Visual culture and the Moscow Metro

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James Andrews first rode the Moscow Metro in the 1980s as an undergraduate student studying in the former Soviet Union.

Now after 35 years, the metro is taking him on a new journey: documenting how its iconic public spaces reveal the story of Moscow itself as the city evolved under Joseph Stalin and his Soviet and post-Soviet successors.

This May, Andrews, professor of history, gave a public lecture on his new research project at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C. The Kennan Institute is part of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where Andrews was a former senior resident fellow.

James Andrews presents "Narrating the Soviet Metropolis: Visual Culture in the Moscow Metro" at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2016.

The talk, which has been made available on YouTube, was so well-received that Andrews immediately received an additional invitation to present at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.

What makes the Moscow Metro a fascinating subject for a historian? More people ride the Moscow Metro each day than the New York City Subway and London Tube combined, yet its history is relatively unknown, Andrews said.

“Everyone has a story about the metro, but there has never been a book in English about its history,” Andrews said. “Many of my generation spent an endless amount of time on the metro. Before people had cell phones, you would always say, ‘Well, we’ll meet on the platform at this station.’ Everyone spent time traveling through this cavernous system. It’s a labyrinth really, but at the same time people don’t know much about its history in detail.”

Andrews’ previous books focus on the history of Russian science, technology and the Soviet space program. His new book project on the metro is another opportunity to study iconic Soviet technology, as well as visual culture.

Mayakovskaya metro station in Moscow. (Source: Flickr, Garrett Ziegler) CC-BY-NC-ND<a/a>

The original metro stations, built with deep shaft tunneling methods beginning in 1932, had airy open ceilings with gorgeous bas-relief architecture—a canvas that Stalin used to create a public art monument to socialism.

“Socialist countries had a tendency to produce technologies that they could adorn with stories,” Andrews said. “Their metro was started in the 1930s under Stalin, and they invested a lot of money in it. It was important for two reasons: there was a utilitarian nature. The crowds were incredible in Moscow. They needed better public transportation. People had been flooding in from the countryside during collectivization. The other thing was to come up with a monument to socialism. That’s why they hired all these architects to decorate, and they decorated each station thematically.”

In the years after Stalin’s death, Nikita Khrushchev issued an edict rejecting the metro’s flamboyant architectural style in favor of a pre-fabricated, practical style, Andrews said. At the same time all over the city, de-Stalinization was happening, and street signs, busts of Stalin and station names were changed or removed.

“The irony is Stalin funded it,” Andrews said. “It’s a Stalin-era display technology project, but by the Khrushchev era they were erasing Stalin’s name from it.”

Andrews has had unlimited access to Moscow’s architectural archives, including many original photographic negatives, and will return to Russia next summer to research political archives.

“The Bolsheviks liked to document everything, but I was shocked at how many photographs they had taken of all these projects, documenting every stage and how well they were preserved,” he said.

Throughout his research, he has uncovered more stories hidden within familiar metro spaces.

One Russian architectural archivist told Andrews about being born in the metro in 1942, during a time when its underground stations housed makeshift hospitals, military meetings and even cultural events such as film nights.

Public spaces bear new stories over time, and Andrews is closely following the story told by newly constructed metro stations. New stations are bringing back marble-laden aesthetics and cultural themes that highlight famous Russian figures like chemist Dmitri Mendeleev or writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he said.

“I think the story tells us now that during Putin’s era you see a resurgence of Russian nationalism and Russian themes,” he said. “Not every station can be imploded into this reductive narrative, but it points again to how the narrative of the metro stations changes as the politics of Russian change to some extent and the city itself.”

And it shows how the Moscow Metro has a seemingly endless amount of track for a historian to travel.

“What I love about the project is there is a political history to it, a technological history, a social history, an engineering element, and an artistic element,” Andrews said. “It’s a multi-disciplinary study, which is both fascinating to me and challenging.”