The Baku City Metro and the Myths of Nations

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Being a country-boy, public transportation was a late-in-life experience. My first: Washington, DC and my second: Chicago - and each time, there was little reflection on my part due to the pressing urgency of being in a big unfamiliar city. Until watching National Geographic's "Inside North Korea" - where the travelers descend the enormous escalator into elaborate halls - the connection between national ideology and public works projects was lost on me.

The Descent: into the heart of Baku - Icheri Sheher Metro Station. Baku, Azerbaijan

At first, the Baku Metro was like my previous experiences: hurried, frantic, confusing. The confusion was mostly on my part, the setup is actually straightforward. You purchase a metro card for 2 AZN, then you "charge" the card using brightly colored kiosks. A small shelf on a square indent about waist-height coddles the card and while you insert money (coins or paper) into the machine. When finished, press the red (not the green) button on the touch screen. The metro card can be returned (only at 28 May Metro Station, I think) for a refund. Entrance is 20 qəpik (it's free to transfer lines), which apparently makes Baku Metro the "cheapest metro in the world" according to the Metro Chief. The metro opens at 6am, and runs until 1am. (They also check bags with a wand metal detector, and might look in the top of your bag if it beeps, but the mostly could careless - at least in my experience!)

Swiping my card for a ride.

As discussed in a previous post, people will most likely not be in lines; working to the front is always easier than I imagine at the time. One time a young man peeked over my shoulder, quickly asked if something was olar ("It can be" OR "can it be?") - then pushed a 20 qəpik into the machine. It didn't take long for me to realize what was up - slipping through the turnstile gate, I handed the card back to him. Returning my card, he thanked me and was off. This has happened to me at least a half a dozen times. If you see people hovering around the kiosks, they are probably waiting to hop on someones card.

Outside the 28th May Metro stop, an older woman (xanim) cleans the entrance.

If it is rush-hour, the crowding into the cars is a sight-to-behold. While, no one was overly aggressive when getting off or on, during these times I always harbor doubt that I will actually make it through the sliding doors - there seems to be a stream of people, and you either flow into the car, or get lightly cast aside. Though the US Embassy warns against thievery in Azerbaijan, I've heard no stories of pick-pockets - not even half-hearted rumors (yet). The Metro has two lines (red and green) which interchange at 28 May station (next to the Baku Central Train Station) a guide opposite the waiting passengers is visible when a car is not, and an LED display notes the final destination of the coming train.

Descending deep into the City's vascular system at Içəri Şəhər Metro (formerly: Bakı Soveti - often shorten to "baksoviet"), the stainless steel escalator under the glass pyramid continues for days. A total of seven metro stations are "deep-laid" with pylon-style construction that can double as shelter during, for example, nuclear strike (or the Zombie Apocalypse). Which, these elaborate, and strong designs were common among Soviet metros. Planning and building a rapid transit system - the brute will, mechanical muscle, and calculated gusto required - was highly compatible with communist mythos (or so I've read). Most of the cars are painted the same dark green of the trains, and contrast strongly with the few bright red and dark purple cars advertising the two major cellphone providers: Bakcell and Azercell, respectively - an occasional juice brands. (The juxtaposition of capitalist advertisement, and communist engineer, is not lost on me.)

A brilliant article on the subject likens the Soviet metro system to an "underground church," where the industrial rationality of communism becomes tangible and visual, and the ideology of the worker is celebrated on the walls of each stop. In the Baku Metro, each stop has a different motif, and many are ostentatious. Making the metro stations more than just concrete and stainless steel, is a display of the success and prestige of the ruling elite, but it also has deeply "communist" roots. Improvements in public transportation, almost invariably, serve the poorer strata in a society - and in many ways the grandeur of these Metro stations, brought the luxury of the wealthy to average, working folk. For instance, the ornate chandeliers at Elmei Akedemiyasi (Academy of Sciences).

The chandeliers at Elmler Akademiyasi (Science Academy) Metro Station

The depictions in each station tell a honed and selective story of Azerbaijan. In particular, much effort is being made to connect Azerbaijan, with a specific history, geography, and trajectory. For instance, Nizami Gəncəvi, was a 12th century Persian poet, born in a city in present-day Azerbaijan, and Nəriman Nərimanov was a true Azeri "Renaissance Man" at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the histories of the many ethnic minorities within the Azerbaijani border are left unrepresented. Some of the names still maintain an aftertaste of Soviet ideology, but have been re-purposed to fit the current administration's "neoliberalism." For instance, Nefçilər (Oil workers), Xalqlar Dostluğu (Friendship of Nations), İnşaatçılar (Builders) - marking the strong conflation of "development" with petroleum, construction and memberships in international organizations.

During the long life of the Baku Metro, this story has, no doubt, been tweaked. Changing the scenery reflects the changes in political landscape and also, a history that the government, more or less, wants forgotten. For instance:

  • Koroğlu (Formerly: Məşədi Əzizbəyov, renamed 2011): The Epic of Koroğlu (literally "son of the blind man") tells about the deeds of a hero of the Turkish people who struggled against unjust rulers. Məşədi Əzizbəyov, on the contrary, was a Soviet revolutionary leader, and one of the first Azerbaijani Marxists.
  • 28 May (Formerly: 28 Aprel renamed 1991–93): On May 28th, 1918, Azerbaijan gain independence - becoming the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world (for more: Modern History of the Islamic World). The Bolsheviks, in need of Baku oil, sovietized Azerbaijan two years later on April 28th, 1920.
Nizami Station depicting the life of the famous poet. Baku, Azerbaijan
  • 20 Yanvar(Formerly: XI Gızıl Ordu Meydanı renamed 1991–93): On the 19th and 20th of January 1990 in Baku the USSR tried to squelch dissonance, up to 137 were killed. The XI Gızıl Ordu Meydanı translates to XI Red Army Square (oddly, Gızıl is "golden," but is use to convey grandeur in this case) which commemorates those that marched into Azerbaijan in 1920 (above).

With any technological advancement, faith is required. After the worst tragedy in the history of metros, Bakuvians trusted the authorities to fix the problems and continued to ride. In this regard, the metro is the incarnated trust between nation and citizen: heading several meters into the earth under a bustling city center and boarding a confined metal canister being hurled through rock, iron and cement tubes requires trust. Trust in the builders, the architects, in the economic system and the policy makers.

Even more subtle than the national history carved in the cathedral-like stations, and the faith of a citizen to their nation, is what a rapid transport system represents in-and-of-itself. While borders are, more-or-less, arbitrary, the metro emerges to meet a practical need for efficiency in our "rational" world. The location of these hubs often mark the very heart within a nation in a very tactile way. In the modern nation-state, few things can embody the abstract idea of "progress" and "nationhood" quite like publicly-funded steel and concrete pumping citizens through the arteries of the metropolis. (Was that metaphor too drawn out? Yeah, I thought so. Well, at least, I didn't call the fire in the subway "heart-burn.")

Bonus: Baku really digs color-changing lighting:

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PC - Baku Metro-Color-Changing-Lights-The-Brief-Note-2012

Dustin is a traveler, researcher, and mountain and craftbeer lover trying to improve his writing. To learn more about Dustin, visit the appropriately titled About Dustin section.