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Excerpt 2: The Moscow metro: seventh wonder of the world
(Taken from 'How To Marry A Russian Bride' by Christopher Coin, pages 252-262.
© Christopher Coin 2009. ISBN 978-0-9564534-0-2)
The Moscow metro was the Communist Party’s compensation for putting everyone in dismal apartment blocks in the outer suburbs. The Soviet authorities didn’t believe in giving people homes with gardens and pitched roofs. Instead the money was all spent here, on art - or a certain kind of art - for the masses, as a kind of collective compensation for the drabness of their lives.
And truly no other metro can compete with the Moscow metro, because no other metro ever tried to do what the Moscow metro did. Everybody else’s metro, like the Underground in London or the Subway in New York or the Paris Metro were simply mass transit systems - huge arteries down which millions of people could be poured, only to pop up later somewhere else. But the Moscow metro didn’t just shift millions of people daily. The Moscow metro had a purpose: not merely to transport them, but also to convince them - of the rightness, the greatness and the superiority of communism itself.
And how was this to be achieved? Simple: by overwhelming the passenger, by overawing him or her with stations of such mind-boggling greatness, beauty and originality that he or she couldn’t help but be won over by whatever had created all this. Of course such an approach wasn’t new: the Christian churches of the middle ages had built giant stone cathedrals for much the same reasons - but you can’t go to work in a giant stone cathedral.
Of course to build such great metro stations would be an enormous undertaking - but no problem, for the full resources of the state would be deployed, almost regardless of cost. And so the finest minds, the best craftsmen and a workforce of thousands (many of them wretched slaves from the prison camp system) were all drafted in. And of course few of those involved in the construction of the Moscow metro were left in any doubt as to its importance. For the Moscow metro didn’t just have to impress and convince Muscovites. It had to convince everyone from the four corners of the communist empire: from China, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Cuba, Angola, wherever. For Moscow was more than just a city. It was the capital of an empire - and the metro was to be the jewel in Moscow’s crown.
And so the golden labyrinth was gradually constructed: this system in which no two metro stations may be the same; in which each metro station has its own theme, its own building materials and its own architectural style - so that it is almost like an island - dedicated to a poet perhaps, or to a writer, or to an event, often a revolutionary one.
And this was to be a system - above all - in which there would be attention to detail; in which even an air vent can be beautiful, lovingly gilded perhaps; or a lamp holder can be painstakingly fashioned, or even a door knob streamlined, in a thousand-and-one tiny details that no one in the West would have bothered with.
After the fall of communism of course the metro became technically redundant, in the sense it was no longer required to propagandise the masses. It was now simply a mass transit system no longer carrying a message.
But only a Vandal or a Goth could seriously have contemplated ripping out the chandeliers and the murals and the exuberant plasterwork, so the decision was taken to keep the metro almost exactly as it had been under the communist days. So the babushkas, those old Russian women who never retire and who do all the menial jobs in the New Russia, just like they did all the menial jobs in the old Soviet Union, so they carried on just as before, polishing, sweeping and tidying, and keeping the metro just as it used to be. And the metro police, those uniformed toughs in their grey paramilitary outfits also carried on as before, standing about in twos and threes, making sure no one dropped any litter, lit a cigarette, or did anything else which might threaten the beautiful infrastructure of the metro.
And just as there had been no advertising under the communist era in the metro (for who would have dared introduce such western poison into their masterpiece?) so now in the post-communist period advertisements would continue to be banned, except for a few small and discreet ones on the long walls of the escalator tunnels leading to the surface - and even then only a few, at the top end right by the exits.
So the metro itself became a museum, a living breathing fully functioning monument to a failed ideology - but one that you could walk through on your way to work. It became a snapshot, a cross section, a perfectly preserved and glittering display of the folly that was communism, of art for a corrupt purpose, and a warning of the dangers of pompous self-aggrandisement built on suffering. It became, in short - at least to Dave - simultaneously ridiculous, beautiful and fascinating.
And where precisely does this communist art reach its zenith? At Revolution Square of course, one of the oldest stations on the network. For here, around the corners of the pillars which separate the central walkway from the platforms, are crouching figures made of bronze: figures bearing messages - messages which though unwritten are fascinating.
For this was art fully applied to the power of the state, and - in the case of the bronze figures at Revolution Square - it is art of the highest quality, so that the figures are almost painfully beautiful, so that Dave returns time and time again.
Dave sees two girls in komsomol dresses with scarves studying a globe. There are two little boys with model aeroplanes. (For the communist party approved of model aeroplanes.) Next to them a sailor crouches, alert on watch. A supremely fit footballer kneels, an agricultural worker rests, an engineer holds a toothed cog deep in thought. An airman hauls in his parachute. A woman student reads, while another woman - this time an olympian - holds a discus.
Here there is physical idealisation, for all these figures have strength. They have finely honed bodies, they are ideal types. But more than this they have certainty, resolution - for here there is no place for that liberal institution: reasonable doubt. For here the thinking has all been done - and now there is only the doing.
And here the figures so often gaze into the distance, somewhere far ahead, like the engineer Dave saw in the paintings at ‘Kiev’ station. This is because they are looking into the future - the socialist future they will build. Or like the sailor crouching with his binoculars, they are scanning for enemies they will overcome.
Of course education - the right kind of education that is - was a key feature of the Soviet system. Educating people showed socialism was working, consciousness was being raised and illiteracy was being got rid of. And of course the Soviet system did actually need large numbers of economists, mathematicians, engineers, teachers and planners - and even communist party members.
So it is hardly surprising that the most interesting sculpture - to Dave at least - belongs to a student. Unlike his female colleague who has her nose buried demurely in a book, this thoughtful man stares into the distance, at that socialist future they’re all going to build. On this student’s knee rests a book, but he’s not reading it - he doesn’t need to - he knows all the important things in it already. His face is strong. His features are fine yet determined. They are brilliantly sculpted and show a face you can look at for hours: a face that is both strong and intelligent. Similarly his physique is perfect: a muscular torso with powerful arms, for this student is a superman, a god who combines physical strength with mental power. This crouching student is an idealised type, a colossus, the perfect Soviet man: unflinching yet intelligent.
But Dave knows that even this man only has an education in the narrow sense of solving technical problems, like how to build a better tank or a space rocket or a dam. He can no doubt make complex arithmetical calculations, but he cannot ask the really big question, the why-question: why people cannot think for themselves. For despite this superman’s technical training, he cannot question his first principles, the first principles of communism that is. For this whole display of proletarian strength, idealised sportsmen and olympian superwomen is based on a corrupt supposition: that they’ve all got to do what they’re told, that you must never think, because in communism all the thinking has been done for you.
Corrupt muses Dave. Corrupt but fascinating and sometimes, in some aspects of its art as here, great. And how marvellous it is to stand amongst these remains of a lost civilisation and a completely different way of life! How remarkable it is to be here, to marvel at the artistic products of this failed system, to know how wrong it was, how terrible its consequences were, but above all, to have had the liberal education the people these statues represent never got!
And so Dave walks down the platform. He passes two sculptures of partisans, resistance fighters against the Germans. One of them is a bearded man with a dog which is brilliantly sculpted. The other is of a woman resistance fighter with a rifle. And Dave stops and wonders. For what exactly was the position of women in Soviet Russia?
Were Soviet women really to be treated as equals or as baby machines? Technically of course they were equals, but as Dave approaches the sculpture of the woman student he sees that her head is buried demurely in a book - while it is the male student, that superman with his strong torso and powerful arms who was looking ahead, who had glimpsed the distant objective.
And here the sculpted faces of the women’s statues convey little. They are technically well formed but anodyne and empty. It is the men’s faces which are strong and brilliantly sculpted and so full of meaning. It is their faces which convey the certainty, the conviction, the doing and the message.
And so even though paying lip service to equality, these statues betray a deep paternalism in Soviet Communism: that it was the man who had glimpsed the future.
And what about this obsession with olympianism? Wasn’t all this disturbingly similar to that Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, actually called ‘Olympia’? Doesn’t fascism, whether of the left or right, end up worshiping the same things? And wasn’t fascism also a doctrine in which the thinking had all been done, and in which there was only the doing?
And come to think of it didn’t both regimes do terrible things? Didn’t they both have murderous secret police forces and vast systems of forced labour which consumed the lives of millions, lubricated by a brutal ideology that showed an utter disregard for human life, so that ultimately there was no difference between the eagle and the star?
And wasn’t art like this simply a gloss, a thin layer, a veneer over a giant cesspit of suffering of mind-boggling proportions?
True. All true, thinks Dave to himself. And yet Dave knows they were right not to tear it all down. And so Dave goes on his way. He travels further into the metro, this snapshot of a nation’s history, simultaneously saddened, fascinated and uplifted, as he should be, as any person with a liberal education would be, conscious of its fascinating contradictions, of the madness which created it and yet the impossibility of destroying it.
And so Dave ranges far and wide over the Moscow Metro. His heart is won over by its stunning diversity, its endless surprises, the manifest care and attention that was lavished on it, the almost obsessive cleanliness of it, and the tons of marble, onyx, granite, labradorite and rhodonite that went into the making of it.
Of course Dave keeps a eye out for the metro police, those uniformed toughs with their batons and polished boots and grey paramilitary outfits. For they are constantly on the lookout for someone to pick on - and down here dropping a crisp wrapper or climbing a barrier could easily be a big and possibly painful mistake.
And so Dave travels far out from the centre. He heads for the distant stations, the brand new ones, sleek streamlined essays in reductionism like a Annino, far down at the bottom of the grey line: a super-smooth spaceship of a station.
Then Dave moves back in, stopping at what were once the far outreaches, but which have long since been overtaken. These stations are old now, but this in turn makes them interesting, for they too obey the rule that no two stations may be alike, but using older techniques and materials which have acquired a patina over time. Thus Dave stops at Dinamo,where there are porcelain bas-reliefs of footballers and where the frosted coloured lights look a little faded, but this simply adds to their appeal. Meanwhile at Aeroport, which of course was for the original Moscow airport, there are radiating lines which swirl around the walls and ceilings of the platforms and the main walkway, resembling lines of longitude and latitude. And even the barest of stations, Dave discovers, always has some saving feature, some little adornment, however modest, perhaps moulded bronze flourishes at the top of otherwise plain square pillars, or a some simple mural or mosaic - but something to give that station its hallmark.
And so Dave comes to gentle Prospect Mira, which means 'Peace Avenue', with its bas-relief porcelain figures of children playing or actors performing or singers singing. And Dave changes trains at 'Mendeleyev', named after the scientist who formulated the periodic table, with its lights in the form of a chain of atoms running along the ceiling of the main walkway between the platforms. Then Dave transfers to its sister station on the circle line, which has beautiful illuminated stained glass panels set into its walls - naturally incorporating the Soviet star.
And Dave stands respectfully at 'Partisanskaya', a station dedicated to the resistance fighters in the war with the Nazis. Here he finds a statue of a woman partisan, a Hero of the Soviet Union. She died on the 29th November 1941 'in the defence of Moscow'.
This young woman has a cherubic face and short hair. But she wears heavy boots and a rough skirt and has a rifle over her shoulder. She looks away from you, as though scanning the horizon, as she prepares to play her part ‘in the defence of Moscow’.
She is typical of so many Russian heroes from that time, remembered posthumously, like all the others who didn’t make it. There are so many like this in Russia, like at Novodevichy Cemetery, where there were those three grim-jawed pilots who seemed to know they would not be coming back. And each one of them seems to stand for yet another million who died in that unimaginable pool of suffering called the war with the Germans.
So Dave heads back to the centre, to the stations he loves the most: the magnificent odes to communism, gloriously opulent essays in raised plasterwork and ceiling paintings, like 'Komsomol', 'October' and 'Kiev'. Here Dave stands or sits for hours amongst these full-blown orgies of political exhortation, in golden borders, where Lenin and Kalinin appear time and time again.
Then Dave comes to ‘Mayakovsky’, where he stands in the entrance lobby and sees a floor of shimmering marble; and all about him stainless steel fittings and hidden lighting and polished wood; while up above him is a ceiling mosaic of rainbows, clouds and moonlit nights, and quotations from the poetry of this great Russian writer. And Dave wonders: is this the atrium of an international hotel - or simply an art gallery?
Than Dave descends to track level, where tall thin pillars trimmed with chrome vault ever upwards, to a perfectly plastered ceiling, into which recesses have been built, containing yet more mosaics illuminated by - of course - hidden lighting. However these pictures have none of the dour formalism of the ceiling paintings of 'Kiev' or 'Komsomol'; here the pictures are dreamy, airy and bright, as though they were all done on summer days. Their pastel colours and simplified forms show construction workers building, aeroplanes flying and space ships returning to earth, depicted in an airy, floating style. Was this how the socialist future briefly seemed to look?
And so it goes on. Dave visits 'Paveletskaya', which resembles an English cathedral with its twin rows of supporting pillars advancing down the central walkway, as though it were the nave of St Paul’s; and he stops at 'Aviamotornaya'where he stares in amazement at the multi-faceted ceiling; and he takes in the baroque sumptuousness of 'Arbatskaya' (at the eastern end of the Arbat) which looks more like the inside of an opera house than a metro station.
And Dave walks down long connecting corridors between lines, each one with a different design theme. He walks for what seems like miles underground, carried ever onwards, past endlessly changing styles - and all this between the stations themselves - in a fantastical mystery tour where a naked light bulb or a bare florescent tube would an unthinkable disgrace, an unspeakable stain upon the beauty of the whole; where nothing is merely functional, where nearly every surface, pillar, light, seat, floor, ceiling, door, air grille or skylight has either been embossed, embellished, streamlined or gilded.
Dave walks past murals at the closed ends of the central walkways, some stark and black-and-white and influenced by machine-art, like the one at Novokuznetskaya, or colourful but sombre, like the one at 'Victory Park'. He passes intricate bas reliefs, friezes, sculptures, monuments and busts. He crosses acres of patterned stone and marble flooring and lifts his head to see a hundred vaulted ceilings, each one different, sometimes stunning and often beautiful. And he sees that wealth of smaller features which makes you stop and stare: those brass lamp holders and grille covers and lights that have absorbed hundreds of unnecessary man hours for each item, which were completely uncalled for in terms of the bare essentials required of a metro station, but which are precisely what make it so fascinating, so beautiful and so unique.
And Dave discovers what many others have found before him: that you can travel for hours, days down here and never see it all. Everything’s here, absolutely everything, all set out for you with an utter disdain for western design precepts; where no detail is too small to matter and where no fantastical dream is too great to become a reality.
But alas Dave cannot be here for ever. So sadly, reluctantly, he turns for the exits. But of course he does so enthralled, inspired and uplifted. And so Dave finally takes the long escalators back up to the surface, in that slow motion ballet in which you stand still, yet you are magically transported upwards, and all the time you are watching the people on the other escalator going downwards. And as you stand there you are able to momentarily glimpse into the faces of those passengers going the other way; you are able to see into their lives for a brief instant, and see a snapshot of that other person before they disappear for ever. And Dave sees lovers kissing (they do that a lot on the Moscow Metro) and soldiers in dress uniforms with peaked caps. He sees students talking, people reading and beautiful Russian women flouncing, all momentarily in his field of vision then gone. And all this stunning variety, this feast, is Dave’s for the equivalent of 30 pence per journey.
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