The New York subway is a novel attraction for tourists, especially since the system has gradually overcome its reputation as a dingy and unsafe network. Dwarfing the Big Apple subway, however, is the Moscow Metro. With a average daily ridership of over 9 million Muscovites and visitors, the Russian capital’s underground train network is nearly twice as busy as New York’s. Tourists in Moscow will not only use the Metro to travel between destinations; they will also find that the Metro is an attraction on its own.
The Moscow Metro’s 12 lines are gloriously efficient, and its over 170 stations feature stunning architecture with fascinating public art that reveals Soviet values of yesteryear. Surprisingly, you won’t find many narrow, gritty stations with dim lighting. Rather, you’ll be awed by the grandeur of the system and its role in Moscow life. While we don’t normally consider Stalinist undertakings to be remarkable or beautiful, the Moscow Metro defies expectations to become a cultural attraction.
Moscow Metro Logistics
Part of the Metro’s efficiency lies in the placement of its lines and the speed of its trains. Moscow is an expansive city, with over 10 million residents in its borders, so there are 12 lines, each of which is assigned a colour, a number, and a name. As might be expected, the original 1935 line, Sokolnicheskaya (#1), bears the Soviet national colour of red. Most Metro lines crisscross the city north-south, east-west, northeast-southwest, or northwest-southeast, resulting in a kinked, insect-like shape. The ring line, Koltsevaya (#5, Brown), is a circling loop that links at least once with almost every other line, improving efficiency greatly by making transfers simpler. Imagine a giant version of Chicago’s well-known El Loop, except that Moscow’s ring line has a much wider diameter.
Moscow’s Metro trains are known for traveling quickly, reaching speeds as high as 40km/h when they have time to accelerate fully. Not only do they move quickly for a subway system; they also run frequently. At their most infrequent (late night), trains run only 10 minutes apart, and during peak times of day, trains come as often as every two minutes. This close timing, especially given the dense network of trains which must cross each other’s paths, is a testament to the system’s superior level of orchestration. American users report that even the turnstiles, escalators, and train doors move with swift machination.
The Metro is reliable and regular enough to obviate the need for written schedules. The only logistical surprise is that, unlike the NYC subway, the Moscow Metro does not run 24 hours a day: the first trains leave at 5:00am, and the last trains leave at 1:00am. Although directions are identified in other ways, the best way to tell direction is by the automated voice announcing stops. Trains headed outbound from the city center (or counterclockwise around the loop) use a feminine voice while trains headed in the city center (or clockwise around the loop) use a masculine voice. All in all, the signage, though primarily in Russian, is omnipresent and easy-to-understand. I would argue that a subway novice using nothing but a map could navigate the Moscow Metro more easily than the sometimes confusing New York subway, but of course, New York’s unique geography is part of what complicates matters for transit riders in the Big Apple.
Now matter how disgruntled they get, MTA workers (NYC) and CTA workers (Chicago) cannot compare to the red-hatted Moscow Metro guides who are easy to spot and unbelievably attentive. These station attendants, usually women, are not known for their politeness as much as for their vigilance. You’ll find out quickly if you do something wrong! These woman do soften a little if you speak a decent Russian, though.
Moscow Metro History Tidbits
The Moscow Metro celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2005. The early part of the 20th century involved extensive planning and retooling, with the first few lines opening shortly before WWII. At Stalin’s iron fist demand, construction continued even during the War. As the Soviet Union headed into the Cold War, it continued building stations and extending service. Some stations were even designated as fallout shelters, proof that Soviets were as concerned about our American nuclear potential as we were about theirs.
Wikipedia, as of December 2005, reports a popular urban legend about the origin of the ring line (#5, Brown). Supposedly, Metro planners were showing their system plans to Stalin, who had spilled a bit of coffee over the rim of his mug. When they asked for his feedback on the system, he supposedly placed the cup in the center of their map, which left a brown circular stain. As the story goes, Stalin’s silent statement tipped the planners off to a key element of the system’s design, the connective ring line, which is still today designated with the colour brown.
Another compelling aspect of Moscow Metro history is a once-secret line known as Metro II, used as a means of ghost-like transportation for communist party leaders. It is widely believed that this network of trains did (and does) exist – and it may still be in use today. But don’t expect the Russian government to admit anything. Authorities are sensitive about having their Soviet past probed by Westerners.
Station Architecture and Socialist Art
The real hallmark of the Moscow Metro, beyond its amazing logistics, is its art. And we’re not talking about the occasional piece of public sculpture. We’re talking about attractive chandeliers, marble benches, elaborate mouldings, dramatic murals, fancy tiles, grand staircases, and overhead frescoes. Major stations are architecturally significant on the outside and on the inside, full of sculptures and paintings. Because Soviet leaders wanted the Metro to be part of a communist vision for urban life, the art depicts common workers, military heroes, and other secular subjects. It has the feel of propaganda, selling a vision of socialist society to the masses.
The notable Mayakovskaya station, for example, tackles the subject of the happy worker, attempting to further government-sponsored values with an underground socialist Sistine Chapel-style ceiling. Mosaics follow common laborers through their workdays in the fields and factories to their home lives in urban apartments. The Soviets, one can assume, hoped to inspire Muscovite workers. Other notable stations include Komsomolskaya, Taganskaya, and Novoslobodskaya (which features lovely stained glass). The easiest way for tourists to see some of the major stations is to ride the ring line, exiting and re-entering at different stations. In fact, information booths offer a self-guided tourbook which is available in English.
Moscow’s Metro is cheap (with fares averaging about a quarter). Tourists wishing to explore the Metro as an attraction might want to buy a pass that allows unlimited riding for a period of time. An entire day can be spent exploring the Metro, with brief breaks to return to the above-ground city. For quick eats, tourists may enjoy Kroshka-Kartoshka, a stand that sells tasty stuffed potatoes and a short alternate menu. These ubiquitous little stalls are located near almost every station.