Glory Of Moscow's 80-Year-Old Subway Tainted By Stalin Connections

Jun 2, 2015
Originally published on June 2, 2015 9:00 am

Moscow this year is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its subway system — the Moscow Metro — a crowning achievement of the Soviet Union's unprecedented forced industrialization in the 1930s.

One of the world's biggest and busiest subways today, it has dark connections to the repressions of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

To celebrate, Metro officials launched a series of commemorative events. One of the most popular was a parade of vintage subway trains — the oldest of them dating from 1935, when the first section of the Moscow subway was completed.

A brass band played as the freshly renovated trains passed through the ornate stations of Moscow's Circle Line, which loops around the center of the city. Actors in period costumes posed as the first Soviet passengers to enjoy the achievement.

Some of the leading Soviet artists and architects of the day designed the stations, which are known for the mosaics and other artwork that adorn the walls.

Airat Bagautdinov, who leads a tour that's described as "Moscow as seen by an engineer," says a lot of the early work on the tunnel system was accomplished by sheer human sweat.

"The construction of the first line of this Moscow subway is very basic, because they really didn't have much mechanization," Bagautdinov says. "It was a big experiment. They didn't know how to construct the Metro; they didn't know what methods to choose."

At the beginning the builders of the Moscow subway had help from engineers who had worked on the London subway, but Stalin worried that they were learning too much about the layout of the city, so he had them tried for spying and deported.

The construction of the Metro was a major priority for Stalin, who saw it as a way to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over the capitalist world, which at the time was deep in the Great Depression.

He put one of his best managers in charge of the project, Lazar Kaganovich, known for his ruthlessness as the "Iron Commissar."

The project was "one of the highest-profile showcase constructions of the forced industrializations of Stalin's five-year plan," says Stephen Kotkin, a historian at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. "Kaganovich has a high profile in this, because it's got to get done. And they need it to be a success — that is, the Metro's got to work."

The thousands of workers who dug the first subway needed to be fed, along with the tens of thousands who built massive steel plants and tractor factories during the same time. And the Soviets needed hard currency to buy foreign-built machinery for their new industries.

That meant taking the Soviet Union's grain harvest from the farming regions and leaving the people on the farms to starve.

"Kaganovich, like Stalin, bears direct responsibility for the famine," Kotkin says. "Probably 5 [million] to 7 million people died from the famine, across the Soviet Union."

The artwork at many of the stations features representations of idealized Soviet people: soldiers, sailors, brawny industrial workers and collective farm women holding ripe sheaves of grain. They underline the Metro's role as a symbol of Soviet achievement — but they're also an ironic reminder of the ruthless means that were employed to build it.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Moscow is a celebrating the 80th anniversary of their busy subway system. It's one of the biggest subways in the world. When it was built in the 1930s, the metro was a crowning achievement of the Soviet Union, but it has a dark past as part of the country's forced industrialization under Joseph Stalin. NPR's Corey Flintoff has more.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Its 5:30 in the morning at Oktyabrskaya Station, where Metro officials are gathered to send off a parade of vintage subways trains, the oldest of them dating from 1935 when the first section of the Moscow subway was completed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: Each train arrives precisely on schedule at three-minute intervals and gets a sendoff from a brass band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: There's a film loop projected on the whitewashed ceiling of the station. It's from Soviet newsreels of the time showing confident workers shoveling double fast to move dirt out of the deep tunnels and complete the project in record time. Airat Bagautdinov says a lot of the early work on the tunnel system was accomplished by sheer human sweat.

AIRAT BAGAUTDINOV: The construction of the first line of this Moscow subway is very basic because they really didn't have much of the mechanization, much of the machines; but at the same time, very interesting because it was a big experiment. They didn't know how to construct the metro. They didn't know what methods to choose.

FLINTOFF: Bagautdinov is an expert who leads a tour called Moscow as seen by an Engineer. The builders of the Moscow subway had help at the beginning from engineers who'd worked on the London subway, but Stalin worried that they were learning too much about the layout of the city, so he had them tried for spying and deported. The construction of the metro was a major priority for Stalin, who saw it as a way to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over the capitalist world which was deep in the Great Depression. He put one of his best managers in charge of the project, Lazar Kaganovich, known for his ruthlessness as the Iron Commissar.

STEPHEN KOTKIN: It's one of the highest-profile showcased constructions of the forced industrialization of Stalin's five-year plan.

FLINTOFF: Stephen Kotkin is a historian at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

KOTKIN: And Kaganovich has a high profile in this because it's got to get done, and they need it to be a success; that is, the metro's got to work.

FLINTOFF: The thousands of workers who dug the first subway and the tens of thousands who built massive steel plants and tractor factories needed to be fit, and the Soviets needed hard currency to buy foreign-built machinery for their new industries. That meant taking the Soviet Union's grain harvest from the farming regions and leaving the people on the farms to starve.

KOTKIN: Kaganovich, like Stalin, bears direct responsibility for the famine. Probably five to seven million people died from the famine across the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSCOW METRO)

FLINTOFF: That first section of the metro ran about seven miles and had 13 stations. Today, it's a little over 200 miles with almost 200 stops. The system is justly famous for the elaborate decoration of its stations, many of them designed by the leading Soviet architects. Again, Airat Bagautdinov.

BAGAUTDINOV: So there's a story that one of the architects brought his designs to Kaganovich, and Kaganovich said that this station looks too similar to one of the Egyptian palaces. And then the architect, his name was Lushkin, he said that they used to build palaces for pharaohs; we are going to build palaces for the people.

FLINTOFF: Many of the stations have representations of idealized Soviet people - soldiers, sailors, brawny industrial workers and, ironically, muscular collective farm women holding heavy sheaves of grain. They underline the metros role as a symbol of Soviet achievement, but they're also a reminder of the ruthless means that were employed to build it. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.