There is a moment, when you gaze up at the mosaic on the ceiling of the Mayakovskaya Metro station, when it all makes sense. When the fantastic, almost unreal Moscow Metro system is revealed for what it is: Like churches or castles or the seats of government and royalty, the Moscow Metro was built to inspire awe. Perhaps overawe. Overawe both the millions who would use it for their daily work, the tourists who came from the world behind the Iron Curtain, and of course anyone who came from the other side. It was not some ill-inspired employment project, like so many of these grand palaces are; nor was it built to honour one person. Evolving over five decades, it was a statement by the USSR to the capitalistic West to say, Anything you can do, we can do better.
I was undecided on my travel plan this morning; take the bus, or a cab, and see the stunning architecture that spans centuries and designs? Or the Metro, and see the underground equivalent? Eventually the decision was made by two factors: The rain, which meant I would be warm and dry underground, and the free transport pass all journalists have been given. I was prepared to be surprised, to be amazed; my first-hand experience with Soviet metro architecture goes back more than 30 years - India's first metro was built in Kolkata with Soviet help and was all underground (except for the last, dramatic entry into the open at Tollygunge). I was not, however, prepared to be blown away.
From the 34 mosaics on the ceiling at Mayakovskaya to the floral theme at Prospekt Mira, referencing the botanical gardens above ground, to the murals at Dostoyevskaya depicting scenes from the writer's life - the Metro system is fittingly a tourist attraction on its own. At least two stations I visited on Tuesday had guided tours and many other Moscow newbies, like myself, were there just to ogle. It's not just the big stuff, the grand columns and the chandeliers; it's the detail, whether motifs on the wall or an iron grille or benches in niches. Anyone who thought Soviet architecture was severe and soulless, come and have a look.
When construction began, in the 1930s, the project's slogan was "Building a palace for the people" and it still ticks that box: It is opulent, for sure, but also inclusive - around 6 million people use the Moscow Metro every day. The grandiose style ended with the Stalinist era; his death, and the after-effects of World War II, led to a push for a simpler design, and cost-cutting measures including some overground stations and glass entrances replacing stone. Another feature was what they call the "centipede" - two lines of pillars flanking the central walkway. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, some station names have changed with the times: Dzherzinskaya, named after Felix Dzerzhinskiy, the controversial figure of the 1920s who headed the dreaded Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB), is now called Lubyanka; Ulitsa Kominterna has shed its Soviet "Komintern" identity and is now Alexandrovsky Sad, and Lenino is now Tsaritsyno.
There's one strange characteristic of the Moscow Metro: Apart from the grand architecture, the stations are sterile - very clean, yes, beautifully maintained, but there is absolutely no kind of trading activity inside, not soft drinks stalls, not newspaper kiosks, not even the samovar (hot-water dispenser) that seems to be in every Russian space. Not even a trash can. The reason, says Barbara, a Muscovite who's helping out at ESPN's Moscow studios, is security: No trash cans, no vendors or booths, fewer places to plant explosives.
Another common feature is that the tracks lie very deep underground; I've been on some systems in, say New York City, where different lines are at different levels. But here even a single-line station has its tracks way down below; I've timed the escalator ride as more than a minute. The reason? It depends whose story you hear. The Western version is that they were built as potential shelters in case of attack; the story here is that they were built deep to minimize dislocations aboveground. So, despite the additional risks and costs, deep drilling it was.
There is some criticism of the ageing trains - "It's a little bit old", says Barbara - but they all run on time and the noise is not any more than on other subway systems. The Moscow Metro is proof that retro works - even if it is totally out of sync with everything around it. Perhaps, like with other aspects of Russian life, it's a part of a stable, familiar past they are clinging on to.