Adam Klesczewski

The Moscow Metro: A Parallel City under Your Feet

The first projects of the Moscow metro, which celebrates its 70th anniversary on May 15, appeared long before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. At the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, Moscow Governors received projects for an underground train system, but they were discarded along with the moving pavement projects and other utopian ideas of the same kind. The Russian Orthodox Church disapproved of the concept since the words underground and underworld were synonyms.

The unique character of Moscow's metro lies less in the facts and figures describing it than in the stunning, other-worldly works of Soviet socialist-realist art and architecture that adorn it, as well as the sense of history and the urban legends surrounding this architectural phenomenon. This combination makes a commuter's descent from the flashy present-day glitz at Moscow's streets downward to the surreal, Communist ideology-inspired underground palaces (or temples) feel like a trip back in history - and even into a parallel world of sorts. One popular legend tells of "Metro 2," a parallel secret subway system said to have been built by Joseph Stalin linking the Kremlin with key buildings, outlying airports, strategic underground command posts - and plush country retreats. That some sort of secret underground rail around the Kremlin was reserved for Communist Party elite is disputed by almost no one, and purported maps of the system can easily be found on the Internet.

Another legend describes the alleged birth of the Moscow Metro Ring Line. Supossedly, a group of architects came to Stalin with the Metro blueprints to inform him about the progress and what was being done at that moment. While looking at the drawings, Stalin poured himself some tea and spilt it a little bit over the edge of the cup. When asked whether he liked the project so far, the dictator simply put his cup right on the center of the blueprints and walked out without saying a word, the cup leaving a brown circle on the drawings. The architects looked at the mark and realized that it was exactly what they had been missing all along. They took it as a sign of Stalin's genius and rushed to the construction site to give orders for building the ring line. Sure, you can dismiss it as just another story generated by Stalin's personality cult, but look at the map of the Moscow Metro, and you will find that the ring line is always painted brown.

Or take the "Diggers of the Planet Underground," a group of young urban spelunkers with cult-like status whose declared mission is to explore the maze of metro and sewage tunnels under Moscow in search of hidden secrets.

In his book titled Moscow: a State of Mind, LA-based scholar of architecture Vladimir Paperny writes: "The Metro became a sort of reverse world for Moscow, a world where a convict turned into a heroic victor, a place where it was pleasantly cool in summer and warm in winter. As a 1935 Soviet song went,

Well, now, isn't it jolly smart? Isn't it really and truly smart?

Isn't this Metro underground a fantastic work of art?

Glass and marble are the norm; light at night, dry in a storm,

It will keep you cool in summer, while in winter you'll be warm.

(Translated by Margarita Kvartshava)

The Metro of the 1960s was the place of secret meetings and a democracy of sorts. Unlike today's hierarchical Moscow where transport has been split into noninter-secting social strata. Some Muscovites ride in Chevrolet Tahoes with blue flashers along the fast lane, oblivious of the traffic lights. An altogether different species of Muscovite makes up the Metro crowd. "Beautiful women do not use the Metro," I was told the other day. In the sixties a phrase like that simply could not be uttered. Apart from a very limited exclusive set, everyone used the Metro." (Magisterium International Magazine, Moscow, 1997.)

The present-day Metro, like the rest of Moscow, is in permanent state of transition. The old Metro was built as something eternal and immune to change, with marble benches growing out of floors or walls; and signs and notices are in bronze frames as though they were so many pictorial masterpieces. Presently, capitalism has occupied the Metro in the guise of makeshift structures, billboards, and stalls. Which of the two styles will prevail in the long run? Only time will tell, of course, but one should be wise to remember: you can attempt to take the Metro out of its history but you can't take the history out of the Metro.


Moscow Metro Facts & Trivia:

Route kilometres: 268

Stations: 163

Stations under construction: 19

Power rail voltage: 850 V

Total cars: 4150

Maximum train frequency: 45 train pairs per hour

Maximum rolling stock speed: 90 km/h

Average service speed: 41 km/h

Longest line: Serpukhovsko-Timiryazevskaya line, 41 km between "Altufyevo" and "Annino"

Longest tunnel: the same

Longest single journey on 1 train: the same. "Koltsevaya"(Circular) line doesn't count

Shortest line: "Kakhovskaya", 4 km between "Kashirskaya" and "Kakhovskaya"

Longest distance between 2 stations: 3.5 km between "Tekstilschiki" and "Volgogradsky Prospect"

Shortest distance between 2 stations: 460 m between "Aleksandrovsky Sad" and "Arbatskaya"

Deepest station: "Dubrovka", Lyublinskaya line, opened December 11, 1999, 62 m deep

Total passenger journeys/day: average 9,000,000; max. - over 12,000,000 on September 5, 1997

Last train: Departs at 01:03 from each terminal station.

Since the 1970s, platforms have been built 155 m long, prepared for 8-car trains. Trains on lines 2, 6 and 7 consist of 8 cars, on lines 1, 3, 8, 9, 10 of 7 cars and on lines 4, 5 and 11 of 6 cars. All cars (both older E-series and newer 81-series) are 20 m long with four doors on either side. The Moscow Metro train is identical to those used in all other ex-Soviet Metro cities (St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, etc.) and in Budapest and Prague.

Source: “Moscow news”, N19, 13 may 2005

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