This is our Tube

Let there be light: named after the electric light bulb company nearby, Electrozavodskaya - with its six rows of incandescent ceiling lights - is one of the most spectacular and iconic stations of the Moscow Metro

Let there be light: named after the electric light bulb company nearby, Electrozavodskaya - with its six rows of incandescent ceiling lights - is one of the most spectacular and iconic stations of the Moscow Metro

The idea of building an underground railway in Moscow first emerged in the 1870s, by which time the city's population was approaching two million. The plan appealed to Alexander II, a fan of innovation, but the Russo-Turkish war and the assassination of the tsar put the project on hold.

In 1902 the idea resurfaced, but owners of horse-drawn trams objected, as did the clergy, who equated the idea with devilry. Then the First World War, the October Revolution, and the civil war meant the Metro's prospects were shelved until 1931.

By then, Moscow was the nation's capital, its population had grown to four million and municipal transportation was an urgent problem. Mosmetrostroy, the state underground-building organisation, was set up in September 1931, and by March 1933 the Soviet government had approved a plan of 10 lines extending over 80 kilometres. Construction was financed by 21pc of the city's annual budget.

Of all of Stalin's grand building projects, this was one of the rare ones for which he did not use convict slave labour. A powerful propaganda campaign was launched in the press, for this grandiose scheme was meant to show the world the superiority of the Communist system. Volunteers flooded in from all over the Soviet Union and worked at record speed despite the difficulties of engineering and geology. There weren't enough pickaxes to go round, so the tunnels were dug with crowbars and shovels.

Thanks to that self-sacrificing labour, the first Metro line was built in a fantastically short period, even by today's standards: two years. On October 15, 1934, the first two Metro cars travelled from the Komsomolskaya station to Sokolniki. And on May 15, 1935, 13 Metro stations accepted their first passengers. By the end of 1939, the Moscow Metropolitan's 22 stations were handling more than a million passengers daily.

Palaces not for pharaohs, but for the people

The Moscow Metro took the London Tube as its model: platforms are situated in the centre, between the tracks. But on Stalin's orders, the Moscow Metro was to be distinguished from its Western counterparts first and foremost by its sumptuous "imperial" style. At a time when the USSR was engaged in destroying huge numbers of its Orthodox churches, palaces were being erected underground, symbols of the new cult. The best architects and artists were pressed into service. Consequently, every station built in the 1930s was a work of art.

Kropotkinskaya, for instance, is a marvel of strict simplicity and elegance. Architect Alexey Dushkin designed the underground space to recall the famous ancient Egyptian temple of Amon at Karnak with lotus-shaped columns.

Legend has it that when Lazar Kaganovich, the Politburo member in charge of the Metro's construction, learnt of this similarity, he was livid. But Dushkin managed to calm him: "The [Egyptians] have palaces for the pharaohs," he said. "We have palaces for the people!"

Kropotkinskaya station was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1941 and the Grand Prix at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. Today the station is protected by Unesco as a monument of world architecture. Komsomolskaya station on the Circle Line has been recognised as a masterpiece. The Circle Line's main architect was the academic Alexey Shchusev, who designed Lenin's Tomb on Red Square. But he also designed churches and used elements of Orthodox architecture in planning Komsolmoskaya station.

The white vaults of the station's tunnels are decorated with stucco moldings without any chromatic "excesses". This was done so as to focus the attention of passengers on the central vault. Its longitudinal axis contains eight gigantic mosaic panels. Komsomolskaya was the first station to use the technique of ancient and Byzantine mosaics: the panels were composed not only of small pieces of different-coloured glass, but also little stones of granite and marble. All the panels are framed with decorative stucco designs, styled in the manner of Orthodox architecture.

Mayakovskaya station is the pearl of the Moscow Metropolitan, a marvel even to those who see it every day. This station was the second created by Dushkin (after Kropotkinskaya) and is also recognised as a monument of world architecture. Here, for the first time, instead of the massive pylons usually used to support the vaults, Duskhin employed slim and fragile columns. This was an exceedingly bold concept at the time, dismissed by foreign experts as "impossible". Mayakovskaya became the first deep-dug columned station in the world.

The Moscow Metro staggered the imagination and elicited all manner of praise. After visiting the USSR, the French novelist and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: "It seems a nation that accords such great significance to splendour and light in a construction such as the Metro, creating a structure that is not only useful but pleasant, has already built the most important thing and is sure of its future."

Stalin's imperial style was brought to a shuddering halt by the accession to power of Nikita Khrushchev, whose chief concern was to keep the economy in check. Under his rule, standard-issue stations were built with no distinguishing architectural features at all.

But times are changing. New stations are being built and money is being poured into their decoration.

See, for instance, the new mosaics in the second vestibule at Mayakovskaya and the recently opened Slavyansky Bulvar.

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