Moscow Metro is one of a kind. The London Underground might be older and the Shanghai Metro might be larger, but no mass transit system in the world can compare with the opulent architecture and grand ambition that lies beneath Moscow’s streets.

The system’s stations were designed to celebrate and reinforce Russia’s socialist dictatorship, with elaborate decorations and spectacular dimensions intended to act as subterranean ‘people’s palaces’. These stunning spaces were as much a destination as the above-ground districts they served and inspired awe from German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, who was present for the metro’s opening, both in their aesthetics and in the political message behind them.

“Now that the train line was built according to the most ideal models / And the owners came to view / And to ride on it, they were the very same / Ones who had built it,” reads a translation of Brecht’s poem ‘The Moscow Workers Take possession of the Great Metro on April 27th 1935′.

The Moscow Metro was first opened in 1935 under Stalin’s Soviet Union, with a single 11km line serving 13 stations. In the eight decades that have followed, the metro system has been expanded to encompass more than 200 stations and 379km of track. During this time, the style of Moscow’s metro stations has taken in baroque architecture and art deco influences and continues to evolve today, with modern station developments adopting a more functional, internationalist approach.

Early construction

Moscow Metro stations

A period photo showing the initial construction work on the Moscow Metro in the early 1930s. Tens of thousands of Russian workers – many of them forced into labour – contributed to the construction of the metro’s first line, which connected Sokolniki to Park Kultury and Smolenskaya.

While Russian workers were responsible for the construction and decoration of the stations, British engineers – veterans of the London Underground – consulted extensively during the early construction period, advocating for new tunnelling methods and the use of escalators rather than elevators for underground stations. The Soviet regime ultimately deported many foreign engineers on charges of espionage due to the knowledge they had gained of the city’s infrastructure.

Modest beginnings

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of A. Savin

A modern photo of Christye Prudy station, which was opened in 1935 as part of the metro system’s first section. Stations on this section were somewhat more modest than the extravaganzas that were to come, but higher vaulted ceilings were still an impressive sight in underground stations, and the opening of the line was met with street parades, theatrical performances and a massive publicity drive by Soviet  authorities, setting the stage for the grand project that the Moscow Metro was set to become.

Pre-war Stalinist architecture

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of Ludwig14

Mayakovskaya station, opened in 1938 as part of the metro’s second stage, is world-renowned as a prime example of pre-war Stalinist architecture, and one of the most admired metro stations in the world. It is the first example of deep column station design, with an overlapping vault space supported by colonnades in front of the platforms.

Mayakovskaya – named in honour of Russian poet and futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky – also reflects the propaganda functions of many Soviet-era metro stations. The station’s ceilings are interspersed with 34 murals by Aleksandr Deyneka, presenting idealised snapshots of life in the USSR.

Electric inspirations

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of A. Savin

The Second World War interrupted the construction of Elektrozavodskaya, which was completed in 1944 as part of the metro’s third section. The station’s design and decoration was overseen by architects Vladimir Schuko and Vladimir Gelfreich, and showcases an innovative lighting scheme combined with a neoclassical style that made use of marble reliefs. Costly construction materials such as marble were shipped from around the Soviet Union for the Moscow Metro to show scenes from the Russian home front during the war.

The station took its name from a nearby light bulb factory, which explains the prominence of the platform lighting and a series of reliefs in the vestibule celebrating early pioneers in electricity, including Michael Faraday, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Popov.

Russian baroque

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of Jorge Láscar

Komsomolskaya’s grand platform chamber, lined with elaborate chandeliers and smalt mosaics celebrating famous Russian military commanders, is designed in the Russian baroque architectural style, with regal yellow walls and ornate friezes. The station is also among the busiest on the Moscow Metro; it acts as a gateway to the city’s main rail hub at Komsomolskaya Square, serving the stations of Leningradsky, Yaroslavsky and Kazansky.

Moscow Metro’s grand designs return

Moscow Metro stations

The intricate ceiling light installation in the central hallway of Aviamotornaya station, which was opened in December 1979. The early years of the Cold War brought a more restrained design sensibility in many new metro stations opened in the late 1950s and 60s, reportedly under the direction of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was looking to reduce costs and favoured a more utilitarian approach to design and construction materials.

The 1970s saw the return of eye-catching visual design on the Moscow Metro, along with station themes. For Aviamotornaya the theme is aviation, reflected in the light display – intended to represent the fabric of the universe – and a large metal sculpture depicting the doomed flight of Icarus from Greek myth.

Functionality for the modern age

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of Bernt Rostad

By the 1990s and moving towards the modern era, decorative extravagance was once again being toned down, with a greater emphasis on functional design, in common with many other countries. This trend hasn’t precluded revisits of the old styles in newer stations, however. The long-delayed Park Pobedy (Victory Park) station, which opened in 2003 after starting construction in 1986, has been described as a return to the ‘neo-Stalinist’ style, with classical ornamentation and detailed mosaics such as this one, which celebrates Russian victory on the eastern front during the Second World War.

Embracing international conventions

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of kremlin.ru 

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking a tour of the newly-opened Novokosino station in 2012, which exemplifies the modern approach to Moscow’s metro station design. The end products are not the ‘people’s palaces’ of the past, but efficient modern transport hubs. Moscow’s current mayor Sergei Sobyanin, as well as the international style embraced for the Sochi Olympics project in 2014, influenced this trend, according to architectural historian Nikolai Vassiliev, who spoke to CityLab in July.

“A contemporary style was introduced during this period by state contracts, not private developers,” Vassiliev said. “For the most part, these designs are pretty neutral—even boring. But on average they show significantly improved technical quality.”

Prioritising efficiency in modern designs

Moscow Metro stations

Photo courtesy of mos.ru

In 2018, there are signs that new Moscow Metro station projects are continuing to adopt a more international approach. For two new surface stations, Filatov Lug and Prokshino, which are scheduled to open on an 11km extension of the metro’s original 1935-era Sokolnicheskaya Line, architects have maintained the high vaulted ceilings that originally marked out the Moscow Metro, but have otherwise embraced a range of common station design practices, from glass walls to brightly-coloured ticket halls and exit areas to help passengers navigate.

As if to reinforce the point that metro station design is opening up to global influences, the station’s planners noted that they were influenced by heavy rail stations such as London Waterloo, New York’s Penn station and Moscow’s Kievsky railway station, which were all built in the 19th and early 20th centuries with glass walls and vaulted ceilings.

While cutting-edge design trends will undoubtedly make the Moscow Metro’s new and future stations as efficient as they need to be for one of the world’s busiest rapid transit systems, the old post-war designs will still hold the affections of modern Muscovites.

“For today’s typical Metro user, the modern stations prevail as the standard image of the system,” Vassiliev told CityLab. “But except for [a] few recent ones made with monumental mosaics or clever forms, these stations aren’t perceived as architecture at all. The historical stations, however, still play a very special role in the city’s image, like its Stalin-era skyscrapers and pre-Revolution tenements, churches, and mansions.”