Category Archives: Metro

Literature in the metro, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Vladimir Mayakovsky bust, Moscow metro

 

Note: Click on photos to view them in a larger size.

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The new, northern, vestibule of the Mayakovsky stop is one of my favorite places in Moscow’s metro system. It is challenged only by the spectacular platform of the Dostoevskaya stop, about which I have already written on this blog space. Hard to believe it’s been in use now for nine years, but that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It was opened Sept. 2, 2005.
There is a bust here of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) that, to the best of my knowledge, is a small copy of the head portion of Alexander Kibalnikov’s monumental full-body statue that stands a few dozen meters away in the middle of Triumphal (formerly Mayakovsky) Square. (For the record I’ve written a bit about that, here, too.) The bust, like the statue on the street, is a fine likeness. It has that hard, dynamic, energetic feel that Mayakovsky did himself. There are a lot of great images of Mayakovsky out there – just Google him and hit “images” and you’ll see what I mean.
But it’s not the bust that makes this space such a success. That is actually a modest detail, quite small actually, placed to one side of the vestibule. No, what makes this space so exciting is the vaulted mosaic ceiling. Again, Russian Wikipedia tells us that artist Ivan Lubennikov and three other unnamed artists worked for over three years creating the mosaics. They mix sky images with shapes drawn from the Constructivist style of using circles, oblongs, lines and rectangles in designs. Scattered in and amongst the images and backgrounds are bits and pieces of Mayakovsky’s poetry. The large, yellow background – nothing sky-like in that – really gives the whole space a bright, happy feel that contrasts with, and reflects well in, the black marble walls. The geometric shapes, then, placed around the ceiling, are like apertures revealing a sky that is located somewhere beyond the ceilings. Up there clouds drift, airplanes fly, and rainbows come swooping down towards us. One of the coolest angles from which to see the ceiling is on the up escalator. The higher up you go, the more the ceiling and the sky “beyond” it are revealed.

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Lubennikov, born in Minsk in 1951, has done quite a bit of work for metro spaces, including for two other relatively new Moscow stops – Sretensky Boulevard and Slavyansky Boulevard. He also created the stained glass design of the Russian folk figure Speckled Hen for the renovated Madeleine stop on the Paris metro, line 14. That design was installed in 2009, and you can see a small gallery of photos by going to an article on the Vesti.ru website. Don’t be daunted if you don’t read Russian – just click on the small boxes beneath the larger image at the head of the story. This is what Russian Wikipedia has to say about the Paris design:
“The Speckled Hen composition is unique in that it is the personification of a whole country as seen by Russian artist Ivan Lubennikov. This work suggests a quilt sewn from various patches; you can see a samovar, the first sputnik, the hammer and sickle, a Moscow metro station, golden domes with crosses and the Kremlin, while Malevich’s Black Square is located in the middle of the image of the chicken. The stained glass panel stands against a black background and is flanked by French and Russian texts telling the story of Speckled Hen. Some of the French inscription crosses over from the wall onto a golden egg.”
None of this has much to do with the Mayakovsky stop in Moscow, but it does whet my appetite to get back to Paris to shoot pictures of Lubennikov’s Speckled Hen. I’m always looking for reasons to go to Paris.

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Alexander Pushkin, Moscow Metro

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It certainly is not the best bust of Alexander Pushkin ever made. But it may be one of the most “popular” in Russia. By “popular” I mean the most visited, the most seen, the most passed-by. This small bust of Pushkin stands on a pedestal in a niche that connects Moscow’s Pushkinskaya and Chekhovskaya stops on the metro – on two of the most traveled lines in the whole metro system. This is an extremely busy place most any time of the morning, day or night. Just like the huge monument to Pushkin that stands more or less straight above this subway stop on Pushkin Square, it is also a place where people meet. “Let’s meet by Pushkin” is a phrase that has been spoken millions of times in Moscow over the decades. As can be seen in this series of photos, those meetings – or ones that do not happen, or, maybe, meetings that once happened and are being remembered – aren’t necessarily always the happiest. As I was taking these pictures I must admit I did not pay much attention to the woman who was standing just to Pushkin’s left. It was only as I was editing them that I realized she was experiencing a difficult moment of some kind.

IMG_5702.jpg2IMG_5705.jpg2In the last photo above, as in the first one below, the woman actually appears to be looking up to Pushkin for some reason – for strength? for friendship? because she realizes I am taking pictures of Pushkin? In any case, for the most part nobody is paying much attention either to the woman or to Pushkin.

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Dostoevskaya Metro Station, Moscow

DSCN1363.jpg2When the Dostoevskaya metro station opened on the gray line a couple of years ago – it’s located right next to the Russian Army Theater and a hop-skip-and-jump from the fabulous Ten’ (Shadow) Theater – it raised a veritable ruckus. Oh, there was all kinds of nonsense about how it was going to scare metro riders away, how it was going to create murderers with its portrait of Raskolnikov, and how it was going to foster suicide by encouraging young people to throw themselves on the tracks as trains were coming in. You get the picture. The typical damned nonsense that people write and say and think and propagate this crazy day and age. In fact, the entire underground part of the station, designed by Ivan Nikolayev, is a brilliant monument to the world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels. What I particularly love is the way, for instance, that Nikolayev even gave a nod to Nikolai Gogol, the most important early influence on Dostoevsky. A Gogol-like figure depicted on the wall of the stairwell appears to be hurrying down to catch a train as actual riders pass him by. It’s a lovely touch, smart and witty. I also love the black, white and gray color scheme that suits Dostoevsky’s art so well.

DSCN1367.jpg2Down on the actual platforms, mosaics on wide columns illustrate various scenes from Dostoevsky’s greatest novels. I happened to click my camera at two columns depicting the characters and events of Crime and Punishment, maybe because that was the first Dostoevsky novel I ever read way back when in another lifetime. For the record, I read Crime and Punishment on the heels of having read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina and I didn’t notice the slightest drop in quality. This was in high school. The 1970s had just gotten underway. That little bit aside, I should mention that I wrote about this wonderful metro station in a Moscow Times blog several years ago. Should the spirit move you, you can read that hereDSCN1369.jpg2DSCN1375.jpg2