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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 697-724

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A Metro on the Mount: The Underground as a Church of Soviet Civilization

Andrew Jenks


IMAGE LINK= In 1938 the chief artist for Moscow's Mayakovski metro station urged Muscovites, "Raise your head, citizens, and you will see the sky." Forty meters below the surface, Soviets would find images "preparing them for labor and defense." Nearly three dozen cupolas crowned the top of a 155-meter-long platform dressed in stainless steel, Stalin's favorite material. Each tile mosaic (fig. 1) showed idealized scenes from a day in Soviet life: blast furnaces belched flames and carbon gases into the night sky, Red Army planes rumbled in formation, lithe athletes leaped into action, a parachutist tumbled down toward the viewer. To see the mosaics a passenger had to stand directly underneath them and gaze skyward. Heads permanently cocked back and eyes fixed on a heaven of Soviet power: this was the preferred pose for a citizen in Stalinist society, a pose inscribed in the design of the Moscow metro. 1

This article examines the Moscow underground of the 1930s as an instrument of civil and social engineering. The metro integrated operational, aesthetic, and ideological work to provide "a majestic school in the formation of the new man." 2 Aesthetics were particularly important as [End Page 697] tools for teaching Soviet power and for converting peasants into docile urbanites. The stories told by metro propagandists were no less important, supplying mythological repositories of the "socialist" values that supposedly emerged from the metro's successful creation. One of those values--a reckless, risk-taking technological style--helped transform the metro into a socially constructed banner of Stalinist culture.

An exemplar of Soviet technological display, the metro presents a revealing case study in the simultaneous production of technology and culture. [End Page 698] Its chief builder, Lazar Kaganovich, said in 1935 that the metro "went far beyond . . . the typical understanding of a technological construction. Our metropolitan is a symbol of the new socialist society being built." Soviet memoirs, official histories, metro architecture, and newspaper accounts wove the events and personalities of the metro's construction into a mythical microcosm. Citizens absorbed the values and ethos of Stalinist civilization as they rode the metro and as they consumed its mythology. The metro thus helped shape Soviet society and its style of technological development. 3

The Quicksand Society

Soviet leaders used the metro's physical and symbolic fabrication to help stabilize a fractured social structure. At tremendous cost, the first five-year plan (1928-32) had built a rudimentary foundation of heavy industry. Forced collectivization, show trials of political enemies, and militant attacks on all traditions complemented a frenetic program of "socialist construction," which Stalin said must overcome a century of backwardness in ten years. A largely peasant society underwent a massive demographic shift, descended into conditions approaching civil war, and, by 1933, suffered deadly famine. In 1931 alone 4.1 million peasant refugees poured into Soviet cities, profoundly straining social services and a woefully inadequate municipal infrastructure. The plan had turned the Soviet Union into a "quicksand society," in Moshe Lewin's phrase, its social fabric torn by more than a decade of war, famine, and forced modernization. "[I]n great masses, peasants were all moving around and changing jobs . . ., creating streams and floods in which families were destroyed, children lost, and morality dissolved." 4 It was under these conditions that Soviet leaders decided, in June 1931, to build a subway.

Government officials in previous years had discussed various projects for building a metro in Moscow, but none had moved beyond draft stage. 5 [End Page 699] It didn't help that political authorities had arrested the most experienced engineers on trumped-up charges of counterrevolution in 1928 and 1930. By 1931 the Soviet Union had also exhausted foreign currency reserves, leaving few resources to pay for equipment and foreign expertise. Nikita Khrushchev, who forged his own career as a point man for the construction of the metro, recalled that metro managers had only...


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