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Interior of the Novoslobodskaya subway station in Moscow. Photo by

– Vittorio Messori

Can Comrade Stalin come to mind by participating in a Mass? It happened to me: in a church of “architecture” (the name of this illustrious art is here excessive, the quotes are of rigor), of “architecture,” therefore, contemporary, in a triumph of exposed concrete, aluminum , glass, neon lights, abstract furniture and, on the roof, a bell supported by an industrial iron lattice. All in the name of a demagogic pauperism, a “Church of the poor” of ’68 memories. Of these horrors we all know not a few examples, so we will understand what I’m talking about.

Well, while Mass was celebrated, a mischievous distraction led me to think of the Moscow Metro. Among the many underground railways in the world, this is an amazing unicum: while everywhere you look at functionality, with simple service stops, so it is not in the Russian capital. Here, each station – one different from the other – is a triumph of columns, capitals, mosaics, wall paintings, stuccos, statues in marble and bronze, huge chandeliers in precious metals, frescoed ceilings, stained glass windows. Not surprisingly, these places are protected by local authorities as works of art. The sensation, entering it, is to have happened not in a simple mass transit station, but in a magnificent underground cathedral.

In fact, this is what Stalin wanted to achieve when, in the early thirties of the last century, he summoned the best architects of the regime to whom he gave a talk of which we know the contents from the documents of the time, once buried in inaccessible archives and now, after the inglorious collapse of the empire, consulted by scholars. He said, in essence, the despot to those professionals: “The great cities of capitalism all have a metropolitan network. It is time for the capital of the Soviets to have it too. I, however, want a very special one, where each station is, regardless of expense, such as to astonish and fascinate those who will attend it. I want it not only to be a masterpiece of engineering but also a masterpiece of art, with a pomp that leaves open-mouthed.” As is well known, to give him reason without saying a word and to obey with servile zeal, was the only way to save your skin when you were at the mercy of him and his fierce secret police. None of the architects summoned, therefore, dared to breathe, but the dictator, in his magnanimous condescension, wanted to give an answer to the question that he read on the face of the listeners. He then explained: “I know that, deep inside yourself, you ask why I order to multiply the costs of the work and not only for the furnishings and works of art but also because I want the excavation to be gigantic, I want that each station is as vast as a cathedral. It is precisely of this that I think: of cathedrals. As you know, we tore the peoples of the Soviet Union from religious superstition, we closed or destroyed the churches, we moved icons into museums, melted the bells, turned the golds of the objects of worship into coins. But I know that the workers feel nostalgic for the times when, at least once a week, they could leave the ugliness of their homes and, in the splendor of the churches, in long liturgy, they could also be surrounded by beauty, almost like kings in their palaces. Here: I want to meet this nostalgia, I want to fight it allowing the workers to enjoy, twice a day, a beauty that compensates for the lost one. Going and returning from work it will seem to them like attending the most beautiful cathedrals, those we have closed or shut down. Even the new communist man needs beauty, we will give it to him not in the anachronistic churches but in the subsoil of Moscow, in the subway stations of the capital of world communism.”

Stalin, as we know, had long been a seminarian of the Orthodox Church of Georgia, so he understood it: he knew that (unlike what many, many “socially engaged Catholics” forgot for a few decades), he knew not only that the poor are never scandalized, in any time or anywhere, of wealth, perhaps of the splendor of the churches, but have always felt it as their right. The right to also enjoy a beauty not reserved for the privileged but open to all; the right, at least one hour a week, to feel surrounded by works of art and objects of great value. Today, however, here is our situation: the state no longer demolishes churches but in the suburbs, bishops, priests, religious still build new ones. By giving birth, in the majority of cases, to those repulsive horrors we know, where beauty is absent not only because of the incapacity of architects and the lack of real artists (there is also this) but also, too often, for a party, because of clerical ideology. Stalin, at least, gave to the Russians the cathedral-stations for consolation, while to us only remain, rather than temples, the “places of dialogue, of comparison, of socialization.” Functions for which what it takes is a hangar, a shed, an unadorned classroom.

(From Il Timone, December 2014. 2018©AP. Used with permission)


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