Riding the Russian rails

Russia’s vastness, history and literature are etched into its trains. Sara Wheeler has spent the past two years on a dozen journeys covering thousands of miles

Sara Wheeler | May/June 2014

The samovar at the end of the carriage hissed in a friendly way and a bouffant-haired stewardess—our provodnitsa—patrolled the corridor issuing instructions about bedding. On the platform, a platoon of young Russian soldiers, green plastic sandals swinging from packs, said goodbye to their mothers and girlfriends in shafts of pale summer sun. The 658AA St Petersburg-Petrozavodsk express was about to begin its daily nine-hour journey to Karelia, Russia’s swampy north-western republic.

As we pulled out of the suburbs the provodnitsa yelled that facilities were temporarily closing, and set about her cleaning duties. She unhooked the rail from a net curtain in the corridor and—thankfully first slipping off the net—used it to plunge the lavatory. Then we were off again into the birch forest, cocooned in the world of the Russian vagon.

Over the past two years, I have ridden the rails for thousands of miles on a dozen journeys, attempting to learn Russian along the way. As with many experiences in life, from love affairs to car ownership, that first journey on the 658AA to Petrozavodsk was the most memorable.

It was the time of white nights, the sky pearly till dawn. As we trundled east out of St Petersburg, the marshes merged into the silvery waters of Lake Ladoga, where a solitary line of ducks forged a dark trail. At Shlisselburg a bridge carried the train over the Neva, the mighty river that drains over 100,000 square miles, including much of south-east Finland.

A Russian second-class sleeper carriage has nine compartments, called kupe, each with four berths, two upper (nad) and two lower (pod). Wherever you board, you find on your bunk a polythene-wrapped package containing linen, towels, a toothbrush and a pair of slippers. The uniformed provodnitsa rules over her fiefdom like a benign dictator with a weird hairdo. At larger stations on that first trip, ours climbed off to buy snacks from itinerant platform vendors. These she sold on to passengers over the journey. At Svir I bought a bag of Karelian dried smelt; the fishiness perfumed the compartment all the way to Petrozavodsk.

Most of my fellow travellers had changed into shorts and T-shirts soon after boarding, as the train was overheated to a tropical degree. When not sleeping or eating, they stood in the corridor gazing out of the window. I was keen to recharge my phone and computer in this corridor. But the single socket was in constant use, a cable under the carpet trailing enigmatically into a closed compartment.

Through the smeared windows of a Number 22 sleeper from St Petersburg north to the White Sea in spring last year, I saw for myself the economic and social polarisation within Russia. Overnight, the birches grew shorter and the air colder. Cars also shrank: rust-bucket Ladas instead of the BMWs of metropolitan mobsters. Houses that looked derelict turned out to be inhabited. It felt as if the landscape had just hung on through winter. There were no factories here, and no toppled statues of Lenin sneering skyward in Ozymandian decay. Just the noble rot of the backwoods: a woman in a housecoat milking a goat, gabled snowmobile lock-ups on the shore of Lake Vyg, and, at last, the port of Kem, halfway between the Kandalaksha Gulf and Onega Bay.

The train does not belong to the Russia of glittering restaurants, art dealers and oligarchs—unless, that is, they fall out of favour. The Number 22 stopped at Segezha, a Karelian barracks-style prison Russians call "The Zone", which at that time was still home to Mikhail Borosovich Khodorkovsky. As the provodnitsa fussed around on the platform, I imagined Khodorkovsky making paper folders in the corner of a hangar for $15 a month. Family visits to Russian prisons are infrequent, but when they do occur they last three days as it takes everyone so long to get anywhere.

The platforms at Segezha were bleak, and empty except for a hunched couple hauling luggage in relay. The sky that day was a bitter blue.

Swathes of the country remain out of the reach even of prison zones and Russian Railways. The far-eastern reg­ion of Chukotka covers over 250,000 square miles of barren soil. In their book "Between Heaven and Hell: the Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture", Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine quote a saying about north-eastern Siberia: "12 months of winter, and the rest is summer."

Not only does Chukotka have no rails. Beyond the capital, Anadyr, it has no roads. I was there five years ago, researching a book about the circumpolar Arctic; the region is officially closed to foreigners, but I had wheedled my way in spuriously as a member of a scientific-research team. Like a lot of Russia, Chukotka was economically moribund. A resident had taped a note to a lamp-post in Anadyr offering his flat in exchange for a single plane ticket to Moscow. Roman Abramovich, on his way to Chelsea, chose Chukotka as his fiefdom. Taking advantage of the region’s low tax base, he registered his companies there and got himself elected governor. Small boys who have never seen a train run around wearing Chelsea hats.

Tsar Nicholas II signed his abdication papers in a panelled compartment of the imperial train as it idled in the sidings at Pskov. Tolstoy died at the lonely Astapovo transfer station in 1910. He had secretly left home, renouncing the world, and was planning an ascetic life in the Caucasus with a small band of acolytes. But he had fallen ill on a train to Rostov-on-Don and was forced to alight at Astapovo. Footage exists of Tolstoy tottering alongside the snowy tracks before taking to his final bed in the stationmaster’s cottage. His acolytes wouldn’t let his wife in as she was not one of them. The couple had been married for 48 years.

Russia came strangely late to railways. The first major line, between Moscow and St Petersburg, opened in 1837. The first station was called a vokzal after the English "Vauxhall", and included a concert pavilion, like Vauxhall Gardens. (The word still means "station" in Russian.) By the early 1880s, Russia had laid just 14,500 miles of track—roughly the same as Great Britain, which would fit into it 70 times over; America and Canada had already built their transcontinental rail links. But Russia caught up. By 1904, Muscovites could travel to the Pacific by train.

During the revolution, Bolshevik representatives of the People's Commissariats commandeered trains to take propaganda to the villages. Many people had never seen a film before, and they paid for their tickets with eggs. These agit-trains carried a printing press to allow customised posters to be produced and thrown out of the windows. Pravda published an enthusiastic report of one such visit:

At Ryezhitsa, where the train arrived at night, workers and soldiers of the Red Army met it with banners, music and torches. At the little station of Malin­ovka, the peasants from the adjoining villages had gathered, and their selected speaker made an address, concerning the train which carried the light of the class-conscious revolution to all corners of Russia.

Construction standards were at best suspect. In 1882, Russians recoiled at the news of a crash at Kukuevka on the Moscow-Kursk line; an embankment had collapsed, burying hundreds alive. Writers began to express their misgivings about the role of the railway in the rush to join Russia together. In "The Idiot", Dostoyevsky's naive hero is on a train when he meets the man who later tries to murder him; the smoke in Turgenev's 1867 novel of that name is railway smoke; the opening line of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard", "The train has arrived", foreshadows unsettling change. And in the most famous scene in Russian literature, Anna Karenina flings aside her red handbag and sinks to welcome oblivion under the wheels of a train.

After 1959, electrification crept in all directions, even though that 658AA line on which I took my first journey was not electrified till 2005. On lines that really matter, Russia has again caught up. The few high-speed trains on the network today are barely distinguishable from France's TGVs or Japanese shinkansen. The German-built Sapsan (Falcon), for example, transformed travel between Moscow and St Petersburg when it was launched in 2009, and is now said to be the only profitable passenger service in the country.

The Sapsan runs up to 13 times a day; last summer I jumped on it at Tver, an intermediate stop on the Volga, and plugged in my laptop at the table along with everyone else—heads down all the way and no samovar in sight.

At Leningradsky Station in Moscow last summer, I settled into my compartment on the night train to Pskov, an elegant city close to the Estonian border. Two young women were already exchanging high heels for railway-issue slippers, and when they had done so, they set out elaborate picnics on a lower bunk. As the train dawdled west, I learned that Svetlana was from Belarus, and Masha was from Kazakhstan and worked in something called (according to Google Translate) "Expansion Management". They were typical fellow passengers: frosty at first, quick to thaw.

I had learned to bring contributions to what inevitably turns into a communal meal, especially when travelling in third-class platskartny, the open-plan dormitory cars that lie somewhere between a boarding school and a refugee camp. On the Pskov train the three of us talked and ate kolbasa sausage with the ubiquitous cucumber. Outside, the butterscotch light of a midsummer evening settled over Zelenograd, Russia's Silicon Valley, and then on the forest, the odd factory and sharp-roofed chalets set in fields of purple flowers. The train continued to move slowly, often stopping for long periods. I didn't care.

Last year I took the 644 from the Black Sea coast inland to Pyatigorsk and the old spa towns of the Caucasus. A meal was included. The menu was in Russian, so selection was hit-and-miss, and anyway the food was awful. I had my children with me, and the menu suggested pasta with chicken, which, my  youngest son discovered, consisted of a hen's foot. But it was still a wonderful trip. That line runs along the Black Sea Riviera, and as the track was laid around the mountains, you travel east into the Caucasian heartlands via two sides of a triangle.

We boarded at Sochi, which was blighted with construction for the Winter Olympics. But just an hour out of town the track enters undeveloped land, crossing inlets alongside beaches where people were still bathing at nine at night. Then darkness swallowed the sea, and when we woke, we were travelling through arable country quilted in greens and yellows, ridged to the west and dotted with baled hay. In bet­ween old farms, trees grew through the roof of an abandoned cement factory.

The 644 provided my only experience of the male species of the provodnitsa—the provodnik—a figure similar in all respects bar hairstyle. On the return trip from Pyatigorsk to Adler a week later, the same steward, standing on the platform, flung his arms wide and greeted us like family.

My only bad experience on Russian railways occurred on this journey. My American friend, Chris, was sleeping on one of the lower bunks in the next compartment to the one colonised by my family. At some nameless station in the night, two young women tottered into the compartment with a bottle of vodka, chattered volubly, and started prodding Chris. When he turned over, they began laughing at him and sticking their bottoms in his face. Then he heard the word "gay". They were insulting him, as they saw it, for not responding to their advances. One of them lay down next to him on his bunk.

As it happens, Chris is gay—and this was just at the time when Putin had introduced anti-homosexual legislation that fostered gay-baiting. The Russian Orthodox church had weighed in with a call for homosexuality to be criminalised. Chris's behaviour had nothing to do with his sexuality. But he felt vulnerable and frightened, and I sensed the dark side of Putin's Russia entering the carriage with the girls that night.

The Trans-Siberian may be the most famous train in the world. It certainly has the longest line. According to a monument in Vladivostok, it covers 5,771 miles (9,288km), but the route has been tunnelled since the monument was erected, shortening the line a little. Trans-Sib 80 calls at Ekaterinburg on its way from Moscow, and I boarded there one evening last December to ride the rails 2,097 miles to Irkutsk, a journey that took three nights and two days.

Winter was biting, and my nostrils froze as I waited on the platform for the provodnitsa to check me off the manifest and inspect my passport. The air echoed coldly with the sound of steel scraping steel. The steward was as icy as the landscape beyond the window, but she softened later when she heard my faltering Russian, saw that I had a broken wrist, and noted that I was alone in the company of a couple of vodka-glugging construction workers. This pair spent most of the journey in the smoking area between carriages, an unheated zone that was crusty with ice.

During that first night, I was woken up by a thunderous knocking on the undercarriage beneath my head and, seeing that we were in a station, I thought we had broken down. But it was only railwaymen using poles to dislodge ice on the wheel hubs. When I opened my eyes again it was light, and we were at Ishim, where a handful of people were scurrying around a large station yard, swathed in fur from head to boot.

Bafflingly, the clocks at Russian railway stations and on the trains themselves show Moscow time. This is of no consequence west of the Urals, as everywhere there is on Moscow time. But the Trans-Sib crosses seven time zones, one of which skips forward two hours. My iPhone was loyal to local time, but it did not tell me if the time zone had changed in the night. It stopped mattering after the first day, just as it didn't matter that I didn't understand a quarter of what the construction workers said. I had adopted train time, lulled into a sweet stupor by the swaying carriage.

We were crossing the taiga, that expanse of Siberian forest haunted by the image of a man in chains. Occasionally a cottage with a corrugated roof and an outdoor privy emerged from the larches, swathed in a mist of falling snow. Otherwise the land was untouched, iron-hard, and far from everywhere else.

The Trans-Sib must constitute one of the greatest engineering feats in history. As soon as Tsarevich Nicholas laid the first stone on May 31st 1891, problems queued up to be solved. Paucity of labour, the vast rivers, the weather, the permafrost, and lack of supplies—for all the thousands of miles of taiga, the wood was too soft to make sleepers.

Yet the railway represented the final colonisation of Asian Russia by the imperial east, and construction workers, many of them prisoners, transformed Siberia into a magnet for immigrants. Once agriculture and industry developed, Russians poured in from the other side of the Urals: 5m disembarked from trains in the two decades before the first world war.

Little evidence remains of that dramatic economic development. According to Michael Stürmer's book "Putin and the Rise of Russia", 40% of homes in the countryside and small towns have no running water, sewers, telephones, or, often, electricity.

Monumental stations reared out of the taiga as if they had landed from Mars. The Trans-Sib stops at the larger ones for half an hour, enough time to bundle up and go for a walk. I loved my night wanders around those snowy, sulphurous platforms, hard ice crackling under my boots. The peppermint-coloured Omsk station was an impressive neoclassical monster, all dazzling windows and cornices. But the buildings in the square beyond it were leprous with corrosion. It was too late for the babushkas selling table-tennis bats of dried fish on the platform—though a tray of hot doughnuts came on board, infusing the carriage with a spicy sweetness. And then it was east to the snowy Barabinsk Steppe, where Kirgiz nomads once grazed herds all the way from the Irtysh to the Ob.

The city of Novosibirsk spools along the Ob for miles. On the solid river, a Christmas ice village already glinted in winter sunlight. Created as a minor way station, Novosibirsk has swollen into the capital of Siberia. The station, at 30,000 square metres the largest in all Russia, includes a wonderful horseshoe entrance, chandeliered halls, acres of polished wood and some Soviet murals—though none as gripping as the one I had inspected at Ekaterinburg station, which shows the CIA agent Gary Powers parachuting to earth in 1960 accompanied by what looked like a shard of U-2 fuselage painted with a star-spangled banner.

The image of a railway station that perhaps typifies contemporary Russia is the one that flashed round the world on December 29th last year, of the grand old entrance at Volgograd bathed in the orange light of a bomb. Political turmoil in the Caucasus had spilled north, and Dagestani terrorists had brought their independence struggle to the Russian railways.

Out on a Novosibirsk platform, alongside Number 80's smart red engine, boxes of electronic gadgets changed hands, bricks of cash stowed quickly in a plastic bag. My two construction workers had left the train to buy supplies for their sheet-metal factory, and Galina replaced them. She was the best of companions. A clear-skinned beauty of about 30, she was heading home to Krasnoyarsk from a forestry conference; she showed me a selfie she had taken while treating a tree trunk with a jumbo hypodermic. Later, as she spooned up Pot Noodle, she wrote down the Latin names of the trees we could see out of the window.

All through the Irkutsk basin, skeins of freight trains rumbled west to the smelting works of the Urals. At Cheremkhovo, the site of one of the biggest coal deposits in Russia, even the snow on the platform was black. Russian trains hauled well over a billion tonnes of freight last year, a quarter of it coal. As a grey Siberian morning brightened over steppe that vanished into the big north, alone in the compartment I ate my last Trans-Siberian meal: a few spoons of instant mashed potato served in a plastic container with a finger of white fish and 13 peas.

Russia is not a pretty country these days. But the trains stay the same. The samovar at the end of the sleeper carriage may be electric, but it remains thoroughly Russian. I am looking forward to my next trip, particularly as, on my last day on the Trans-Sib, I found the answer to the puzzle of the power socket that had been bugging me ever since the 658AA. Two young men had run a cable under the corridor carpet into their compartment and were offering access to a multi-point socket—at a price.

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