Moscow Metro – Subterranean Art

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.



Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya window

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

Novoslobodskaya mosaic

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.

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

Prospekt Mira chandeliers

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.

Komsomolskaya - Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya – Baroque alert!

Komsomolskaya - Lenin

Komsomolskaya – Lenin

Komsomolskaya - it's that man again

Komsomolskaya – it’s that man again

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.

Uncle Joe's happy army

Uncle Joe’s happy army (Kievskaya)

Kievskaya - surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya – surely not Trotsky?

Kievskaya - Vlad again

Kievskaya – Vlad again

Kievskaya - can't keep a good man down

Kievskaya – can’t keep a good man down

Kievskaya - wow!

Kievskaya – wow!

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.



Mayakovskaya - a ski jumper passes overhead

Mayakovskaya – a ski jumper passes overhead

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.

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of labour

Ploshchad Revolyutsii - the glory of sport

Ploshchad Revolyutsii – the glory of sport

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.

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya station

Smolenskaya - ceiling detail

Smolenskaya – ceiling detail

Smolenskaya - the Defenders of Russia

Smolenskaya – the Defenders of Russia

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.

Moscow – East Meets West

The official population of Moscow is just over 11 and a half million people. The real population is acknowledged to be somewhere around 15 million and during the journey from the airport to the city centre, it can feel like 90% of that number are on the roads.

Thankfully for locals and visitors alike, Moscow has an extensive and reliable metro system. The metro map is a colourful and easy to understand affair that acknowledges the brilliantly simple topological map designed for the London Underground by Harry Beck. Lines of different colours branch out from the centre and there is a circle – a genuine, concentric circle, as opposed to London’s squashed and wobbly circle – at the heart, Moscow’s circle line being brown rather than yellow.

Moscow’s underground is also a good deal cheaper than that of London, a single journey costing less than a pound, multiple journeys being even cheaper. Not only is the metro thoroughly efficient, with trains running every two minutes, it is also an alternative art gallery that can be visited for the price of a single ticket. Space limits further detail here, as this is a worthy of a full article at a later date.

Red Square - State Historical Museum

Red Square – State Historical Museum

However hard one tries not to be an obvious tourist, it’s almost impossible not to start with Red Square and the neighbouring Kremlin. The eye is naturally drawn to the crazy fairytale castle that is St Basil’s Cathedral. Even by the standards of the Orthodox Church, this is one weird building, defying any attempt to ascribe an architectural style to it. It almost seems as if Byzantine architects undertook a full-scale tour of India and the Far East before selecting the bits they liked best.

St Basil's

St Basil’s

The cathedral was, in fact, a collection of churches around a central one, further adding to its idiosyncratic nature. There are no services at the cathedral now. It functions as a museum and is almost certainly the most-photographed building in Moscow.

The towers of the Kremlin are also the subjects of many photos. There are 20 of them and no two towers are the same. The highlight of the Kremlin, though, is its Armoury. The name is something of a misnomer. It’s true that you will find weapons and armour here, but the Armoury contains much more.

The Armoury is the Kremlin’s museum and is packed with the trappings of imperial splendour. The collection of carriages, including sleds, is particularly impressive and it’s clear that the ruling dynasties spared no expense on their own comforts. The sheer weight of gold, silver, diamonds and gems is breathtaking. Perhaps only Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace houses a collection of such ostentatious wealth.

The Armoury

The Armoury

Among the array of imperial clothing is a pair of boots belonging to Peter the Great. The boots are very large, as indeed was their owner, who was believed to have been around six feet eight inches tall. Two metre Peter, in fact.

If the confectionary box that is St Basil’s no longer functions as a place of worship, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour most certainly does. Situated by the Moscow River, it is the world’s tallest Orthodox Christian church and its appearance owes something to the great church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia. The present church, however, is not the original. Stalin had the first reduced to a heap of rubble and the current building, astonishingly, is brand new. There is a strict security check for visitors, but this is designed not so much to stop the destructive urges of political leaders as to prevent idealistic young women with guitars performing protest songs inside the church.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Moscow has a fine and varied selection of museums. For Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery is a must see museum. The vast majority of the 170,000 or so works are by Russian artists and the collection is strong on portraits. Naturally, emperors and empresses feature strongly, but for literature lovers, there are some real delights. The Kipresky portrait of Pushkin shows the poet in a gloriously Byronic pose, draped in a tartan shawl. Dostoyevsky is captured brilliantly by Perov, the writer seemingly caught in a moment of intense thought. A rather foppish Gogol is portrayed by Moller and the author’s New Romantic-style appearance was surely to provide some form of inspiration for the Human League’s Phil Oakey 140 years later.

Tretyakov Gallery

Tretyakov Gallery

The State Museum of Contemporary Russian History, still known by its former name of the Revolution Museum, is a substantial, though slightly chaotic and disorganised melange of exhibits from the failed revolution of 1905 through to the end of the Soviet era in the 1990s. With a touch of Russian ironic humour, the location is a building formerly known as the English Club, a place where the wealthy and privileged met in pre-revolutionary days before 1917.

Museum of Revolution

Museum of Revolution

Moscow has a reputation for being a very expensive place to visit and in some respects, this is true. It is certainly not cheap for eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. This is not too much of a problem if you are only there for a few days. For those staying for a longer period or those on very tight budgets, there is consolation. The prices in shops and supermarkets are considerably cheaper. For example, a half litre of beer in a pub might well set you back at least five pounds, but a half litre bottle in a shop shouldn’t cost more than a pound and may well be a good deal less. The same rule applies to food.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi Theatre

There are nine main railway stations in Moscow. One of the most attractive is the Baroque Belorusskaya, from where trains depart for – no shocks, here – Belarus and numerous countries to the west. The elegant Rizhsky runs trains to Riga and also houses the Moscow Railway Museum.

Trans-Siberian trains leave from the rather quaint Yaroslavsky station, one of three stations on Komsomolskaya Square. Kazansky provides services to the distant Russian cities of, yes, Kazan and Ekaterinburg. The St Petersburg trains depart from Leningradsky station. Passengers arriving at St Petersburg will find themselves looking at the station’s identical twin, the Moskovsky.

Those passengers include Duck Holiday, who will resume the story in St Petersburg.