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Step inside the mind-blowing subway stations of the former Soviet Union

Stalin told architects that their designs should represent the idea of a “bright future.”

A daily commute in Moscow might involve descending hundreds of feet underground onto a platform that looks palatial—with soaring marble columns, ornate paintings, and chandeliers—or into a futuristic tunnel with sculptures depicting workers or busts of Lenin. If a subway platform in another city might be utilitarian, nondescript, and grimy, the Moscow metro system is the opposite, a display of creativity in infrastructure designed as Communist propaganda.

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[Photo: Christopher Herwig]
The same is true in the metro systems in other cities in the former Soviet Union, from Tblisi and Minsk to Yerevan and Yekaterinburg. In a new book, Soviet Metro Stations, photographer Christopher Herwig documents subway stations in 15 cities. Herwig, who previously explored the sometimes bizarre designs of Soviet-era bus stops, had been interested in local subway stations since his first trips to Russia two decades ago. But until recently, photography was restricted underground. (Some of the deepest metro stations were designed to double as bomb shelters, and photos were prohibited partly for military reasons.)

When the first stations were constructed in the 1930s, Stalin told architects that their designs should represent the idea of a “bright future,” and the government poured money into lavish construction. The elaborate stations in Moscow are best known, but Herwig found the sheer diversity of stations most interesting. “As this project went on, I realized that there was just so much more to the metros,” he says. “[The building of the metro system] spanned over seven decades of different architectural styles and budgets, so there was so much more to it than just these palaces.” Each station, he says, has the feeling of entering a completely different world than the city streets above.

Moscow, Krasnye Vorota [Photo: Christopher Herwig]
The project raises questions about how the design of transit infrastructure affects ridership—if your subway stop looked like a museum or spaceship, would you be more likely to ride? On a busy day, as many as 9 million people commute on the metro. Herwig suggests that if owning a car was the American dream, a world-class subway was pushed as part of the Soviet dream. “They saw public and shared transportation as . . . something to celebrate,” he says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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