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The Moscow Metro: Palaces for the People

The Moscow Metro: Palaces for the People

Picture of Ellen Von Weigand
Updated: 9 February 2017
Begun by Stalin’s regime during the early days of the Soviet Union, initial design of the Moscow Metro sought to exemplify the ideal communist state. As it exists today, the city’s Metro system reveals Moscow’s turbulent, politically evolving past through its enduring architecture, design, and historic artworks displayed within.

On any given day over seven million passengers journey through the marvelous halls of the Moscow Metro. Travelling to work, to visit with friends and family, or to enjoy a day’s outing, the people of Russia’s capital city are met with the visual evidence of a century’s worth of architectural, political and intellectual development. The city’s near 180 stations range in design, from fantastically Baroque marble and granite detailing, to the steel and concrete structures of post Soviet advancement. Each unique station reveals the fashions, beliefs, triumphs and defeat that have come to characterise this ever changing metropolis.


The initial idea to construct a metro in the Russian capital was discussed during the Russian Empire, but plans were postponed until after the First World War as a result of internal and international conflict. The Underground Railroad Design Office of the Moscow Board of Urban Railways, a special ideological branch of the communist government, was established in 1923, and plans for the first line, running from Sokolniki to the city centre, had been developed by 1928. In 1931, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union resolved to begin construction, and by 1933 a design for the first 10 lines of the metro, spanning the length of 10 kilometers, had been agreed upon by the Soviet government. The first line, that running from Okhotny Ryad to Smolenskaya was inaugurated on May 15 1935, a day that was celebrated as a victory for socialism.

Architects working with the Soviet Union’s Underground Railroad Design Office were given tremendous responsibility, for their work allowed no room for error. Plans for the metro’s design were carefully considered as individual embodiments of the ideal communist state. These underground palaces, one of the most significant projects of the young Soviet Union, were designed as more than just transitional spaces, but to praise and reward a people in the midst of radical change. Although station designs have altered over the years, the notion that each terminal should act as more than just a means of transportation, but also to encourage the comfort of passengers, has endured.


Although many of the metro stations boast notable design, those along the Circle Line, or the Koltsevaya Line, are the most famous. Stations like Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya and Kievskaya are some of the more extravagant examples of Stalinist architecture. The design for Kievskaya Station, named for the Kiyevsky Rail Terminal nearby, was determined through an open contest held in the Ukraine. Out of 73 entries, the team that comprised of E.I. Katonin, V.K. Skugarev and G.E. Golubev won the competition, and their plan was realised in the station. Wide pillars, surmounted by white marble and bordered by gold cornicing dominate the long underground corridor. Sizeable mosaics by artist A.V. Myzin adorn each of the pylons, lit by the soft glow of the hefty chandeliers suspended throughout, and commemorating Russian-Ukranian accord. At the end of the platform, a large portrait of Vladimir Lenin presides over all commuters. Lenin’s face can be found at more than 10 stations, a rebranding effort made when, in 1955, the Metro was named after this famous Soviet leader. Lenin’s name replaced that of Lazar Kaganovich, the ‘Iron Commissar’, Stalin’s important assistant who ran the initial construction stage of the Metro.

Many of Moscow’s metro stations resemble underground fine art museums. In the station at Revolution Square, heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution are depicted through bronze sculptures. At Belorusskaya station monuments illustrate scenes from the great patriotic war, while at Rinska station, artists have recalled myths from ancient history, representing the foundation of the Roman Empire through the portrayal of Romulus and Remus in sculptural form. The metro’s marble surfaces, elegant mosaics, and historic bronze statues have made the metro one of Moscow’s top tourist destinations.


The metro system also exists as the largest underground bunker in the world. Each station has been constructed to double as a nuclear shelter, a project inspired by the outbreak of the Cold War. Shortly thereafter, in the 1950s, the architecture of the metro was toned down, leaving the wonderful detailing of the Stalinist period behind at the order of Nikita Khrushchev, who favoured basic, utilitarian design. Under Khrushchev all stations were built in a ‘centipede’ style, with 40 cement columns set in two rows. Differences between stations were seen only in the marble and floor tile colouring. Not until the 1970s, would an interest in the original splendour of the metro’s design be restored.


The rate of construction on the Moscow Metro has gathered pace in recent decades. Following a halt in building during the 1990s, resulting from a shortage of funds after the fall of the Soviet Union, construction of new metro stations began once again in 2002. A massive expansion project aims to lengthen the metro by 150 kilometres by the year 2020. Many argue that by building new, modern stations, the character of the underground will be lost, but those managing the project argue that the character of Moscow continues to develop along with the construction of new infrastructure. Just as the unfolding of Moscow’s history is revealed through the architecture of the metro lines built during the last century, the engineering of future metro stations demonstrates the city’s continued development.