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Moscow’s metro stations are an underground treasure trove


You won’t believe your eyes at these 'people’s palaces'

Moscow’s a big, sprawling— and amazingly clean — city, full of towering monuments, modern skyscrapers, golden onion bulb-spired churches and stunning historic architecture. But some of its most beautiful sights lay buried underground.

Whether planned as a destination or discovered by chance, Moscow’s metro stations are akin to snowflakes: no two exactly alike. Depending on the stop, travellers might see paintings or friezes, mosaics or stained glass, statues, carvings or bas-reliefs, often lit by rows of elaborate chandeliers, all strikingly set in varying architectural designs of stone, marble or plaster.

First conceived during the time of the Tsars, actual construction of Moscow’s subway began under Stalin, who envisioned underground “people’s palaces” that would glorify the communist dictatorship. The first line, 11 kilometres long with 13 stations, opened in May, 1935.

A second and then a third line followed. During the Second World War, many stations served as bomb shelters, while newly built stops featured war motifs. After the war, Moscow’s metro kept expanding, with a continued emphasis on beautiful, ornate architecture that is considered to have reached its high point in the 1950s.

The Cold War brought concerns about nuclear fallout and new metro lines were built much deeper beneath Moscow’s streets. Stations were designed to double as fallout shelters. Meanwhile, reflecting new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s taste, designs became less elaborate and more spartan.

Since then, subsequent expansions have varied in style, from a return to more extravagant architecture in the 1970s to sleek, ultra-modern designs in the 21st century.

Komsomolskaya metro station (opened 1952) on the Koltsevaya Line. The station’s theme is the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. - Paul Schneidereit
Komsomolskaya metro station (opened 1952) on the Koltsevaya Line. The station’s theme is the historical Russian fight for freedom and independence. - Paul Schneidereit

Today, Moscow’s underground subway system is immense — with 15 separate lines, more than 260 individual stations and some 400 kilometres of track — and still expanding.

Rumbling underneath a city of 12 million, Moscow’s metro moves up to an estimated nine million people on weekdays. The vast majority are Muscovites seemingly quite used to their often gorgeous surroundings and the annoyance of gaping tourists, alone or in tour groups, wading through constant streams of commuters, looking for a suitable spot to snap pictures.

Aboard the trains of varying vintages, each approaching station is announced by a pre-recorded voice in both English and Russian. If your train is headed toward the city’s centre, the voice is male; if you’re headed away, it’s female. On two ring lines that circle the core, clockwise trains use male voices, counter-clockwise use female. The system was first designed to help the blind navigate Moscow’s underground.

Not every metro station is exceptional, of course. Older stops in the historic core of the city tend to be the most elaborate, although some of the newer stations further from Moscow’s centre are also visually architecturally arresting.

Getting off at a station, you never know what you may see: bronze or marble statues, Roman-style arches, stained glass windows or mosaics of various materials honouring Soviet leaders, soldiers, factory workers and farmers, eye-catching ceiling vaulting or colourful patterns of floor tiling. It’s no surprise that organized tours of Moscow’s magnificent metro system are so popular.

A statue of Matvey Kuzmin, a Russian peasant killed by the Nazis in the Second World War, in Partizanskaya metro station.  - Paul Schneidereit
A statue of Matvey Kuzmin, a Russian peasant killed by the Nazis in the Second World War, in Partizanskaya metro station. - Paul Schneidereit

Metro passes are relatively inexpensive and once you’re in the system, you can travel for as long as you like.

I recently spent 10 days (from late May to early June) in Moscow, taking in the sights, smells and sounds of this historic metropolis. I quickly realized that the city’s metro was a wonder of its own and invested many hours just travelling its lines, snapping photos and wishing that I had just a little more time, to see just a little bit more.


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