Moscow's Historic Metro Stations

Many of Moscow's Metro stations feel more like museums than mere public transportation.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

A typical Metro station.
Moscow's famous Metro is the world's largest subway system. The cavernous stations often feel more like museums than just efficient public transport. The walls, and sometimes even ceilings, are often decorated with intricate mosaic pictures depicting Soviet life, or at least the way the Soviet government wanted the people to believe Soviet life was like.

The overall feel of the stations, for me at least, was like a trip back through time. The stations are certainly well maintained and clean, but you are well aware of the history and age of the place. Muscovites, long since accustomed to all this, moved through the trains and stations impatiently. I looked around at my surroundings as if I had just landed on another planet.

Most of the stations' tunnels have relatively low ceilings, giving you a mild case of claustrophobia, at times, while you wait for the trains. There is little, or maybe even no, fluorescent lighting. Old fashioned light bulbs in old style fixtures glow dimly, adding to the feel of relative antiquity.

Many of the stations are very deep underground, with incredibly long escalators carrying you down to the trains. As you descend downward the noise of the trains and people rise up to envelope you.

An arriving train.
Muscovites bustle quickly on and off the trains, up and down stairs and escalotors, with grim expressions and impatient strides. I quickly discovered that you have to be real careful to stay out of the way of the babushkas. They can be deadly if you get in their way getting on or off the trains.

In one incident, I was moving slowly in a crowd attempting to exit a train. I saw a small opening between two people and attempted to walk between them. All of a sudden I felt an impact as if I had stumbled onto the tracks and been hit by a speeding train. As I stumbled back and caught my balance on the door, a squat little babushka thundered past me with both arms full of a day's shopping.

I quickly learned to stay out of their way. After observing for myself that the babushkas were definately the toughest people on the metro, I had a brilliant idea. I'd hire forty of them, bring them back to Atlanta and start a new NFL football team: The Atlanta Babushkas.

We'd have no fancy offense, not a lot of passing, just straight line runs up the middle and maybe a screen pass or two. Plenty of blitzing on defense and a no nonsense babushka-to-man secondary. These little ladies can hit hard enough to make the Oakland Raiders of old look like Girl Scouts.

I figure three seasons for a division title, one more for a playoff spot, and then it's on to the Super Bowl. And besides being damn good football players, they're also excellent cooks! Well, what do you think, sports fans?

One of the more elaborate stations.
Many of the stations have their own architectural style, as in this picture here on the right. This was probably the most ornate of all the stations I saw during my trip.

We generally didn't ride the metro much during rush hour, but one morning we had an early appointment, so we were on the train by eight thirty in the morning. Moscow trains at that time of day are real sardine cans! It was extremely crowded and quite hot. The trains are not air conditioned, but there are open windows. If you're lucky, you can find a place to stand that will afford you an occasional breeze through a window.

The trains are also extremely fast, and very loud. They bang back and forth along the underground tracks, making crashing noises followed by incredibly high decibal screeching as they slow down approaching another station.

And now for a little factual information: Construction on the metro began in 1932. Today the lines total 262 kilometers and 155 stations. The stations are not numbered, but rather have names that refer to the areas of the city they serve.

Incidentally, I had a little trouble with this. The words in Russian were so long that I soon gave up trying to learn the names of the stations, and merely memorized the first and last two letters of each station name. Either that, or I tried to pronounce them as if the cyrillic alphabet were the latin alphabet, producing some really funny sounding words.

Statues of two soldiers.
The first line was opened in 1935 between Sokol'niki and Park Kul'tury and until the beginning of World War II, the metro consisted of the original four lines and twenty five stations. After the war, growth of the metro continued to its present size of ten lines and 155 stations.

The same types of cars have been in use since 1979 and can be seen in many ex-Soviet metro cities, including St. Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, and in Budapest and Prague.

The metro serves about 7 million people every day. I was surprised at how quickly the trains come by, about every minute or so during peak hours. It is probably the number one form of transportation for most Muscovites, and with the help of trolley buses, provides by far the best way to get around Moscow.

Marble is used to decorated about one half of all the metro stations, along with other types of stone. For this reason, the Moscow metro will probably last forever. The marble used was brought from all over the former Soviet Union from places like the Ural Mountains, Altay, Middle Asia and the Caucasus.

The black marble from the Urals, Armenia and Georgia decorate the walls of such Metro stations as Byelorusskaya, Ploshchad Revolutsii, Elektrozavodskaya and Aeroport. The shades of deep-red marble from Georgia contribute to the solemn beauty of the Krasnye Vorota metro station.

The detailed artwork.
The metro is also very safe, at all hours the trains are available. Nowadays, vendors in small kiosks are everywhere they will fit. Individual citizens also sell many small items, such as clothing, cigarettes and newspapers along the tunnels.

Many people have the impression that today beggars are everywhere in Moscow. This is untrue; Muscovites, and I imagine Russians in general, are too proud to survive this way. You do sometimes see very old women in the tunnels with their hands out asking for a few rubles. But these women clearly have nowhere else to turn, and I rarely passed one, if ever, without trying to help in some small way. The Russians, too, appear quite genorous toward their older fellow citizens, and many people paused long enough to help.

Often while entering a tunnel you hear beautiful music from a violin, a street player. Echoing through the long tunnels and cavernous stations the music is very haunting. Combined with the antique feel of the metro it can even be a little scary. Whatever impression comes over you, it is a great enhancement to the overall metro experience, and worth giving the guy a few rubles.

One particular piece a young violinist played, as I walked through a tunnel on the way to the platform, reminded me so much of the music from the film Young Frankenstein that I actually thought I saw Cloris Leachmen leading Peter Boyle, in full monster regalia, through the station.

It's too easy down there, hundreds of feet below Moscow, to let the atmosphere and imagination of the Moscow metro get the best of you.

Soviet soldiers during wartime.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of the metro's design is the mosaic depictions of Soviet life, like the one to the right. Men are always shown as tall, strong leaders, sure of themselves and the great Soviet State. I tried to imagine what it must have looked like when the station was new and the true Soviet citizens walked past these depictions every day. Where they truly as sure of things as the men in the picture? I don't know; perhaps you can send me your opinons and experiences.

Many of the mosaics depict symbols of Soviet production, factories turning out products, happy workers watching the fruits of their labor shipped off to Soviets all over the union. Many are monuments to Russian soldiers during World War II, the Great Partriotic War. And still others depict scenes from everyday life, like a wedding.

These images give more than just a glimpse back into the life of the Soviet Union. I think they say something about the whole system politically, as well. I found myself seeing no small trace of propaganda in them. I also wondered about my own country and government, and realized ways in which they also behave in the same manner.

On the trains the mood of the people is somber and reserved. People rarely speak to one another, unless to ask for directions, or the name of the next station. Many people read books. Belongings are almost always gathered together in plastic shopping bags with names like Nike or Marlboro on them. The trains speed along noisily, the passengers jostling from side to side to the sound of crashing metal and screeching brakes.

On one train ride, late at night, I was amazed to see two small children sleeping soundly as the train hurtled along. How could they possibly sleep through all the noise, I thought. Each one was with a single parent, sitting across from one another. Each parent observed the other's child and exchanged a brief and shy smile. This, I think, was the most contact I saw between metro passengers my entire trip.

The happy workers with a tractor.
There were a few humorous moments along the metro, though. One time Nino and I were exiting a station and I was about thirty feet ahead of her on the escalator. It was late at night, so the station was quite empty.

For a little joke, I turned around and began walking back down the rising escalator. Realizing I wasn't making any progress I began a mild run and started to descend the moving stairs. Nino began laughing, as I looked pretty silly with a desperate look on my face.

Just then a man came out of a small booth and began yelling something at me in Russian. "I can't hear you," I yelled back at him. He continued to yell, so I said, "Wait just a minute. I'll be right there." And I began running down the escalator at full speed. Now I was really moving downwards toward the man who began screaming loudly, "Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!"

When I stopped and said, "What does 'Net' mean," Nino really started laughing and the man realized I was joking and began to shake his head tiredly and laugh as well. He pointed back up the escalator and said in very good english, "Go!".

I pretended only now to understand and turned back up the escalator. The man watched me for a good while, until I was gone, and then went back into his booth. I think I heard him mumble, "Teppoi Amerikanski."

The ol' boy himself.
I often found myself wondering what the future will hold for the Moscow Metro. I mean, it certainly is a very historic place, and worth a visit by itself. But it truly is not a museum, so its practical use as a subway system must take top priority.

Will the artwork change with time or will it remain as a testament to the past? Will new stations be built and reflect the life of modern times, with modern depictions of Russian life?

As time passes how will people perceive the mosaics that will fade further and further in Russia's past? It just a few short years people born too late to even remember Soviet times will look upon them with unfamiliar eyes.

Perhaps a new metro station will feature artwork of Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts working together on the soon to be built international space station. What a contrast this would be! What a difference from the climate the old stations were built under. The new age of modern cooperation has ushered in new possibilities for all of us, in every facet of life. Perhaps someday soon artwork in metro stations will capture these moments, as well, and save them for future generations to look back upon with wonder and appreciation.

And so my trip continued this way. Each day I spent in Russia, I continually found myself looking back into the past and wondering about the future at the same time. It would seem our two countries are bound together this way.

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All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans