This is what Ali Baba felt like when the door opened to his fabulous cave. Gilded and scrolled arches lean towards me in an ecclesiastic embrace. Between each vaulted curve garnet, sapphire, and topaz colored mosaic tiles gleam from sumptuously ornate frames. Overhead, wrought iron curlicued chandeliers dangle like giant earrings as brilliant white lamps glisten between snow colored walls. I wonder if I am dreaming until a rush of Muscovite commuters overtake me in the elaborate hallway. Most of the time when I have to use a subway system I am happy if I find well-lit sterile walls, signs for navigating the spider web of lines, and trains that arrive within ten minutes of schedule. Yet, ten stories (one hundred feet) underground Moscow I am transfixed by another world. This must be what it feels like to walk through a museum on the way to work, I marvel to myself. Heedless of the morning rush, I goggle eagerly at the treasure trove I have just discovered.
Moscow’s metro was one of Stalin’s pet projects, an engineering promise to Russians of a radiant future. For this reason, the subway is laid out in the shape of a star, with a central circular line around the city and radial lines running out from its perimeter to outlying towns. It is also why the panels, sculptures, and emblems are replete with socialist motifs. My attention, however, is drawn to the engineering spectacle before me: Neo-Classical columns stretch to infinity; Art Deco designs of sunbursts and geometric shapes garnish every recess; dazzling works of marble, steel, and glass bring an ethereal luminescence to this nether realm.
“I am learning that there’s more to Moscow below ground than I had ever considered possible.”
My initial glimpse of this subterranean world of beauty compels me to go hunting for more hidden treasures at other stations.
What I find does not disappoint me. At stops along the red Sokolnicheskaya, and green Zamoskvoretskaya lines I uncover masterpieces worthy of my time in a museum. I am especially enraptured by the display of vibrant color, as if the artists who wrought these painted tiles wanted to wrestle nature into the city’s bowels. Dancing sunflowers cast a cheerful glow down to me from the ceiling, rose-tinted apples at an orchard beckon invitingly, and ruby caped knights emerge victorious from onion domed gold cathedrals. These paintings also awaken my interest in Russia’s fertile history prior to Stalin and I spend hours wandering from scene to scene, oblivious of the whoosh of trains and round robin of travelers.
Ordinarily transportation systems aren’t known for anything other than their efficiency (or lack thereof), but inside this Russian subway I have unearthed a wonderful truth: history is an ever-present and evolving story.
“I never know when I might encounter its narrative because just as art is not always held hostage inside the sterile walls of a museum, the past is not always within the confines of a book.”
I descended into Moscow’s metro system intent only on transporting myself from point A to point B, never dreaming I would stumble upon a cavern of cultural jewels. My train ride revealed to me that I can engage with history in the unlikeliest of places. Where will I find my next chamber of riches? It could be in a café, down an alleyway, or just as I turn the corner. I don’t know, but I will never descend into another metro system without a skip of my heart beat at the sparkling possibilities that might catch my eye. Although I can’t gleefully carry away my loot like Ali Baba, I am excited to return to the Moscow metro for another perusal of its hidden bonanza. And wherever I travel to next, I will be sure to keep my head on a swivel so that I don’t miss the entrance to another secret cave of wealth!
The Park Pobedy station on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line is the third deepest train station in the world. At a depth of 275.6 feet, it takes passengers approximately three minutes to ride the escalator from the surface to the train departure platform.
Is there something ordinary you discovered that turned out to be a travel treasure? Is there a metro system that you admire?