The Stunning Grandeur of Soviet-Era Metros

The Stunning Grandeur of Soviet-Era Metros

It was a cold day in December 2014 and I was waiting for the train at Shchukinskaya, a station on the Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya line of the Moscow metro.

Although Moscow’s subways are famous for their punctuality, this particular train was delayed, giving me more time than usual to take in the scenery around me.

There, in a utility station that is not usually known for its beauty, I noticed the aluminum panels sculpted evenly along the track. His pattern was fascinating. I took some quick pictures.

A moment later my train arrived. I got into a car with the rest of the crowd and left the station.

My experience at Shchukinskaya was a fleeting and seemingly insignificant event, and yet it launched me into a project that I had been considering for years, one that would occupy more than half a decade of my professional life.

Between 2014 and 2020, I photographed all the existing subways from the Soviet era, eventually visiting more than 770 stations in 19 cities. My goal was to create as close as possible to a complete archive of metropolitan areas.

It wasn’t just the individual stations that captured my imagination, although many are undoubtedly impressive in their own right. Rather, it was the entire underground system, both in Moscow and in other ex-Soviet cities, that inspired me: the mystique, the vastness, the ever-present sense of colossal authority.

I was also attracted to recording countless details: lamps, benches, tiles, ornaments, mosaics, stairs, elevators, and other works of art made by hand from marble or wood.

For a long time, the project seemed incredibly overwhelming. The number of stations seemed endless, each filled with cross passengers and decorative elements.

The Moscow Metro alone, which opened in 1935 and serves as a propaganda model for Soviet power, has more than 200 stations and stretches for hundreds of miles.

And yet the beauty and grandeur of the seasons drove me to keep going, to visit the next, the next, and the next.

Capturing many of the stations devoid of passengers gave the photographs a sense of timelessness. But doing it was not easy; It meant that most of these pictures had to be taken before 6 a.m. or after 11 p.m.

Restrictions on photography, once common in Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union, have changed dramatically, even in the last decade. (The authorities of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, finally lifted the ban on photography in its metro stations in 2018, for example.)

Still, the metro authorities were not always satisfied with my presence. More than 50 times, within various stations, I was told that photography was not allowed. Once, in Tashkent, I was forced to hand over my camera’s memory card.

The project often seemed like a game of cat and mouse. At times I felt like a criminal, even though my only intention was to capture the beauty of the seasons.

Sometimes he would return to the same police station over and over again, having studied when his assistants or policemen had lunch breaks or shift changes.

However, there were good exceptions. At Elektrozavodskaya, a stop in Moscow, a policeman offered advice on how to capture the most impressive facets of the station. He also gave me the contact information for the subway staff who could help me adjust the lighting.

After photographing the Moscow stations, I moved to St. Petersburg, whose metro, whose construction was long delayed by the brutal siege of Leningrad, was opened in 1955.

From there I began to venture further: to Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan. Finally, I also visited a handful of cities whose subway systems, although not formally attributed to the Soviet Union, were built or substantially altered during the Soviet era, or even partially built by Soviet architects and engineers. These included the metro stations of Bucharest, Budapest and Prague.

I faced the same question in almost every city I visited: “Why are you photographing here?” people asked.

Many could not understand why a seemingly tedious project focused on such common spaces would be interesting to me. After all, these stations were places that most commuters passed every day, more out of necessity than choice.

But sometimes a passerby, seeing me see a station that he has seen thousands of times, notices something new, something that I pointed my camera at: a beautiful ceiling, a carved railing, an ornate lamp. And then, I knew, they got it.

Frank Herfort is a documentary and architectural photographer based in Moscow and Berlin. Your book, “CCCP Underground”, It will be published in the coming months. You can follow his work at Instagram.

About Anne Tyler 6529 Articles
Anne Tyler's career as a writer spans fifty years and twenty novels including Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist and 2015's A Spool of Blue Thread. She has won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award.

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