“Don’t go on the Moscow Metro on your own, “ says Artem, my Russian friend living in Luxembourg. “Best to go with a friend.”
But I have a two-hour gap on a Sunday morning when my reveler friends are sleeping in. The Monday rush hour, carrying 8 – 9 million passengers between 194 stations, is 24 hours away. It is now or never so I set out alone.
I walk from my hotel to Park Kultury where, in 1935, thousands of people queued over night for their first ride on the Red Line. Construction on the Metro began in 1931 during the period of Stalin’s five-year plan of 1928 – 1933. Some of the Soviet Union’s finest artists were commissioned for the Metro, working within the confines of Social Realism.
Men and women were drafted from all over the country to lay down rails from the steelworks of Kuznetsk, fashion marble from the Urals and Caucasus and granite from Karelia and the Ukraine. They were assisted by soldiers of the Red Army and 13,000 members of the Communist Youth League, working as volunteers.
Komsomolskaya Metro station, mural of the Communist Youth League at work
I travel to Komsomolskaya named after the Communist Youth League volunteers. As fellow passengers weave between rose-coloured marble pillars I stand and admire the commemoration of the volunteers’ hard labour. Panels of shiny majolica tiles, designed by Yevgenley Lansaray, show a fair young woman, shovel in hand, directing flat capped, bare breasted young men. They wield pick axes, push underground trolleys and make a record of their contribution to the advancement of the Soviet Union.
Then I stroll through a huge stuccoed hall where glittering chandeliers light up mosaics of military heroes.
I take the Ring Line, built in the 1950s, and get off at Prospekt Mira. White porcelain figures, gracing every pillar, plant trees, bring in the harvest, pluck and weigh fruit.
At Novoslobodskaya I am encased in art nouveau. Six of the 32 stained glass panels, shuddering between hurtling trains, show professions serving the State – the architect, geographer, agronomist, engineer, artist and musician.
At the far end is the gold leafed mosaic Peace in the World. A young child, held in his mother’s arms, reaches for fluttering white doves. At some stage these symbols of peace have ousted Stalin who used to grace a previous version of this glittering, gold mosaic.
One stop further down the line at Belorusskya I strain my neck to gaze at traditional scenes of Belarus on the ceiling. Young Communists receive bouquets for loyalty to mother Russia. Blond sportsmen flaunt their trophies. Women with embroidered aprons and matching embroidered bodices thresh wheat, put the finishing stitches to banners of the hammer and sickle and dance. Healthy happy peasants oblivious of the famine that resulted from Stalin’s forced collectivism of the 1930s.
Piece de resistance of the Moscow Metro and winner of the 1938 World Fair in New York is Mayakovskaya. I clash with Muscovites as I stare up at the art deco oval circles that spin the length of the ceiling. Each one contains a scene from 24 hours in the Land of the Soviets.
This station became the headquarters of the Anti Aircraft Defence Forces during World War 11. It was here that Stalin addressed the generals and party activists on the anniversary of the October Revolution in 1941.
I take the Dark Blue line heading west to Arbatskaya damaged in 1941. The Metro is filling up with Muscovites habituated to the baroque spendour that surrounds them. They have entered the station shaped like a Soviet Red Star and walk under candelabras that would not look out of place in the Kremlin.
I go to Kievskaya where a mosaic at the end of a corridor celebrates 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian cooperation. Furling red flags match the swirling red skirts of the dancers who wear flowers in their hair. Children cradle bouquets in their arms. A lone military man, representative of the State, hovers in the crowd. The sun picks out a military horse rider in the background.
As I walk backwards to photograph the mosaic I stumble down four steps, fall heavily and twist my ankle – as if overwhelmed by the irony of this idealized union between Russia and the Ukraine. A union that has crumbled before our eyes.
I stand up, without the help of passers by, making sure my camera is intact. Moscow has the reputation of being one of the most unfriendliest cities in the world although people say it has improved over the last decade.
As I hobble away I remember Artem’s words, “People forget the history behind the Metro’s frescoes and its statues. After destroying thousands of churches, converting palaces into state leaders’ second homes and selling off the best of Russian art, the Soviet State decided to build the famous Moscow Metro as a ‘palace of the proletariat’. How sad the most beautiful thing the new Russians ever saw, after an exhausting day in the factory implementing Stalin’s 5-year plan, was on the underground!”
All the same it beats any journey on London’s tube.