Subterranean Sightseeing: the Moscow Metro

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On the surface, the tourists troop round the Kremlin; they snap selfies in front of St Basil’s, explore GUM and the State History Museum, stroll through Alexander Gardens and stop to watch the changing of the guard; they tick off the Bolshoi and Maly theatres, the Tretyakov and New Tretyakov Galleries, Gorky Park and the Seven Sisters.

And two hundred feet below ground, there is a parallel Moscow with its own set of tourists, making their way between subterranean sights. Little groups of them huddle around guides, then disperse to kneel with SLR’s or stand smiling with smartphones at the end of poles, and bustle onto trains to get to the next big sight. Solo travellers make their own way round with Metro maps stuffed into guidebooks to mark the page.

The older stations, built under Stalin from the mid-thirties, were designed to impress with an extravagant blend of brass and bronze, marble and mosaics, stucco and chandeliers, as if the architects interpreted a little too literally the old Soviet promise to build ‘palaces for the people’. There are artistic flourishes in the smallest details, like a ventilation duct shaped around a bronze wheatsheaf with the openings seeming to be part of the sculpture, instead of the rectangular aperture topped with a grille you would see more or less anywhere else.


When Stalin died, Khrushchev ordered a stop to his vanity projects and, by the late fifties, the Soviets started to build functional Metro stations to a standard design, like everybody else in the world. But most of the stations which a visitor is likely to pass through, and all of them on the Circle Line, could qualify as Must See sights.

Komsomolskaya has an opulent Baroque look with rows of limestone pillars, chandeliers and a stuccoed ceiling with mosaics of Russian heroes. It looks like it might have been designed for the Romanovs but was actually meant to celebrate the Komsomol, communist youth league.

There is an Art Nouveau look to Novoslobodskaya, which was built around a series of 32 stained-glass panels, rimmed with brass, slotted into Ural marble and illuminated from behind.


Belorusskaya has floral motifs worked into the stucco of the ceiling, interspersed with mosaics of peasants and artisans in Belarussian costume. The walls are faced with pink and black marble with niches lit by bronze uplighters.

Chandeliers hang from the ceiling at Kievskaya. The arches cutting through to the platforms are edged with gold-coloured braiding. Between them are large mosaics of scenes from Ukrainian history.  

At Park Pobedy, by contrast, the side walls and ceiling are free of ornamentation. The visual impact comes from pleasing curves and highly-polished grey and red marble, reflecting in the chequerboard floor and directing attention to the paintings on the end walls of the defeat of Napoleon.


Life-size bronze statues crouch either side of the arches which lead to the platforms at Ploshchad Revolyutsii. They represent soldiers, workers, peasants, sportsmen, hunters, parents and a border guard with an Alsatian dog who is supposed to bring luck if you stroke his nose (the dog’s, not the guard’s).

Elektrozavodskaya is named, as only a communist regime would think to do, after a lightbulb factory. Its ceiling is clustered with 318 inset lamps which – designedly – look like oversize household bulbs; its walls have gilded grilles and bas-reliefs.

Mayakovskaya is gloriously Art Deco. It won the Grand Prize at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The long central hall is lined with arches faced with stainless steel and pink rhodonite. Niches are scooped out of the vaulted ceiling, ringed with filament lights and filled with mosaics themed around ‘24-hours in the Soviet sky’.


But the Moscow Metro is only incidentally a tourist attraction. It carries 9 million people across town every day, more than the New York Subway and London Underground together; more than any system outside Asia.

The trains average 25 mph, against 17 in New York, and come at around one minute intervals. Regular minutes, that is, not the infamous ‘Northern Line minutes’ with 240 seconds each.

It is free, it seems, of all of the Northern Line’s legendary inefficiencies*: the trains which somehow end up further away the closer they get, or which are announced but never arrive, or have one destination on the front but go to another, or just disappear into a tunnel and break down.


What is more, a single journey costs the equivalent of 45p, or 63¢, instead of $3.00 (£2.10) in New York or the hilarious £4.90 ($6.95) in London, yet the system still turns a profit.

© Richard Senior 2016

*The Northern Line is a standing joke in London. I lived on it for years. I was usually standing but rarely joking.

Tallinn When the Ships Leave


The walls of Tallinn had been up for six centuries when the Wall went up and were still up three decades later when the Wall came down and when Estonia joined the EU and then the Euro and the border posts came down and the prices went up and the tourists flooded in.

They come to gaze at the old city walls and the terracotta-topped turrets and the cobbled lanes and the merchants’ houses and craftsmen’s guilds and the spires and arches and old wooden houses and pastel-painted facades and to smirk at the sign which modestly claims that “parts of the old monastery [are] of historical interest” and a tower called Kiek in de Kök, which sounds painful but turns out to be Low German for ‘peep in the kitchen’.

The old town was made a conservation area in the middle sixties – around the time that architects everywhere decided that buildings should be unpleasant to look at – and the medieval skyline has not been interrupted by discordant modern blocks and, within the walls, old Tallinn has retained its historic integrity and manages without the cheesy, oversized logos of global chains which so many ancient towns think they need.


The buildings, which were shabby and soot-blackened in the Soviet days, have since been cleaned up and freshly painted; and the town has been cleaned up, as well, since the early, free-wheeling, post-Soviet days when dive bars offered cheap drinks and bad music to roaring stags and screeching hens, and working girls openly hustled for business in the middle of town. It is a beautiful, charming, intensely photogenic city.

But for much of the day, it is hardly worth taking your camera out because every building has people standing in front of it, straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly while significant others take endless snapshots for family albums, and friends photographing each other doing the sort of jumps you see in the brochures for self-styled adventure travel companies – the sort which look like a soldier being machine-gunned from behind.

I carefully picked my way through the chicanes of selfie sticks, and ducked and hurried and did emergency stops to avoid photobombing strangers, and got repeatedly stopped by couples who pressed their cameras on me and appointed me their official photographer, as they posed in front of buildings, straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly. I stood, as if at a level crossing while a goods train passed, as tour groups with loud voices and louder shorts rallied behind the flag, saying “hey, ain’t it priddy,” and “questo è bellissimo” and “look, dear, aren’t there a lot of foreigners”.

Half a million people live in Tallinn and another half million pour off the cruise ships every year. All of them seemed to be there at once, on the same baking August weekend as me.


Then at five o’ clock, the foghorns of the ships in the harbour farted and the multiple bells of the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral announced the hour: the big confident bells, the apologetic little bells, the sonorous bongs and incessant tinkles, all clashing together in a great cacophony like a big box of assorted bells dropped down a flight of stairs. They went on ringing for at least a minute – I thought they might keep it up the whole hour – and, distracted by them, I did not notice at first that the crowds had melted away, that the lanes had cleared, that no one was posing now in front of the buildings straightening their hair with their fingers and smiling uncertainly, and no one was asking me to take their photo, and the pied pipers of the tour companies had led their groups to the harbour.

It was dreamlike, then, in the narrow lanes with the dwindling sunlight playing on the buildings and casting long shadows and few people about and little sound except my own footsteps on the cobbles.

 © Richard Senior 2015