic, a beautiful addition to a system that is rich and deep. With history, that it.
A version of this article was originally published in Russian Life Nov/Dec 2005. It was later published in book collection Best of Russian Life.
If you enjoyed this essay please forward it to a friend and share on Facebook. If you want to keep reading please try my novels: