The metro. A simple means of transport. An underground train, useful to connect people and places in increasingly larger cities. The world’s first electrified underground railway line was opened in London in 1890, followed by Glasgow, Budapest, Paris. There are now about 180 underground railways in the world, serving major cities on all continents.
Possession of a metro system is a source of prestige for a city and of pride for its inhabitants. A metro must be efficient, fast, and punctual. Often this is enough; it is not a rule that it must also be beautiful. Moscow’s metro, the one I want to talk about today, is not only efficient, fast and on time. It is not only beautiful. It is not only a metro.
The first metro line – the Sokolnicheskaya, which was obviously assigned the colour red – was opened in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, on 15 May 1935. There they were: prestige and pride. It was a celebration of the power of socialism and of Stalinism. A glorification of Soviet technology and of the ability of the Union’s workers. Since the beginning, the Moscow Metro was not intended to be ‘just’ a metro. It was a propaganda work and a great gift from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its General Secretary, Joseph Stalin, to the Soviet and Moscow people.
A ‘gift’ also from a political point of view. Private property did not exist in the Soviet Union and the flats in which Soviet citizens lived could not be bought. They were allocated by the state, and the waiting lists on which families registered for popular housing could be very long. The orthodox cathedrals and the opulent palaces of past emperors were now state property, converted into public offices, public swimming pools or public toilets. Like everything else, the underground belonged to everyone, and the government decided to turn it into a palace for the people.
Komsomol’skaya, considered by many to be the most beautiful metro station in Moscow.
Many of Moscow’s metro stations are beautifully decorated. They tell stories (Novokuznetskaya), glorify the heroic deeds of the Red Army (the splendid Ploshchad’ Revolyutsii, with its 76 bronze statues), honour the peoples and cities of the Union (Belorusskaya, Kievskaya, Rizhskaya, you name it), celebrate important writers and artists (Mayakovskaya, Dostoevskaya) through mosaics, statues and impressive architecture. The Moscow metro is a museum, a meeting point between an underground cathedral and a bomb shelter, which can be visited for the modest sum of 60 roubles. I do not know in how many other cities in the world you are likely to encounter a group of Asian tourists on a guided tour inside a metro station. Its majesty and the aura of mystery that surrounds it – read about Metro 2: urban legend or secret transport system that really exists? – have inspired all kinds of artistic works: books, video games and soon films.
The latest map of Moscow’s metropolitan system, the ‘spider’s web’.
The Moskovsky Metropoliten is a perfect, capillary system. There are 15 lines, 239 stations. It works like clockwork. Never a delay. At rush hour, by the time one train has departed and its taillights have just disappeared into the darkness, the platform is already full and the clanking of the next one can be heard from the tunnel. Almost seven million people – in normal times, of course – use the underground trains every day, two and a half billion every year.
Down to the Obukhovo station of St Petersburg’s metro, 62 metres underground.
The metro is a fundamental part of the Soviet – now Russian – experience. You have not really lived in one of Russia’s big cities if you have not lost yourself in the spider’s web of the metro at least once, if you have not run down the escalators towards the abyss, if you do not know perfectly that mixture of smells so characteristic of the underground city and the screeching of the blue Metrovagonmash trains. Russia is the home of contradictions. One of its greatest treasures is hidden from sunlight, underground, protected by 80 metres of ground.