For many, their favourite place in Moscow could be a world famous heritage landmark — Red Square, the Bolshoi Theatre or St Basil’s Cathedral. The city is dotted with extraordinary places from hundreds of years of history whose first impact is never forgotten. But as I returned to Moscow earlier this year after too long an absence, a visit in a weirdly warm winter squeezed in before the pandemic, I realised the place which means most to me is something different. A place which thousands of commuters rush through every day with barely a second thought.
A metro station.
Kropotkinskaya, on the red Sokolnicheskaya Line 1, is not by any means even the most ornate station on the Moscow metro network, famous all over the world for its spectacular murals, lavish entry halls and even chandelier lighting systems. Built during the early phase of construction of the Moscow metro, Kropotkinskaya eschews the Stalinist bombast of later metro stations with a purer neo-classical simplicity. Even its name — which comes from the name of an aristocratic anarchist, turned into an adjective with a feminine ending (the word for metro station in Russian, stantsia, is feminine) — exudes a kind of magic. It is a staggeringly beautiful place. But for me also a location of immense personal significance.
I first visited Moscow in 1992 on a school exchange programme when I was 15. These were difficult days even by the standards of recent Russian history — the Soviet Union was freshly dead and its existence still tangible. Only months before, President Yeltsin had emerged victorious in an armed standoff with parliament. But our school decided to defiantly press on with the trip, where I and a group of other boys were due to spend the final days of 1993 and start of 1994 staying in the flats of our exchange partners. They were due to come to Britain themselves that spring. It was, without question, the most formative experience of my life and one that would help me into my career as a journalist during which I would spend six fantastic years living in Moscow.
We landed in Moscow on a British Airways flight (so long ago that people were still smoking on the plane) late in the evening and in the chaos of Sheremetyevo Airport in the early 1990s I managed to lose contact with the school group. After an few minutes of panic that even prompted an announcement over the loudspeakers, I found myself in the warm embrace of my host family. They drove me down the Leningradsky Prospekt in their rickety Lada to their home in central Moscow on Gagarinsky Pereulok, a street named after the first man in space. The parents had moved out of their room to accommodate me and were sleeping in the living room. Too excited to find myself in Russia, a place that hitherto had only existed in my imagination, I barely slept that night. The next morning, my exchange partner from Moscow school number 23, Grisha, put on his shapka hat (something most Russian teenagers would not be seen dead wearing these days) and took me outside. Our feet crunched the snow in the street, where it must have been at least 10 degrees below freezing. Moscow winters, as everyone in the city remembers with the pang of nostalgia and concern, were far colder back then. We went out the house, turned right down Gogolevsky Boulevard and then to the nearest metro station.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. A unique concoction made up of snow, mud and sweat. Even in 2020, I could still sniff this unique smell on the Moscow metro. But it was much more pungent back then. After descending the steps into the station hall came the slightly terrifying experience of buying the zhetoni, small penny-sized plastic discs that served as tickets, from the stern-looking cashier. You had to place the zheton into the barrier in order to pass. But passengers needed to be careful with the timing; if you slotted in the disc before the yellow light came on allowing you to pass, two metal bars would snap out of the barriers, potentially maiming the knees. But once this hazard was overcome, we descended down the steps onto the metro platform.
I could not believe the simplicity, lucidity and sheer beauty of this station. One wide platform with no barrier between the two directions of travel. The floor was decorated with perfectly geometric squares. The grandiose white pillars sprouted into stars as they merged into the ceiling. The sheer height of the station gave an immense sense of space, more like a place of worship than a public transport hub. It was about as far removed from the northern line in London on a busy Monday morning than I could imagine. There were no signs in English, in fact barely any indications in Russian, save for the gilded Cyrillic letters inscribed just once in the middle of the station on both sides — Кропоткинская. Kropotkinskaya. Grisha and I hopped onto out train — simply heading south one stop to his school close to Park Kulturi station. The train was packed, full of stern-looking people whose gazes immediately were fixed on me and, it seemed, in particular my shoes. The prospect of having a seat to sit down appeared a laughable fantasy. I held on tightly as the train felt like it was moving with the speed of a fairground attraction. It reached the next station, the doors clicked open. But almost immediately came the announcement. “Ostorozhno, dveri zakrivayutsya. Sleduyushchaya stantsia…” “Careful, the doors are closing. The next station is….” We squeezed our way out through the coats and the bodies. You did not want to be in the wrong place when those doors snapped shut again.
Kropotkinskaya was one of the very first stations to open on the Moscow metro, in 1935. It was built with a clear purpose, and a different name, as the station that would serve the planned Dvorets Sovetov (Palace of the Soviets) as vast congress building that the Bolsheviks dreamed would be the centrepiece of their new Moscow. It was to be constructed on the site of the gigantic Church of Christ the Saviour demolished on the orders of Stalin in 1931. The first name of the station was simply Dvorets Sovetov, with the idea that citizens would emerge from the gleaming new metro station into the heart of the complex. The two architects who designed Dvorets Sovetov/Kropoktinskaya — Alexei Drushkin (who would design several other Moscow metro stations including the celebrated futuristic-looking Mayakovskaya) and Yakov Lichtberg — immodestly drew inspiration for the humble transit stop from the temple of Amon Re in the ancient Egyptian site of Karnak. In the early years after the station opened, mini palm trees would adorn the steps down to the platform to complete the impression. But the Dvorets Sovetov — envisaged as a giant sky-scraper resembling a Mesopotamian ziggurat and the tallest building in the world — turned out to be one of the biggest white elephants in architectural history. The project was finally shelved after work stalled during World War II. The grand, temple-like metro station did not get the grand, temple-like complex that it was meant to serve and its grandeur may have seemed out of place. In 1957, the station was renamed Kropotkinskaya after the explorer, anarchist and anti-Tsarist activist Pyotr Kropotkin. All that was left of the planned Dvorets was the foundation pit — kotlovan in Russian — a word that brings to mind the novella of the same name by Andrei Platonov that is a dystopian symbol of the sinking hopes of the early years of the Soviet Union. Eventually the kotlovan was filled, but by water. In 1960 the Moscow swimming pool opened on the site. It was a vast complex, operating in temperatures of up to minus 20, and became one of the unlikely symbols of the city. On my December 1992 visit, I remember the clouds of steam rising up above the massive basin. The pool finally shut in 1994 as the authorities gave the go-ahead for the rebuilding of the original Church of Christ the Saviour on the spot. It reopened in 2000 during the early months of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the supreme symbol of the renewed power of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country.
Early 2020. I am back in Moscow, a city that I returned to all my life since that 1992 trip and lived in for six extraordinary years from 2008–2014. But after those years of daily life in Moscow, I have now been away for far too long. The city has changed quite a lot of the last years. Affordable restaurants, wide pedestrian spaces, colourful lights strewn everywhere throughout those dark Russian winters definitely make the Russian capital a more user friendly experience. The metro has changed too. There are signs and announcements in English, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Photography is no longer banned — as it was for most of the existence of the metro — but actively encouraged with posters encouraging the entering of various Instagram competitions. I am still magnetically drawn towards Kropotkinskaya. The approach is festooned with those winter lights so beloved of Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin as the immense Church of Christ the Saviour looms in the distance. As I walk down the stairs, the cashier’s ticket window is still in the same place as it was in 1992. But she now sells, rather than those plastic zhentoni, rechargeable public transport cards like the London Oyster cards. A great sticker plastered across the window even boasts “We can speak English”. Those brutal, potentially knee-shattering metal barriers have now been replaced by perspex gates which swing open as you touch in. But as I descend the stairs onto that great, wide platform, I am transported swiftly back to 1992. The simple beauty of the station has not been tampered with. The trains roar in and out with a fierce intensity. Commuters march to the exits, paying little attention to their surroundings.
After meeting in the days before Facebook and even mobile phones, I sadly lost contact with Grisha and his family and never managed to trace them. The large apartment block on Gagarinsky Pereulok where we saw in the New Year of 1993 still stands exactly as I remembered. But of course whereas then one could wander in freely, the entrance to the block is now protected by a heavy door. I would love to find him and his family again. I hope that one day I do. But as I stand on the platform of Kropotkinskaya in the morning rush of 2020 we are there again together, two boys, one born in the USSR and one in London, both awed by the majesty of one of Moscow’s greatest landmarks.