The tale of Moscow’s subway

Once upon a time, in the year of 1902, in a far-away land, there lived two brave men, Pyotr Balinski and Evgeny Knorre. Pyotr and Evgeny were two young, skillful engineers. One day, these two enthusiastic engineers told the fairy tale of a path to the world beneath daylight through an “underground metro” to the highly ranked people of Moscow: the Moscow City Duma. The Duma consisted of very wealthy rich men. They have never had to experience the traffic of their busy city and never had problems going anywhere. And, of course, they did not approve of the two young men’s foolish idea; Nevertheless, Pyotr and Evgeny did not back down. They persisted, and after five proposals, the Duma finally approved. Eventually, in the year 1935, the first metro opened.

That is, however, not even near the end of the tale of Russian underground life. When the doors of the subway first opened, it was like a gate into the most readily available and accessible transportation for the city’s population. Anyone trying to get to work and from school, in any weather and at any time, would now be enjoying their trips in a “luxurious palace for the people” instead of dirty buses and trolleys. The vivid images of Stalin, portrayed as mosaics and tile panels, covered the ceilings and walls of this new level of the Moscow city which was meant to be an ideological move to eulogize the young Soviet country.

The same artists that designed and created the original interior of this new underground world were the same ones to invent the mosaic icons for the St. Petersburg Church of the Savior of Blood.

Stalin's portrait as a mosaic in Moscow's metro

Stalin portrayed in mosaic form in one of Moscow’s metro stations


Bronze sculptures of workers, soldiers, and other every-day Soviet people are portrayed in 76 bronze sculptures throughout different stations. Any average person who will now be using the newly invented transportation will now have these wonderful works of art to relate to while they travel. There are even some small good luck charms incorporated into these sculptures for the superstitious travelers and other believers.

lucky dog in Moscow's metro

Rub the dog’s nose and have good luck!


The architecture took quite a few twists and turns throughout history ever since the first trains welcomed some daring passengers. This diverse history is exactly what makes Moscow’s subway as unique, abstract, and amazing as it is. With Stalin’s death in 1953, all of his art depictions were completely removed, the metro was renamed after Lenin and the images of Lenin completely replaced everything from the years past. In 1955, the metro went from its grand baroque style of the Stalinist era to the complete elimination of extravagance in design and construction, which was decreed by the Communist party: this ensured that everything built in that period, both above and below ground, was bland and boring. In 2002, the 30s and 40s architecture was reintroduced along with portrayals of book characters and scenes from popular authors such as Dostoyevsky.

Metro station

metro station

metro station
another view of an original metro station

The metro went from being merely an idea, a fairy tale, to 11km underground with 13 stations, to 300km with 12 lines and 182 stations, to monorail tracks, and now plans of over 120 more kilometers to be built.

The expanding underground world is also looking to become safer. The Moscow underground railways have been repeatedly bombed and attacked in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, numerous times in 2004, and 2010; along with smaller crimes and attacks happening monthly. The statistics are shocking. In hopes of alleviating such threats,  authorities are attempting to adopt new security technology. Just recently, news about VibraImage 7.5, a “new smart video surveillance system which automatically identifies potential threats, such as aggravated and distressed passengers” were reported on The Voice of Russia; this will hopefully help the city authorities prevent crime and terrorist acts which have been  killing thousands and scaring millions of people of this world.

Not only does the safety of the metro have a promising future, but designs of the new stations, additions, and renovations are making even me want to go back and re-visit. Some twitters link to the future of Moscow’s metro:



And, indeed, new designs of some of the new stations are quite “pretty” and do contain “badass hipsters”:

Farganskaya station project B

Ferganskaya station project B

Uhtomskaya poject B

Uhtomskaya project B

Okskaya project B

Okskaya project B

This isn’t the end of the story, either, and there’s always room for improvement, but for now, I’m going to leave it at that. And as the Russian folk tales usually end…

“They lived happily ever after

And that is my faithful tale’s end, while he who listened is my own true friend…”

What’s Lurking Beneath Moscow?

The cartoon above depicts Moscow Metro chief Dmitry Gayev putting up a sign in the subway that translates to, “Checked, no ghosts!”

Like most cities that have a subway system, Moscow’s Metro has its share of urban legends.

The ones about paranormal activity in the Moscow Metro appear to be so prevalent that Gayev had to publicly dispel these rumors. In this Russian news article, he says (roughly translated)

The Metro is a very boring organization… there are no ghosts here, or anything like that. I’ve worked in the subway for 18 years and I have not seen any… At night, I have shouted “Where are you, dear?” and nobody has been found.

As Halloween draws near, let’s take a look at some Moscow subway tales that have had the Russians so spooked. Which one is the most popular?

After briefly surveying Russian blog entries such as this translated post, the winner seems to be the Ghost Train. It’s centered around a completely empty train that appears once a month after midnight, driven by prisoners who died while working on the construction of the subway.

This translated post lists more stories, including the Preobrazhenskaya Square Station, which is “built on the bones of the dead” – a huge cemetery, and rumored to be haunted by priests that were killed by Bolsheviks.

The post also mentions a tribe that lives underground, of people who once descended into the ground and has since lived there in the darkness.”

Russian blogger Anastasia Carroll gives an overview of the history of the mystique of the Moscow underground in her post here.

The Moscow underground is one of the most mysterious areas of Russia. The labyrinth under Moscow was started in XV century in the reign of Ivan the Terrible. He dug Russia along and across. Some tunnels led to the neighbor principalities hiding in their bosom mysterious stories and unrevealed facts and maybe treasures of Russian ancestors.

She also mentions diggers, who have explored the underground and have found deep dungeons, neolithic caves and “pilot objects that the diggers don’t want to talk about because they don’t have enough information.” It seems like these diggers are similar to what Americans call urban explorers.

In the second post of this series, Carroll talks about legends that these diggers have brought back to the surface. One of them is mutants – giant rats, ducks with fish skin, and weird insects.

They have also have brought back a fair share of ghost stories.

While exploring the tunnels underneath the Sklif medical institute, diggers have claimed that they encountered a ghost of a woman that appeared from a concrete wall. In an attempt to escape, one digger hit his head badly and they took him upstairs to the hospital. While waiting for the doctor, they were shocked to see on a wheelbed the body of the woman whose ghost they had just seen. She had died 30 minutes ago when the diggers were still underground.

I’ve never heard of ghosts in the subway during my eight year stay in New York City, but there is a widespread urban legend of the Mole People, which echoes the Russian underground tribe I mentioned earlier. The 1993 book by Jennifer Toth, The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels underneath New York City depicts vivid and harrowing images of individuals and communities living underneath the NYC subway system. A debate has been raging on since. Here’s an article from The Straight Dope that gives a pretty fair account on both sides.

The article ends with,

Parts of Toth’s book are true, parts of it aren’t, and you take your chances deciding which are which.

There are also stories about about people being attacked by giant killer rats in the NYC subways. I have personally witnessed an abnormally sized rat the size of a cat scurrying across the subway tracks. Luckily, it ran away instead of savagely biting off a chunk of my arm, but it fit the physical description pretty well. So, yeah, it’s most likely that parts of the rumors are true, and parts of them aren’t.