I had an enlightened conversation the other day with the young daughter of my wife’s best friend in Moscow. In her young age of only 15, she has had the great fortune of living abroad with grandparents in Canada for half a year, and so she has some perspective on her own motherland. Since all of her family members are practicing artists, it is not surprising that our discussion revolved around art. But art for a Russian means something different than for an American, or rather the people have a different relationship to art. For a Russian, paintings are not simply objects which are consigned to museums, available for an elite segment of society that can afford the time and money to develop a taste for “that sort of thing.” They are rather like windows to the soul of every Russian, companions to them along the way, and just as everywhere present in society as icons are ever-present in the churches.
So my conversation with a Russian girl was about art, but not the kind you find in a museum, but the kind you find underground in what has to be the most beautiful subway system in the world, The Moscow Metro. We compared its carefully sculptured marble, inspiring agricultural scenery, and colorful mosaics to the drab offerings of other major worldwide metropolises. My young friend personally had experience of traveling the Toronto subway with its Museum Station that has poles reflecting Egyptian themes, but other than that, the system doesn’t hold a candle to Moscow. In our own very European city of Boston, the only underground artistic relief to the monotonous metal and herding of the masses is the occasional street musician strumming a melody who gets quickly drummed out by approaching trains. Even among the oldest in London and in Paris, hardly anything more than the functional aesthetic reigns.
But in the Moscow Metro, a testimony of beauty greets all weary travelers with one of the great triumphs of the Soviet period, a true work of the people. Agreed that the monuments to Lenin and the Bolshevists get a little overbearing, but overall, one subway stop after another causes one to pause and reflect in a public space not usually known for such meditation. It is fitting that the famous depth of the Russian soul reaches yea even unto the uttermost bowels of the earth. You simply have to see it to believe it.