Main hall of Mayakovskaya Metro Station in Moscow.

Exploring the underground museum of Moscow

The Moscow metro can be an impressive experience for foreigners, going so deep under the ground and seeing ornamented ceilings, chandeliers, marble floors, bronze sculptures and other majestic decorations. Some therefore rightfully see it as an underground museum of 20th century art.

It is also one of the busiest metro systems in the world, carrying over 8 million people daily. It owes its existence to the Soviet government, which, by the middle of the 1920s, was determined to solve the problem of traffic jams in Moscow.

Traffic jams in the early Soviet days

Traffic jams, that sounds a bit surprising right, in a time with no cars? Due to a rapidly growing population, Moscow started to experience severe problems with land transport from 1920 on, particularly with trams. In those days it could take two and a half hours to get from one place to another, although the city wasn't half as large as it is today.

The rapidly growing population was spurred by the Soviet regime's desire of industrialization and collectivization. These were two interrelated processes which were aimed at turning the agrarian economy into an industrial one. Collectivization was characteristic for villages, where individual peasant farms were forcibly transformed into collective property ('kolkhoz'), in order to become part of large public cooperative enterprises. Peasants who lost their property in the process of collectivization, moved to the capital in search of a better life. By the beginning of the 1930s, the population of Moscow had already reached 4 million people.

It was calculated in those days, that in order to cope with the entire flow of passengers, a new tram needed to pass every 12 seconds in summer, and every 20 seconds in winter. Of course, there was simply no such number of trams available in the city. And besides that, it would have required an efficiency and speed which cannot even be met with the technology we have today. The Soviets realized that they needed an alternative plan to deal with these massive amounts of passengers.

The futuristic interior of Mayakovskaya station, opened in 1938.
The futuristic interior of Mayakovskaya station, opened in 1938.

A change of plans

By 1931 the new solutions were presented, and Moscow could expect a brand-new metro network of five lines within seven years of time. It was meant to become an overground metro, with the new urban trains only diving under the ground on a small section of Myasnitskaya Street, reaching the maximum depth of only 4 meters.

Early 1932 a completely different plan was proposed though. With the stations and all movements being put away deep under the ground, Moscow's ground traffic would be greatly relieved. But the question arose, how to build that? After all, such an ambitious plan required serious technical skills. Despite a lack of expertise and financial problems, the project was approved by Stalin himself, which meant that construction should have already begun.

How to build this metro?

The best underground engineers and miners of those days, were the workers employed in the coal-mining industry in the Donbass region, in Ukraine. So they were the ones picked for this grand project in Moscow. Maximally tapping their expertise, the Moscow Metro was built following their mining technologies, at a depth of around 40 meters. Under tight deadlines, the workers labored day and night, summer and winter.

The first line from Sokolniki station to Park Kultury – which is a part of today's red line – was already completed by 1935, and officially opened on May 15. And so began the history of the Moscow Metro, which hasn't stopped developing up to this day.

The panel decorations of Taganskaya station in Moscow.
The panel decorations of Taganskaya station.

Excessively rich decorations and Soviet propaganda

For people from outside of Russia, simply entering the Moscow Metro is already majestic, with incredibly long escalators leading you tens of meters under the ground. What is happening here?!

The Moscow Metro is notable for its incredible beauty, appearing like a kind of underground gallery of statues, stained glass windows, chandeliers, mosaics and paintings. But did you know that this did not happen on purpose? Initially – according to the project – the stations were to get just “individually decorated”, but nowhere it was indicated that they should become as majestic as palaces.

Tiles would have been the most appropriate material for the interior, being simple and easy to clean. But it turned out in the 1930s that the Soviet ceramic industry wasn't able to produce tiles in the quantities demanded. This is where marble and natural stone came in, richly available in the country and warmly welcomed by the Soviet leadership as they saw a new opportunity of ideological propaganda here. By building stations of such beauty, the authorities were developing some sort of temples in the name of the communist regime. The stations got richly decorated with panels praising the actions of ordinary people like workers, peasants, and soldiers, or showing off historical milestones of the country. Like this, the stations developed into unique museums of the history of the USSR.

Also during the Second World War, the metro did not cease to operate. In the afternoon, it functioned as a means of transport, and in the evening and night it became a bomb shelter. There were even new stations constructed during the war years, like the beautiful Novokuznetskaya, with an interior depicting the resilience and struggle of the Soviet people during WWII, and Elektrozavodskaya, which interior praises the labor of citizens during the war.

The gorgeous interior of Komsomolskaya station in Moscow, as located on the Circle line.
The gorgeous interior of Komsomolskaya station, as located on the Circle line.

Over the years, the number of stations and lines grew together with the city of Moscow. The Koltsevaya line of 1954 is considered the most ambitious part of the entire metro system, going all the way around Moscow. It not only greatly improved transport across the city, but this 'Circle line' also gave us some of the most beautiful metro stations in the world, like the stained glass Novoslobodskaya and station Taganskaya, which is richly decorated with stucco. Or Kievskaya station, decorated with mosaic panels dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine and Russia, and what to think of the majestic Komsomolskaya. Having visited these stations on the brown line around Moscow, you will understand how grandiose such a simple thing as a metro station can be.

Other outstanding stations include the futuristic metal Mayakovskaya, or Ploshad’ Revolutsii, decorated with bronze sculptures – find some luck there by rubbing the nose of the sculpture of the dog. This 'lucky' tradition was started by students from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University, which is located at Baumanskaya, two stations further on the blue line. They used to make a stop here to rub the dog’s nose for some extra good luck just before the exam. And actually, they still do it, with other people following this habit too. That's why the dog's nose shines brighter than anything else.

The dog bringing good luck, on Ploshad’ Revolutsii station in Moscow.
The dog bringing good luck, on Ploshad’ Revolutsii station.

Exploring the Moscow Metro of today

At the moment Moscow counts already 230 metro stations, and frankly speaking, not every single station is like a palace. On our Streetwise map of Moscow, we have selected the most beautiful metro stations. You can find them easily by checking the special layer 'Majestic Metro'. In order to be able to have a good look around at the stations, try to avoid rush hour in Moscow, which typically is between 8-9h and 18-19h.

In line with the ongoing growth of the city of Moscow, the metro network keeps expanding, with the four new stations of Filatov Lug, Prokshino, Olkhovaya and Kommunarka added last 20 June. And by 2023, there's another 35 stations expected to open!

Although the stations of today are no longer as richly decorated as in the Soviet era, they have not necessarily become ugly. New stations can look very fashionable, incorporating the latest trends in architecture. The modern station of Trubnaya has even made it onto our list of 11 Majestic Metro stations in Moscow!

  • The Moscow Metro serves 15 lines, made up of 445 kilometers of track in total.
  • More than 8 million passengers travel by metro every day, requiring 10 thousand trains.
  • The total amount of metro stations is 230, with 11 stunning stations highlighted on the Streetwise map of Moscow.

The most affordable 'museum' of Moscow

The Moscow Metro is certainly the most affordable and largest 'museum' of the capital, with a single ride costing only 55 Roubles – which is even less than € 1. Your tickets to this museum can be bought at ticket offices and vending machines inside the metro stations. Instead of buying separate tickets, it is more economical and more convenient to buy a chargeable 'Troika card', which can be used for all means of public transport including suburban trains. A Troika card can be bought or charged at ticket offices and Mosgortrans vending machines inside metro stations.

In order to find your way in the Moscow Metro, the free Yandex Metro app is by far the best choice, as the app provides up-to-date information about all the metro lines, detailed instructions about your route, and the most efficient way to travel. And don't worry about losing internet connection, as the Moscow Metro is equipped with Wi-Fi, which means that you can write, read or call any time, even when you're 50 meters under the ground.

If you want to learn more about the greatest metro stations, consider taking our two-hour tour of the most beautiful metro stations in Moscow. Enjoy your visit to the Majestic Metro of Moscow!


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