Moscow Metro – a Socialist Realist Art Gallery
Probably the largest and most extensive art gallery in the world is that which spans the whole of the central area of Moscow. This art gallery doesn’t have just one entrance but dozens and although you have to pay it’s also one of the cheapest in Europe. This art gallery can be crowded, very crowded, at certain times of the day but the arrival of people comes in waves so not a total inconvenience. It’s also the world’s biggest gallery of Soviet Socialist Realist Art – the name of this gallery is the Moscow Metro.
Although there’s still an incredible amount to see it has suffered vandalism over the years and you will often encounter strange, empty alcoves where you know something would have stood there at some time in the past. These ’empty spaces’, like all the others in the erstwhile Soviet Union, were a result of the so-called de-Stalinisation’ – the process where all the achievements of the Soviet people from 1917 to 1953 were trashed, denigrated and rejected in favour of the return to the outright restoration of capitalism.
Whatever the extent of this official vandalism there are still a great many sculptures, mosaics, paintings and bas reliefs within the metro system allowing interested parties to appreciate the extent of Socialist Realist Art from the 1930 to the mid-1950s – when Khrushchev’s philistinism started to make its mark on the construction and decoration of future metro stations as the city expanded. (Although, paradoxically, as the country sinks even deeper into the capitalist mire there has been a revival of the art form in the decoration of some of the stations being built at the moment.)
Nonetheless, many of the principles established in the early pre-Patriotic War days have been retained such as: the stations in the highly built areas are constructed deep underground so they could be used as effective bomb shelters in the event of any conflict; the platforms are wide and the central area between the platforms large enough to take the crowds during busy periods; all the stations are well lit; all have high ceilings hence avoiding the feeling of claustrophobia you get in most other metro systems in Europe – especially London; marble is used in the walls and the floors of even the most recent stations; train frequency has been maintained with clocks at the end of each platform showing the time, in minutes and seconds, since the departure of the previous train – you will be very unlucky to wait more than 3 minutes even during the quietest parts of the day; and a single price is paid for any length of journey (although in recent years that price has been starting to creep up, rather than being a nominal amount as it had started out to be).
With a daily flow of passengers that is close on 10 million the Moscow Metro is about the same as the London Underground and the New York Subway combined. However, this popularity brings with it its own problems and the system is becoming a victim of its own success. The frequency of trains means that there’s not enough time between trains for the crowds to either leave the station or make their way to the interchange station. During the ironically named ‘rush-hours’ bottle necks build up at the escalators and a study by those who understand flow dynamics wouldn’t go amiss. There’s no way to alter the stations – and it would be a crime to do so in those ornate examples – but managing the flow of people could make matters go more smoothly.
As in all aspects of tourism companies and individuals are now starting to offer tours of the Metro system. I suppose you might be able to get a little bit of history from the tour guides but if all you want to do is see and photograph the images all that’s needed is a ticket to get into the system, a map of the different lines and a rough plan of action. Lines 1 and 2 were the first to be constructed and they have the earliest examples dating from the 1930s. If you don’t leave the system then you can go back to your starting point on the one 55 Ruble ticket.
There’s no problem with taking photos in the Metro. When I was there I encountered a number of Metro staff but there wasn’t a problem of spending a long time taking as many pictures as I thought necessary to be able to capture all aspects of the works of art. In front of certain large mosaics – that are normally found at one end of the central corridor – you’ll even find a marker on the floor which is recommended as a ‘selfie’ point.
A point about the technicalities of taking pictures. As stated above the system is very well lit but sometimes with various light sources. This means that getting the ‘white balance’ correct on modern digital cameras can sometimes be tricky. It might be worth playing around with the various settings before starting to take any great number of pictures or use post production software on a computer at home.
The construction of an underground system was begun in 1931 following a decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik) was established and the first 13 stations were opened on May 15, 1935.
One of the many things that will strike a first time visitor to the Metro system is how deep the escalators take you to the platform area. Three of the four deepest underground stations in the world are in the erstwhile Soviet Union – Arsenalnaya (105m) in Kiev; Admiralteyskaya (102m) in Leningrad; Puhung (100m) in Pyongyang – the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea; and Park Pobedy (84m) in Moscow.
The reason in all these locations was as a preparation against the threat of war – for which a Socialist state has always to be prepared when confronted by hostile, capitalist states. Awareness of this eventuality was not only demonstrated in what Joseph Stalin wrote during the 1930s but also by the actions of the Party in the decision it took about the depth of the underground Metro system. During the Battle of Moscow, between October 1941 and January 1942, hundreds of thousands of Moscovites found shelter, at night, in the underground system, some sleeping in the carriages parked up at the stations.
Despite all the difficulties caused by the Hitlerite invasion work continued during the Great Patriotic War, another seven stations being completed by 1945.
In recent years – and hopefully for the foreseeable future – concerts have been held in many stations on May 15th to commemorate the anniversary of the opening of the system in 1935. The acoustics are said to be quite impressive.
A General Observation on Mosaics
As I’ve said above mosaics was just one of the methods through which the Socialist story was told in the Metro stations. As I started to investigate this particular aspect of artistic design I remembered that mosaics, especially those in a public forum and very often large, building sized, was a style that was taken up by a number of Socialist countries in a way that was never popular in any capitalist country.
In what was the Soviet Union it wasn’t just in the Metro systems that travellers could see a story unfold through the skilful conjunction of small bits of stone – throughout the country on Palaces of Culture, public buildings and transport hubs huge mosaics would broadcast the Socialist message. This was the case, it seems, the length and breadth of the country.
There’s been a bit more publicity about this in recent times as the neo-Fascists in the Ukraine seek to obliterate the Soviet past by attacking these works of art. Although in some ways I regret this, as I’m a fan of Socialist Realism, in others the I don’t see why a population that has rejected a Socialist future, where working people attempt to build something new, should be tormented by images that show them what they have thrown away. In the Ukraine, especially, perhaps they should replace the Soviet mosaics with images which show people on their knees with brown noses.
It’s still possible to see public mosaics in other erstwhile Socialist countries. I’ve already written about some of them in Albania (e.g. in Vlora, Bestrove and Ura Vajgurore) and have described that there, too, they are having to struggle against vandalism and neglect. But they also are evident in many locations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – which I hope to add to these pages in the not too distant future.
Why mosaics were so popular across a number of societies that have such diverse cultural backgrounds I still haven’t worked out.
Some technicalities of mosaics
There are various material used in the construction of the mosaics in the Metro, all depending upon availability and the imagination of the artist. However, the basis for most of the mosaics will be what are called ‘smalti’. These are small pieces of coloured glass and are easy and cheap to make and can be produced in an infinite number of colours allowing the artist as much freedom in their creation as would have a painter.
Photos of these unique works of art, and my interpretation of the story they tell, will gradually become available through the links below. Initially I intend to concentrate on the art works inside the stations, coming back to the external architecture and decoration at a later date.
Here we present written material so as to provide a better background to the Metro system in Moscow. More will be added as and when it becomes available.
The Moscow Subway, E Abakumov, FLPH, Moscow, 1939, 24 pages.
Underground Utopia, Civil and Social Engineering Discourses of the Moscow Metro during the Stalinist 1930’s, Amy Robinson, MA thesis, n.d., possibly 2010, 22 pages. [With the obligatory anti-Communism that’s demanded in academia but provides some historical perspective.]
Click on the images below for more information and photographs of the stations.
Leningrad (St Petersburg) Metro
Though not quite as extensive as that of Moscow the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Metro is also impressive.
Teknologichesky Institut – Line 1
Tekhnologichesky Institut – Line 2