Comparative Subway Studies

Exiting a subway station in Tashkent

As anyone who has visited Moscow or Petersburg may know, the Soviets put high stock in their municipal subway systems both as public monuments and fall-out shelters. Thus, the subway systems are buried deep underground and the station interiors were designed and decorated by star architects. The Moscow and Petersburg subway systems are therefore included as “sights” in most guidebooks, and the same is true of the Tashkent subway system – the only subway system in Soviet Central Asia and the pride of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

The "Cosmonaut" subway station in Tashkent.

Begun in 1973 and opened in 1977, the Tashkent subway system connects the various ends of what is a surprisingly large and sprawling city. The most famous stations are “Ozbekiston (Uzbekistan)” and “Kosmonavtlar (Cosmonaut).” In the latter, pictured, the walls are textured with undulating ceramic ties and the blue fades from light to dark as it moves up the wall. This is, presumably, to suggest the change in light as one leaves the atmosphere and enters space. The columns are made of a bubbled glass, evocative (in my American, capitalist mind) of the type of decoration used to create “alien planets” in the original Star Trek episodes. Embedded in the walls are roundels of black-and-white images of spacemen. These elements add up to a trippy ensemble. The purpose, doubtless, was to remind the citizens of Tashkent of the USSR’s considerable accomplishments in the space exploration and, though this, instill appropriate Soviet patriotism in the citizens of this far-flung socialist republic (from Moscow’s point of view).

But, not to be outdone, Almaty will soon join Tashkent as a second Central Asian city with a subway system. Work on the Almaty system began in 1988, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Construction halted after the state became independent on 16 December 1991 due to lack of funds, began again in the late 1990s, halted for a second time in 2000 and was begun for a third – and presumably final – time in 2005 when President Nazarbayev set aside a special fund for its construction between 2006 and 2008. The first line is now finally set to open on, not coincidentally, 16 December 2011, a monument to the 20th anniversary of independence.

The showcase station in the new Almaty subway system

Indeed, in keeping with Soviet tradition, the designers of Kazakhstan’s subway have seized the opportunity to create didactic, patriotic show-pieces. The pictured station is a lesson in Kazakh post-Soviet national identity: the “rams-horn” pattern in the circles on the floor is typically Kazakh and the ribbing on the walls is supposedly evocative of yurt construction. These designs are both part of Kazakhstan’s attempt to celebrate the people’s “pre-Russian nomadic” heritage” – but more on this later.

Unfortunately, many Almaty residents have already told me that they would not use the subway after it is up-and-running because they are afraid of what would happen if there was an earthquake while they were underground. As I’ve said before, people here are very afraid of the massive earthquake everyone expects to happen at any moment. In my opinion, the bigger safety risk is that the floors are all polished marble and are going to be very slick and slippery in the winter months when subway riders are tracking snow and slush through the station.

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