Inlaid marble hallways. Bright light radiating down from rows of ornate chandeliers. Massive paintings and murals. Intricate frescoes. Glittering gold paint on elaborately carved frames. Polished wooded handrails and impressive bronze statues. These are not things you typically pass on your way to work each day. And yet, this, with a heavy nod to communist Russia of old, is the reality for millions of Muscovites as they traipse through the stations of Moscow’s underground.
Going to Russia, and more specifically, travelling upstream and through the lakes and locks of the Volga River system from Moscow to St. Petersburg, had always been a dream of my father’s. My husband and I joined my parents there in 2013 to experience a little Russian culture and geography, to immerse ourselves in its history, to fill large gaps in our education (we knew so very little about Russia from our formal schooling), to shake quite a few cultural biases and stereotypes from our preconceived, overtly westernized points of view and most importantly, to play a key role in checking something off my dad’s life bucket list, as my mom did not want them to travel there on their own.
One of the experiences that I remember fondly from our Russia trip, mostly because it shocked me so much, was a tour we took of Moscow’s underground system. I was totally unprepared for what we found there! Parts of it were reverently historic, glitzy and glamorous. Its stops were engaging, curiously revealing and ever so impressive that at times it was like walking through living history museum exhibits. I’ve never seen anything like it. One stop felt like we were wandering through the golden hallways and rooms of Versailles! Many were at such odds with what we experienced above ground where gloomy skies, intense smog and traffic, dour facial expressions, and stark, dreary, unadorned (dare I say, depressing, or is that my cultural bias speaking?) apartment blocks ruled the day.
Some of the subway stops were very, very deep underground and accessed by a series of escalators that were the longest that I have ever been on: one stop that we visited was purported to be the deepest in the world… its escalator took well over 5 minutes to ride from the top to the bottom. The goal of the depth served two purposes: first, to get below the water table; and second, to be safe enough to act as bomb shelters during a Cold War nuclear fallout.
Some were incredibly ornate, with bronzed statues, fresco paintings, marbled walls and checkered granite floors. Artwork is a large part of the aesthetic attraction of the Moscow subway system and the first station in which we found ourselves had an enamel painting at the end of the hallway, depicting an epic moment in Russian history. It was an impressive piece of propaganda, and the colours of the enamel work were picked up in the brightly coloured marble walls and granite floors of the subway stop.
Each stop had a different, over-the-top theme. The idea was that in communist times, the populace was to share in the wealth of the country and be inspired by the beauty that Russian artists could create. So the subway stops, the ultimate gathering place for the workers of Communist Russia, were hung with chandeliers and there were elaborately carved picture frames, gorgeous wood and brass hand railings and even frescoes on the walls. At the stop that celebrated all that the Ukraine had contributed to communist Russia, there were frescoes depicting idealized harvest workers, educated scholars, pensive engineers and robust military heroes. It was propaganda meant to inspire pride in the populace and recognize all that the Ukraine, as the backbone and breadbasket of Russia, had contributed to the federation.
Of course, the irony of it all was that the people using the underground, gave their ornate surroundings hardly a glance, oblivious to the beauty, completely absorbed in their day-to-day work-home, home-work routines. Just look at the bored expressions on the faces in the crowd in this photo. It was clear who the tourists were and who the Muscovites were by the expressions of boredom or awe on their faces, eyes glazed over and focused ahead with a hurried pace, or eyes up, jaws gaping, spinning in circles to take it all in.
The Moscow subway system is truly amazing… with a train coming every 80 seconds, it is highly efficient. 57% of Muscovites use the train daily… and that amounts to 9 million people using the train every single week day! And STILL the above ground traffic is insane! There are 12 subway lines… 10 lines and two concentric rings that cover almost 300km of track. There are 188 stations with another 20 that were set to open by 2016. And at any given moment there are 4.5 thousand cars operating, forming about 500 trains. Those are some incredible statistics!
On a side note…. Do you see how well the women are dressed in this photo? They are going about their day-to-day tasks, dressed to the nines. I have to say that I’ve never felt so under dressed in my life. The young women, very stylishly dressed and almost always wearing impossibly high heels, put my sensible travel attire to shame. Muscovite women sure know how to dress!
We were told that apartments units in the housing complexes were privatized under Yeltsin’s movement toward capitalism in 1991, and were prohibitively expensive. For example, at the time this photo was taken in 2013, purchasing a ONE bedroom unit 20 minutes from a subway stop on the outskirts of the city cost a minimum of $166,000 US dollars. To buy an apartment home inside the city, near a subway, cost triple that, for the same one bedroom place, and worker salaries do not come anywhere near the ability of everyday people to pay those rates. The result is very interesting… because saving for an apartment is out of range for most people, the women pour what savings they have into two things… clothes and incredible shoes… and the men pour their money into cars. There were more Audis and BMWs in Moscow than we’ve seen anywhere else in our travels over the years (including Germany), and more women walking the streets in high-heeled shoes than you’d see at any upscale gala. Very interesting.
An urban landscape can be just as fascinating as a rural one. When I dream about where I want to travel, what comes to mind first is usually the nature filled landscape that I will get to explore and the physical ways in which I’ll get to explore it (hiking, biking, canyoning, kayaking, rafting, etc.). Seeing the Moscow subway system made me realize that I clearly needed to rethink that mindset. Urban settings can be quite interesting and I need to keep exposing myself to what they have to offer. A trip is successful in my mind, and later in my heart, when I am surprised by something. This is a good reminder to keep myself open to experiences, whatever and wherever they may be, so that I don’t miss the unexpected.
—– UPDATE—- A friend of mine told me after she read this post that, “In 1985 I spent a couple of days in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, when it was still the USSR. The subway was almost identical to the one you rode in Moscow. I was totally shocked. The subway stations were incredibly beautiful and looked like the inside of French chateaus. There was no graffiti and no littering! I was told you could be thrown into jail if you were caught trying to do any form of property damage…” Here is a link to the subway stop she is talking about: Tashkent Metro. It’s fascinating!
Snapshots is a regular feature, running every Tuesday on my blog when we are not away on our adventures. Each snapshot revisits some of my favourite photographs and memories of our years spent discovering the unique places of the world and the hidden recesses of our innermost selves.