Joseph Stalin rose to power as the leader of the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1920s. As the population quickly rose, it was essential the country address its lack of adequate public transportation.
An underground system was built in less than three years, launching with 13 stations in the spring of 1935. On its first day, nearly 300,000 Soviet citizens hopped aboard the new transportation service.
But the Metro system was itself a form of Communist propaganda — photos of Stalin were hung inside the stations, which were brightly lit environments that people looked up to, just as they metaphorically looked up to Stalin above ground.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but some nine million Russian people go through the Metro’s 200 stations each day. It’s already among the busiest systems in Europe, but it’s still expanding and aims to be the world’s largest by 2020.
David Burdeny photographed Moscow’s Metro stations over the course of two weeks. He spent a year trying to get access to document the stations between midnight and 6 a.m., when the trains were not running and the stations were empty.
“When you take the activity out of the space, you really begin to experience that space as a whole,” Burdeny told Business Insider. “The colours, materials and proportions are easier to digest without the din of activity.”
Currently, there are around 200 Metro stations spread out across 12 lines in Moscow. Burdeny picked 30 that he felt were the most visually interesting or historically significant.
It wasn't easy for Burdeny, especially as a foreigner. (He's Canadian.) He spent over a year struggling to get permission through Russian bureaucratic channels. After he saw the stations featured on an episode of the British TV show 'Top Gear,' he reached out to the producers, who were able to connect him to the right people.
Eventually, he worked out an arrangement where he could rent out stations by the hour over the course of two weeks.
Someone was always watching Burdeny, no matter where he went underground. But as far as he knows, he's the only photographer to ever shoot the stations while they were empty.
Every night, each of the stations are cleaned in depth. There were usually maintenance crews waiting beyond the view of the frame while Burdeny was shooting.
During the time of the Soviet Union, many citizens struggled in communal housing properties above ground. Still, the underground system was spared no expense.
They were designed as Communist propaganda, the brightly lit environments causing people to 'look up' at the light of the station -- metaphorically looking up to Stalin above ground. Stalin had constructed an idea of himself as God.
Conceptually and visually, the stations were generally meant to be symbolic 'palaces for the people.'
More than 75,000 workers contributed to the stations' design and construction. Their efforts would pay off, as the Metro's beauty was instantly noticed by citizens and visitors alike.
According to the introduction to Burdeny's book, 'A Bright Future,' when Sir Ernest Simon, a British politician and industrialist, visited Russia in the year after the underground was unveiled, he said, 'In medieval days, the whole people of a town joined together to build a cathedral. So in Moscow the people joined to build the Metro, and regard it today as a thing of beauty, their common achievement, their common possession.'
The styles of the architecture of the stations ranged from Rococo to Art Deco to constructivism. They are also reminiscent, design-wise, of palaces from the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.
Although it might have been hard to imagine, the second round of stations were even more sophisticated and detailed than the first. New materials were introduced, including gold, mosaics, and 14 different varieties of marble.
A third round of stations was opened in 1944, and a fourth in 1952. Stalin died in 1953, and soon after, a decree was passed from the Communist Party that essentially asked construction crews to avoid any extravagance in the design of future stations. They also removed statues and photos of Stalin.
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