Notes from Underground: The Ring Line
Text and photos Ray Nayler
The apocryphal version of the Ring Line’s origins goes like this: During a planning meeting for the Moscow Metropolitan, the engineers presented a map of the metro’s radial lines to Joseph Stalin. As they explained the system to him, he sipped his coffee in silence. When they finished, Stalin set the cup down in the center of the engineering plans and walked wordlessly from the room. Recovering from their shock, the collected engineers lifted the coffee cup to discover Stalin’s genius: a circular brown ring defining the line that would complete the city’s sprawling underground. How could they not have seen it before? To this day, the metro’s Ring Line is colored brown on the map.
Whether you believe this story or not, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Moscow metro without this essential loop around the city center facilitating easy transfers among the various radial lines. The initial plans for the metro, however, did not include a ring line at all, calling only for a series of interlocking radial lines. But as early as 1938, it had become clear from the massive load already being placed on these transfer points that this system would not be sufficient.
The line loosely follows the Garden Ring in the south and pushes beyond it in the city’s north to hook up with nearly all of Moscow’s major train stations. It thus links Moscow with cities from Tashkent to Tomsk, Vladivostok to Warsaw, all by rail.
Constructed from 1950 to 1954, the Ring Line has a number of beautiful stations, all examples of the peak of Stalinist architecture. In this article we’ll start at Kievskaya in the southwest and proceed clockwise to Komsomolskaya in the northeast, one of the most elaborate of the line’s 12 stations.
The opening of Kievskaya on March 14, 1954, coincided with 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian “unification,” and takes this idea of the friendship between the two peoples as the theme for its mosaics and murals. The station’s decoration is an interpretation of the Ukrainian national style, with abstract vegetal motifs and elaborate ventilation grilles combining communist and natural icons — birds, berries, and the red star. The marble facing is chosen in subdued colors so as not to distract attention from the main focus of the station, the 18 mosaics lining the central hall that represent 300 years of common Russian-Ukrainian heritage.
In order to read these mosaics in the proper order, one should begin from the escalators with the first mosaic on the left as you enter the station. The sequence starts with a depiction of the unification of the two Slavic states and proceeds through history with, of course, a major emphasis on the revolution and establishment of the USSR as well as on victory in World War II. Don’t miss the mosaic portrait of a smiling Lenin at the end of the hall over a text in gold lettering that calls for the continuing friendship of these two Slavic peoples.
Krasnopresnenskaya, next on our clockwise journey, is dedicated to the revolutionary events that took place in this area of Moscow. The region was named for the Presnya, a tributary of the Moscow River long ago rerouted through underground pipes, now visible at the surface only in the form of the ponds at the zoo. This station, of the pylon type and clad in red marble, is lined with terra cotta bas-reliefs and panels depicting the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
This station’s look has changed greatly since its opening, with a wall removed at the end of the platform to provide for a transfer to Barrikadnaya station. If you have not seen it, the grandiose three-story pavilion constituting the entrance to this station, with its panel and massive statue commemorating the workers’ uprisings in this former factory region, is worth a look.
Skipping Belorusskaya, one of the more traditional Ring Line stations, we continue on to Novoslobodskaya, opened on January 30, 1952. This station is one of the metro’s most stunning, with a series of stainedglass windows adorning the station’s pylons. These masterpieces were prepared in Riga, Latvia, and introduced a new stylistic element for Russia, where stained glass was not a traditional medium. Fantastic floral motifs rise from stylized antique vases, surrounding medallions of kaleidoscopic patterns or idealized depictions of Soviet figures. The station ends with a panel that quotes from Christian iconography, showing a Soviet mother and child against a gold background.
Next along the line is Prospekt Mira, opened in 1951. The ornamentation here may be confusing until one learns that the station was originally called Botanichesky Sad [Botanical Garden]. (The name was changed in 1966 when the country’s main botanical gardens were moved to Ostankino.) The top of each column is decorated with a ceramic frieze, like a giant columnar capital. In the center of each floral frieze is a medallion depicting farmers, gardeners, and vineyard workers. There is a total of 16 different medallions. The floral motifs continue into the aboveground pavilion, which is decorated with massive floral columns.
Komsomolskaya is a fitting place to end our tour of the Ring Line because it represents the pinnacle of the Stalin Empire style, with its pompously exaggerated classical elements and lush, nationalist details that recall Orthodox churches as well as the neoclassicism of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. With its soaring ceiling and an arcade of 34 columns on either side creating a massive open space, the station is truly worth of the title “people’s palace.” The station’s golden panels and mosaics depict major victories of the early Russian state and the Soviet Union, from Alexander Nevsky and Dmitri Donskoy to the Red Army’s defeat of the Whites and the Soviet victory in World War II. The white marble of the rest of the station was chosen to foreground these panels, and one can imagine arriving in the city at mid-century from some distant collective farm and seeing such grandeur — a truly breathtaking introduction to the Soviet capital and a testament to state power.