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Beneath Moscow, a stunning subway tour

Email|Print| Text size + By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / August 17, 2005

MOSCOW -- The city is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its subway system this year. If you think of underground stations as barely hospitable spaces that you tolerate in order to get from one place to another, think again.

The Moscow stations, most of them built from the 1930s to the '50s, were envisioned as ''palaces of the people" and used to illustrate the achievements that socialism brought to the Soviet Union's workers and peasants. Of course it was these very workers who labored to build the first 13 stations in a mere 3 1/2 years.

''People had difficult lives, and these stations showed the opulence of society. They offered hope for the future," said Igor, my guide for the day.

In hindsight, they can be seen as palaces of propaganda, but they are stunning nonetheless.

Each station has a unique design using elaborate decorations and materials from all over the country, including granite, quartzite, limestone, 20 kinds of marble, and semiprecious stones, plus bronze sculptures, majolica panels, stainless steel columns, glittering chandeliers, bas-relief friezes, stained-glass panels, murals, and mosaics. One could easily spend a day touring the city without ever seeing the sun.

With more than 120 stations (and growing), it's best to plan your stops. It's also recommended to sightsee on the weekend, when the system is less crowded. If you must travel on a weekday, avoid the rush hours. Here are some of the better-known and more elaborate stations:

Ploshchad Revolyutsii Conveniently located between the Kremlin and Red Square, this station was designed by Alexei Dushkin in 1938. The main hall has a series of marble-lined arches, decorated at either end with life-size cast-bronze sculptures by Matvey Manizer. Each figure represents an ''everyday hero" from the revolution and the early Soviet state.

Mayakovskaya Also designed by Dushkin, this station won the Grand Prix for urban design in the New York World's Fair in 1938 and is considered one of Moscow's most beautiful. The spacious main hall's columns are an unusual combination of marble and stainless steel. Posthumously named for Vladimir Mayakovsky, the station contains a bust of the poet, who committed suicide in 1930.

Kievskaya Built during a time of great famine, in the mid-1930s, the murals and mosaics here depict well-fed peasants enjoying the fruits of their labor. Other idealized scenes represent Russia's friendship with Ukraine. In one, a jaunty Lenin reads a proclamation and points toward the future.

Komsomolskaya Named to honor the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), this station has two linked sections. The older and more graceful, built in 1935 with rose-colored marble and majolica panels of metro workers, was also a prizewinner at the New York World's Fair. The newer section, from the early 1950s, is an ornate hall with elaborate chandeliers and glittery military mosaics.

Kropotkinskaya The earliest station (1935) to be designed by Dushkin, the clean lines, simple geometry, and simple colors reflect an Art Deco influence. Named after the anarchist-prince and geographer Pyotr Kropotkin, the station is near the rebuilt Christ the Redeemer Cathedral.

Novoslobodskaya Don't miss this stop, where stained-glass panels remind one of a secular chapel where ordinary people -- factory workers, farmers, architects, painters -- replace the saints amid ornate flowers and stars.

Park Kultury One of the first stations to be completed, it has elegant, clean lines and a series of arches with lovely carved stone bas-reliefs by Sergey Rabinovich. The scenes portray an idealized citizenry engaged in sports and recreation such as skating, tennis, soccer, and playing the violin.

Smolenskaya The vestibule has a grand, ribbed dome, with an elaborate star, hammer, and sickle in the overhead bull's-eye. A larger-than-life-size bas-relief celebrates the Soviet Army and its triumphs. If you end your excursion here, you'll wind up in a section of town called the Old Arbat, featuring a pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe.

Necee Regis is a writer in Boston.

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