It is surprisingly hard to tell the difference between photos of Moscow’s metro stations and photos of Russia’s historic palaces. The stations, like the palaces, are supremely decadent, with high arched ceilings, opulent gold leaf, and glittering chandeliers. Photographer David Burdeny takes us inside with A Bright Future and leaves you wondering just what you’re seeing.

Burdeny, who has a masters in architecture and a bachelors in interior design, became fascinated by Russian interiors three years ago while working on a project about European palaces. “For me, Russia was this mythical place shrouded in mystery, and I was interested in viewing it firsthand,” he says. He saw photos of metro stations in St. Petersburg and Moscow and was taken aback by their ornamentation. He decided to juxtapose Russia’s palaces, theaters and museums with these “palaces for the people.”

“Just as a palace is more than just a house, the metro was not just a transitionary space where you catch one train and another,” Burdeny says. “The stations were supposed to provide its occupants with an elevated level of comfort that would surpass anything else in the word.”

Construction on the Moscow Metro began in 1933. The work was done mainly by hand, by miners swinging pickaxes and shovels. Josef Stalin spearheaded the prestigious project to showcase the superiority of socialism. He chose Lazar Kaganovich, the “Iron Commissar,” to oversee construction with utmost ruthlessness. “The Russian metro system was a truly unique project in the history of urban development when you consider how, when, where, and why it was built,” Burdeny says. “They do, however, have a dark side when you consider much of the labor was forced by a leader who eliminated anyone and everyone who stood in his path or threatened his power.” The system opened in May 15 1935, with some 285,000 people riding it that day. Today, some 9 million people ride on 12 lines that pass through 196 stations.

Burdeny visited Russia in 2014 and again in 2015, shooting 30 metro stations and four locations in palaces, theaters and museums in St. Petersburg and Moscow. He typically shot the stations at night and the other locales during the day. Working during off hours, when no one was around, required getting permits, which required extensive background checks.

The key good architecture photos is preserving vertical lines so the edges don’t appear warped. Burdeny uses a camera system specifically designed for photographing architecture: a Phase One IQ260 digital back mounted to a Cambo body. The combination shoots extra wide with built-in perspective control, which eliminates distortion. He mounts his camera on a tripod, and makes exposures of 5 to 10 seconds. He also brackets his exposures, shooting frames that are under—and overexposed—to ensure he gets just the right shot. These techniques allow him to use natural light.

Burdeny is still discovering new stations he’d like to visit. “As an architect and designer, I love architecture in all its forms. I have great reverence for the builders, and craftsmen and minds who challenge formal expectations of their time, and this project is exemplary in that that sense,” he says.

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In Russia, Palaces and Metro Stations Are Hard to Tell Apart