Subway Systems

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The original line of the Moscow metro, completed in May 1935, laid the foundation for one of the world's most impressive subway systems. In its first fifty years, the Moscow metro grew from thirteen stations to more than 120, and the average number of passengers carried daily increased from 177,000 to more than six million, making the Moscow system the world's busiest. The Moscow metro organization also reproduced its various structures in similar metro systems across the former Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain. It became, in the words of one official, "the mother of all socialist metros." Symbols of Soviet power accompanied riders in the metros of Leningrad, Kiev, Kharkov, Baku, Tiflis, Tashkent, Minsk, Gorky, Erevan, Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk, and Volgogradnot to mention those systems built partly by Moscow engineers and architects in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

For Soviet leaders, Soviet subways were more than transportation systems. The metro provided what one Soviet propagandist called "a majestic school in the formation of the new man." For the 1935 inaugural line of the Moscow metro, the Soviets constructed each of the stations on different themes of socialist life. Stations celebrated Soviet leaders, the Communist Party, Soviet achievements in education, and the supposed superiority of the Soviet system. The Soviets lavished scarce resources on the first thirteen stations, including 23,000 square meters of marble facing, chandeliers, and crystal. Metro builders boasted that they used more marble in the first line of the Moscow metro than had been used in the entire Tsarist period. Through the end of the Stalin era, stations became more ornate and monumental as the metro grew. Like a mirror held up to Soviet self-perceptions, an elaborate political iconography reflected a sense of approaching perfection in Soviet society. To convey this message, architects calculated that a passenger would spend roughly five minutes per station. In the words of one: "Within that time the architecture, emblems, and entire artistic image should actively influence him." Soviet subway systems thus celebrated Soviet socialism, provided a pulpit for preaching its values, and offered an effective way to get to work in the morning.

Lazar Kaganovich, a ruthless Bolshevik leader of working-class origin, assumed managerial responsibility for construction of the original metro line. His chief deputy on the project was Nikita Khrushchev, who later became general secretary of the Communist Party. Kaganovich believed that the metro "went far beyond the typical understanding of a technological construction. Our metropolitan is a symbol of the new socialist society being built." Under his management, the Soviets deployed a variety of improvised Western techniques to build the metro in the treacherous geology of Moscow's subsoil, which was laced with underground rivers and quicksand. Builders bored through layers of Jurassic clay and fissured limestone, soaked with water. Khrushchev recalled that the builders had only "the vaguest idea of what the job would entail." The party mobilized public opinion to gather necessary resources and labor. Days of voluntary labor became festive occasions as bands played and able-bodied Muscovites roamed the shafts looking for work. Prominent officials picked up shovels and joined Moscow's masses. Compared to the construction of the New York subway system, however, only a handful of Soviet workers diedand the Soviets trumpeted the successful construction as proof of the superiority of the socialist order. Nonetheless, the Soviets benefited greatly from the long experience of foreign engineers who had helped construct the world's other great subway systems. They used the drafts of a failed 1908 Moscow subway plan, whose backers were unable to secure financing. Soviet engineers visited the Berlin subway, studied engineering plans for the London and Paris subways, and hired American engineers as consultants.

The story of the first Soviet subway was as much the subject of Soviet propaganda as the actual metro stations. Soviet memoirs, official histories, metro architecture, and newspaper accounts wove the events and personalities of the metro's construction into a mythical microcosm of the new Soviet society. The epic tale of its construction, which was recounted in two elaborately bound volumes published in 1935, relayed an ideal conception of socialist engineering and its ability to conquer and transform nature (human and otherwise). In this story, successful technological construction did more than fulfill the party plan for transportation; it proved the inevitable success of the revolution and the party's vision of itself as an instrument of a supposedly scientifically determined historical destiny.

See also: kaganovich, lazar moyseyevich; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; science and technology policy


Bobrick, Benson. (1981). Labyrinths of Iron: A History of the World's Subways. New York: Newsweek Books.

Jenks, Andrew. (2000). "A Metro on the Mount: The Underground as a Church of Soviet Civilization." Technology and Culture 41:697-724.

Josephson, Paul. (1995). "'Projects of the Century' in Soviet History: Large-Scale Technologies from Lenin to Gorbachev." Technology and Culture 36:519-559.

Andrew Jenks