Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 1

National Reunification

National Reunification

Pyongyang-Rajin

Easy enough to organisebut not without surprises

The problem of the best way to put together a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to then be in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for the 100th Anniversary of the Great October Russian Revolution seemed to have been solved when the option of taking the train from Pyongyang – the capital of the DPRK – direct to Moscow – the capital of the former Socialist country – was presented to me.

At first the arrangement seemed fairly straightforward. Instead of heading back to China at the end of the 11 Day Party Foundation Tour (which I had initially considered) I would now say my farewells to the group as I headed for the railway station in the centre of Pyongyang as they headed off to the airport for a relatively short flight to Beijing. My journey was going to be far from ‘short’ – the first stage (from Pyongyang to the biggest city in the north-east of the country, Rajin) would take 33 hours but I wasn’t in any real hurry (there being the best part of three weeks before the anniversary of the Revolution on the 7th November).

Matters started to get confusing as soon as I started to confirm my travel arrangements. It didn’t help in understanding the situation when the people I was dealing with didn’t seem to fully understand the situation either – the travel company in Berlin as well as those who worked at the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) in Pyongyang. It may be useful to remind readers here that independent travel to the DPRK is not an option and some officially recognised intermediary is a necessity.

Although slightly frustrating, as it wasn’t until I was actually in the country that I got to know my exact itinerary, it did have its plus side. People didn’t know what the situation was as not many people had actually made this journey before and they were making statements based upon what could, theoretically, be done without having a lot of actual practice to back it up. Though not a trail-blazer I very soon realised (and learnt even more so as I progressed along the almost 10,000 kilometre journey) that I wasn’t following in many others’ footsteps.

The ‘problem’ arose as it seemed to be impossible to get an exact date from Pyongyang until a matter of a week or so before departure. The date for the departure from Tumangang (the last station of the DPRK side of the border with Russia) was fixed in stone. On the other hand departures from Pyongyang seemed to be quite flexible. I couldn’t understand this as the ‘reason’ that ‘they do things differently’ in another country doesn’t make sense when it goes against all logic, especially when it comes to train timetables. After all it was around rail transport that time took on a different meaning during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, from the early part of the 19th century onwards.

The other issue with being a foreign tourist was that although the train that I eventually took from Pyongyang would go through to the terminus at Tumangang I had to get off in the city of Rajin, spend a night there and then get taken to the border station by road the next day – in order to make a late afternoon border crossing.

As an aside here I’ll comment on how information is transmitted by the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to foreign tourists when the people giving the ‘information’ don’t have any idea of what the actual situation might be. Anyone who has travelled extensively in any of those parts of the world would have invariably come across similar situations at various times. The consequence of this is that the information that is imparted has little more practical value than what could be found in a novel.

I must stress here that the ‘information’ that is given is not passed on with any malice. What happens is that they a) don’t want to say they don’t know and b) don’t want the foreigner to leave with nothing. The theory seems to be that something, however inaccurate, is better than nothing. This meant that I received, in an authoritative tone, all kinds of answers to my questions that bore no relationship to actual reality.

In the context of the proposed journey of nine or ten days on a train there is another factor that has to be taken into account. Although not directly stated by the people I dealt with in Pyongyang they definitely thought that someone who would choose to travel all the way from Pyongyang to Moscow on a train – when they could take a flight that would take fewer hours than the train takes in days – must be crazy. People who have little chance of travelling to and from such places are probably even more bemused.

Although many people, more often than not those who have never (and don’t intend to) set foot in the DPRK write and talk about not being able to travel without being accompanied by local guides having them with you does make life an awful lot easier. The main Pyongyang Railway station was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres from my hotel, the Koryo, but on the day of departure I was collected and driven there in the mini bus that had been ‘mine’ for the three days I had had a private tour.

Tipping in Socialist Countries

Before leaving the mini-bus for the last time there was a ritual that had to be gone through and that was the tipping of the driver. This is something that is being expected in China, as well as the DPRK, as foreign tourism becomes more popular. This is expected to be paid in either Chinese Yuan or Euros (US dollars aren’t welcomed) and is one of those aspects of tourism in what are supposed to be Socialist countries which has been problematic for a long time.

Working with foreigners where, for example, meals are taken in westernised ‘Korean’ restaurants, beyond the means of many local people, a small group of a few hundred people in Pyongyang live a different life-style from their compatriots. Getting from 5-10 Euros per day from each member of the group (which is the recommended amount from virtually all the travel companies I investigated before booking my trip) means that they can, in theory, receive an income far in excess of that of the other people in their country who do much more important, useful and worthwhile jobs than cater for a bunch of over-privileged foreigners, some of whom (though by no means all) are there to find fault with as much as possible in order to return home with their ‘horror’ stories.

Unfortunately, nothing has been learnt from the experience of the Beryozka stores in the Revisionist Soviet Union where goods could only be paid for in foreign currency. In 1973 I had the experience of witnessing the guide for the group of which I was a member pulling out a roll of various European and North American currencies, which she had obviously saved up over a period of time, to take advantage of the luxury foreign-made goods that were not available in normal shops and to the vast majority of the population. The existence of such places is an anathema to Socialism and only served to perpetuate inequality and breeds corruption. I’m not aware of an equivalent shopping situation in the DPRK (although there are supermarkets in Pyongyang that will accept Chinese Yuan and Euros) but foreign currencies in the hands of a select few can only but be a cause for concern.

On top of that potential of undermining any development towards Socialism there is also the question of what role tipping should have in a society claiming to be constructing Socialism. Tipping under capitalism is used to supplement poor wages and employers use them as an excuse to pay less than the rate for the job. Any country that claims to be building any version of Socialism – as the DPRK does with its Juche variety – should outlaw tipping, considering the practice one that comes from a class divided society and the giving of which insults the worker.

But when you are at the mercy of such an arrangement it becomes churlish to not participate.

Pyongyang Station

At the station there was a steady stream of people going in through the main entrance but myself and the two guides went through a door (at the left hand side of the station façade) that looked like an entrance to an office. This was the door that foreigners have to use and so we ‘jumped the queue’. I wasn’t aware that anyone really controlled that entrance but the way it was set up inside it appeared as if it was also the entrance for those who were travelling in the soft sleepers – what would be the equivalent of ‘first class’ on other rail systems. My guides had to sort out a platform ticket (so they could get out again when the train left) and no more than three or four minutes after arriving at the station we were standing on the platform.

On the platform things looked chaotic around the last carriage of the train – my soft sleeper. This was due to the fact that there were many more people seeing off friends and relations than were actually travelling – when the train did move off the carriage was far from full.

The taking of photos in the DPRK is not as restrictive as many would have you believe but a foreign tourist is always at the whim of their guides and although the two young women who had been my guides for the last three days of my trip to the country were friendly, approachable and efficient they also had an attitude of not allowing me to impose of their fellow countrymen and women.

Although I would liked to have taken a few more pictures of the station to record an impression of what it’s like in preparation for a long distance train journey in the country I do respect the idea that some people might not like having a camera pointed at them to satisfy the whims of someone from the other side of the world. In my photography in the countries I have had the chance to visit I tend to concentrate on things rather than people – not being a person who is too happy to be the subject of another’s photo myself. And anyway, the single picture I did take, of the destination board on the side of the carriage, was later deleted by the immigration police before I left the country to cross over to Russia from Tumangang but, again, more of that later.

The journey of 10,000 kilometres starts with the first turn of the wheel

The train departed at 07.50 on the dot and worked its way through the centre of Pyongyang, passing many of the places I had visited in my 11 day trip. The train never gathered anything like the speed of trains in Europe, not least because it was a single track for much of the way and of a narrower gauge than that used in the west. This made for a more interesting journey as life outside the train didn’t go by in flash and it was possible to see much of what was taking place in different parts of the countryside. Most tours to the DPRK will take in some places outside of Pyongyang but seeing the world from the window of a mini-bus is very different from the window of a train.

(I didn’t have the information with me at the time but anyone planning this journey might find it useful to copy the relevant information about the route and the stopping stations from this website. At a speed of (very roughly 25 km per hour) you can make a guess of the station or have something to show local people to get confirmation. So many times in life ‘if we only knew then what we know now’.)

Meeting the ‘locals’

Much is made in the ‘west’ about the fact that foreigners don’t have the opportunity to meet and talk with local people when travelling in the DPRK. If these are ordinary people who are just regurgitating the pap fed to them by the capitalist media they are very often the same sort of people who go on holiday to southern Europe (here I’m talking about people from the UK) and stay in resorts where the only contact they have with the ‘locals’ is in a bar or restaurant – or even worse stay at ‘all inclusive’ holiday resorts where they never leave the complex. In a way that makes sense. They don’t go into areas with which they are unfamiliar and where they can’t be understood (most English depending upon the ‘locals’ to speak English, in whatever part of the globe they might be visiting) because they will be like fish out of water. However, when it is not permitted all of a sudden it’s something they must do or their ‘freedom’ is being limited.

If they are arrogant journalists like the BBC’s Rupert Winfield-Hayes they want to go where they are asked not to go because being part of the BBC they think they have the right to do whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 when in the country filming for an episode of the BBC news programme ‘Panorama’. I like to think that the DPRK security forces arrested him for a joke, just to put the fear of God up him. He was such an ineffectual prick he could have done little harm.

However, there is one way that a visiting tourist can get to ‘know’ the locals and that’s by travelling on trains. Again, the travel options, at present, are limited (the route from Dandong in China and this route to the Rason area) but there’s every opportunity to meet people from the country with no one there to oversee the conversation. On the journey into the country we (I was travelling with my brother on that part of the journey) got into a conversation with someone returning home after a trip in China. He had a bit of English and the conversation was the sort you normally have on such occasions, more passing the time of day than an interrogation about conditions of life within the country. Any more than that and you go outside what is considered the norm in any country. What would the British think if every time they met someone from Europe they were asked to justify their stance on the European referendum, whatever side they took?

When you are travelling in another country there’s no sense in creating conflict with someone you don’t know, when you will only be in their company for a very short time and will almost certainly never meet again. Not least because anywhere in the world you won’t get any controversial information from someone who doesn’t know you. It takes time for people to develop trust and a train journey, or a chance encounter in a street, does not allow that trust time to develop.

You pass the time of day, possibly share a drink (as we did on the way to Pyongyang) and part wishing each other all the best.

If that’s what you wish to do when travelling then a long, overnight train journey is as good a place as any to start.

Next

Realism made a come back in Edinburgh – Autumn 2017

The Moon Goes Round the Earth - Keith Henderson

The Moon Goes Round the Earth – Keith Henderson

Having some knowledge of Socialist Realist Art from the erstwhile Socialist countries it was a pleasure to be able to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 2017, on British Realist Painting of the 1920s and 1930s to see what was shared – and what wasn’t. After all the style fell out of favour here and became a victim of the Cold War – collateral damage in the propaganda war against Communism.

In the main, these examples of British Realism compared to Socialist Realism are as different as chalk and cheese. In Socialist Realism context is everything, the period in which a picture is painted, the reason for its creation, who or what is depicted and the audience at which the image is aimed are all important .

With the British paintings what is most obvious from the start is the difference in the subjects. British Realism was fine art in its most literal sense. Some of the painters used single sable hair brushes in their work. Some of these paintings took years to complete. There’s no doubting the skill and draughtsmanship of such creations but they were, in many ways, products of their time and the social relations that existed in the decades between the two world wars.

With few exceptions the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ prevailed. They were vanity products of a privileged minority, who had private incomes, who came from ‘old’ wealth. Even those from working class backgrounds rarely reflected their heritage in the subjects and themes they chose to paint.

Many of the male painters had direct experience of the First World War – although a few were pacifists or conscientious objectors and one, Maxwell Armfield, even went to the US to avoid conscription. Their rank during the conflict indicated their class background but most bullets and gas don’t respect class and many returned from the war scarred physically or mentally. Instead of reacting against the carnage most chose to retreat into an idealised past, or a beautiful present, rather than use their art to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated in the future.

This is especially obvious in an idealised view of the countryside, harking back to a time of innocence, before mechanisation, which had, as a corollary, produced the weapons of the early 20th century which had turned once fertile farmland in France into a murderous quagmire. Their countryside is idyllic, the sun always shines and all is good with the world with happy workers bringing in the harvest or tourists enjoying the countryside in their spare time. In their pastoral images there is no reference to the almost feudal working and living conditions under which most agricultural workers existed. As a result they created paintings which included horse drawn rakes and workers harvesting with scythes – backbreaking and low productivity labour.

British Realism included no drama, narrative, or anecdote. It doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more like a photo of a specific time, location or individual but it’s a photo that doesn’t have a back story. It’s an image frozen in time but without any indication of a past or a future.

But ‘Realism’ doesn’t mean real.

By the Hills - Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills – Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills (Brockhurst),

Woman Reclining - Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining – Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining,

A Game of Patience - Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience – Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience (both by Frampton) and

Pauline Waiting - Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting – Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting (Gunn) are images of incredibly beautiful women, perfect in every way. But no one’s that perfect. All of them oil on canvas, the style which results in a ‘brushless, flawless finish’ is used to produce an impossibly flawless image.

The paintings look the same as they do in the catalogue – like large, blown up (and retouched, or, perhaps I should say Photoshopped) photographs. The only difference with the originals is that when close up you can actually see the small hairs on these women’s faces and arms. Their perfection is what gives them away as paintings – such technologies in retouching weren’t available at the time. The artists aimed for, and achieved, perfection before the ravages of time would take that away forever. Standing in front of these portraits you know Oliver Cromwell, with his ‘warts and all’, would not have been a welcomed sitter in these technicians’ studios.

Some artists during this heyday of British Realism also played around with materials, reverting to tempera (using egg yolks, the norm before the invention of oil based paints) which produces a much softer, watercolour effect. What had, half a millennium ago, restricted artists in their desires to depict the world around them was reinvented to depict contemporary society – the medium not as restrictive as once thought. They rejected oil for the previously rejected egg.

British Realism came closest to Soviet Socialist Realism with the works of Branson

Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works - Clive Branson

Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works – Clive Branson

(Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works) and Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop - Clifford Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop – Clifford Rowe

(The Fried Fish Shop). This is not surprising. Both were Communists and used their art to comment on the capitalist society that had just come out of the worst economic crisis (to that time) and was rushing headlong into the worst and most destructive conflict so far known to mankind. In depicting ordinary working people, even in the mundane act of eating fish and chips, they were referencing those who could take society along another, more prosperous and peaceful road.

There was also a similarity to the Soviet example in the works of Matania

Blackpool - Fortunino Matania

Blackpool – Fortunino Matania

(whose Blackpool was used as a poster advertising the seaside town) and that of Taylor

Restaurant Car - Leonard Taylor

Restaurant Car – Leonard Taylor

(whose Restaurant Car was used to advertise luxury rail travel). In this way they paralleled the work of Soviet artists who were producing public information posters in all fields of Soviet life at exactly the same time.

Flawed but illuminating, museums and art galleries should hunt out further treasures of British Realism and present them to the public. Let the people decide what is ‘art’ and not leave it to the Turner Prize jury.

The National Galleries of Scotland produced a wonderfully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, by Patrick Elliot and Sacha Llewellyn. Apart from the reproductions of the paintings that were in the exhibition the text puts the Movement into its context.

Moscow Metro – Avtozavodskaya – Line 2

Collective Farmers

Collective Farmers

Avtozavodskaya Metro station – now on Line 2 – was one of the seven stations completed during the anti-Hitlerite War and was opened on 1st January 1943. It’s original name was the Stalin Works Station, after the armaments factory that was above ground at that time. This name was changed in 1956 as part of the campaign against Socialism. Avtozavodskaya translates as ‘Car factory’.

Often the art work inside the Metro stations had a relationship with the area that the station served. In 1943 this area was one of heavy industry and some of the images reflect that fact. As time goes by areas change their use and importance in the economy of  the country – especially in Russia as so much fell apart with the chaotic destruction of the Soviet Union. This creates a certain disconnect from the immediate area but the art can give pointers to the past.

It’s also common for there to be military references in those stations completed during the years of the Great Patriotic War as a way of increasing awareness of the need for the people to bear in mind the dangers the country was facing. There’s a permanence with the military references in the Soviet Metro stations but this would have been mirrored in the London Underground with its ‘public information’ (the British don’t use ‘propaganda’) posters. 

All the Moscow Metro stations are bright but Avtozavodskaya is even more so as the columns are narrow and there are no walls between the central corridor and the two platforms. Together with the light bouncing off the tiles and marble that was used in the construction this means that when you come off the escalator you enter a large, bright and airy space, not really what you expect underground. According to the architect’s wife he got his inspiration from reading a book about plants whilst at the same time listening to Bach’s music.

On the Platform

On the platform level there are eight, long, narrow mosaics and four square stone bas reliefs – four and two on each side respectively. Between the bas reliefs there’s an empty space. This is the result of political vandalism that probably goes back to the latter part of the 1950s. If there’s nothing on show now then it almost certainly had a reference to Comrade Stalin, perhaps a mosaic with a meeting with workers, a Party celebration or perhaps, as the station was completed during the war, a reference to Stalin’s role in that war. Whether whatever was there was removed and destroyed or merely covered up I have no idea. There must be photographic records of the stations at the time of their opening but these remain elusive.

The Eight Mosaics

Armaments Factory

Armaments Factory

During wartime virtually all industrial production is given over to those products which support the war effort and for that reason half of the mosaics depict industrial scenes. Whereas the others show aspects of industry in general this one shows a tank production line – this could possibly be the famous T-34. 

In the centre, and dominating the scene, are three, large completed tanks. In the foreground, to the side of the tanks are two groups of workers who are in the process of assembling the chassis of the next generation of tanks. In each group there are two men and one woman, all carrying out the same type of work. Three of the men are using hydraulic bolting tools. This indicates that women were working in industry in an equal capacity as the men, showing how the society had developed in just a generation.

Before the Revolution Russia was just a peasant economy with little industrialisation. That all changed with the rapid development of agriculture and industry in the 1930s. Without that development the Soviet union wouldn’t have been able to confront, and finally defeat the invading Nazis. At the time the mosaic was created the tanks would have been driven out of the factory and then immediately sent to the front.

Collective Farm

Collective Farm

The growth of industry would not have been possible without the mechanisation and collective reorganisation of agriculture – in fact the development of one depended upon the development of the other. The next mosaic shows a scene from the countryside at harvest time at either a large collective or State farm. 

In the centre we see the level of mechanisation with a tractor (with caterpillar tracks) pulling a combine harvester and a lorry alongside to collect the separated grain. Also to show how the role of women had changed since the Revolution a woman is operating the harvester. There’s another harvester slightly behind and to the left of the main subject – this one operated by a man, indicating the interchangeability of roles in the new society.

On the right hand side there’s a man and woman in conversation. She is holding, and reading from a sheet of paper. he is dressed in overalls and holds a wrench in his right hand. At their feet is a set of wheels. He is almost certainly a mechanic, a necessity in the countryside to keep the machinery in working order – especially at the busy time of harvest. She could well be a Brigade leader going through the progress of the jobs he has been allotted or telling him what he should do next.

Here it’s important to stress that it was only in the Soviet Union, at this time, where women were in positions of responsibility and authority. I’m not saying that complete equality existed in the Soviet Union in the 1940s but at least there was an effort to create such a situation. It took the capitalist west more than a generation to get even close.

On the left hand side is a small group of three, two men and a woman. One of the men is much older, with a white beard and wearing glasses. He is not dressed for working in the fields as he is dressed in a white suit. He’s inspecting the ears of the corn which is in the sheaf that the woman is holding. He would be a scientist checking the quality of the harvest. The third member of the group is a younger man, taller than the older man, dressed in farm clothes and sporting a black mustache. He’s looking on the inspection process awaiting for the verdict.

The whole scene is a reference to the way in which Soviet agriculture had to advance. It was bringing mechanisation and industry to the countryside together with advances in science to ensure a bountiful and healthy crop. This is the basis for modern agriculture and was a million miles away from the feudal level of agriculture before the Revolution.

Commercial Port

Commercial Port

The next scene is of a busy commercial quayside – almost certainly not Moscow – which is a hive of activity.

The centre of the panel is the background, across the dock from the quay on which the people are standing. Here we see a large crane in the process of loading (or unloading) a cargo ship, whose mast is right of centre. Behind is the outline of quayside warehouses and on the right there’s steam billowing out from an electricity station cooling tower.

On the right hand side the background is created by the black stern of a large ship that’s tied up to the dock. There are what looks like two chains coming down from the (unseen) deck of the ship to two bollards on the dockside. This is strange as you would never tie up a ship, of whatever size, with chains. I can only surmise that the artist knew nothing about the actuality of a port and guessed at what would have been used. There’s no problem with artists (and intellectuals) not knowing the facts, it’s another that no one sought to enlighten him/her.

Standing on the quay in front of this ship are two people, a man and a woman, involved in fishing. He is still dressed in his oil skins and is holding up a large fish in both his hands. He’s smoking a pipe. The woman is bent over emptying a large basket of fish on to the quay at the same time as looking at the fish the man is holding as if to say ‘It’s been a good catch’. At the extreme right hand edge a number of barrels are stacked and I would think this is for the salted fish that would have been the main way that fish was preserved in the 1940s. Laying parallel to the bottom of the panel is a large fish – this will almost certainly be a sturgeon, long time associated with Russia (for its caviar). 

On the left hand side a group of three men are in the process of loading barrels on to a lorry. The man at the rear of the vehicle is guiding a barrel, which is hanging from the hook on a cable from an unseen crane, on to the flat back of the truck. To his left the other two men are in the process of connecting another barrel to the hoist line. 

The man on the left is older, is dressed in a white suit (a bit inappropriate for dock work I would have thought) , is wearing a cap and holds the hook end of the loose line in his hands. The other man, to his right, is standing behind a barrel ready to help him connect the line. All the three men are wearing large, white protective gloves.

Behind the lorry, and on the edge of the quay, are what could be bales of rope. On the extreme left hand side of the panel is a small stack of sacks, waiting to be loaded  on to the next truck, perhaps. 

Behind this scene a small, two-masted sailing boat is in the process of coming into the picture.

Foundry

Foundry

There are flames everywhere in this scene from a foundry. On the right hand side we see two men guiding a large crucible of molten metal, hanging from an unseen gantry crane. which they’ve just taken from the furnace, the metal giving off a glow at the top. They are taking this over to the left hand side where two other men are in the process of pouring metal into a cast. With large casts the process has to be continuous and organisation is the key. At the cast you can see the white stream of metal leaving the crucible and the whole process is being supervised by a woman who is on the other side of the cast to the men. She is wearing protective googles and a hat but otherwise seems to be wearing ordinary clothes.

The only other person in the scene is a woman who is standing in the middle, between the activity of casting. In her hand she is holding a small piece of testing equipment. It’s close to her eye as if she is looking through a small glass window to inspect whatever is inside. There’s a small hopper at the top of this device which would allow the insertion of what she wants to test. In a foundry everything depends upon the quality of the sand and the moulds into which the metal is poured and I assume that it’s somewhere along the line of this testing process that is her responsibility. She has a clip board tucked under her left arm and she is wearing ordinary working clothes.

There’s a nice little touch at this point in the mosaic. As I’ve said there are flames all around and what the artist has done is to give her a shadow so to her right is a larger silhouette of herself.

Assembly Shop

Assembly Shop

The next mosaic is another industrial scene – this time in an assembly shop. On the right a woman is riding on an early electric fork lift bringing in a container of links for the production of caterpillar tracks. This appears to be an assembly shop for small tracked vehicles, putting these tracks together seems to be what is happening on the left hand side. The size of the tracks are far too small for military use so it’s likely that this part of the factory is making agricultural equipment – as important in the war effort as armaments.

It’s difficult to work out what’s the two men in the centre are doing but it’s obviously another process in the production line. This is only one small part of a very much larger factory as can be seen from the large presses in the background.

Forge and Pressing Shop

Forge and Pressing Shop

We are in another part of the factory for the next mosaic – this looks like the pressing shop. On the right hand side a man is taking a long, heavy piece of metal from the furnace, looking over to his left to see if they are ready for the next piece to process. He grabs the white-hot metal with a long pair of tongs, the weight of the metal being born by a rod that hangs down from a pulley system.

In the centre two men are in the process of the initial shaping of another piece of metal, standing in front of a hammer press which gives the metal close to its final shape. The metal still being hot from the furnace the sparks are flying in all directions. One of the men, on the right, is wearing goggles whilst the other, his right hand holding the long tongs, uses his left hand to hold a welders mask in front of his face. The man on the right seems to be holding a hose which is directed to where all the sparks are flying. Is this a jet of air? i don’t know enough about these processes to be able to say.

The other worker, on the far left, is working alone at another, perhaps smaller press. The metal is still white but it’s shape is now more defined, getting closer to its required format. Standing slightly facing the viewer we can see that he wears full protective gear and goggles.

So here the artist has sought to present three stages of the pressing process. Perhaps these are meant to be the presses seen in the background of the assembly shop. 

The Red Air Force

The Red Air Force

Most of a Soviet twin engine medium bomber dominates the mosaic that refers to the Red Air Force. We know it’s a Soviet plane by the large red star on the tail fin. It’s possibly an Ilushin Il – 4 or a Tupolev Tu – 2.

Standing behind the wings are two airmen (of a three man crew), one with a map in his hands as if they are discussing the upcoming mission. They are possibly the pilot and navigator.

The bomb bays are open and two of the ground crew are loading large bombs by way of a hoist into the aircraft. Standing at the front of the plane, looking up into the air with a pair of binoculars, is possible the third member of the crew – the gunner.

In the background is another bomber sitting on the apron and looking underneath the belly of the aircraft can be seen a truck.

The Red Navy

The Red Navy

The last of the mosaics commemorates the Red Navy and is a very busy picture. In the background, and taking up the full length of the mosaic is a large battleship in full steam – with smoke coming out of its twin funnels and creating significant waves. There’s a red flag flying from the bow with a large golden star.

Dwarfed by the battleship a small, two man speedboat is racing alongside, its bow up out of the water. There’s a red flag from both the bow and the stern. 

On the right of the scene two men appear to be on the top of a coning tower of a submarine. One is already in place and is sending a semaphore message. His comrade is climbing up the steps to join him.

On the left hand side, in the foreground, are three sailors at a bow gun on yet another ship. One of them has a shell cradled in his arms and is about to push it into the open breach. The second sailor is looking ahead as if to work out the settings to make on the gun. Another sailor stands behind the gun but we only see parts of his uniform. 

A couple of things stand out in these mosaics. One is that the skill of the artist is such that all the faces are distinctive and unique. You get an idea of what they are thinking as they carry out their tasks. Another is that women were always represented in an equal manner apart from those images which show the armed forces. Women did take an active and front line role in the Great Patriotic War (I’m not too sure about the Navy) but very often in women only squads.   

Four Bas Reliefs

The bas reliefs are divided equally into rural and industrial scenes but one thing that unites them is the way they have been constructed. They are very large (I can’t say exactly as they are high up and on the other side of a railway track) but instead of being carved on to one piece of stone they are very much like a jigsaw puzzle – but a puzzle that has different sizes of blocks each time.

Aircraft Production

Aircraft Production

Socialist Realist Art is not always realistic. It’s a way of telling a story about the life of the workers and how they are attempting to build a new society. It’s an art form which places workers and peasants at the centre of public images which does not exist anywhere outside of those societies that have made a revolutionary change to the previous exploitative and oppressive society. And we have an example here which introduces unreality into a Socialist Realist image. 

The male kneeling is in the process of servicing an aircraft piston engine, the engineer standing on the right hand side is making notes on a clip board. The hook at the top is ready to take the engine for repair. But in 1943 how many Muscovites would have known where the engine came from? How could they relate to an important part of the defence of their city and country?

That’s easy. Add a couple of men dressed in pilots uniforms and give one of them a propeller which is taller than himself. It’s not very sophisticated but it’s no more strange than Catholic martyrs being depicted with the instruments used in their death. And there’s nothing strange in works of art being produced in a Socialist society which bears the hallmarks of the old society, including its religious imagery. I discussed this in the post about the statue by Odhise Paskali (Shoket- Comrades) in Permet Martyrs’ Cemetery.

Until a new form of art, which has been able to develop outside of the influences of capitalism, then Socialist art will always exhibit aspects, tropes, of that old society. It may look strange but that is all part of the development of ideas and how those ideas can be communicated in a way that ordinary people can understand and appreciate. We must remember that the Constructivists, at the beginning of the 1930s, moved into design and away from painting because ‘paintings could not be understood by the masses’.

Harvest Time

Harvest Time

This is another harvest scene – but it’s difficult to work out which part of the vast Soviet Union the scene is set. I thought perhaps in the Ukraine – as the bread basket of the country – and then Georgia – due to the connection with Joseph Stalin. But couldn’t come to a definite conclusion. The head-dress of the young woman on the right is quite distinctive as are the boots of the woman on the left.

This is the harvest as the woman on the left is dragging a sheaf of grain in both her hands and the woman on the right is plucking fruit from a tree and has a basket of fruit balanced on her right shoulder. One of the children is ‘helping’ the other looks bemused – as does the young foal in the centre of the image.

Life in the Tundra

Life in the Tundra

This is another rural scene but this time from the tundra. But I’m not sure how to interpret what we see. On the far right we have a young woman who’s holding a somewhat struggling goose. Sh’e got a grip of the goose’s left wing under her arm but the goose’s right wing is flapping and fluttering above and in front of her face. She’s also dressed in light summer clothing, as is the little girl at her feet.

The man appears to be putting on a heavy winter animal skin coat and is half dressed for different seasons. When we go further to the left both the woman and the small child (are they the same as on the right but at a different time of year?) are dressed for the harshest of winters, complete with a reindeer.  

Precision Engineering

Precision Engineering

Finally, we have another industrial scene – a little bit more straightforward than the first bas relief, but only a little bit. Here we seem to have different aspects of production brought together but with little clue as to how they fit together.

Of the two central characters the one standing is dressed in a suit and is using a set of dividers on a sheet of paper that’s resting on the knee of the man sitting. This could be a designer explaining to one of the workers what the nature of the task he is asking him to carry out. 

On the right hand side we have a standing worker who is dressed in the same sort of protective gear we saw in the mosaic about the foundry – together with the large tongs to be able to manoeuvre the white-hot metal.

On the left hand side there’s a female worker cradling a cannon shell in her arms so that indicates that the action is taking place in an armaments factory.

There is a tenuous connection between the mosaics and the bas reliefs but I don’t think that in Avtozavodskaya  the connections had been fully thought through. There is much more of a unified theme in many of the other stations.

The more I look at these bas relief the less I like them – a shame when there are so many wonderful examples on the Metro network in general.

At the top of the escalators

The Defence of Moscow

The Defence of Moscow

The large mosaic at the top of the escalators is very different, in many ways, from those that run alongside the platforms below. The materials that make up the mosaic are different; here they are much larger pieces of cut stone, which covers a range from brown through to green and on to yellow. The feel is also different in that this is one of celebration, the celebration of the end of the blockade of Moscow (that lasted from October 1941 to January 1942) and the beginning of the counter-attack which would eventually lead to the destruction of the Hitlerite forces in their own lair in Berlin in May 1945. 

I have no idea of the artist of this mosaic – it’s certainly not Frolov, he would have been trapped in Leningrad when the decision was made to create this celebratory work of art and it’s so very different in style from his other designs in the station.

The design is on two planes. In the foreground we have the Russian Red Army. In the centre, coming straight at the viewer, with its gun barrel pointing at you, is an almost life-size depiction of a tank.This is quite probably one of the many versions of a T-34 tank – the most produced and most successful tank of the Second World War (although the drivers gun should be on the right hand side at the front). However, this tank is not in fighting action, more as part of a celebratory parade as the central figure of three who is standing on top of the tank is saluting.

Presumably he’s the tank commander and on his right, slightly behind, is another tank crew member, wearing the classic Russian ribbed tank helmet. In his hands he holds a gun of some kind (a little indistinct) and he is looking over to his right. Below him, and on the cowling over the right hand caterpillar track, is another soldier behind a heavy, wheeled, machine gun. This is probably a PM M1910 Maxim Machine Gun. (This weapon seems to have had an even greater longevity that the AK47 Assault Rifle – having been produced first in 1910 and versions reported to have been seen in the Ukraine in 2017.)

To the left of the commander is another soldier, facing forward and probably not from the crew, who has the butt of his long rifle – with bayonet attached – resting on the cowling over the tracks of the tank. He’s wearing a greatcoat and has the straps of a dispatch pouch, which rests on his left hip, across his chest. It’s possible to make out a star on the front of his fur hat. To his left is another soldier, kneeling with one knee on the cowling of the tracks, and in his hand he holds a tommy gun – the circular ammunition magazine clearly seen. He also has a star on his hat.

On either side of the principal tank are two other tanks with their gun barrels fanning out. Here we move away from the idea of a celebratory parade and get the impression that these weapons are ready to cover all areas in defence of their city and State capital. There are no people seen on these defensive tanks.

And what they are defending is the city of Moscow. Whereas the tanks and soldiers were in yellow and brownish stone the city itself, in the background, is constructed of gradations of green stone. We know it’s Moscow as three of the iconic towers of the Kremlin are shown with their distinctive red stars. Those stars, lit up at night, still shine to this day. During Soviet times the ‘Hammer and Sickle’ was attached to the stars but unfortunately they have been removed now. The other towers in the image have flags flying from their summits.

Kremlin Star with Hammer and Sickle

Kremlin Star with Hammer and Sickle

In the centre of this representation of Moscow is a strange figure. Merging into the buildings is the upper torso of what looks like a warrior from the 16th century as we have a mustachioed and heavily bearded face and he wears a Turban helmet on his head. Although no hand is visible a large spear is on his left side, the point extending as high as the stars on the Kremlin towers. To make matters even more strange this figure is saluting, mirroring the action of the (smaller) tank commander below.

I can only guess who this is supposed to be. My suggestion is that this is a representation of Tsar Ivan IV ‘The Terrible’. He fits into the time scale and he had a relationship with Moscow (as ‘Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533-1547, before he became Tsar and it was in this period that the St Basil’s Cathedral – the multi coloured, domed building at the end of Red Square – was built). But why he should make an appearance in a celebration of a victory by revolutionary workers and peasants I don’t know.

Ceiling mural

Ceiling mural

If many of the thousands of travellers who pass through this station don’t notice ‘The Defence of Moscow’ mosaic before jumping on to the escalator down to the platform even fewer will be aware of the large ceiling mural that covers most of the area above the vestibule. 

It is a circular design with a sun effect, offset from the centre, which has lines radiating out in all directions. Cupping underneath the sun is the arc of a huge sickle which is made up by different red coloured, parallel sheaves of grain, the staggered heads creating the serrated effect found in most representations of the peasantry in the Soviet emblem. The handle of the sickle is made up of a combination of a maize cob, some more sheaves of corn (flowering) and a sunflower head.

Passing underneath the sickle, close to the handle, and also in red is a large hammer – the representation of the proletariat. This is a geometric presentation of industry with symbols for electricity (the zigzag design and a couple of insulators), coal mining (a couple of underground trucks), girders, cogs and diagrammatic representations of different machinery.    

Just above the ‘sun’ and close to the edge of the main design is a large red, five-pointed star – the symbol of Communism. If we go clockwise from that star we come across different aspects of Soviet society, related to work, leisure and science, all in a simple, basic (even primitive) style.

First there’s an oval sports stadium. from inside this structure a very tall flag pole emerges and it flies a flag with the letters ‘CCCP’ (USSR). Below the stadium is another symbol I haven’t yet been able to work out.

Continuing around next are a couple of male football players, tackling each other for the ball just in front of a goal mouth, part of the net is shown in blue. Below the lower player there are three flowers in front of what might be the outline of a building.

The other side of the handle of the sickle is a large building which might be a school or a Palace of Culture – it’s certainly not anything to do with industry. The building has a large main entrance with steps coming up from street level. There are clouds in the blue sky and to the left of the building there’s a tall tree, and below that are a couple of smaller shrubs. Scattered around the grass in front of the building are numerous flowers. In the bottom corner of this sector is a mask, a common symbol used to denote theatre in general so whether this is suggesting that the building is a theatre or reinforcing the idea of the arts I’m not sure.

The next segments introduce the world of work and industry, more specifically the production of automobiles – which gives the present name to the station. I can’t work out exactly what is happening in the first bit but it seems to me all part of the production line process. The first man seems to be moving things on the line and in the second segment two men are moving a completed internal combustion engine on to a chassis. Next we have a man and a woman beside a milling machine. He seems to be holding a piece of paper in his hand, perhaps the design specifications for the piece of work she is about to create. She is on the point of putting on safety goggles indicating that she is the skilled person to be doing the work – again an example of how advanced the Soviet Union was (even in its Revisionist stage) in moving towards equality between the workers – not perfect but at least heading in the right direction.

That’s the scene inside the factory the next image is of the exterior of the factory, with its smoking chimneys, the smoke being blown in the wind.

The story then moves on to scientific advances. A male is sitting at a what looks like an early computer control console. In his left hand he holds a board, perhaps with data he’s inputting or a series of instructions. This might be a reference to the nuclear industry as the next symbol is one of those for nuclear energy, with three protons circling around a neutron. On the edge of the circle is a meter so this could well be a Geiger-counter.

Finally, as we come almost full circle, we come to the exploration of space. Following the curve of the circle we have the trail of the launch of a rocket (in red). This trail bisects the atmosphere between that of space and the Earth’s. In the darkness of space we see a satellite and crossing between the two we see a capsule returning to Earth, with its parachute deployed to slow it down in the heavier atmosphere. In the background are the stars.

There’s little text in this image but what is there declares the aims of Socialism; CBOБOДA (Liberty), PABEHCTBO (Equality), БPATCTBO (Fraternity) and CУACTЪЮ (Happiness). Also on some of the red lines that swirl around the space around the design can be seen the word MЍP (Peace).

It’s difficult to date exactly this design. It looks to have been heavily influenced by the designs of the likes of Andrey Gulobev and Daria Preobrazhenskaya, who both worked in textiles, in the early 1930s. Looking at the state of the technology I would guess at the late 1970s. The Moscow Summer Olympics took place in 1980 and with the messages in the text it would make sense that this, relatively new addition to the decoration of the station, was created in readiness for this event with many foreign visitors using the Metro.  

Avtozavodskaya station plaque

Avtozavodskaya station plaque

In many of the older and impressive stations there will be a plaque giving information about when the station was opened and who was involved in the construction. These plaques are normally found at the bottom of the escalators to the platforms.

In Avtozavodskaya we know it opened on January 1st 1943 and that it had a name change – as stated at the beginning. Also the architects were Alexey Dushkin and N Knyazev. Dushkin (24th  December 1904 – 8th October 1977) also worked on Kropotkinskaya (1935), Ploshchad Revolyutsii (1938), Mayakovskaya (1938) and Novoslobodskaya (1952) as well as the Red Gates Administrative Building (1953) – one of what are known as ‘The Seven Sisters’, the huge buildings which sour into the sky in the centre of Moscow which were built after the war. I’ve not been able to find out anything about Knyazev.

The mosaics were created by a V Frolov. I think this must be Vladimir Alexandrovich Frolov (1874, St. Petersburg – 1942, Leningrad) as he is the only Frolov mosaic artist I have identified. If this is the case then he would have died (of starvation in the 872 day Siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War) before the work was completed. This would be possible as plans for the construction and the decoration would have been made long before the actual opening of the station. Whether he ever saw any of his designs in actuality is unlikely but it’s almost certain he never saw the completed art work.

When I first started to investigate the history of the Moscow Metro I thought that all of the early stations were built well underground. That’s not the case. Why I don’t know – as yet. Especially as this station would have served the workers of an important armaments factory.

Depth: 11 metres (36ft)