The Moscow Metro
22nd September 2023
By Nina Moisan
'The Palace of the People’ is the name often given to the Moscow metro. Marble statues, mosaics, and chandeliers are all things Muscovites encounter on their everyday journeys. Beyond this palatial architecture, the Moscow metro is known for its reliable services and ease of us when compared to other metros such as in London or New York.
From its inception in 1931, the Moscow metro was aimed to be ‘the best in the world’, despite the young USSR’s lack of expertise and machinery in the area of underground transportation. The metro’s construction seemed too unreasoned that workers saw it as supernatural. Through the achievement of such an ambitious and complex project, the metro became an emblem for Stalinism and with it, carried a hopeful narrative for the future of the USSR.
Having lived in Moscow for four years as a teenager, I used the metro regularly and found it highly efficient and an enjoyable mode of transport compared to others I had used in Paris and London. It was reliable to the point where my family didn’t even own a car. Nowadays, experiencing the Moscow metro feels a far more pleasant experience than a cramped journey in the grimy subterranean tunnels of other cities.
Yet, admittedly, behind the monumental façade lies a project of which the intention was far from practically for the common commuter. The real ambition of the project was one of establishing within Russia the vision of a communist future.
Many ornaments illustrating the idea of collective labour and bearing socialist imagery can be found in the metro, from statues to mosaics of the hammer and sickle, workers, or Soviet leaders. The idea of the metro as a symbol for the proletariat extended beyond this mere symbolism however, the very narratives that emerged from the metro’s construction were crucial in founding a socialist ideal.
The metro was built during Stalin’s two Five Year Plans, a time of strong and rapid industrialisation all over the Soviet Union which resulted in a much-needed momentum and enthusiastic labour force.
With a very tight schedule and shortage of labour and equipment, the metro’s construction begun in 1931 and was hit with an array of issues during the construction of even the first underground line.
The soil made the excavation far more challenging than expected, resulting in floods and the wreckage of streets. Alongside this the recruitment of inexperienced Komsomol (Communist Youth) was still unable to entirely cover for the lack of workforce.
The conditions for working were very poor. Lack of machinery meant they had often to opt for pickaxes and shovels, often labouring at night only to return home to overcrowded barracks. Yet despite this, accounts from the workers in How we Built the Metro – a book of collective authorship between writers and workers from the construction – affirm a certain value they gave to their labour, almost how an artist would view his work:
“He sees in the metro a realisation of his might, of his power. In the past only landowners, only the rich utilised marble. And now the power is ours, this construction is for us— workers and peasants—these are our marble columns, our own, Soviet, socialist.”
It is worth considering that the reason for the contrast between the poor working conditions and the optimistic testimonies may stem from the writing circumstances: more testimonies taken from young enthusiastic workers or volunteers rather than ‘suspect political conscripts’. Retrospectively, it is simple to view Soviet communism as flawed due to its authoritarianism, but views on the Soviet Union weren’t always black and white and those who didn’t support it often wished they did, particularly with propaganda and censorship limiting any opposition. The promise for a better world kept workers hopeful, and as this promise manifested itself tangibly through the metro it only added to the perceived potential of collective labour and its superiority to the capitalist system.
The metro, being a product of mass mobilisation bringing newcomers into the city, (often farmers from rural areas all around the USSR) was also used as a strategy to assimilate these new arrivals with a more ‘enlightened’ and urban lifestyle. This state-driven encouragement involved gaining knowledge on engineering and modern technologies, literacy, and world affairs, domestic norms and personal hygiene, and was disseminated through newspapers on construction sites as well as on the radio. This was the state’s intention to build a new nation, and more particularly to rebuild a city not only through constructing infrastructure, but also through generating a social ideal that the metro and its construction had a major part in enabling.
When the metro was proposed as a way to deal with the congested Moscow streets, anti-urbanist socialist groups contested it, viewing the idea as opposed to socialist ideology: to them big cities were a product of capitalism and the existing metros in capitalist cities such as Paris were seen as exploitative of the proletariat.
The metro needed to set itself apart from the bad reputation of other metros and to emphasise the potential of the emerging nation. It was mandated to architects to make the metro “beautiful” and to focus on ornamentation. Although the Moscow metro wasn’t as fast as New York’s, its focus on aesthetic and spatial quality was a tactic to overcome the stigma of underground travel and quickly impress the population, thus solidifying the narrative of the superiority of communism, tying the idea of beauty to Soviet culture.
Beauty as the leading feature of the Moscow metro was also used in a pragmatic manner: the aesthetic appeal was a tool to coax the people away from the reality of the ruling regime. At a time when living conditions were harsh, one would escape the grime and overcrowding while on their journey to work through the underground palatial tunnels.
The architectural elements that elevated the Moscow metro to its reputation as “The Palace of the People” play on their association to the interiors of the imperial past. The metro provides an ostentatious atmosphere through the presence of shiny surfaces such as marble and granite (also symbolising the solidity of the new regime), high ceilings, Greek-like columns, gold, and stained glass. As opposed to the palaces of the tsars, the beauty of the metro is both built and experienced by workers, even nowadays 68% of the Moscow population use it to get to work. The access by the masses to such an opulent public space thus promoted the idea that communism would provide more for the proletariat than tsarism did, founding a more unified drive for the Soviet Union.
As well as its references to the past, the metro also symbolises the anticipation towards the future, bringing more modern technologies which portrayed the new regime through a hopeful lens, as one that is moving with the times. With its immoderate use of lighting, the use of escalators, effective ventilation and simply the novelty of travelling underground, the communist concept of the “radiant future” begun to take a more literal meaning with the illumination of the underground.
But beyond its visual qualities, the metro is also a great example of underground public space design, possessing qualities of above ground urban spaces with people often using it as a meeting space sheltered away from the weather.
Yet the social dimension of the metro is not always so humanistic and is characterised by its both spoken and unspoken etiquette that is not always forgiving of unconformity. For example, the custom of standing on one side of the escalator and walking on the other is even to this day far more enforced than in other countries: either through a voice announcement or a person in a glass booth reminding passengers of the rules.
In the Moscow metro, “familial domesticity became mass domesticity.” The Soviet Union was a nation founded on erasing individuality and prioritising the collective. Although public space was communal, the power over it still remained firmly in the hands of state, the importance of this collectivism remaining more in its symbolic form with the crowd remaining in the background.
Nonetheless, these attitudes are more complex and often contradictory as they are not always ones of blindly following orders. In Alaina Lemon’s Social Order and Chaos on the Moscow Metro this duality is pointed out and the prevalent practice of running red lights contrasted with the socially reprehensible act of eating ice cream on the metro is used as an example: “the case for a peculiarly Russian (or peculiarly post-socialist) distrust of authority and structure seems not to hold, any more than the case for their backward conformism.” The conformity of this nature lies more in relation to social norms of public discipline as opposed to official rules or the law showing how expected behaviours in public space are culturally ingrained.
With the fall of the USSR, the narratives that initially accompanied the metro changed, particularly due to its commercialisation. Along with a more plain aesthetic and the changing of station names (Prospekt Marksa (Marks Prospect) is now Okhotny Ryad (Hunter’s Row)), it is common to spot peddlers and kiosks in underpasses selling everything from flowers, phone cases, newspapers to coffee. One can now go down the escalator and look at the posters displayed on the tunnel walls or hear vocal advertisements.
In the 1990s, the reputation of the metro had deteriorated and people often complained that it was unclean. From today’s point of view, and from my personal experience of the metro, it is constantly renovated and expanding, meaning that it is only advancing, and that its downgrade in the 1990s, much like in the rest of the country, was due to the changing system. Although the original narrative created has broken down, the metro has been able to evolve in accordance with post-soviet times without reversing the achievements of the past.
Although delivered in a far less calculated manner than previously, the narrative of Russia’s supremacy over the West is still visible on the metro in it’s anti-western, pro-Russian poetry (often visible on station walls). The weight of this becomes more significant when we also acknowledge the fact that they were put up following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The metro’s implications in fuelling both a positive and hopeful ideal of the Soviet Nation as well as instilling a strong labour ethic, a sophistication of the culture, a unification of ideology and specific social norms, were a truly strategic effort from the state to found a nation based on these concepts. Propaganda is often associated with the media and their power to influence ideas, but the metro is an example of a far more elaborate and tactical approach to this pursuit, one that despite its intentions, created something grandiose.
The USSR was after-all not the communist utopia that it was first intended to be, and the metro shows how Russia carries to this day the complexity that arose from it: stories of both the greatness and the harshness of construction, of beauty that is both of the past and of the future, of a space that is both welcoming and austere, and of a nation that is both evolving with the times and loyally stuck in its past.