Uncover past in the bustling present of Moscow Metro

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Muscovite Metro is one of the most elegant undergrounds in the world. It can be ultra-modern or utterly antique, but it almost never fails to stun and is justly believed to be one of the most interesting places to visit in Moscow. One of it’s main attractions is its Soviet imagery. The depictions of strong-built workers, peasants, and soldiers, and numerous hammers and sickles serve as one of Moscow’s most famous exotics but also a reminder that a simple man was regarded as the crown of creation by the Soviet ideology.

But, interestingly enough we don’t get the full picture of the state imagery of the time. If the simple man was a crown of creation, and its depictions were sprinkled throughout the Moscow Metro, the real icons of the 1930-1950s, depicting long-ruling dictator Joseph Stalin were taken down upon his physical and ideological demise.

The cult of his personality inspired such writers as Arthur Koeslter and George Orwell to write some of theirs most famous characters, such as Big Brother and Napoleon in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and the Number One in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and became a template for many generations of future autocrats all round the world.

In this article we will revisit the locales of this long-destroyed cult, which now have become in themselves the testimonies to the rewriting of history. But first, a bit of history.

The fallen god or back to Eden

In 1950s, after more then 30 years of Stalin’s rule, the new Soviet leadership noticed that the former ruler of the country had elevated himself to a god-like status and detracted from Communist ideals of equality.

New leader Nikita Khrushev castigated Stalin’s old ways in his secret speech, given to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party and lay out the policy of de-Stalinisation. The idea behind his speech was that the way to Socialism was not necessarily achieved by brutal means but that Socialist Utopia could be reached in other ways.

The fear as a means of control of population, sweeping repression, toxic propaganda campaigns, destruction of family loyalties by appealing to children to denounce their parents if deemed hostile to communism were thought coming to an end. The new era was called Khrushev’s Thaw and for people in the street it translated into the bringing down of the deceased despot’s images.

The Moscow Metro gaping memory holes

Stalin’s denunciation by the new soviet leadership led to many removals of Stalin’s representations: some of the most apparent taking place in Moscow Metro. A good dozen of stations have undergone de-Stalinization.

Kievskaya Metro Station

Kievskaya Metro Station
Kievskaya Metro Station

One of the most bizarre results is visible on Kievskaya Metro Station. Here Stalin, receiving tribute from red-neckerchiefed pioneers and their parents, farmers and workers, is swopped for an orderly adulation of the emblem of Soviet Ukraine. The mosaic is located in the round hall of Kievskaya Metro Station (Line #3) near the escalators.

Kievskaya Metro Station

Kievskaya Metro Station
Kievskaya Metro Station

Also in one of Kievskaya Metro Station’s halls you can find the rectangular mosaic portrait of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, one of the USSR founding fathers. Before the de-Stalinization it is said that there used to be a relief in plaster depicting Lenin and Stalin in tandem.

A relief in plaster depicting Lenin
A relief in plaster depicting Lenin

Paveletskaya Metro Station

Paveletskaya is the main point of access to Paveletskiy Railway Station. The metro station straddles the busy Koltsevaya Line and Green Line and is almost always pullulating with people. Here you can also find traces of the effort to get rid of Stalin’s images.

The people who rid Green Line Paveltskaya of what seems to have been a circular depiction of Stalin did not bother too much about it. They just left the piece of wall under what must have been the portrait of the Father of Nations quite bare, of slightly different shade of marshy green. You can see the somewhat pallid bit of wall above the escalator leading underground from the Paveltskaya Railway Station. This bit, reminding one of tan lines on a cautious body, is all that has remained of a vestibule torn down during the reconstruction of the railway station.

Paveletskaya Metro Station
Paveletskaya Metro Station

Inside Paveltskaya located on the Koltsevaya Line, at the furthest end of the area where people get on and off the trains, you can find the state emblem of the USSR and sturdy proletarians of either sex. Before it was put up, the wall is said to have displayed Stalin’s visage in bronze relief.

Emblem of the USSR and proletarians
Emblem of the USSR and proletarians

Baumanskaya Metro Station

Inside Baumanskaya Station, situated on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya Line, you can see one of the crudest de-Stalinizations.

At the end of the station platform of Baumanskaya Metro Station you can clearly see where a representation of Stalin was by gaps between the edges of a fragment portraying Lenin and the leftovers of the bit once portraying Stalin and Lenin side by side. It is noteworthy that in the initial depiction both were facing left; in the later one Lenin looks right.

Baumanskaya Metro Station
Baumanskaya Metro Station

Beloruskaya Metro Station

If it is presumably not that difficult to lovingly sew Georgian nose on a cloth, then to embroider a hammer and sickle might be a little more challenging. It is these two tasks that were given the same three rustic seamstresses in a mosaic on one of the walls of Beloruskaya Metro Station situated on Koltsevaya Line (Moscow Metro Ring line). In the last version of the mosaic they seem to either have already embroidered or be surrounded with a clump of cacti. In fact, it is not cacti but ears of a cereal crop but the setting must still be altogether exotic to the Western eye.

Beloruskaya Metro Station
Beloruskaya Metro Station

Arbatskaya Metro Station

In Arbatskaya Metro Station (that is at Line #3) one could see in the past a portrait of Joseph Stalin, made in mosaic by a distinguished Russian artist G. Opryshko. One day in 1955 a group of men arrived and took it to pieces. The artist pleaded with the authorities to let him have just a few bits of his work but was denied the honor. Now the only reminder of the fact that once the USSR’s longest ruling leader was portrayed in the station is the empty frame near one of the escalators.

Arbatskaya Metro Station
Arbatskaya Metro Station

Another site to immerse into the Soviet past is the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. There you can see a row of tombs, holding remains of all Soviet leaders who died in power, those of Joseph Stalin included.

Kurskaya Metro Station

Kurskaya Metro Station

Kurskaya has recently become one of the topics vigorously discussed in the media after it was decided that Stalin’s name would be inscribed on some parts of the station. There were also claims coming from Moscow underground officials that had the sculpture of Stalin once standing on the site not been lost it would have been reinstalled. The sculpture was quite imposing indeed. One could imagine that had the statue been kept in its place there would have been fewer fare-dodgers.

Kurskaya Metro Station
Kurskaya Metro Station

If you want to see the statues of ruthless Old Bolsheviks put in historic context head for Muzeon Park, one of the world’s largest open air museums of sculpture. There you can see Joseph Stalin opposite the victims of Soviet repressions, such as Andrey Sakharov, and many other chance encounters.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station

This metro station sits on both Red and Koltsevaya (Ring) Lines and is used to go to Moscow’s three main railways, Yaroslavl, Kazan and Leningrad Railways. Two of its mosaics can serve as good examples of locations purging their past in a more aesthetically pleasing way. Here Stalin Handing A Standard to a Soldier, was changed for Lenin Addressing the Red Guard, and the Victory Parade swopped for the Triumph of Victory. If the first mosaic has been drastically changed with simply-clad Joseph Stalin clutching the red standard before a Soviet soldier being substituted for Lenin declaiming from a stand at the Red Square.

Komsomolskaya Metro Station
Then and now: Stalin handing the standart and Lenin’s declamation at Red Square

As you can see in the photo down below, the other mosaic is said to have changed less. The initial second mosaic represented top party officials and Joseph Stalin watching a military parade, fascist swastikas lying trampled on the ground.

It has actually lived through a number of minor and major alterations: during the Stalin rule the members of the party elite who fell into disfavor of the leader would be literally taken out of the picture as soon as they tumbled from grace, in a very Orwellian manner. There was a time when Stalin stood utterly alone. Then came his turn and instead a Motherland represented as a woman sprung up. The composition depicts Motherland more as a bat-woman then a motherly old lady needing protection. She nevertheless holds a palm branch, a symbol of peace, and hammer and sickle, a sign standing for the unity of peasants and workers in whose name all of the state functioned.

Motherland
Motherland

It should be noted that here Joseph Stalin’s presence is sometimes lacking also. The area and the metro is known for pickpockets.

Moscow Metro is one of the most interesting places in Russia. It has been the first underground in the Soviet Union, beginning its operation on May 15, 1935.

It is often thought to be one of the locations to visit if willing to know more about Communist past. In fact, it also helps you to understand a lot about the city’s present: watch the busy Muscovites zipping down the escalators in the rush hour, and you will grasp what importance they attach to their affairs and time management.

Novoslobodskaya Metro Station then and now

One of the stories reflecting quite clearly the subtle workings of Soviet political backstage of the time is related to the mosaic at Novoslobodskaya. During the Stalin era, when the mosaic was put together, it depicted Motherland as a woman walking in bare feet towards the beholder with a baby in her arms stretching its arms towards a portrait of Joseph Stalin; clearly an allusion to his paternity in the ideological sense. What stroke Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushev, as deserving criticism was not so much Stalin’s haughty fatherly perch, but the fact that the Motherland was barefooted, bringing to mind, in the eyes of some, the extreme poverty forcing people to go with bare feet . He ordered to shoe her, and what resembled a pair of Ancient Roman sandals was thrown on her. Nevertheless Khrushev dislike of the depiction was so strong that he later commanded to take it apart. In one of the rare act of disobedience on behalf of Soviet officialdom it was decided to cover the representation with a false wall. The dissimulation worked and after Khrushev was removed from power in 1964, the mosaic was uncovered. Stalin was replaced with a ribbon inscribed “Peace in all the World” together with what looks like a pigeon, and the Motherland threw off her footwear again.

Peace in all the World
Peace in all the World

Krasnopresenskaya Moscow Metro Station

It is visible in the photo down below that at the end of the platform there once was a small group of life-size sculptures. It was made up of a Lenin and a Stalin. It was dismantled and then in 1970’s a passage linking the platform to another line was constructed.

Krasnopresenskaya Moscow Metro Station

Krasnopresenskaya Moscow Metro Station
Krasnopresenskaya Moscow Metro Station

Semenovskaya

This metro station has actually born Stalin’s name in the past. On the façade of the station’s vestibule one could see a low-relief picturing Stalin. There also was one put up above the platform. If the Stalin once facing the street was concealed more or less aptly, then the round blank spot above the platform can’t fail to catch your eye.

Semenovskaya
Semenovskaya Moscow Metro Station

Dobrynininskaya Moscow Metro Station

Perhaps the clumsiest work to change the appearance of mosaics picturing Stalin was done at Dobryninskaya Metro Station.

Have a look at the mosaic on the vestibule of the station, where gleeful crowd is depicted carrying a portrait of Yuriy Gagarin, the first man to go to space. It is worth mentioning that the station was opened long before Gagarin had experienced his first blast-off, and that the person portrayed was of course the much adulated Father of the People Joseph Stalin. You don’t get to see people glorifying cosmonauts this way.

Dobryninskaya Metro Station
Dobryninskaya Metro Station

If this work seems to be quite careless then the other mosaic nearby, at the same vestibule, has been tampered with even more grossly. There you could see how out of place the Soviet emblem is by comparing the color of pieces the whole of the mosaic is made of.

Soviet emblem is by comparing the color of pieces the whole of the mosaic
Soviet emblem is by comparing the color of pieces the whole of the mosaic

Another low-relief showing Stalin was located at the end of Dobryninskaya, but it was removed and replaced with another feminine figure holding a baby with sputniks orbiting them.

Dobrynininskaya Moscow Metro Station
Dobrynininskaya Moscow Metro Station

Elektrozavodskaya

At the end of the Elektrozavodskaya platform there used to be a marble low-relief depicting Stalin. Now there is just a plain circle instead.

Elektrozavodskaya
Elektrozavodskaya

Taganskaya

One of the most imposing sculpture groups ever created in Moscow Metro was called “Stalin and the Youth” by E.P. Blinov and P.A. Balandin.

Later on, it was removed and Lenin’s face, state emblems of USSR and its member states, depictions of hero-cities Leningrad, Stalingrad, Sebastopol, and Odessa cropped up. Nowadays, where once was the sculpture, there is shuffling of feet: a passage linking Koltsevaya Line to Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya Line was built there.

Taganskaya
Taganskaya platform
Stalin and the Youth
Stalin and the Youth

Summary

For many people Stalin stands for progress and order. After decades of market economy and what is often regarded as unfair use of the country’s riches by the country’s new elite, Stalin years have acquired a new meaning, and the heavy-handed autocrat is often regretted to be dead. Some see his years as riddled with fear-mongering, torture, murder. Others regard them as time where Russia acquired industrial capabilities, developed science, was guided to win the war against Nazi Germany, and by and large managed to transform itself from a backward supplier of grain for Europe into one of the world’s two superpowers, alongside the USA. Whatever is your prospective Stalin remains one of the major figures of 20th century political scene, and a reminder of what lack of checks-and-balances can wreak.

The Moscow Metro is one of Russia’s main tourist attractions and is interesting in itself, but visiting the altars of Stalin’s idolatry may help you to uncover not only the beauties of the capital’s underground but also sense the hidden truth so tangible in Russia: that the it those who controls the present, controls the past. The Moscow Metro is quite tortuous and crowded, and doing sightseeing on your own may prove quite complicated, so it might be best to hire a private guide in Moscow to show you underground.

  • Moscow Metro works from about about 5.30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
    The working hours differ from one station to another, but usually the trains stop running at about 1 o’clock.

Not only were the creations of Stalin’s era dismantled, some of them never actually materialized. One of such miscarriages was the Palace of the Soviets, which was to have been crowned with Lenin’s statue. Even if present-day Cathedral of Christ the Saviour kindles heated debate as to it’s aesthetic value, Muscovites clearly should be grateful to Soviet Union’s economic mismanagement for contemplating shiny golden dome instead of shining Lenin’s head.

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