Moscow’s underground system is cheap, efficient and a very good way of getting around in a city populated by millions of people. Trains appear every couple of minutes and the twelve lines shift an astonishing average of seven million people a day. The metro is also getting bigger, with considerable expansion currently taking place and a number of new stations due to be open by 2020.
For the art lover, however, the metro is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. The range of artwork is remarkable and varies from station to station. Stained-glass windows, mosaics, bronze sculptures, marble statues and paintings catch the eye in the early stations of the metro system.
The Koltsevaya, or Circle, is probably the most famous of the lines. It is not the oldest, having being built in the early 1950s, but this was at the peak of the Stalinist architecture period and any of the twelve stations are worth a look.
Novoslobodskaya is particularly notable for its stained-glass panels, which in turn are set in beautiful marble columns and surrounded by ornate brass borders. The station also displays a large mosaic by the artist Pavel Korin.
The next stop, going clockwise round the circle, is Prospekt Mira. This is also adorned with white marble columns and the décor is on the theme of the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union.
One more stop brings us to Komsomolskaya, which stands out for its flamboyant, yellow Baroque ceiling. There is another outburst of marble columns and the station looks more like a St Petersburg ballroom than a Moscow underground station. Lenin looks out rather sternly from a bust at the end of the hall between the two platforms.
Further round the circle, Kievskaya has a dazzling collection of even larger mosaics, set between marble arches and set under chandeliers that would not be out of place in an opera house. Another notable sight at Kievskaya is a large portrait of Lenin.
Away from the circle, on the Zamoskvoretskaya Line (green line), is the beautiful (and older) Mayakovskaya station. Changing from the circle at Belorusskaya, this is the next stop on the Zamoskvoretskaya, the columns in Mayakovskaya are particularly wonderful and the station has a charming elegance. This station has mosaics, too. They are in the ceiling and are firmly in the Soviet Realist tradition. The best view is obtained by lying flat on the ground and looking upwards, though this is only recommended when the station is fairly quiet.
One of the most famous stations requires another change of line. Ploshchad Revolyutsii (Revolution Square) station is on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line (blue line) and is another early 1950s construction. This is the ‘station of the bronze sculptures’, all 76 of them. Soldiers, workers, athletes and scientists stand guard at the two platforms and it is a remarkable sight. Note the statue of the guard with a dog whose nose has been discoloured and worn by the constant stream of people who rub it for good luck.
One other station (also on the on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line) worth a visit is Smolenskaya. It is another feast of white marble columns. The most striking artwork is a bas-relief entitled ‘The Defenders of Russia, depicting the Red Army, or at least a small portion of it, in action.
Trooping from metro station to metro station might seem, frankly, like a rather strange way of spending one’s time. However, some of the stations and their artwork are so stunning that it is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. It’s good value too – assuming that you don’t leave any of the stations you visit, you’ll only need to buy a single ticket.
There are sometimes complaints from English speakers that there are no signs or announcements in English on the metro. For goodness’ sake, this is another country with its own language and script. Would these same people expect to see and hear Russian and Cyrillic on the London Underground? The Russian alphabet has only 33 letters, many of which are the same as in the Latin script. It is not that difficult and surely part of the pleasure of travelling is taking in new experiences. Exploration is much more rewarding when you have some idea of where you are going and a little bit of effort enhances the reward.