They say communism has disappeared in Russia, wiped out by the ‘victory’ of capitalism. Indeed, news reports around the world in the wake of 1989 suggested that all the statues of Lenin were toppled, that all communist symbols were erased, that soviet-era buildings were bull-dozed. The truth is far from such gloating misreporting. If you happen to be in Moscow, take a couple of days to explore the place. I mean not merely the Moscow above ground, but the one that also exists below the surface, in the tunnels and galleries and lines of the metro system. And take your time. Look up and about, check the names, expect surprises around the next corner. This is exactly what we did for a few days in late 2013. Lenin and the revolution are still everywhere.
The first moment in a new metro system is of course the patient perusal of the map. Multi-coloured lines weave in and out of each other, with stations indicated in … Cyrillic. If you need a basic comparative alphabet, in Russian and Roman letters, then deciphering the place names may take you some time. If you know a little classical Greek and Hebrew, you are a step closer, for the ancient monks who first produced the Cyrillic script drew on such sources to come up with that script. But if you can actually read Cyrillic, then you are a step ahead.
What turns up? A whole string of names recall communism and the Russian Revolution: Marksistskaya, Proletarskaya, Barrikadnaya, Oktyabrskaya, Ploshchad Revolyustii, Komsomolskaya – that is, Marxist, Proletariat, Barricade, October, Square of the Revolution, and Comsomol (Communist International). Of course, we should not forget Leninsky Prospekty and Biblioteka imeni Lenina (no translation needed). Now the metro stations begin to add name to name, with martyrs like Baumanskaya and Dmitrovskaya, or cultural heroes such as Mayakovskaya, Pushkinskaya, Turgenevskaya. A veritable map of the revolution, is it not? But my favourites would have to be the celebrations of technological innovation, the great vision of science and socialism uniting for the future. Here are Elektrozavodskaya, Tekstilshchiki, and yes, even Dinamo.
The metro map is merely the beginning, for once we descend the long escalator to the metro platform (it happens to be Mayakovskaya), we step out into what feels like an underground art gallery. Forget seedy, gum-bespattered and urine-drenched, this is simply a place of awe. Above a glistening tiled floor, patterned in simple square shapes, runs a series of arches, carefully arranged, almost as far as the eye can see. Arches too are to the sides, braced by columns around which you step to catch the metro. And within each set of four arches is a domed roof, dominated by a circular arrangement of lights, hexagonal shapes, and – if you take the time to look closely – a series of alternating red stars and hammers and sickles.
Each one is placed above one of the lights, illuminated from below. Clearly, this station was constructed with quality materials, an architect’s and artist’s delight. It invites one to pause from the rush of catching the next metro train, relax the shoulders, slow the breath, and look out and upwards. As we do, we begin to notice yet further features.
Within each ring of lights is a ceramic image, constructed from tiny pieces of coloured tile. Here in Mayakovskaya, the theme is flight, with birds in one (a fluttering banner with the red star close by), a ski jumper in another, and a heavy bomber escorted by fighter jets in another. Of course, the highlight is the red flag with planes in formation to spell out CCCP in yet another dome.
This is but one metro station. Others beckon, drawing our gaze on each change of metro lines. At Komsomolskaya too are vaulted ceiling, arches and columns. Now the artwork in the arched ceilings presents none other than Lenin at iconic moments. Here he is addressing the crowds from the rostrum in Red Square, the chin of history pointing the way forward.
There soldiers (men and woman) march in gleeful victory bearing a red flag with Lenin’s bust emblazoned upon it.
And when one turns a quiet corner, one may meet him in person. If so, nod a smiling greeting and ask how he feels after all these years.
Or in Ploshchad Revolyustii, statues from various parts of working and cultural life support the columns themselves. Intimate is the experience, for a metro traveller must pass close by at least a couple of such statues in order to catch one of the trains.
Or Sverdlov Square (now Teatralnaya Ploshchad, or Theatre Square) station, which features porcelain bas-reliefs of pairs of male and female folk dancers from seven of the ethnic groups of the Soviet Union. Or the bas-reliefs at the Dinamo Stadium sports complex, which celebrate physical fitness, beauty, and sporting achievement of the new soviet person. Or in Belorusskaya, agricultural plenty, sporting achievements, and the union of the republics sit side by side with women in traditional costumes weaving a banner for the new CCCP.
So it goes on, in station after station. Paintings, ceramics, glistening marble, extraordinary chandeliers, stained glass, symbols, statues – tastefully wrought, carefully produced, with a view to the overall effect. The materials used came from the far corners of the Soviet Union, such as iron from Siberian Kuznetsk, timber from northern Russia, cement from the Volga region and the northern Caucasus, bitumen from Baku, and marble and granite from quarries in Karelia, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Urals. Here Lazar Kaganovich oversaw a project he urged to completion regardless of the cost; Abram Dansky wrought his magic with new technologies of light; while architects like Leonid Poliakov and Ivan Fomin were given free rein to draw upon both Russian traditions and the new possibilities unleashed under communism. They sought to design distinctive landmarks – at each stop.
From where does this architectural masterpiece originate? The Russian love of celebrating life? The desire to make everyday life a memorable experience? Perhaps, but their primary source is none other than Stalin himself. Although serious planning began soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, it really came to fruition only during Stalin’s time. He and those around him were keenly to explore what the production of space would look like under the emerging communist order. The metro system turned out to very much a part of that production of space, with its distinctive feel that is still there today. So he instructed that the metro should reveal both radiance (svet) and a radiant future (svetloe budushchee). Not only was all this achieved through the labour of ordinary people, but it was also a showpiece for Western eyes. This is what the technological and artistic possibilities unleashed by communism can achieve – especially when capitalism was stumbling severely during the Great Depression. It is worth noting that would simply not have been possible without the massive mobilisation and industrialisation that took place as a result of the Five Year Plans. It is a testament to such an experience that even the metro stations being built now, in another significant expansion, are as grand as the efforts involved in those first stations built in the 1930s.