When one thinks of the Soviet Union under Stalin, a magnificent, sprawling subway system is probably the last thing to come to mind. But the beautiful image above is proof of just that. The image is a 1934 draft by Russian architect, Dmitry Chechulin, and is currently housed in Moscow’s Shchusev State Museum of Architecture.
The construction of this massive project was evidence of a radical departure from previous economic policy. The state took a central role in carrying out the “Five-Year Plan”, in which it aimed to rapidly industrialize and build up the nation’s infrastructure (Freeze 344). However, despite the obvious engineering feats this projects achieved, I am more interested in the cultural and societal implications of this project.
What really stood out to me in this draft was the artwork on the walls. The paintings are filled with the bulky forms of men and women, each one appearing to be hard at work or doing some form of exercise. This emphasis on physical strength and collectivized labor. As stated in the 17 Moments in Soviet History, physical culture was a key theme within the Soviet Union throughout the 1930’s. A fit body went hand in hand with a fit mind, allowing one to free themselves from the toxic, competitive ideology of Western culture. Another key feature of these paintings is the atmosphere of togetherness they exude. A key tenet of Soviet physical culture was the celebration of collective bonds, and these paintings embody this celebration (von Geldern). Whether marching in single-file or heaving in unison, each individual is a core cog in an overarching group movement.
Overall, I would argue that the paintings shown in this draft embody the core ethos guiding the entire Metro project. More than just a subway system, the Metro project proved to the world what could be achieved with the Soviet mindset of physical health and collective action. Furthermore, I would argue that the glorification of togetherness and discipline displayed in this project suggests the “Great Retreat” was not a comprehensive movement. The revolutionary ideology of previous decades is undeniably intertwined with this project.
Freeze, Gregory. Russia A History. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 344.
11 thoughts on “Moscow’s Metro: More than Just a Subway”
I have been in the Moscow Metro. As a chemist I most like the station Mendeleyevskaya where the lighting fixtures were in the shape of periodic tables. Mendeleev was the Russian chemist that first put the Period Table together.
That’s awesome you got to see it for yourself! I will have to look into Mendeleyevskaya and some of the other stations. It sounds like each station has its own unique style.
Hi Ben! I’ve also been in the Moscow metro, and the station pictured, and I have to agree with you, it is magnificent! The statues, stained glass, and mosaics in the metro are incredible, and it was really cool to me that they put so much effort into making the stations as beautiful as they were. I really appreciate that you wrote about this topic, because it is very interesting!
Thanks Lauren! I’m glad other people are as interested in the metro as I am. At first the idea of writing about a subway station sounds boring, but the Moscow metro is definitely a special place.
Ben, this is a really cool observation that I would have never made myself. The train station definitely isn’t the first place I would think about when trying to look for revolutionary-related works of art. The connection between the train station being an important part of the ‘spread’ of the revolution and therefore using it as a medium to reflect other Soviet ideas is genius. Thank you for your insight!
Thanks Joy, I really appreciate that! I am an Art History Minor so I have grown to understand the power in using art to understand a historic period. The second I saw this draft I knew the Moscow Metro was a goldmine for uncovering revolutionary artwork.
Thanks Ben! I agree with Tom and Lauren about the beauty of the Moscow Metro stations. Your post makes an important point about how a massive project like the metro fundamentally transformed the old city. Nearly a hundred years later, the Moscow Metro is still an engineering marvel and showcase for mass public transport.
Thanks Dr. Nelson! I know, I can’t believe that the metro functions to this day while still maintaining its original charm. Definitely a feat of Soviet art and engineering.
Hey Ben, cool post here. This might be weird, but one day i got lost deep into youtube watching footage of the different metro systems that were built in the soviet union. In 1960, the Soviets built the metro system in Kiev, Ukraine. The Kiev system is the deepest in the world at somewhere over 300 feet deep. I watched a video of a guy riding the escalator down to the bottom, and in no joke took like 15 or 20 minutes of constant moving to reach the depths.
Haha that doesn’t surprise me, it definitely seems like the Soviets went all out on their subway systems. I’ll have to check out the one in Kiev.
I would have never imagined a project like this in the early Soviet era given the conditions seen in the rest of the Soviet Union. It is interesting that you mention the art work and symbolism on the walls throughout the stations. It seems to be part of the larger push to revolutionize the culture of the Soviet Union with an emphasis on the worker. Very interesting post!