Metro Blues, or How I Came to America
In October, 2004, on the eve of the New York subway centennial, the Czech-born photographer Peter Peter published a survey of the system called “The Subway Pictures.” The images are marvelously spare, the camera concerned with little besides the often extraordinary attributes of ordinary subway riders. Peter’s approach makes sense: The most noticeable thing about the New York subway is the people who ride it. Otherwise, it’s pretty unremarkable down there — nondescript station walls, orderly MetroCard lines, battleship-gray train cars delivering passengers from one place to another.
If you’re looking for a less purely utilitarian experience, the subway’s aesthetics don’t encourage it. There are the imaginatively whimsical, if diminutive, Arts for Transit installations — the “Lariat Seat Loops” around the station columns at 33rd Street; the nearly two hundred silhouettes of New Yorkers “Carrying On” at Prince Street — and the inevitable curlicues of graffiti. For the most part, however, a New York subway ride, for all its heat and overcrowding, is the height of functionalist banality, and the city’s inhabitants are largely sanguine about the experience.
Eighteen years ago, on my first trip down below, this was a shock. Just days before, my family had completed a three-month immigration to New York from the Soviet Union. Before departing, in September, 1988, on a westbound train from Minsk, my hometown and the capital of what is now independent Belarus, we traveled to Moscow to arrange our immigration papers. Minsk, which had been occupied by the Nazis, was virtually leveled during World War II, which gave its post-war satraps a clean slate to reconstruct the city according to the architectural dictates of socialist realism. Stadium-sized concrete boxes squatting on concrete pillars in enormous windswept plazas became its most distinguishing feature. Its thoroughfares — eight lanes wide to accommodate Soviet tanks in case of “imperialist aggression” by the Americans — made the homicidal circle around the Arc de Triomphe seem like a country road.
The train from Minsk arrived at Moscow’s appropriately named Belorussky Depot, which has two adjacent namesakes, belonging to two different lines, that are part of Moscow’s subway system (metro, from the French metropoliten, in Russian). In a kind of reversal of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 short story “A Visit to the Museum,” where a stroll through a provincial French museum transports a Russian emigre to a pre-Soviet Russia, I felt like the train from Minsk to Moscow’s Belorusskaya Stations essentially airlifted me from an otherworldly, post-apocalyptic Soviet wasteland to a museum. In one of the Belorusskayas (in Russian, metro station is female, whereas intercity depot is male), the pylons of the station-hall were finished with rose and black marble; the chessboard-square floor was marble as well. In the other Belorusskaya, which was lit by vase-shaped lanterns made of glass and marble, the ceilings arched toward decorative bas-reliefs, the central one featuring twelve motifs from Belarussian life. The passageway between the two stations contained a monumental sculpture commemorating anti-Nazi resistance in Belarus during WWII. As we shuttled between the passport agency, an uncle’s apartment where we were staying, and sites in the city, though, the Belorusskayas would come to seem like some of central Moscow’s humblest stations.
At Ploshchad’ Revoliutsii (Revolution Square), dozens of bronze statues anchored the curved portals (made of red, black, and light-gold marble) leading from the center hallway to the train platform. They formed a narrative of Soviet progress, from Civil War soldiers strapped with ammunition belts; engineers with building plans; laborers with hydraulic drills; and farmers working with wheat to scholars poring over books; parents playing with children; and students tracing the contours of the USSR on a globe. The aboveground entrance to Krasnye Vorota (Red Gates), where the ancient gates to the city of Moscow once stood, was a futuristic series of concentric semicircles expanding from the ground with modernist flair; from the side, the structure resembled a giant telescope, rising, submarine-like, from below. Komsomolskaya (after Komsomol, the Communist Youth League), one of the first stations built, had side balconies dressed in brown-gold marble and soaring columns with Corinthian cornices decorated with hammer-and-sickle designs and red stars.
I was awestruck.
The Moscow metro was the Soviet Union’s consciously created self-creation myth. Built in the 1930s, the system presented the recently established leaders of the new Soviet state with the unique opportunity of an institution that could be Soviet from scratch, without any of the ideological compromises required by existing, pre-Soviet structures. The project’s leaders knew that the metro would be built with Western technology — Moscow was the fifteenth metro system in the world, a half-century behind Glasgow; perhaps more importantly, the three Soviet engineers who had experience with subway tunneling all happened to be in jail for “economic sabotage.” But if the means had to be borrowed from the West, the meaning would be entirely Soviet. The Moscow metro would demonstrate the singularity and supremacy of the Soviet experiment through the one element that London, Berlin, and New York had neglected: its appearance.
The grandiosity of the task seems only more staggering considering the meager means at the state’s disposal. Metroproekt, the system’s original architecture and planning bureau, lacked office space two years into the project. Facing a shortage of concrete, administrators demolished four Moscow churches, the historic Church of Christ the Savior among them. The construction of the first station, Sokolniki, in November, 1931, proceeded with a workforce of twelve (!) men hacking uselessly at the frozen topsoil with pick-axes and shovels, in possession of neither the pumps to clear the water-logged soil nor even a building plan showing where they would dig next. Their excavations regularly burst water mains and sewer pipes and damaged the foundations of nearby buildings. Exercising the Soviet apparatchik’s mandatory disdain for accountability, Nikita Khrushchev — then the chief assistant to Lazar Kaganovich, the Commissar of Transportation and director of metro construction — decided that residents would not be informed unless their buildings were about to collapse. In one case, a ground-floor tenant was asleep one night when tunnelers working beneath her building came too close to the surface, her bed plummeting as the earth opened up from below. (She escaped without injury.)
Kaganovich and Co. kept going. In 1934, the metro consumed a fifth of the city’s budget, with station aesthetics reportedly claiming 75% of that amount. Bronze, brass, rare woods, and crystal for the chandeliers — not to mention twenty three types of marble — were rushed from the Urals, Siberia, the Caucasus, and Belorussia. “The Metro should be built so that it is beautiful,” said Kaganovich, who personally managed the twelve architectural studios he established for the project, whose architects were ordered to spend “at least 40% of their time creating high quality decorative work,” according to a government document. The commemorative 1936 publication “The Architecture of the Moscow Metro,” put it more poetically: “[I]n every piece of marble lies the soul of a new man.”
This marble was meant to “move [the new man of Moscow] through the city ideologically as well as physically,” as another official assessment had it, and the stations fulfilled this double duty — ideological enlightenment by means of aesthetic grandeur — with spellbinding effect. Mayakovskaya, built in 1938 as part of a second line of stations, featured columns lined in green-pink marble and stainless steel, but, even more strikingly, a ceiling panorama of miniature mosaics tiled into 36 oval cupolas. In one, jets soared protectively over the Kremlin; in another, Soviet athletes pursued world records; elsewhere, a lean, muscular woman directed an enormous tractor through a field of grain, a red kerchief at her neck and the Soviet flag at her back. Mayakovskaya was so sumptuous that, in November, 1941, when the war had made aboveground gatherings risky, the Soviet leadership celebrated the 24th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution there. “It is the first subway in which beauty has been attempted,” marveled Harold Denny, the New York Times reporter in Moscow. By 1936, official Soviet literature commonly referred to the stations as “palaces.”
Even more uniquely, popular devotion did not have to be decreed from above. Though subsequent lines — a second was built in the late 1930s; a third during World War II; and the fourth mostly in the 1950s — favored occasionally kitschy monumental propaganda over the sleek, spare modernism of the first line (a certain amount of formal experimentation was still possible in the early 1930s), Muscovites developed an affection for the metro prompted by few other Soviet institutions. Its opulence and reliability — “It’s one of the few things in Russia that works,” as a Moscow curator of an exhibit about the metro remarked in 1994 — evoked loyalty even when the awesome fraud of the Communist experiment had made irredeemable cynics of virtually the entire Soviet population.
In the early days, there was a sense of personal investment: 75,000 people helped build the metro, with another 100,000 volunteering on weekends without pay. In later years, it became the rare place where the Soviet citizen, otherwise forced to live a double life of faked enthusiasm, could for a moment feel a harmony between his private and public self; where even the Soviet dream remained alive (and, these days, where pensioners made obsolete by the rapacity and amnesia of the post-Soviet order feel less unwanted). In the humiliating, divisive struggle that was aboveground life, Soviet citizens pillaged every imaginable aspect of the state — the state had denied them any sense of ownership, and, in any case, gave them few other means of survival — but they treated the metro like a museum.
I doubt I registered much of the metro’s ideological symbolism when I visited; at the age of nine, it struck me as a wonderland, a monument to beauty. It was a place where a government had elected to honor the heart and soul on par with politics and profit, though I wouldn’t understand the uniqueness of this kind of worldview for years. There was nothing about my homeland that I would lack more after moving to the United States.
I spent my initial tour of the New York subway system somewhat perplexed; where was everything? Where were the chandeliers and bas-reliefs, the sepulchral, pious stillness?
The masterminds of the New York subway had also imagined their system as a landmark of civic art — a testament to New York’s increasing prominence in world affairs. William Barclay Parsons, the chief engineer, toured European stations with an eye for design; August Belmont, the main private financier, set aside half a million dollars for station decoration. (Notably, Belmont, like the other great booster of the subway, former Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, was an unabashed Brahmin disdainful of the recent influx of immigrants partly for whose benefit the subway was being built. The subway was expected to disperse the unsanitary slums where immigrants crowded because less dense parts of the city weren’t easily reachable.)
C. Grant LaFarge, the architect, decided on classical gravitas; New York’s elites were too nouveau riche to appreciate the art-nouveau experimentation of the Paris and Vienna systems. Some of the results were quite striking: the City Hall station featured chandeliers, Romanesque vaults of Guastavino tile, and skylights of leaded glass. The Astor Place station received a kushk, a cast-iron and glass kiosk modeled on entrances to the Budapest subway. For the station at 72nd Street and Broadway, LaFarge designed a lovely Flemish Renaissance control house. More than a dozen stations featured decorative panels, Norman brick wall bases, faience or terra-cotta cornices, and wide ornamental moldings and rosettes on the ceilings. At Astor Place, the ceramic mosaic depicted a beaver, an acknowledgment of John Jacob Astor’s fortune in furs. At Clark Street in Brooklyn, there was a festive mosaic of a church spire, trees, and two steamships, in a nod to the nearby wharves. (In general, however, most of the stations were so relatively unadorned that, when the subway opened, some city eye doctors publicly expressed concern about the glare produced by the blindingly white walls as the trains sped by.)
On October 27, 1904, recently elected Mayor George McClellan inaugurated the new system by steering a wagonload of VIPs from City Hall toward Harlem. Some of the mandarins were skeptical. One of the passengers regretfully noted that the ceiling was the color of a battleship: “If there was a Russian Admiral on this train he’d pull out his revolver and pump holes in that ceiling!” the next day’s New York Times recorded him saying. A visiting Congressman from Chicago was even more critical: “You ride like the wind, but it smells like a cellar.”
The ride’s biggest disappointment flashed by outside the car: three-foot commercial advertisements in cheap tin frames leaned against the station walls for mounting by workmen, who had already drilled massive holes into LaFarge’s delicate tilework. There was the Coke Dandruff Cure, Evans Ale (“Live the Simple Life”), and, should the ale cause problems, Hunyadi Janos, “A Positive Cure for Constipation.” McClellan was outraged, but capitalism would carry the day: the ads, arranged by Belmont, stayed, as they guaranteed a modest return of the subway’s bonded debt.
In the first days, riders seemed to resent the eyesore as well, turning the ads toward the wall or tipping them over, but they gave up soon enough. There was, in the end, nothing extraordinary about the subway, a piece of technology subject to the laws of aboveground life just like any other fixture of their lives. This was evident, as the New York Times reported with a little surprise, even on the subway’s first day: “It was astonishing, though, how easily the passengers fell into the habit of regarding the Subway as a regular thing. While the crowds above were still eagerly watching the entrances to see men emerge, were still enthralled by the strangeness of it all, the men on the trains were quietly getting out at their regular stations and going home, having finished what will be to them the daily routine for the rest of their lives. It is hard to surprise New York permanently.”
This was a sign of things to come. By 1905, workers were already removing the elegant kushks — they obstructed views of traffic and blocked the sidewalk. (The Astor Place kiosk visible today is actually a recreation.) The City Hall station closed in 1945 due to inadequate use and structural shortcomings. Future subway expansions — a second stretch of construction, from 1907 to 1913, brought the subway to the outer boroughs, and a third, from 1932-1940, multiplied the routes — featured largely functional station designs without much concern for aesthetics. (Though a ubiquitous ad urged New Yorkers to take the subway to Flushing Meadows for the 1939 World’s Fair, it would be the Moscow metro’s Mayakovskaya station that would win the Fair’s Grand Prix.) By the 1960s, the original LaFarge mosaics from the first line were disappearing, as part of renovations, as well. Even before, they’d been virtually ignored. When, in 1957, a subway rider called the Transit Authority public relations office to inquire about the mosaics, the TA publicity man was baffled: “What mosaics? In our subway?”
In 1936, a group of left-wing artists sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had tried to alter the subway’s appearance. “Here, in the largest, richest, most complex and interesting city in the world, the subjects of the decorative plaques are a beaver, a ferry boat and the cupola of City Hall!‚” the group’s chairman exclaimed to the press. Disparaging New York subway aesthetics as unimaginative and unsuited to the task of uplifting the weary rider — the Moscow subway was approvingly cited as a counterexample — the artists produced proposals for socially conscious artworks celebrating subway construction and pillorying the capitalist rat race. City fathers were horrified: “Never have I seen such uncanny, uncouth and unkempt men and women as these pictures portray, in the agony of their horrible huddle under the ground,” a deputy mayor remarked. The idea went nowhere.
Graffiti artists besieged the system in the 1970s, both as vandalism by an urban underclass stymied by the growing gap between rich and poor and as a means of artistic expression, and, in 1985, with the Arts for Transit program, the Metropolitan Transit Authority finally realized that station aesthetics were essential to creating the impression of a safe and reliable subway. But, after those early years, there were no significant top-down attempts to endow the system with cultural significance, with meaning beyond its function as a form of transport. (What few attempts there were always came from well outside the establishment.) America wasn’t really the place for that sort of thing.
In 2000, I returned to the former Soviet Union for the first and only time since my family left. In my first years in the United States, I had studiously neglected my heritage; I was working hard to become an American. Eventually, my background became less threatening, and I started re-discovering Russian culture, even majoring in Russian literature in college. A return was inevitable. I would spend the summer of 2000 working for the American embassy in Moscow.
Once in Moscow, I didn’t have to wait long for a Proustian frisson: Entering the metro on the way from Sheremetyevo airport, I nearly buckled from the scent of the escalator lubricant. A commentator on the Moscow-metrophiles’ website metro.ru mentions its “melancholy escalators,” and, as risible as such comments may seem to foreign riders, I experienced the encounter more deeply than I had been touched in more than a decade of American life. That smell was an ineffable, olfactory distillation of… home.
The following weeks were less welcoming. I wasn’t as impressionable as I had been in 1988, and, Moscow, always known for a capital’s self-importance and coarseness, had become furious. The intervening years of political and economic exploitation by small bands of corrupt political insiders had produced humiliating, divisive inequality; the metro was as stunning as I remembered, but the faces in the cars were haggard, embittered, and quick to violence. I was maligned as a Jew; a traitor who had abandoned his country; an imperialist whose embassy residence had been sacrilegiously built on what was once the Czar’s hunting grounds. There were plenty of moments like that first step into the subway, but, for the most part, Moscow was a place forced to endure sadistic privation by a coterie of princes who reaped the nation’s riches and demonized outsiders for their citizens’ hardships. Exiting a metro car on the way to work one morning, I — trained by what is more or less a ritual of the New York subway — offered to help a young woman with a baby carriage at the bottom of a long stairway. She stared at me with dull surprise. “Nobody does that anymore,” she said.
In an ode to the Moscow metro published in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Victor Pelevin, the Russian novelist, wrote: “[The metro’s aboveground] station entrances look like tiny mausoleums, but, at the same time, Lenin’s mausoleum looks like a metro entrance. Actually, the entire metro, which has long been named after Lenin, is a virtual mausoleum — the mausoleum of an idea, the mausoleum of the future, the mausoleum of a dream.”
The Soviet Union is certainly extinct, but I would disagree with Pelevin’s broader point. The Soviet idea is far from dead, perhaps because, catastrophically, it’s a quintessentially Russian idea that pre-dated the Soviets by many centuries. I saw it in the Moscow metro in 2000 and you can see it just as easily almost anywhere you look in Russia today, whether you see the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky imprisoned after a show trial for daring to challenge the Putin political machine, or Duma parliamentarians urging the ban of Jewish organizations on the grounds of their adherence to a religion “anti-Christian and inhumane, whose practices extend even to ritual murders.”
Russia has almost never belonged to the Russian people; rather, its bounty has historically been hoarded by a select few who exploited the motherland’s name to rally the citizenry to the frequently catastrophic causes they conjured. For all its otherworldly beauty, the Moscow metro, which was built on the backs of ordinary men and women — who were requisitioned for the task like serfs but nonetheless believed in its promise with all their hearts — doesn’t belong to its people. It belongs to an eternal idea of Russian supremacy that happily swallows its own. The state actually imagines this cult of Saturn-like self-immolation to be essential to that idea’s vitality. One can’t imagine graffiti artists widely using the Moscow metro as a canvas either for socioeconomic frustration or artistic expression, or a municipal agency encouraging contemporary artists to improve station design. The Moscow metro is a museum, and don’t you dare touch anything.
No, graffiti art and Arts for Transit, however banal they may have initially seemed to foreigners like myself, could only happen in New York. Here, municipal benefactors who openly disdain immigrant interlopers build transit systems partly for their benefit, whereas in Russia the nation’s leaders pretend to build in the name of the people while in reality leaving them with nothing. The Muscovites may love their subway more than New Yorkers, but they own it less.
There was no frisson at the A subway platform after disembarking at John F. Kennedy Airport from Moscow that 2000 summer, but there was something equally meaningful. The gray car slowly rumbled into view and came to a halt with a sclerotic sigh. It wasn’t much to look at. But it was mine.
Brooks, Michael W. “Subway City: Riding the Trains, Reading New York.” New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Couture, Andrea M. “Moscow Metro: A Look Back and Forward,” Mass Transit, May, 1994, p. 22.
Fischler, Stan. “The Subway: A Trip Through Time on New York’s Rapid Transit.” Flushing, NY: H & M Productions II Inc., 1997.
Hood, Clifton. “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
O’Donnell, Anne K. “The Moscow Metro, or The Experience of Socialist Realism Underground.” Unpublished senior thesis, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 2002.