May 11, 2003
A return of the people's palace
Subway: Moscow's newest station recalls the lavish designs of those built during the height of Soviet power.
By Douglas Birch
MOSCOW - Deep beneath the streets of Moscow, one of the world's best public transit systems is rediscovering its roots.
The Park Pobedy Metro station, which opened Tuesday, represents much more than just a 2.4-mile extension of the vast underground rail network, officials say. It is the first station in decades to aspire to the sumptuous look of those built during the height of Soviet power.
"It is built in the style of classical Moscow Metro architecture," says Svetlana Tsaryova, a spokesman for the Metro system.
Officials say the station is the world's deepest, plunging 30 stories underground. During its first full day of operation, many Muscovites paid the 16-cent fare and took the steep, three-minute escalator ride toward bedrock just to snap pictures, shoot video and revel in civic pride.
"It's a splendid station," says soft-spoken Mikhail Nefeyodov, an 80-year-old Muscovite. "It reflects a very ceremonial mood - the mood of a wonderful holiday. When I heard about it, I could not stay home."
The highly publicized opening illustrates, perhaps, a paradoxical trend: Ferociously capitalistic Moscow is riding an unprecedented economic boom. Yet the city seems increasingly nostalgic for its Communist past.
Seventy years ago, the Kremlin promoted its socialist ideals by pouring money into a new subway system - filling stations with bronze sculptures, glittering mosaics and stained glass. Descending into one of these deep chambers, sometimes called "people's palaces," can feel like entering a very noisy and hectic art museum.
Now, Metro officials say Park Pobedy is only the first of six new stations planned over the next six years - each of which is expected to follow the "classical" architectural tradition.
Park Pobedy - which means Park of Victory and commemorates World War II - has the same low arches, stout pillars and grand concourse of the system's older, more graceful stations. There is plenty of wood, white and red marble and polished steel. But passengers talk of the ample space and light. The look is more Swedish Modern than Socialist Realism.
Park Pobedy feels different from its forebears for other reasons. On its first day of operation, there were no ads - creating a noncommercial oasis in a city where, by some estimates, there are more billboards per capita than anywhere else in the world, most of which emerged since 1991.
Neither were there any buskers, beggars or babushkas hawking dogs or lottery tickets. Which is a shame. The commercial life in some Metro stations can rival that of Central Asian bazaars.
The dictator Josef Stalin ordered construction of a subway in the Soviet capital, appointing his protege, Nikita Krushchev, to supervise the project. Using forced labor, nervous engineers started construction of the first section of the system in 1934 and completed work in a single year.
But they didn't skimp on design or decoration. At Revolution Square station, which opened in 1938, 76 life-size bronze sculptures crouch under red and green stone archways. Along platforms lit with chandeliers, commuters stride past renderings of stalwart factory workers, scowling soldiers, a man with a jackhammer and a family out for a swim.
To stroll along the platform at Komsomolskaya Station is to march through history, filtered through a powerful ideological lens. The ceiling is decorated with massive mosaics. At one end, Slavic knights carry banners with the likeness of Christ. At the other, resolute workers brandish banners emblazoned with the face of Lenin.
As the German army advanced toward Moscow in World War II, several of the deeper stations were pressed into military service. One not far from the Kremlin served as the headquarters of the Soviet General Staff.
After the war, Metro construction raced to keep up with the construction of the Krushchev-era apartment blocks on the city's fringes. Today, the system rattles for 160 miles along lines that, like all power in Russia, radiate from the Kremlin.
At a time when few here could afford cars, the Metro helped make it possible for Russia's capital to become one of the world's sprawling megacities. Subway construction slowed here during the economic crises of the 1990s, though cars were still packed. Then Russia's economy rebounded, fueled by high oil prices.
A healthy economy typically spells trouble for public transit. Many middle-class Moscow residents now disdain the packed blue-and-turquoise Metro cars. (Strangers here are often shocked by the nonchalant way they are shoved on and off by surging crowds.) The newly affluent can afford to drive these days, and prefer to - creeping along Moscow's chronically clogged streets.
But the city's legions of modest wage-earners, along with immigrants and visitors from remote regions of Russia, still pour into the Metro. At last count, it remained far and away the busiest subway in the world, accommodating 3.2 billion passengers annually - a half-a-billion more than the Moscow Metro's closest competitor, Tokyo, and nearly 2 billion more than New York City.
If only 10 percent of the Moscow Metro's riders glance at the artworks, it could be considered the most-visited art museum in the world.
Park Pobedy boasts the Metro's two newest acquisitions, floor-to-ceiling murals by one of Russia's most famous, prolific and politically connected artists, Zurab Tsereteli. (Back in the 1990s Tsereteli failed to persuade Baltimore to carry out one of his designs, a 31-story statue of Christopher Columbus, in the Inner Harbor.)
A favorite of Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Tsereteli has created monuments scattered across Moscow and around the world. But the artist is probably best-known for what some consider a kitschy curiosity - a 15-story bronze statue of Peter the Great planted along the Moscow River. Depending on your point of view, the colossal Russian czar either looks seized by inspiration or half-crazed.
In one mural, Tsereteli pieced together a group portrait of the Russian generals who pursued Napoleon during his retreat from Moscow. (The station is near a triumphal arch erected in memory of the victory over Napoleon.)
In the other, a crowd celebrates around a statue of a Soviet soldier amid the rubble of a ruined city. In one hand, the soldier holds a sword. In the other, he holds a boy he rescued from the ruins. The statue, based on one erected by East German authorities in Berlin's Treptower Park, is cherished by Soviet army veterans.
"The central figure is historical," explains Sergei Abrigosov, a retired military officer, as Metro trains shriek in and out of the busy station. "He was a Russian soldier who went into Berlin and dug a small boy out of the ruins. He is a symbol of how the Soviet Army saved the whole world."
Many Germans, of course, recall the brutality of the conquering Soviet army. But there is no hint of discord in Tsereteli's mosaic. And that seems just fine with Abrigosov, who praises the work as "extraordinary."
Vladimir Kurashov, a 45-year-old employee of the federal government, is less enthusiastic about the mosaic. But he tries to be generous.
"Maybe it's not quite the classical style of art," he says. "But the main point here is to make people remember history. I thought it would be much worse before I came here."
It is Lyuba Dunayenko's first day as Park Pobedy's dezhurnaya, or station attendant. Previously, she had worked at the jam-packed Ismailova Park station. She is not impressed with the small crowds shuffling along the shiny platform.
But then, Russian civil servants are seldom impressed by anything. Just ask Dunayenko if people are praising the design of the station.
"There have been no complaints, at least," says the 32-year-old Dunayenko, shrugging in the classic Moscow Metro dezhurnaya style.