However dismal the city may be on the surface at this time of year, beneath our feet is that world-famous treasure trove of twentieth century decorative art and architecture, the Moscow Metro. Sometimes an hour or so spent admiring the dedicated artistry and elegant construction of these subterranean palaces can lift a grey day. This tour starts in the second phase of station building in the late 1930s, with that famous hall of bronze Soviet figures, crouching with suppressed energy around the arches at Plo schad Revolutsii. It ends with one of the latest additions to Moscow's incredible underground network, opened just three months ago. The gallery of 76 sculptures (four matching sets of nineteen) at Ploschad Revolutsii was opened exactly seventy years ago, in 1938, and transports us back in time to an era of revolutionaries, partisans and pioneers. The figures move through an idealistic progression which starts with the revolutionary worker with a grenade, the trench soldier, sailor (with the revolver), parachutist, signalman, riflegirl and frontier guard. The guard is the one with the dog, whose highly polished nose is touched by passers-by for luck, as you will see if you watch for more than a few seconds. The next statues represent the peaceful activities of the flourishing Communist order: engineering, farming, reading, sports. With the students, it looks forward to the next generation, in the form of chubby bronze babies whose parents are gazing proudly into the glorious future represented by the pioneer boys and girls (on the platform side), making model airplanes or studying geography.
Catch the train west towards Strogino and get off at each station in turn to admire the plaster garlands and baroque chandeliers of Arbatskaya, the fluted columns and marble benches of Smolenskaya and finally the frescoes at Kievskaya. These three stations were built in 1953 during the most ornate phase of station decoration. They are all deep and built with a central hall, separated from the rails by pillars, and have characteristically elaborate features such as gilded light-fittings and murals. The pictures in Kievskaya station depict idealised life and work in Soviet Ukraine. At the west end, there is a huge fresco of "Popular Celebration in Kiev," while the paintings on the walls show engineers and chemists, wine makers and cattle breeders, bricklayers, dancers and miners. The fishermen are catching - now extinct - Azov Sturgeon, while happy peasant girls in national costume harvest turnips and apples.
Follow the signs to the brown (ring) line where the station is equally ornate with beautiful mosaics re-writing the narrative of Russo-Ukranian relations. Take the train south/counter-clockwise towards Park Kultury, which was opened - as were the four stations that follow it - on January 1, 1950. Com pared with flamboyant Kievskaya, the grey and white marble of Park Kultury seems austere at first, but a closer look at the medallion reliefs on the walls demonstrates a playfulness in keeping with the theme. Most of the ring stations relate back to the recent war, but this one is an exception; here the decoration celebrates the activities on offer in nearby Gorky Park: skating, playing chess, football and drama.
Oktryabrskaya, the next station, also makes use of marble relief work with wreaths and stars as recurrent devices. At one end a gated, crypt-like vault is topped by a sky-blue arch, perhaps hinting at the celestial destination of the war heroes whose heads line the tiled walls. Recently-renovated Dob rinskaya feels much lighter, with rounded arches and carvings influenced by the old cathedral at Vladimir: another frontier guard tracking through border conifers with his trusty dog, a woman in a vineyard and a shepherd with a fur hat, backed by plants as fine as an illuminated manuscript. At one end, is a huge mosaic of a mother and child, representing "the dawn of the cosmic era."
Get off again at the second stop, Taganskaya, which returns to the war theme with soldiers' heads on flame-shaped blue ceramic panels, and interchange to the "yellow line" where we again leap two decades into the next phase of metro building in the 1970s. Red marble Marksistskaya has an instantly more modern feel with the columns sloping outwards at the top to give an elegant shape to the tunnels. The geometric shapes inlaid in the walls and floor are mostly on the familiar theme of stars and flags; there are even hammer-and-sickle designs in the wrought iron balustrade of the stairs, while the chandeliers are reminiscent of Tatlin's constructivist double helix. Take the train one stop to Ploschad Ilicha, also opened in 1979, and change again onto the light green line.
Two Italian architects were part of the team that designed Rimskaya ("Roman") Station in 1995 and were responsible for the striking use of unusual decorative materials, in particular majolica sculptures, as well as interesting collages of different colored marble. You can see the first of these, looking back as you come down the escalator and the second, a madonna and child in a blue eggshell, above the arch of the main hall. At the far end, is a large installation involving two fallen Corinthian columns on which the baby Romulus and Remus are sitting and crawling, backed by a real waterfall. Turning right in front of these columns and walking to the foot of the escalators, you can look back to see another sculpture of the babies being suckled by an antique wolf.
Walk back to the platform and get on a train bound for Trubnaya, the beautiful current terminus of this branch of the metro. Passing through space-age Chkalovskaya with its 1990s neon panels and curved pylons, get off at Sretensky Bulvar. Opened in late December 2007, this station effectively brings the story up to date. The architecture here is classic, combined with a shining, spacious modernity; likewise the decorative elements are both abstract and figurative. The irregular steel appliquées mounted over marble slabs show fragmented images of people, trees and views along the Boulevard Ring. Quotations from and monuments to classic Russian poets nod towards tradition while the lighting and elegant sweep of the central archways lead the Metro boldly into the future.
Family friendly features
It is always advisable (but rarely practicable) to avoid rush hour on the Metro (officially designated as 7:30-9:30 a.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m., but extending either side of these times) and with kids it is doubly true. On weekends you will usually have more space and many kind people will give up their places for children. It might also be a good idea to do this tour in two halves so as not to overstretch their enthusiasm.
That said, kids can have great fun spotting the details of the statues, mosaics or reliefs - you can compile your own quiz. They particularly enjoy Rimskaya with its life-sized babies and water-feature.