Komsomolskaya Station

Komsomolskaya Station

Whether you’re tripping through London, Tokyo, or Boston, no visit to a city is complete without traveling the metropolis’s subway system. An underground acts as a city’s circulatory system, shuttling its residents through rushing days of commerce, social interaction, and meditation (I’m sure I’m not the only person who can spend hours on the subway to escape the real world above ground).

This is especially true of Moscow, where the metro doubles as a living art museum. Triples as a massive network of air raid shelters, an obsolete purpose, but it explains why it can take several minutes to descend from street level to the unseen platform below. The metro is famous for its designs, architecture, and mosaics, and no tourist should be allowed to rush through the city without taking a tour at least of the circle line, where many of the city’s most famous stations are planted.

Komsomolskaya Station, pictured above, is wedding cake-like, covered in stucco and massive chandeliers, with gold-gilted mosaics depicting famous Russian war heroes.

Mayakovskaya Station

Mayakovskaya Station

By contrast, Mayakovskaya station is all shiny marble and stainless steel. I find it a bit soulless, but the station is an emblem of its time: its design won Mayakovskaya the Grand Prize at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. While the overall impression is of a cold white hall, craning your neck ceilingwards will expose 24 softly colored murals. Their theme was “24 Hours of Soviet Sky.” As the Wikipedia entry says, “A passenger has but to look up and see the bright Soviet future in the heavens above him.” With Soviet military power depicted against a gentle blue sky, the future certainly does look bright here — or must have done then.

Novoslobodskaya StationNovoslobodksaya Station, on the other hand, is covered with these stained glass panels, set off at one end of the station by a mosaic entitled “Peace Throughout the World,” which was probably not meant as irony at the time. Like most stations, Novoslobodskaya was built during the heydays of the Soviet era, and many of the panels glorifies the Soviet State — its workers and its ideals. Those themes are continued throughout most of the stations, where the Soviet member cultures and its citizens are all drawn in images of happy unity: athletes, scientists, factory workers, engineers, folk dancers, war heroes, and farmers were all meant to be the cheery, hearty backbone of the Soviet state.

Park Kulturi Station

Park Kulturi Station

The dream didn’t turn out quite as the creators of this mosaic, in Park Kulturi Station, planned. But the history is still there, providing a sometimes glittery, sometimes sad backdrop to the rushing, humming hustle of modern Russian life. These photos show only a few of the bizarre variety of elegance and absurdity contained not in one of of Moscow’s incredible museums, but in its workaday subway.

(All photos copyright 2005 Antonia Malchik)