A spectacular world lies beneath Moscow! Tourists arriving in the capital of the Russian Federation spare some time or even days to visit the palatial underground edifices. The Moscow Metro, also known as the People’s Palace, is an unavoidable destination for tourists arriving in the city. At least a dozen stations on various lines of the nearly century-old public transport system are must-see places and many more are worth a visit for their spectacular architecture, beautiful designs and exquisite art.
The metro tour is an integral part of the itinerary of tourists in Moscow. The visits to the Kremlin, Red Square and nearby tourist destinations are almost always followed by trips to watch the underground splendours of the Moscow Metro.
Non-peak hours are the best time to explore. Reach the station before 8 am, between 11 am and 4 pm, or after 9 pm to enjoy the architecture, art, designs and lights without being shoved aside by the milling crowd. Buy a ticket and go past the turnstiles as most of the attractions are on the platform or on the transfer corridors.
If you intend to take a ride just for an experience or for your travel to any tourist destination, the metro trains are available from early morning to a little after midnight. The service time is 5.30 am to 1 am. It is at 1 am the entry to stations and the transfer corridors closes and the last train departs from the terminal stations.
While in Moscow never be anxious about missing the metro train as the frequency is high: the next train arrives in 1 to 3 minutes in peak hours. The frequency during non-rush hours is one every 4 to 7 minutes on most lines.
How to spot the metro station? Not at all difficult. You are unlikely to miss the red letter “M” outside metro stations. NOTE: There are more than one entrance and exit. As in all metros or tubes or subways, as they are called elsewhere in the world, you may chose the exit nearest to the street you intend to take.
Tourists may plan the metro tour based on the number of days they will be in the city, other engagements as well as priorities. Though dozens of stations on the network will impress you for the grandeur, beauty and art, we suggest you to visit at least four to six or even a dozen. Students, expats and other temporary residents in and around Moscow should try to visit a few more if they are interested in Russian history, culture and art.
Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Kievskaya, Kurskaya, Park Pobedy, Prospekt Mira, Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Arbatskaya, Mayakovskaya, Elektrozavodskaya, Aviamotornaya and Krasnopresnenskaya are among the dozen stations you should explore even if you don't need a metro train for commute.
It would not be an overstatement to say that the palatial Moscow Metro stations are museums or marvels of art and architecture or repositories of cultural heritage. Several stations showcase art that could be among the world's best in its category. The communist regime of Joseph Stalin had drafted the leading artists and architects in Soviet Union for the metro project. The brief was to depict Socialist Realist themes as well as to promote the communist ideal of a better tomorrow. While architects, engineers and labourers built the underground transport system, the inspired artists adorned the stations with remarkable art depicting mundane scenes on everyday life, moments of collective joys and occasions of national pride.
The structural designs and art themes of the earliest stations of the Moscow Metro served the communist propaganda based on the maxim that ‘art is no use unless it serves politics'. Nothing was spared to execute the grand ambition of building ‘people’s palaces’ that went on to become one of the visual delights in Moscow. Also, the spectacular stations built of marble and granite and adorned with opulent designs and artwork were intended to project the might of the socialist dictatorship and even promote the cult of Stalin.
The Moscow Metro opened on 15 May, 1935 less than two decades after the Russian Revolution which heralded the communist rule and the foundation of the Soviet Union on the relics of the Tsarist monarchy. Though conceived by the last Tsar Nicholas II, the metro construction began in 1931 as part of Stalin’s first five-year plan of 1928–33. The soldiers of the Red Army and volunteers of the Communist Youth League too joined the labourers and engineers for the construction.
The political messaging through the Moscow Metro was deliberate as the communist regime wanted to convince the people that what was set to be accomplished in the years to come in Soviet Union would be as magnificent as the one that you would be seeing during your daily commute underground in Moscow.
The metro art patronised by the communist regime celebrated common Soviet folks rather than the monarchs of the erstwhile Russian Empire who were now relegated into the dustbin of history. The statues, reliefs, paintings and mosaics adorning the stations feature labourers, soldiers, farmers, sportspeople and students. Leading figures of the Russian Revolution as well as those crucial to military and scientific successes of the Soviet Union too are subjects. Historical events and Soviet ideology too are portrayed.
The splendid artwork that impresses ordinary tourists and art connoisseurs alike include sculptures, life-size marble and bronze statues, bas-reliefs, mosaics, geometric designs, ornate friezes and stained-glass panels with beautiful images. The various architectural features of the metro stations on the platforms, concourses and exteriors serve to heighten the overall beauty. No two stations are alike. High ceilings, marble walls, giant chandeliers and lustrous lights also go a long way in casting a spell on regular riders, tourists and art enthusiasts.
To achieve the luxurious feel different types of stones that provide both strength and lustre were used in the building of Moscow Metro. They include different shades of marble, granite, labradorite, porphyry, rhodonite, onyx and the like.
Innovative technology too helped in building one of the deepest underground railway network in the world. The Soviet capabilities developed during the Moscow Metro construction proved critical in USSR's later-day technical and engineering prowess befitting a 20th century superpower.
Both art and architecture of the Moscow Metro have evolved in line with the vicissitudes of the Soviet Union and its main successor state, Russia.
The initial Stalinist architecture of art-deco structures stood out for grandeur and extravagance even while conforming to the tenets of Socialist Realism laid down by the 1934 Soviet Congress. The art had to be proletarian, typical (of everyday life), realistic and partisan to the goals of the State and the Communist Party.
The baroque-styled Komsomolskaya metro station with lavish decoration, large ceiling mosaics of military leaders and big chandeliers is a prime example of the pre-war Stalinist architecture, which is touted as Socialist Classicism by art historians. Mayakovskaya station, one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world, also exemplifies the Stalinist style. The 34 murals on its ceiling depicts "idealised snapshots of life in the USSR".
Evolution over the years
Nikita Khrushchev dispensed with the extravagance of his predecessor Stalin and favoured utilitarian and economical approach in the post-war era and in the early phase of the Cold War. Meanwhile, the stations that were built after the collapse of the Soviet Union show global design influences with stress on functionality that is expected of modern transportation hubs. However, the 2003-opened Park Pobedy (Victory Park) station with classical ornamentation has distinct ‘neo-Stalinist’ signature. The subject of the detailed mosaics is "Russian victory on the eastern front during the Second World War".
Top-12 Magnificent Stations: What to Watch
As noted ealier Komsomolskaya station, which is on Line 1, is the best example of the Stalinist metro design marked by extravagance. The lavish decoration and large ceiling mosaics here will sweep you off your feet.
The highlight of the Novoslobodskaya on Line 5 is the 'Peace to The World' mosaic sculpture. An array of magnificent stained-glass panels adorn the pillars on the platform.
Mayakovskaya, which is on Line 2, has art deco stainless steel columns and brilliant flooring patterns. The 34 beautiful ceiling mosaics jointly depict the famous work '24-hour Soviet Sky'. The station served as an air-raid shelter for civilians and as the bunker for Stalin and Co during World War II.
At Kievskaya, which is also on Line 5, watch the colurful and vivid mosaics and murals saluting the Russo-Ukrainian unity!
Kurskaya, which is on Line 5, is another station in Stalinist style. It bagged the Stalin Prize for its beautiful design. The notable features are marble walls, grey and red granite floors, eight conical chandeliers and decorations with quotes from the Anthem of the Soviet Union.
Ploshchad Revolyutsii on Line 3 is famous for the 76 sculptures of Socialist Realism style paying tribute to ordinary people. Don't miss the statue of a frontier guard with a dog; the latter's nose is rubbed for good luck!
The Neo-Stalinist Park Pobedy station is on lines 3 and 8A. Beautiful murals here depict Soviet Union's military victories. At a depth of 84 m it is one of the deepest metro stations in the world. The 126-metre-long escalator here is one of the longest in the world and takes 3 min to reach the surface! (NOTE: The deepest metro network in Russia is in St Petersburg where some stations are at a depth of 97 m.)
Prospekt Mira is another grand metro station on Line 5. Here you are stepping on to grey and black granite floor patterned on the model of chessboard. Giant cylindrical chandeliers hang from the arched white ceiling. But what strikes you the most are ceramic bas-relief friezes (horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration near the ceiling) atop the marble walls. The floral elements of the frieze depict development of agriculture in the Soviet Union. The beautiful sculpture in front of the station symbolizes fertility. Don't miss the smalt artwork called 'Mothers of the World' opposite the escalator hall. (Smalt is a deep blue paint and ceramic pigment produced by pulverizing glass.)
Arbatskaya station is located in the centre of the city close to the popular Arbat Street. It is one of the earliest metro stations built in Moscow. It served as a bunker during Nazi bombings and was later purposefully rebuilt as a defensive structure. Its 250-metre-wide platform can host a large number of people seeking refuge during an aerial attack. The metal doors are a shield against nuclear attack. The striking architectural features include ornate vaulted ceiling and pillars with pink marble base. Notice the ornamental brackets and floral reliefs on the ceiling. The bronze chandeliers lend an elegant aura. The station is on Line 3 of the Moscow Metro.
The beautiful reliefs at Elektrozavodskaya station on Line 3 honour trailblazers in the field of electricity generation. The aura created by an array of lamps lining the ceiling over the platform is magical.
On Line 8 is Aviamotornaya which has aviation and flying as the theme. The metal sculpture of Icarus at the end of the central hallway has an other-worldly aura.
Krasnopresnenskaya is on Line 5 at the Presnya locality close to the heart of Moscow. The major artwork at the station is 14 bas-reliefs on the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The Moscow Uprising of 1905 occurred at the Presnya street. Statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin stood at the end of the platform till the early 1960s. The notable architectural features here are red granite pylons with white marble cornices. The station has a round-shaped pavilion in front. The statue in front of this rotunda is in honour of the revolutionaries and is called the 'Combatant'. The nearby Barrikadnaya station too has Russian Revolution for its theme. The access to the Moscow Zoo is from this station.
A few more
Those with ample time and railway buffs may alight at a few more metro stations that are remarkable for their architecture either for splendour or simplicity. These stations include Krasnye Vorota, Kropotkinskaya, Novokuznetskaya, Taganskaya, Kuznetskiy Most, Nagatinskaya, Vorobyovy Gory, Pushkinskaya, Avtozavodskaya etc.
The metro is the most preferred transportation system in Moscow as it is reliable and punctual. So far it has been closed only once: on October 16, 1941 as the Battle of Moscow raged as Nazis advanced.
Today stations are the most popular meeting place for Moscow denizens and a must-visit destination for overseas and domestic tourists.
The stations are mostly underground with 70 situated very deep and nearly 90 just below the ground level. They saved lives by acting as a shelter during air raids in World War II. (The deepest station, 84 m below ground, is Park Pobedy.)
The showpiece of the Stalin regime has become a national pride. Forty stations are in the list of heritage sites.
From one line, 13 stations and 11.2 km, Moscow's underground railway system has grown into a vast network reaching several parts of the megacity. It is still growing with 10 new stations opened together on December 7, 2021. As per the latest count there are 265 stations, including those of the Moscow Central Circle, across 17 lines extending to nearly 400 km.
The metro networks in St Petersburg, which is the second largest city in Russia, and Kiev (in Ukraine) followed the architectural pattern of the Moscow Metro.
As the metro became an integral part in the life of Moscow residents several urban lores linked to it emerged. A mysterious legend is about the existence of a secret subway system linking key government buildings. Locals believe it runs below the underground metro that all are familiar. This top-secret rail network is called the Metro-2 and is rumoured to have been built by Stalin to facilitate the rescue of top-ranking government personnel in case of a nuclear attack. The Kremlin has never vouched for the Metro-2 which was code-named D6 by the KGB. In 1994 daring urban explorers called the Diggers claimed they discovered an entrance to the furtive subway!
Enough? Now, plan your Moscow trip. You will remember the mesmerizing metro stations all your life!