The Moscow Metro: A Cold War Story

The Express ran a feature a few days ago on what to see in central Moscow. Alongside a secret Cold War bunker and the Vodka History Museum, the paper picked out the Moscow subway system as one of its highlights.

The system’s story, told briefly in Taras Grescoe’s mass transit travelogue Straphanger, is an interesting one. In its time the Metro’s been a proletarian palace, a giant white elephant, and an urban necessity, as well as a Cold War propaganda point.

Built in the 1930s, the Moscow Metro reflected Stalin’s taste for gigantism. Compared to subways in western Europe, its tunnels were deeper, its stations larger, its decoration more lavish and ornamental. Building it required one of those commitments of excessive resources that Stalin made at a flick of a pen. The Metro was to be a showcase of Soviet modernity, and – unusually for Stalin’s pet projects – when it opened it was.

The story of Antonina Pirozhkova, one of the system’s designers, is worth a book of its own. The Soviet Union’s first female subway engineer, Pirozhkova spent the first half of World War Two building a railway near the Georgian border, and spent the years after the war teaching civil engineering and fighting to get the Soviet government to admit what they did to her husband, the writer Isaac Babel. It took fifteen years to have Babel’s conviction as an “enemy of the people” overturned and another thirty-four to force the KGB to admit that Babel had been executed after a twenty-minute trial in 1940.

The Metro was also, at least once, a Cold War propaganda tool. The day after the “Kitchen Debate” between Krushchev and Nixon, the Soviets pointed to the Moscow Metro as proof that the Soviet Union could outbuild the United States when it came to public services.

It was an interesting moment to make the claim. Three years earlier the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 had authorized $25 billion to build the interstate highway system, or – to use its proper name – the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. During World War Two mass transit had been a national security enabler; in August 1944 the US Army took over the Philadelphia Transportation Company to keep public transit running. By 1959 highways were favored as a way to promote urban dispersal and for long-distance military movements. Quite accidentally, the Soviet spokesman had hit on a government policy change that was leading to a sea change in American urbanism, something Grescoe’s Straphanger talks about quite a lot.

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