There are few times one can claim having been on the subway all afternoon and loving it, but the Moscow Metro provides just that opportunity. While many cities boast famous public transport systems—New York’s subway, London’s underground, San Salvador’s chicken buses—few warrant hours of exploration. Moscow is different: Take one ride on the Metro, and you’ll find out that this network of railways can be so much more than point A to B drudgery.
The Metro began operating in 1935 with just thirteen stations, covering less than seven miles, but it has since grown into the world’s third busiest transit system (Tokyo is first), spanning about 200 miles and offering over 180 stops along the way. The construction of the Metro began under Joseph Stalin’s command, and being one of the USSR’s most ambitious building projects, the iron-fisted leader instructed designers to create a place full of svet (radiance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future), a palace for the people and a tribute to the Mother nation.
Consequently, the Metro is among the most memorable attractions in Moscow. The stations provide a unique collection of public art, comparable to anything the city’s galleries have to offer and providing a sense of the Soviet era, which is absent from the State National History Museum. Even better, touring the Metro delivers palpable, experiential moments, which many of us don’t get standing in front of painting or a case of coins.
Though tours are available, discovering the Moscow Metro on your own provides a much more comprehensive, truer experience, something much less sterile than following a guide. What better place is there to see the “real” Moscow than on mass transit: A few hours will expose you to characters and caricatures you’ll be hard-pressed to find dining near the Bolshoi Theater. You become part of the attraction, hear it in the screech of the train, feel it as hurried commuters brush by: The Metro sucks you beneath the city and churns you into the mix.
With the recommendations of our born-and-bred Muscovite students, my wife Emma and I have just taken a self-guided tour of what some locals consider the top ten stations of the Moscow Metro. What most satisfied me about our Metro tour was the sense of adventure. I loved following our route on the maps of the wagon walls as we circled the city, plotting out the course to the subsequent stops; having the weird sensation of being underground for nearly four hours; and discovering the next cavern of treasures, playing Indiana Jones for the afternoon, piecing together fragments of Russia’s mysterious history. It’s the ultimate interactive museum.
Top Ten Stations (In order of appearance)
Kievskaya Station went public in March of 1937, the rails between it and Park Kultury Station being the first to cross the Moscow River. Kievskaya is full of mosaics depicting aristocratic scenes of Russian life, with great cameo appearances by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. Each work has a Cyrillic title/explanation etched in the marble beneath it; however, if your Russian is rusty, you can just appreciate seeing familiar revolutionary dates like 1905 (the Russian Revolution) and 1917 (the October Revolution).
Mayakovskaya Station ranks in my top three most notable Metro stations. Mayakovskaya just feels right, done Art Deco but no sense of gaudiness or pretention. The arches are adorned with rounded chrome piping and create feeling of being in a jukebox, but the roof’s expansive mosaics of the sky are the real showstopper. Subjects cleverly range from looking up at a high jumper, workers atop a building, spires of Orthodox cathedrals, to nimble aircraft humming by, a fleet of prop planes spelling out CCCP in the bluest of skies.
Novoslobodskaya is the Metro’s unique stained glass station. Each column has its own distinctive panels of colorful glass, most of them with a floral theme, some of them capturing the odd sailor, musician, artist, gardener, or stenographer in action. The glass is framed in Art Deco metalwork, and there is the lovely aspect of discovering panels in the less frequented haunches of the hall (on the trackside, between the incoming staircases). Novosblod is, I’ve been told, the favorite amongst out-of-town visitors.
Komsomolskaya Station is one of palatial grandeur. It seems both magnificent and obligatory, like the presidential palace of a colonial city. The yellow ceiling has leafy, white concrete garland and a series of golden military mosaics accenting the tile mosaics of glorified Russian life. Switching lines here, the hallway has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, impossibly long with decorative tile walls, culminating in a very old station left in a remarkable state of disrepair, offering a really tangible glimpse behind the palace walls.
Dostoevskaya is a tribute to the late, great hero of Russian literature. The station at first glance seems bare and unimpressive, a stark marble platform without a whiff of reassembled chips of tile. However, two columns have eerie stone inlay collages of scenes from Dostoevsky’s work, including The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment. Then, standing at the center of the platform, the marble creates a kaleidoscope of reflections. At the entrance, there is a large, inlay portrait of the author.
Chkalovskaya does space Art Deco style (yet again). Chrome borders all. Passageways with curvy overhangs create the illusion of walking through the belly of a chic, new-age spacecraft. There are two (kos)mosaics, one at each end, with planetary subjects. Transferring here brings you above ground, where some rather elaborate metalwork is on display. By name similarity only, I’d expected Komsolskaya Station to deliver some kosmonaut décor; instead, it was Chkalovskaya that took us up to the space station.
Elektrozavodskaya is full of marble reliefs of workers, men and women, laboring through the different stages of industry. The superhuman figures are round with muscles, Hollywood fit, and seemingly undeterred by each Herculean task they respectively perform. The station is chocked with brass, from hammer and sickle light fixtures to beautiful, angular framework up the innards of the columns. The station’s art pieces are less clever or extravagant than others, but identifying the different stages of industry is entertaining.
Baumanskaya Station is the only stop that wasn’t suggested by the students. Pulling in, the network of statues was just too enticing: Out of half-circle depressions in the platform’s columns, the USSR’s proud and powerful labor force again flaunts its success. Pilots, blacksmiths, politicians, and artists have all congregated, posing amongst more Art Deco framing. At the far end, a massive Soviet flag dons the face of Lenin and banners for ’05, ’17, and ‘45. Standing in front of the flag, you can play with the echoing roof.
Ploshchad Revolutsii Station
Ploshchad Revolutsii is the Metro’s most famous station and hands-down my favorite, both for the public artwork and for the tradition. Ploshchad is stuffed with sculptures (76 in total), one cut into each corner of each column, arranged thematically about the opening they overlook, moving from parents with their children to athletes, students to farmers, industrial workers to hunters to soldiers. Find the statues of the hunters with dogs and give the pups a rub, as it is believed to bring good luck. Love that.
Novokuznetskaya Station finishes off this tour, more or less, where it started: beautiful mosaics. This station recalls the skyward-facing pieces from Mayakovskaya (Station #2), only with a little larger pictures in a more cramped, very trafficked area. Due to a line of street lamps in the center of the platform, it has the atmosphere of a bustling market. The more inventive sky scenes include a man on a ladder, women picking fruit, and a tank-dozer being craned in. The station’s also has a handsome black-and-white stone mural.
Here is a map and a brief description of our route:
Start at (1)Kievskaya on the “ring line” (look for the squares at the bottom of the platform signs to help you navigate—the ring line is #5, brown line) and go north to Belorusskaya, make a quick switch to the Dark Green/#2 line, and go south one stop to (2)Mayakovskaya. Backtrack to the ring line—Brown/#5—and continue north, getting off at (3)Novosblodskaya and (4)Komsolskaya. At Komsolskaya Station, transfer to the Red/#1 line, go south for two stops to Chistye Prudy, and get on the Light Green/#10 line going north. Take a look at (5)Dostoevskaya Station on the northern segment of Light Green/#10 line then change directions and head south to (6)Chkalovskaya, which offers a transfer to the Dark Blue/#3 line, going west, away from the city center. Have a look (7)Elektroskaya Station before backtracking into the center of Moscow, stopping off at (8)Baumskaya, getting off the Dark Blue/#3 line at (9)Ploschad Revolyutsii. Change to the Dark Green/#2 line and go south one stop to see (10)Novokuznetskaya Station.
Jonathon Engels, formerly a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.