Why do I care?
I come from a wonderfully average college town in the middle of Michigan, which you may or may not have noticed is a rather car obsessed state in the middle of a rather car obsessed country. Therefore public transportation means that if you happen to stand in the right spot for 45 minutes, a bus will probably come along and take you to a different spot, and while granted it's quite possible that you would prefer to be in the second place over being in the first, you probably could have walked there faster. Or better yet gone and gotten into your car and driven, like everybody else. The point of all this being that I didn't have much experience with public transportation when I left the saftey and comfort of my hometown, and headed out into the unknown of Russia.
Of all things I've encountered in Russia, one of the most consistent capsules of information that pass between me and Russians I meet goes something like this:
Russian: You've been to Moscow?
Russian: Did you see the Metro?
Russian: And? Did you like it? Isn't it beautiful?
At first I wasn't too impressed. Yeah, I'd been in the Metro. Yeah, it's big and spacious, and made of marble. So what? But the repetition of the asking, the waiting, the anticipation of judgement, the pride have all begun to make an impression on me that the marble slabs and chandeliers didn't at first. A few short trips back to the city, and some experience with other city's ideas of a Metropolitan have helped as well, until I've gotten to the point where I must admit, the Moscow Metro's got something going. The stations are not only beautifully designed and constructed, but surprisingly clean for a subway, and in impressively good shape for public spaces that have lasted through 50 plus years of the soviet system, and it is probably the most useful subway I've used in recent times. The trains move quickly and come frequently, it's very cheap to ride (single entry 7 roubles; 5 rides, 30 roubles -- that's less than a dollar), and its easy to interpret the maps and figure out how to get where you're going.
I don't know much about History.
The Metro is often referred to as a sort of brain child of Josef Stalin, but in fact plans had been in the works for a subterranean train system in Moscow from as early as 1901, but things kept getting pushed back due to petty little wars and a general lack of funds, resources, and educated engineers in the country. In 1918 Lenin approved a plan, but simply did not have the capital to implement the drafts that his engineers had drawn up. All the while time plunged on and history was busy creating itself, and the population of the city of Moscow was growing at a tremendous rate, doubling between 1917 and 1930 to the area of 4 million people. In 1931 Stalin approved the plans for the subway and construction began. The first line opened on May 15 1935, with 13 stops available, one ticket costing 50 kopecks. Somewhere in the area of 350,000 people showed up to ride the very first day.
You may notice that on a lot of the lines the platforms are very deep in the ground. Yes, they were used as bomb shelters during the Great Patriotic War and were intended to serve as places to shelter from nuclear fallout in the event of war with the United States. This means that you should watch your step when you get onto those escalators - they're some of the fastest moving escalators I've ever ridden on, and if you are subject to vertigo, don't look down or up, or really anywhere at all.
Some practical information.
The Metro is open from 6am until 1am daily. It consists of 11 lines. They've got numbers assigned to them through the use of some sort of Voodoo Magic, such as Chronologics, however I've never heard anyone refer to them by their numbers. They're either referred to by the stops or area that they service, or by the color that they appear on Metro maps. Unfortunately 11 lines leaves you with a few more colors than our usual crayola eight, and with a total of 164 stations (give or take) there is quite a lot of room for ambiguity if you ever need to discuss the Metro with someone, so we will, for the sake of argument, list them here for your potential future use:
Line 1: Sokol'nicheskaya (Kirovsko-Frunzenskaya) 26.2 km, 41 min
Line 2: Zamoskvoretskaya 36.8 km, 50 min
Line 3: Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya 18.9 km, 30 min
Line 4: Filyovskaya 14.4 km, 27 min
Line 5: Kol'tsevaya (ring line) 19.4 km, 29 min
Line 6: Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya 38.1 km, 58 min
Line 7: Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya 35.9 km
Line 8: Kalininskaya 13.6 km, 17 min
Line 9: Serpukhovsko-Timiryazevskaya 40 km, 60 min
Line 10: Lyublinskaya - 18.4 km, 25 min
Line 11: Kakhovskaya - 3.5 km, 5 min
Moscow is structured as a series of concentric rings, starting with the walls of the Kremlin in the very center, and radiating out to the Boulevard Ring, Garden Ring and finally the Moscow Ring road. The heart of the city lies within the Garden Ring, and the Moscow Ring Road is the city's border. The Circle line runs directly underneath the Garden ring for about half of it's length, and then swings outside of it about 1km in the northern region thereby hitting 7 of the city's 9 train stations. Outside of the Circle line, all lines are diverging, inside they are converging, and every stop on the circle line is a transfer station to one of the other metro lines, and often there is a train station there as well.
On all lines the stops are quite far apart, so that the trains can move very quickly. During peak they come about every 90 seconds, and just about every station has a digital clock at the end of the platform telling you when the last train came and what time it is currently.
Every car has at least one full color metro map posted inside, so if you aren't entirely sure where you're going or how to get there when you get on, you can usually figure it out before you've missed your stop, except perhaps at rush hour, when you aren't likely to be able to see anything but the armpit of the man crushed against you by the 200 other people all trying to fit into one metro car.
A couple of stations probably worth visiting even without a nearby destination are Komsommolskaya, Belorusskaya, and Arbatskaya. Generally the really spectacular stations are in the city center, on the older lines. An endless ride around the Circle line can be a good way to kill a few hours before catching a train or a plane to some other destination, however it is worth mentioning that there are a lot of homeless people in the city looking for a warm indoor space to pass those cold winter months. And generally warmth brings out the smell of their 50 year old shuby, not to mention their unwashed scalps and darker places.
(and excellent information):
www.metro.ru (only in Russian)