On a Russian train, you’ll find the full range of humanity: rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural. The full range of humanity means the full range of human emotion.
When the world beyond your wagon becomes only as real as a blurry painting full of trees and small villages, constantly changing in its window-pane frame, you are left with people who were strangers just a few hours ago. Russia’s rich cultural tradition and present-day common practice of long-distance train travel is a remarkable testament to the power of living in the moment, in your immediate surroundings.
At dawn, in one of the third-class wagons, two passengers ended up across from each other, right by the window. They were both young people, both almost without baggage, both not dressed up, with quite attractive figures and deciding, at last, to start a conversation with each other. If they knew in that moment what made each of them notable, then, of course, they would be shocked that chance had so strangely sat them across from each other in the third-class wagon of the Petersburg-Warsaw train.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Page 1 of The Idiot (translated by Katrina Keegan)
Yaroslav was riding in a train with his mother when he met an attractive young woman. They started to talk after she asked him to help her with a zipper. After the train ride, she found him on social media. When they started dating, she never had to deal with the stress of meeting his mother for the first time, since they had been acquainted from the very beginning. Their wedding invitations were in the form of train tickets.
“Trains in Russia create families.”
There were some free window seats near two older women, so I had taken to relocating there sometimes during the day. At one point, a woman joined me there. She struck up a conversation with me, eventually asking me about my religion. From there, she asked me if I believed in God or a Higher Intelligence, and when I asked her to clarify the difference, she said that there is a higher intelligence. It has created life on the planet many times, starting with giants and getting smaller, each time destroying them with a natural disaster such as a flood, just as they will eventually destroy us. She knows what the higher intelligence is, but that knowledge costs money. I’d heard my fair share of Russian conspiracy theories, such as from another fellow passenger who claimed that the Mongol Empire (he called it Tataria) existed until the nineteenth century, a historical fact everyone covers up. The real feeling of conspiracy wasn’t the conspiracy theory itself. It was that shared conspiratorial glance with the two elderly women that also recognized the nonsense, making faces behind the woman’s back and gestures for me to escape. The two older women had been travelling the full Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok and had become instant best friends with one another, talking nonstop, and even taking the liberty to poke fun at each other and invite themselves to visit one another. In that moment, they invited me, the 22-year-old American tourist, to join their friendship as well.
“There!” she [Anna Karenina] said to herself, looking into the darkness of the wagon, at the sand mixed with coal, which was dusted over the railroad ties. “There, into the very middle, I will punish him and get rid of everyone and myself.”
– Lev Tolstoy, From Anna Karenina, right before Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under an oncoming train. (Translated by Katrina Keegan)
A teenager Kolya lays down in between train tracks. “Two red lights flashed in the darkness, the approaching monster began to rumble. ‘Run, run, enough with the rails!’ yelled the boys to Kolya from the bushes, dying of fear. But it was too late: the train had rolled up and rushed past. The boys ran to Kolya: he lay motionless. They started to shake him, pull him up. He suddenly rose and silently came off the mound [...] That’s how he gained eternal glory as the Brave.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov (translated by Katrina Keegan)
I adopted both my daughters from Russia. For my second adoption, I had to travel the overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow with my new four-year-old daughter. My daughter was scared and exhausted, and I guess I was too. She cried and screamed until finally the movement of the train seemed to calm her, and she fell asleep. I cried most of the way, as I was very scared and very homesick for my older daughter, who was back in the States with her grandmother. It was a long, surreal night, and I just stared out the window... for those hours I was left with my thoughts and the unbelievable changes both my daughter and I were going through to create a family.
Halfway to St. Petersburg, the train stopped for passengers. Into our compartment and, of course, sitting down next to me for the rest of the journey, came a “kulak” in full peasant garb, which had not been washed since before the Revolution. I still recall the odor of nineteenth-century rural Russia twenty-five years later. Phew!
A woman presses flowers to her face, eyes glistening with tears. She is accompanied by the father of her fiance, who has volunteered to fight in the Great Patriotic War. A soldier at the front of a train triumphantly says that the joy of the Soviet people brought us victory, but that we will not forget those who remained in the fields, that they will do everything so that future brides would never lose their husbands. The woman, whose fiance was not among those who got off the train, passes out her flowers to the lovers and families that are reunited. The last flower goes to a baby girl in the arms of her father, who is meeting her for the first time. “Look,” the young father says, “cranes are flying over Moscow!"
– The last scene of the Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying.
Two passengers, a woman and a man, ran to me in turn and complained about each other, even though they were sitting on different ends of the wagon. I couldn’t understand what was happening, the woman comes up to me and says that one of the passengers is drunk and misbehaving, and points out the man. I started to watch over him, it seemed that he was acting just fine, then he comes over and complains to me about a woman, says that he saw her steal from another passenger. And this continued all day, in the evening I figured out that they were ex-spouses that had by chance met in my wagon.
– Tamara Popova interviewing a conductor for Gorod Kirov (translated by Katrina Keegan)
There was some banging, then all was quiet. We were pretty much asleep, so did not take much notice until in the morning. At that point, we discovered we were the only car on the track, and the only people in the car (besides the conductor). Our car had been decoupled from the train and left at the siding. The conductor may have had an explanation, but our Russian was not good enough to discover the reason. We took a little time to explore the tiny village, but always kept the car in sight. About late morning, another train came along, and we were re-coupled for the remainder of the trip.
The train was Voronezh to Moscow, the departure time 8:45 pm. My fellow travelers (a woman about 50 years old and a man about 25) and I are sitting in the train compartment and are waiting for the departure, secretly hoping that no one else will be in our compartment. Literally two minutes before departure a pretty girl 20-22 years old flies into the compartment and puts her things on the upper bunk (later we learned that she had bought her ticket that morning, and the lower bunks were sold out). [...] Having evaluated the situation almost instantly, she introduced herself and began to chat aimlessly with the young man. [...] It developed into a very lively conversation, smoothly turning into flirting. All of this continued for a while, until it was time to make the beds. [...] As if merely as an aside, she asked: “Sasha, would you be okay with me being on the lower bunk?” The answer made me wildly gleeful: “I’d be okay with it, but we’re not alone in the compartment…” [...] She silently climbed up onto her bunk, and kept to herself the rest of the way until Moscow.
– Serge on Annekdoti iz Rossii (translated by Katrina Keegan)
We stopped at Novosibirsk, and, after checking the train schedule, I determined I had enough time to take a short walk to stretch my legs. We had joked about missing the train, so I was careful about not taking too long. I assured the conductor I would return shortly. She didn't seem concerned. I proceeded up to an overpass so I could look directly down on our train, and was proud of my independent adventure. When I headed back, I noticed all the cars looked exactly the same, and the nice conductor was nowhere to be seen. I went to where I thought our car was, but a person in a uniform waved me away, making it clear I was not going to board his car. I started running alongside car windows and jumping up, so I could see inside. By this time I knew the train was about to leave. About this time (and I credit Divine intervention), I saw a woman appear on a landing further down the tracks. I ran to her, she recognized me, and I hugged her.
Hugging a stranger because you are so happy to be on a train: a feeling we wish for everyone taking a railroad trip through Russia. While you may or may not meet the love of your life, you can certainly find a friend, an enemy, or yourself along the rails.
This post was sponsored by Seattle-based MIR Corporation, which for three decades has been providing quality individual and group travel services to Russia, the FSU, and beyond.
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