The people’s subway: the Soviet Union’s ornate metros in pictures

The first Soviet workers to board the Moscow metro stations in 1935 waited on platforms that looked more like “palace halls” and drove in cars that, according to satirists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, “all belonged to one class: the highest” . The opulent architecture of the stations – which, according to one estimate, contained more marble than was used in the last five decades of Tsarist Russia – was “socialist both in its form and in its execution,” according to the “hours that a Muscovite spends underground “will not be a burden to him. Imagine – it is pleasant, beautiful and even comfortable underground. “

St. Petersburg, Russia, 2019 © Tomer Ifrah

Ilf and Petrov, who had just returned from a trip to the United States, may have had to write that Stalin’s subway was “immeasurably better.” . . than London, Paris and Berlin ”, but they weren’t wrong either. With 276 stations and trains arriving almost every minute, the Moscow metro is one of the busiest in the world, carrying 2.6 billion passengers in 2019. a major tourist attraction thanks to its imposing neoclassical and brutalist stations, mosaics and sculptures that extol heroic Soviet workers and promise a bright communist future; and, as the writer Owen Hatherley has argued, the one area in which “the practice of the Soviet Union was vastly superior to that of the West”.

Kiev, Ukraine, 2017Kiev, Ukraine, 2017 © Tomer Ifrah

The series by photographer Tomer Ifrah from Moscow and six other former Soviet cities shows how the subways set the worldliness of commuting against a size lost in the past and capture a better future. My way to work in Moscow ended in Kievskaya Koltsevaya, perhaps the largest of them all, adorned with Renaissance-style mosaics depicting the history of Ukraine.

Kiev, Ukraine, 2017Kiev, Ukraine, 2017 © Tomer Ifrah

Nikita Khrushchev, the future Soviet prime minister who oversaw the construction of the system, wrote that its builders saw it as “something almost supernatural.” . . It is probably easier to think about spaceflight today than it is to think about building the Moscow Metro in the early 1930s. “The subway retains its sci-fi appeal, particularly in Metro 2033, an immensely popular novel and series of video games in which the remnants of mankind retreat underground after a nuclear war and the subway becomes a civilization make for yourself.

Moscow, Russia, 2012Moscow, Russia, 2012 © Tomer Ifrah

To prove that a better world is possible under communism, the USSR exported the metro to its colonial “republics” and the Eastern Bloc, where builders adapted their architecture to local styles ranging from avant-garde abstraction in Ukraine to to orientalism in Uzbekistan. More recently, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has introduced convenience, which ranges from WiFi and USB connections to clean toilets and Apple Pay – while opening new stations at breakneck speed.

Moscow, Russia, 2019Moscow, Russia, 2019 © Tomer Ifrah

The best glimpse of this brighter future, however, fell during the 2018 World Cup, when noisy groups of fans from Mexico and Japan mingled with confused locals, turning the normally silent carriages into some sort of underground carnival. It still seems a little shocking to remember the riot police at the exit helpfully giving instructions in recently learned English.

Yerevan, Armenia, 2019Yerevan, Armenia, 2019 © Tomer Ifrah

Like the underground’s original promise, that future still seems a long way off. At the end of January, Moscow and St. Petersburg closed entire parts of their centers to prevent demonstrators from gathering and handed the stations over to riot police in body armor and space helmets. These weren’t the cosmonauts that were promised.

Minsk, Belarus, 2018Minsk, Belarus, 2018 © Tomer Ifrah

Max Seddon is the FT Moscow correspondent

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