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Notes From Underground. Part II: The Red Line
Text and photos Ray Nayler

Few human constructions so completely fuse the mundane, workaday world with the exotic and the strange as the Moscow Metro. The Moscow Metro is many things but most important, it is one of the worlds most efficient and heavily used transport systems. It is a monument to the world-view of the Soviet Union and its fascination with concepts of utopia and victory. It is also a triumph of engineering. Add to this the often overwhelming crush of crowds, the mishmash of city characters, from black-fingernailed homeless people seeking refuge from the cold to New Russian girls with shiny fake Gucci purses clutched protectively against their glittery jackets, and the Moscow Metro can be overwhelming on some days for even a seasoned traveler. The map of the Metro reveals a tangled arterial web underneath the city streets that seems as chaotic as the capital itself. But where did it all begin?

The Red Line, or Line 1, was the inaugural line of the Metro. Formerly named Kirovskaya, and now called Sokolnicheskaya, the line cuts across Moscow in an angle from the NE to the SW, with 19 stations, and carrying about 1 million passengers a day. The first part of the line, from Sokolniki to Park Kultury, was opened on the 15th of May 1935, with Sokolniki first opening its doors to passengers. Subways, by many different names, were already open in London, New York, Boston, Berlin, Madrid, Barcelona, Glasgow and Athens. In Russia, however, a world war and civil war intervened, and the construction of a Moscow Metro was postponed until 1931. Upon seeing the initial plans for the Moscow Metro, H. G. Wells advised the engineers to abandon their visions of utopia and buy 1,000 London buses instead. Shunting criticism aside, construction began in earnest in 1931, with Komsomol members and suburban Muscovites giving up their weekends and wielding picks on Sundays to help at the digs. Four years later, the Red Line was complete as then planned, cutting a diagonal line across the heart of the city.

In this article we will trace the route of those first passengers of the Moscow Metropolitan, taking in the new stations they encountered along the way.

The Sokolniki station, the first to open its doors, had 350,000 passengers showing up to ride the Red Line to its terminus at Park Kultury. Sokolniki was designed not to feel like you were underground at all. Its architecture is intended to give the traveller a sense of limitlessness and space, with Italianate ceilings and two rows of square columns clad in gray and cream marble cut from the Ural Mountains. The station won the Grand Prix at the 1937 Paris Worlds Fair.

Later lines would be deeper, and constructed using more ambitious methods, and with more ambitious decoration, but the inaugural line of the Metro is striking in its classic simplicity and its relative modesty in comparison with the stations on some of the other lines. The ceilings of many of the stations are Italianate, the columns stately and reserved, and the Soviet decoration (hammers and sickles, sheaves of wheat and red stars) are often muted in comparison with later stations on other lines.

Krasnoselskaya, the next station on the line, is an excellent example of the general approach. This station, predicted to have less traffic than the others, was built with a narrow platform and a single row of columns, ten in all, faced in red and yellow Crimean marble. The tile floor in the vestibule at the western end was replaced later with a marble floor matching the rest of the station. If the restorations going on at other stations are any indication, the tile along the walls of the station may eventually be replaced as well.

Komsomolskaya is relatively modest, with columns bearing the seal of the Komsomol at their top and wheat-sheaves decorating the railings along the upper galleries overlooking the main platform. The columns and decoration are muted in design, neo-classical and Italianate, with a slight modern bent, but without the extravagance to be found in later lines (such as the Ring Line station of the same name). It is from this station that the first test train of the Moscow Metro departed, traveling to Sokolniki on October 1st, 1934.

Another Grand Prix winner at the 1937 Paris Worlds Fair is the Krasniye Vorota station, one of the first two stations to employ the triple-arched design, with the outer two arches, through which the trains run, cut off from the center of the platform by a series of heavy pylons faced in red Georgian marble. The name from this station comes from the monumental Red Gates, a baroque triumphal arch dating from the 18th century that the Mossovet demolished, despite protests, in 1928.

Next along the line is Chistiye Prudy, built in London Underground style (or the Soviet interpretation of the same) and clad in grey Ural marble and granite. Two passageways connected the separate platforms, although the pylons along the platforms were finished to give the impression that a central hall exists. Most of the arches along the center were, in fact, blind. The station was originally Kirovskaya, and there is still a bust of Kirov at the end of the platform, although the name was changed in 1990. In 1971, the central hall was reconstructed so that Chistiye Prudy could connect with the Kaluzhskaya-Rizhskaya line (Line 6, the Orange Line). Though this central hall was designed to fit into the original design of the station, it has a sort of 70s space-communism feel that was trendy at that time.

A heroic sculpture in the vestibule on Nikolskaya street commemorates the builders of the Lubyanka station, who had to contend with quicksand, a sinking station, and an underground river that undermined their efforts which, like Chistiye Prudy, was also built originally in the London Underground style, with short passageways at the end of the platforms connecting the two tunnels, and then later expanded to serve as a transfer point to the Tagansko- Krasnopresnenskaya Line (Line 7, the Purple Line). Unfortunately, this expansion ruined the original architectural concept of the station.

Okhotniy Ryad was a major construction challenge, being wedged between the Hotel Moskva and the State Duma at a depth of only 8 meters. Lazar Kaganovich, in charge of the Metro project at the time, insisted on a three-vault design for the station. Imported Italian marble is used on the station pylons, the only imported marble on the Moscow Metro. The finishing of the station, involving thousands of tons of plaster and square feet of marble, was done in just two weeks to meet the opening date of the Metropolitan.

Biblioteka Imini Lenina is located just two meters below ground level, but it was excavated underground rather than using the cut-and-cover method, so as not to disrupt traffic above. This gracefully arched single-vault station is the only one on the first line of the Moscow Metro, and gives the impression, nearly, of being above ground, with a limitless- looking horizon and the illusion of a nearly endless platform.

Ideal soil conditions and the planning of a massive Palace of Soviets on the grounds of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (then demolished) led Kropotkinskaya to become one of the grandest stations on the Moscow Metro line, with flared, torch-like columns along the length of its platform and a soaring ceiling. But the Palace of Soviets, and the volume of riders it would entail, never materialized, and now Kropotkinskaya is used mostly by tourists visiting the Pushkin Museum or the rebuilt cathedral.

Our journey along the first line of the Moscow Metro ends at Park Kultury, decorated in the Greek style, and with its pillars faced with Crimean marble. Central and terminal stairs connect the platform with the footbridges leading to the vestibules. This station was one of the more difficult to build, as it occupied a major intersection and was so close to the Moscow River that water constantly threatened to flood the pit during construction. One of the original vestibules, leading down to the southernmost end of the platform, is worth a look, as it has survived almost unchanged since 1935. On your way to the surface, take a look at the beautiful, precise marble mosaic of Maxim Gorky. Then cross the bridge for an hour or two of ice skating along the frozen paths of the park. After so much time underground, you deserve some fresh air.

Next month, well explore the stations of the Green Line.

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