At the height of the Soviet Union, just 30 in every 1,000 Soviet citizens owned a car. Even the scrappiest lemons cost a fortune, so instead of driving to work, lots of people took the subway—which, turns out, was a bit more glamorous than you might imagine.
Chris Herwig rode the rails for his new book Soviet Metro Stations, a whirlwind spin through 15 subway systems in seven countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The stations are surprisingly gorgeous—less like the dank, pee-doused tunnels you find beneath New York or San Francisco and more like the ornate museums and posh hotels above them.
“They’re some of the most beautiful things in these cities,” Herwig says.
Like good collectivists, the Soviets limited automobile production and prioritized mass transit, with Stalin approving plans for Moscow’s first 13 stations in 1931. More than 70,000 workers (many from the famine-wracked countryside) constructed them, using pick-axes and shovels to move 81.2 million cubic feet of earth. When it opened, trains ran slower than in New York. But the palatial architecture—soaring columns and arches, patterned ceilings, dazzling chandeliers—seemed fit for a czar. It gleamed with marble, bronze, and gold, plus no end of patriotic art meant to fire up the proletariat (and now, Instagram). Stalin associate Lazar Kaganovich called it “a symbol of the new society that is being built,” containing “our blood, our love, our struggle for a new man.”
That struggle extended thousands of miles across the Soviet Union, and the metros followed. Over the next five decades, while the United States built the Interstate Highway System (its 47,000-mile love letter to the automobile), the Soviets opened 14 more subway systems in cities as far-flung as Novosibirsk, Siberia, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Their budgets were smaller and the stations often simpler, but their originality sparkled. “There was a lot more quirkiness, individuality, and creativity that went beyond things that were very blatantly trying to grab attention or show off,” Herwig says.
Originally from Canada, Herwig began trekking around the former Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, when it was “cheap and fun” and “you could see operas and ballets for a buck or two.” The region’s unique metros caught his eye, but so did its eccentric bus stops. He shot those on and off for 17 years, driving 30,000 miles to find them, before switching to metros in 2017. Documenting those involved 250 hours riding the lines and getting out at each station with his Sony a7iii, not bothering with a tripod since the camera alone rattled some authorities. They shut him down more than 30 times. “Obviously, there’s a tradition of controlling information,” he says.
Herwig’s photos subvert that tradition, breaking the underground open like a geode to reveal the intricate world within. Each station seems more imaginative than the next, with some hearkening back to ancient Egypt or Greece and others looking ahead toward a space-traveling, futuristic utopia. That utopia never came, but to Herwig, the metros offer a small taste of it—”what one would have hoped from a socialist society that actually worked.”
Of course, the metro was only the grandest form of Soviet mass transit. Most cities were too small to merit one, and even Moscow’s carried a minority of all passengers. The majority packed into older trams and buses aboveground—dreaming, perhaps, of the day they could finally buy a car.
Soviet Metro Stations is out from Fuel on September 24.
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