Lenin on the Metro
As the guidebooks I read before my trip reminded me, Moscow’s Metro network is not simply a means of getting around the city but rather an attraction in its own right. The stations, with their mosaics, statues, and visual representations of Soviet ideology make the Metro arguably the most durable evidence of a period usually seen in the West as the ‘other’ side of a Cold War divide more easily criticised than comprehended. It’s not always easy to study your surroundings when the tide of commuters flows through these underground halls in the course of the working day and early evening, but when I did manage to take a closer look they were indeed as impressive as I’d been led to expect.
The strangest thing, though, is that such highly visible evidence of the Soviet era is not only still in situ but seemingly well-maintained and, as such, evidently valued. Not only are the stations themselves near-spotlessly clean and free from advertising (this latter point an interesting change from London, certainly) but the heroic statues of Soviet sportsmen and women, aviators, shock workers, militia members, et al are not standing as remnants of a discredited past but seem as much a part of the present as they were when installed. Bright ceiling mosaics of parachutists, athletes, and factory workers look down on modern commuters, and if the utopia the images sought to conjure up never quite materialised nobody felt so aggrieved as to take out their frustration on the decor around them when the past was as defunct and eminently ripe for dismissal as it was in the mid-1990s, when Russia woke from its Communist years and found that a world of democracy and free-market economic was not a comfortable place at all.
In many respects I’m pleased that the Metro survived as it did. As Owen Hatherley points out in his excellent book ‘The Landscapes of Communism’ the Moscow Metro was a showcase for the kind of world that Soviet power hoped to bring into being: clean, efficient, run for the benefit of the masses, and the equal of anything found in the capitalist West. It was impossible to build the network in the 1930s and 1940s without the politics of the time being woven right into its fabric (the fact that many stations are, in effect, war memorials makes that clear) but the fact that the imagery of that age survives in contrast to the very different city (and society) that now uses the system encourages reflection on what people once believed, and what they are reluctant to utterly discard. In the city above ground German cars clog the 6-lane roads into the centre and shoppers in GUM (the former state department store) buy designer clothes with credit cards. Below ground, though, the Metro remains; a reminder of another set of possibilities that, although undermined by the course of History, have not yet been consigned to its dustbin.