Moscow’s Dazzling Underground Palaces
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN RUSSIA
IT WAS not difficult to guess where the subway, or Metro, was located. An endless stream of people poured into an entrance leading underground. Above the entrance was the letter M, shining in bright red neon. The entryway doors swung open before me. Inside I was faced with the curious sight of people rapidly descending and disappearing as if into an abyss. At first I hesitated. Then, getting a firm grip on myself, I followed.
For the first time in my life, I was in a subway. Not just any subway—the Moscow Metro! But in a world where man can travel in space, split the atom, and even perform complicated brain surgery, what is so special about a subway?
For one thing, I had been told that the Moscow Metro is probably the most beautiful subway in the world. As the Russian proverb says, “better to see something once with your own eyes than to hear about it a hundred times.” When I attended the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow last July, I was eager to ride the Metro.
How It Came About
In 1902 a Russian scientist and engineer named Bolinsky suggested building a surface transportation system that would run along the Kremlin wall and circle the center of the city. But the Moscow city council rejected plans for developing the system at that time. Ten years later the council began giving the idea serious consideration—it was to be the first of its kind in Russia—but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 delayed further development. Not until 1931 was the idea revived. That is when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decreed that the country’s first underground railway was to be built in Moscow. Russia thus became the 11th country, and Moscow the 17th city, to undertake such a gigantic construction project.
Moscow’s Metropolitan Subway opened its first line, consisting of about seven miles [11 km] of track, at seven o’clock in the morning on May 15, 1935, just three years after construction had started. Four trains served 13 stations, and they were able to carry about 200,000 passengers a day. Muscovites and foreign visitors were impressed. It was so new, so unusual! In the evenings people waited in line to be among some of its first passengers. It was something to see. And it still is.
Since 1935 the system has been expanded to nine lines that cover a total of about 125 miles [200 km] and that have 149 stations. Nearly all other forms of public transportation in Moscow, including the airport and the riverways, are in some way connected to travel on the Metro. In fact, Muscovites could not imagine life without the Metro. Understandably so, since every day it carries an average of nine million passengers, nearly twice the population of Finland. In comparison, the subways of London and New York City together carry only about half that number.
Taking a Closer Look
Are you curious to see what lies 20 stories underground? An escalator quickly carries us down. It is but one of some 500 in the entire system, which if put end to end would reach more than 30 miles [50 km]. And what a sensation it is, going downhill on a 30-degree slope at a speed of some three feet a second—nearly twice the speed of escalators in many other countries!
We have entered Mayakovskaya station. Its architecture makes us feel more like being in a palace than in a subway station. I find it hard to imagine that we are really underground. Seldom have I seen such beautiful architecture aboveground, much less underground. No wonder an international architecture exhibition held between 1937 and 1939 awarded honors to five Moscow Metro stations, including this one. Of course, not all 149 stations are as palatial as the Mayakovskaya station; most of the newer ones are more modest—yet still impressive—each unique in style and form.
Nearly all stations have something to say about Russian history. Marble, ceramic, and granite were brought from 20 different sections of Russia to be used for decoration. Thus, a photo guide notes: “The entire land pitched in to help build the Moscow Metro.” Granite was extensively used for the floor decorations because of its durability. This is an important factor in view of the multitudes of people who daily crowd the stations.
While enjoying the beauties of this underground palace, we take note of the trains passing to and fro at high speed. Some 90 seconds or so after one has pulled out of the station, the lights of the next one can already be seen approaching. Do trains always run this frequently? During rush hour traffic, they do. Otherwise they run about three to five minutes apart.
We have scarcely settled into our comfortable train seats before we experience how quickly the train accelerates to top speed. It hurtles its way through a tube only about 20 feet [6 m] in diameter, sometimes at a speed approaching 60 miles an hour [100 km/hr]. Why, a person could travel the total length of the Metro in about six hours! Muscovites prefer the Metro not only because it is the fastest means of transit but because it is cheap and comfortable. Last July, during the international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a ride anywhere on the Metro cost ten rubles, then equal to one U.S. penny.
The intervals between trains are so short that you may wonder how it is possible for the trains to travel at such high speed. The explanation is simple. A system of automatic speed control has been expressly designed to prevent accidents. This system sees to it that the distance between trains is never less than the distance that would be necessary to stop the train at that speed. In other words, a train traveling 55 miles an hour [90 km/hr] that draws closer than the necessary stopping distance to the train ahead automatically begins applying its brakes. Additionally, the engineer in the lead train is warned by an alarm signal. This system, of course, greatly increases travel safety. Could that be why Muscovite Metro-travelers seem so calm and relaxed? Most of them sit quietly reading, clearly confident that they will safely reach their destination.
Lights and Air
Early every morning, as thousands of electric motors begin to whir and hundreds of thousands of lights begin to glow, millions of people start threading their way through the crowded underground palaces where some 3,200 subway cars will be alternately opening and closing their doors throughout the day. All of this is made possible by a stupendous amount of electricity.
This activity generates a great deal of heat, which, in part, is absorbed by the surrounding earth. But what about surplus heat that could cause overheating of the tunnels and the stations? Well, as is befitting palaces, each station is serviced by a ventilation system that completely renews the air four times an hour. Fresh air is always available, no matter how crowded the Metro. In fact, the ventilation system in the Moscow Metro is considered by many to be the best in the world.
During the winter, however, this heat comes in handy. Except for the buildings and entryways located aboveground, no heating system is necessary. The trains, the multitudes of people, and the earth itself, having stored up heat during the spring and summer, generously give off enough heat to keep the underground palaces comfortably warm.
Praise From All Sides
As might be expected, the illustrated Metro guide booklet is exuberant in its praise: “The Moscow Metro is rightly regarded as one of the world’s handsomest, whose palatial stations with their intricate network of track, wiring, piping and cables represent a truly absorbing amalgam of the cream of artistic effort and engineering ingenuity. More than stations, these are rather architectural masterpieces of inimitable elegance and charm tastefully ornamented with marble, granite, steel and tiling, set off by lighting of novel design, sculpture, mosaic, moulding, panelling, stained glass and repoussé work. The country’s finest architects and artists,” including sculptors, “contributed to the layout and décor.”
Now, after having visited Moscow and seeing the Metro for myself, I would agree. Many of my fellow delegates to the convention were also impressed. A German told me: “I felt as if I had entered a concert hall with beautiful chandeliers. I was enraptured.” A visitor from the United States was impressed by the Metro’s punctuality, cleanliness, and efficiency. And a convention delegate from distant Siberia was amazed at the tremendous size and scale of the underground structures.
Should you ever be in Moscow, I would urge you to visit these dazzling underground palaces. Remember: “Better to see something once with your own eyes than to hear about it a hundred times.”
[Picture Credit Line on page 15]
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
A few of Moscow’s beautiful subway stations
Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Laski/Sipa Press; Sovfoto/Eastfoto; Sovfoto/Eastfoto; Laski/Sipa Press; Laski/Sipa Press; Sovfoto/Eastfoto