The Moscow Metro first hit the rails in 1935. Back then, there were only thirteen stations and not even seven miles of track. These days, the Metro ranks as one of the world’s top three busiest transits (Tokyo is an unstoppable first in that category), with nearly 200 miles of track and a stop at nearly every mile of it. But that is neither here nor there because the Moscow Metro is so much more than getting from here to there.
Usually, when I travel, the last thing I want to do or even think about is the daily commute, let alone voluntarily spending hours hopping on and off public transportation. However, after one ride on the Metro, I went out of my way to plan an all-day underground excursion. I researched the most famous stations, marked them out on my handy Anglicized Metro map, and set off on my day-long commute to nowhere.
When Joseph Stalin ordered the construction of the Metro, he told builders that he wanted the system to reflect the svet (radiance) and svetloe budushchee (radiant future) of the Soviet Union. Consequently, the subway’s stations are decked out in marble, murals, and lavish artwork dedicated to the proletariat, the “radiant future.” Today, it all paints a vivid picture of the ideals, hopes, and grandeur of one of contemporary history’s most powerful and cloaked countries.
In Your Bucket List Because…
- It provides an insight into one of the two great powers from the latter half of the 20th century.
- The artwork is stunning, unique, and often very witty, even providing a chuckle or few.
- Though it’s one of the best attractions in the city, it only costs about a dollar (30 rubles) to ride. In this city, your wallet will appreciate the breather.
- The Metro was constructed with the over-the-top majesty of any royal abode and, in fact, was intended to be Russia’s “palace for the people.”
Descending into the Madness
I taught in Moscow for nearly a year and, as most Muscovites do, spent significant hours of my life in the tunnels below the city. I never really got bored of it, perking up as we’d pull into my favorite stations, taking a quick look at the statue or the mosaic. On my first Metro trip, I stopped to admire a tile painting of Lenin, and over the next nine months, I never failed to appreciate it when transferring there.
When my students learned of my desire to explore the Metro, they all proudly listed their must-see stations. Luckily, all of their recommendations were near the Ring Line, the loop of track surrounding the older part of the city. From the ring, the Metro extends into the suburbs, sometimes nearly an hour of transit. While there are great stations to see out there, investigating them all would take days.
So, I compiled a top-ten collection, and one Sunday, armed with a notebook, I descended into the madness. At some stations—the one nearest my house—just getting on the Metro requires total commitment: The crowd heaves behind you in panicked hurriedness as the snow-caked steps threaten to send you crashing. As you reach the double-hinged entrance, the door—heavy and supercharged with subway hurricane-grade winds—attacks you on the backswing, nearly breaking your arm. Once inside, it’s best to have your ticket ready when you reach the turn-style.
Spending a Day Underground
Most of the stellar stations are Art Deco, everything accented with beautiful angular metalwork, ornate columns, and lashings of marble. Each station has a motif, such as Mayakovskaya’s ceiling mosaics, which depict different ant’s eye views of the sky above or the most famous, Ploshchad Revolyutsii, with sculptures of strong and studious citizens of the Soviet Union. Even some of the older trains, throwback powder blue with chrome, add to the time travel.
I did the top-ten list all in one go, stopping at each station to meander amongst the people and art, really get the feel of the place. Some, like Dostoevskaya (an homage to the author), were reflectively quiet, while others — Novokuznetskaya, modeled to be like a pedestrian street — hemorrhaged people, hardly any space to stand still for a photo or a scribble. All in all, I was underground for nearly four hours.
When I finally surfaced again, I did so with myriad feelings. I had indeed witnessed some incredible architecture. I’d survived hours in the churn of one of the busiest public transport systems in the world. I’d even managed to discover my own station to add to the list: Baumskaya has statues of workers at each marble column, resplendent with brass plaques, and at one end of the platform, there is a special echoing roof. I’d experienced the Metro — now and then.
Taking one of the Metro’s preposterously long escalators back up to the world, I felt as if I were a great adventurer, but a hat and a whip away from having my own movie trilogy.
- You’ll need a Metro card to enter. These can be bought at windows near the entrance or from machines. It’s possible (and cheaper) to buy tickets with multiple trips and the same ticket can be used for more than one passenger.
- Most trains have maps with both Cyrillic and Anglicized names, but some don’t. So, it’s not a bad idea to bring a map of your own (or a guidebook) if you can’t read Cyrillic. Also, it definitely behooves you to plot out your trip before going.
- There are several guided tours of the Metro system if the wandering approach doesn’t appeal to you. However, one of the nice things about doing a self-tour is being able to get on and off as you please. Sometimes something in a station just catches your eye.
- Be careful around the train’s doors. They, like the Metro itself, were designed to display the power of the Soviet Union. I have seen people lose bags or spend hair-raising moments with scarves trapped in the doors after takeoff.
- Getting on and off the escalators can be surreal, the amount of people squeezing onto the stairs impossibly huge. Just put in with them, shuffle your way on, and stand to the right if you don’t want to climb.
- My top-ten list (in good viewing order): Kievskaya, Mayakovskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Komsmolskaya, Dostoevskaya, Chkalovskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, Baumanskaya, Ploshchad Revolutsii, and Novokuznetskaya.