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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


This year, the Moscow Metro celebrate its 70th anniversary. It carries more people in more splendour than any other metro in the world: 9 million passengers per day, more than the combined total of New York and London. What makes the Moscow Metro truly remarkable though is the astonishing design and architecture of its stations, or “underground palaces”, as they have been described over the years.
Piers Gladstone
Photos by Oleg Gurov

Annino metro station

According to a commemorative book published the year after the metro’s opening, “the underground structure should not look like underground structures, it should not remind people of being below the surface without daylight. The stations should be filled with light, should feel spacious, and should be bright and happy places”. While the Metro now is somewhat overcrowded, this mission statement on the whole remains true.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a chronic shortage of public transport in Moscow. Several plans were drawn up for a metro system, but were shelved due to funding problems and then the outbreak of the First World War. During the 1920s, Moscow witnessed a massive population and territory expansion, putting an even heavier burden on its failing public transport system. In July 1931 a decision was taken by the Central Committee of the Communist Party “to start immediately the development of a project for underground railways to provide adequate and cheap transport for the public.”

No expense was spared on providing this cheap transport however. After a fact-finding mission to New York and London, the Moscow City Council declared; “it seems that in capitalist countries it is considered pointless to spend more than the bare minimum on a public service. The construction of the metro inaugurates a new and higher phase of Soviet architecture, which will be manifested in the reconstruction of Moscow.” The metro was to be the showcase of ‘Stalin’s Moscow’, which was to be an ‘urban laboratory’, according to the People’s Commissar, L.M. Kaganovich.

By the end of 1933, 36,000 people were employed on the construction, and six months later this number had grown to 75,000, making it the USSR’s largest civilian construction project. Much of the workforce was comprised of illiterate workers from areas outside of “white Russia”, such as Kazakhstan, who were housed in wooden baraki (barracks) amid atrocious conditions. Incredibly, work was done mainly by hand because there was a shortage of mechanised tools. People used pickaxes, spades and bars. Trolleys loaded with rock and soil were pulled by hand. Many suffered ‘the bends’ from pressurised tunnels, while others were injured or died in timber fires and cave-ins.

Each station’s layout and design was individualised and unique, complete with the now familiar chandeliers, mosaics, marble-cladding, stained-glass and statues to the heroes and heroines of the Revolution, “in order to make Moscow a city worthy of the title Capital of the Socialist Motherhood and centre of the Worldwide Proletarian Revolution”, in the words of the Moscow City Council.

The metro was to be the showcase of ‘Stalin’s Moscow’, which was to be an ‘urban laboratory’

Much of the building material for the metro came from Moscow’s finest imperial and religious buildings that were being torn down on Stalin’s orders. The marble used for Park Kultury, Kropotninskaya and Okhotny Ryad came from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow’s largest church, that was able to hold a congregation of 10,000 and had taken forty-five years to build. It was destroyed in four months. Representations of the secular, the statist, and the collectivist were built out of the ruins of the religious, using the finest materials, architects and artists, just as it was when the Cathedral of Christ was built. These stations were a symbol of ‘all-victorious socialism’, according to Kaganovich.

Rimskaya metro station

On the 19th February 1935, regular trial runs of the metro commenced, carrying thousands of dignitaries and celebrated workers. The metro was named after Kaganovich (later to be renamed after Lenin in 1955), and at 7am on 16th May 1935 the doors opened to the crowds of Muscovites who had waited throughout the night outside the stations. Tickets were valid for 35 minutes and 175,000 passengers per day travelled on the metro. Fares were 5 kopeks, and remained at the same level until 1991.

The expansion of the metro continued unabated and by 1937, the country’s industry was able to supply modern and innovative mechanical devices such as tunnelling shields, that lead to an increase in tunnelling speed as well a 50% reduction in the workforce numbers. The use of pneumatic hammers was also employed, and locomotives, rather than men, removed the rock and rubble.

By 1938, several new stations on two different lines were opened, notably Ploshchad Revolutsii, Belorusskaya and Mayakovskaya, complete with their idealisation of the men and women of the Revolution. “When our worker takes the subway, he should be cheerful and joyous”, proclaimed Kaganovich.

The German invasion of 1941 brought the construction of the metro to a halt. As in London, millions of citizens found shelter below ground thanks to the deep tunnelling of the metro. Sealing doors that can still be seen today added to the metro’s security. During the night people could stay until 5am and drinking fountains and toilet facilities were installed. Women and children slept in cars stationed at the platforms and on the platforms themselves, while the rest sheltered in the tunnels on specially laid wooden floors. During this time 217 children were born in the Metro.

Four days after the start of the war, Kirovskaya (now Chistye Prudy) was closed to passengers and used as Central Headquarters. The concourse area was fitted out with offices and wooden panelling separated this area from passing trains. Moscow’s air defence system was incorporated into Belorusskaya station, while several other stations were used by other military bodies.

As the German army neared Moscow, for the first time in its history the metro did not open to the public on 16th October, following the previous day’s order to close and destroy it. Cars and equipment were to be evacuated, the tunnels were prepared to be flooded, it was mined and escalators dismantled. The State Defence Committee reversed this decision however, and by 17th October public service resumed.

Aviamotornaya metro station

Stalin ordered the continuation of the Metro’s construction in December 1941, the work mostly being done by women and teenage labourers whose passports were withheld so that they could not leave. The Metro’s workshops were also involved in the war effort, producing and repairing military equipment In 1943, the Moscow Metro’s personnel, 70% of whom were women during this period, collected enough money to build an armoured train that took part in the battle of Kursk. It played a significant role in the battle, helping to halt the German advance for five days until the soldiers ran out of ammunition.

While lines were being extended and new stations opened, a secret metro line, “Metro-2” was also commenced during the war, linking the Kremlin with Stalin’s retreat at Volynskoye. Stalin reportedly ordered its construction because of his fear of assassination and of American nuclear weapons. Metro-2 was operated by the KGB and only the leadership got to see it. Chairman Promyslov, whose career spanned 25 years under both Kruschev and Brezhnev as Chairman of the Moscow municipal government, never even saw any documentation of Metro-2; “I was not of the rank or position to justify that.” Work reportedly ceased on Metro-2 after Stalin’s death.

The recent power cut made everyone realise the great role the Metro plays in the life of Moscow

In 1944, the construction of Moscow’s most important metro line, The Circle Line, was started. It was a huge project: 44.4km of tunnels and the excavation of 2.5km of ground, 12 stations running predominantly under the Garden Ring road, which would allow passengers to transfer lines without having to go into the centre of Moscow.

From the end of the war until the late 1980s, the Moscow Metro’s construction and extensions mirrored those of the new residential areas that were being built. By 1960, Moscow had become the world’s largest city and scientific advancements in construction techniques and in production of rolling stock barely kept pace with the demands of the growing population. New metro stations were built to a more practical and utilitarian design, a far cry from the grandeur of Stalin’s era. As much of the day-to-day running of the metro was mechanised: from special floor washers and polishers to automated barriers that halved the workforce (each ticket collectors, by the 1960’s had to punch over 3,600 tickets during the rush hour periods).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the metro, like its passengers, suffered from a lack of money and resources. It was also at risk from avenging crowds who wanted the removal and destruction of all of the Communist Party’s memorials. The City’s Commission ruled that such destruction would simply be mimicry of “the true Leninists whose extremism and Bolshevik intolerance we are rejecting.”

Today, the Metro continues to expand. A new gleaming exit was opened at Mayakovskaya last month and stations such as the recently opened Park Pobody mix the classical with the modern. No other metro in the world reflects the modern history of a country in such diverse styles as the Moscow Metro.

The Moscow Metro Museum

It seems only right that a museum dedicated to the Moscow Metro should be housed in a Metro station – Sportivnaya. It was conceived of and is run by former Metro workers, and will celebrate its 38th year this November. “We thought that everybody would forget about the history of the metro and that the artefacts would disappear”, Valentin Alexeivitch, the Director of the museum says. He himself rose from the rank of driver to Director of the Moscow Metro, and has never worked for anybody else.

Ryzhskaya metro station

At 78 years of age, Valentin Alexeivitch is spritely and full of life and justifiably proud of the Metro. Standing amid the framed photographs of every station on the first floor of the museum, Valentin matter-of-factly speaks his mind; “In all other countries you can only see such masterpieces in galleries, not in the Metro. No other stations from any other countries have the Grand Prix awards from New York and Paris”, he says proudly pointing to the original certificates in glass cabinets, awarded to Mayakovskaya, Sokolniki, Kropotkinskaya and Krasnye Vorota.

The second floor of the museum is much larger than the first. Display cabinets burst with metro paraphernalia; pick-axes, shovels, drills and photographs of happy workers. There are pieces of track, a metro car’s cab, original blueprint designs of the trains and communications equipment. One display cabinet houses tokens from metros of the CIS Republics: from Tashkent to Minsk.

One wall of the museum is dedicated to the armoured train that saw service during the Battle of Kursk; a large and graphic oil painting depicts the train, all guns blazing, being bombed by a German plane. Beneath it sits a model of the train, the “Moskovsky Metropolitan”. “The Battle of Kursk was the moment when everyone understood that the Germans would not win the war”, Valentin says. “The carriage is working now. I travelled in it to work today on the red line. There were signs put on it for the 60th anniversary. It was significant in the defence of Russia. We have a letter of thanks here from Stalin for its help in the battle.”

Moscow Metro Museum, Khamovnichesky Val Street, 36. (Sportivnaya Metro).
Tel : 232 7309 or 222 7309
Open Monday 11am-6pm, Tues – Friday 11-4pm
Visits by appointment only.

I ask about the secretive Metro-2. “Its all gossip”, Valentin tells me. “Total nonsense. What for? Stalin would not travel by the metro! Anyway, the tunnel would be ruined if nobody travels on it because they need to be in constant use for them to work.” Valentin then suddenly changes his tune; “Metro-2. If you want to live in peace, be ready for war. It is a defence object, and I am sure they have the same in London or Paris. If you need more details, you can go to the Defence Ministry, I can give you the address”, he says chuckling.

“The Metro system is like the human organism”, Valentin explains. “If it works well, the city lives. If something is wrong with the heart, then the whole system will not work. The recent power cut made everyone realise the great role the Metro plays in the life of Moscow.” Valentin goes on to expound his own life philosophy, which has been influenced by his time with the Metro; “I am 78 years old. I understand the organism; like the metro, if everything is looked after and works well, the body will be healthy. Eat less, and move more. Movement is life!”

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