“May God grant we never again see a Russian revolt, so senseless and pitiless”, Alexander Pushkin wrote in his The Daughter of the Commandant, a novel about the Cossack uprising in 1774. After my 40-hour journey from St Petersburg to the Ural Mountains, where this exact riot happened, I would change Pushkin’s “revolt” to “train trip on economy class seats”. I will explain why a Russian train is so senseless, and pitiless also.
There are always two of them in the dormitory car, and it seems to me they are playing roles of bad cop and good cop. When a passenger behaves too noisily, it’s a good cop who comes to give a polite warning – a bad one comes in with threats if people keep complaining.
An example: my laptop was out of battery, and I asked one of the conductors to charge it in their dogbox, because the public socket used by the whole coach is located near to the restroom. The answer was – sorry, we are not allowed to do that, the voltage is too high. Oh well – but a minute later, another guy from the personnel comes to me with a cunning smile and interesting suggestion:
“I’ve heard you need to charge something… we can make a deal”.
The deal is that I pay one hundred rubles and get what I want. Good cop. Like everywhere in Russia, it’s important to make friends with these guys.
Train food is surrounded with sacred traditions in Russia, especially if the trip takes two days or more. In some cases there is a restaurant car, which should be a separate topic for discussion if for no other reason than because lots of Russian literature masterpieces were created there. I can imagine Alexander Blok meditating about the end of his poem at a table full of empty shot-glasses; or, for example, Boris Pasternak who in his “Doctor Zhivago” described very lively the concept of looking out of the window for several days but being confined to the same particular seat – these thoughts, doubts, inimical nature and snow-covered stations.
Back to reality, if there is no restaurant car, you eat only what you brought: usually it’s a swishing plastic bag full of chips, biscuits, sandwiches, cucumbers and apples. The obligatory component – grilled chicken in aluminium foil – shows that it was mom, or the caring wife, who packed everything. Eggs, too: lots of eggs, because they are nutritious and easy to preserve. Conductors usually serve tea, which costs no more that fifteen roubles.
As passengers have to share one table between two people and a bigger one between four, dinnertime often becomes an occasion to talk and get acquainted. From this second, you share your food with these people forever (or till the end of the road, that’s almost the same).
Fellow travelers (Poputchiki)
When you buy the cheapest ticket on a long-distance train, you are voluntarily saying good-bye to your private space. Children yell two meters away from you, an unknown mustached man obstinately offers you his slippers because you forgot yours, and passengers go back and forth through the narrow corridor; prepare yourself for endless conversations with unknown people. Last time I had to keep up one: when I took my place in the St Petersburg-Astana train, I faced the old man making a Christian cross on his body and crying. I felt sharp pity for him.
Suddenly he saw the destination point on my ticket.
“Your Chelyabinsk is a city of meat, right?
“Excuse me? Meat? No, Chelyabinsk is not my city at all,” I’m trying to be nice, though usually I hate talking with strangers: he obviously needed a little talk. That’s what I thought.
“I’m from St Petersburg.” At this moment my role in the conversation was over.
“And I’m from Udmurtia. My son remained here, in St Petersburg. Got married. They live here with a child. No good. They haven’t even seen off their father…their grandfather,” the old man begins to weep again. “I’m not coming here anymore. Never. I’m old already, I’m ancient, I’m gonna die soon. And I’m weeping cause I’m week, girl. I said to my son: I disown you – he guffawed. They stopped respecting old bones, I should say, and they used to respect. Girl, listen, girl, here are three main rules: respect old bones, don’t get married until thirty, don’t drink alcohol, don’t. My son is drinking, everything is bad in their family, we even called the mental asylum once. And if I’ll drink – don’t you mind, girl? Can Pyotr Zaharych drink hundred grams? Oh, you’re writing, are you a journalist? Wait-wait, I’ll tell you all my life, if you want. I will.”
The old man fishes out a bottle of vodka. The journey begins.