Night of Stone and Russian Trains

If you scroll down a bit, you will see from that clever software plugin that I am currently reading Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia by Catherine Merridale.  I’m only one page in, but already a passage has brought back memories:

Russians are surely among the most accomplished long-haul railway travelers in the world.  Their preparations are formidable.  If you join them, you will be treated, at irregular hours of day or night, to hard-boiled eggs, pickled cucumber, sausage, lukewarm vodka, and sweet black tea.  It will become apparent that the windows of most old Soviet railway cars do not open.  But the conversation will always be lively.

So true, oh so true.

Here’s what I wrote after my last trip on a Russian train: 

I was sharing a carriage with a middle aged Russian lady who spoke enthusiastically to me in very fast Russian, of which I understood practically nothing, until she got off in Novoshino. It would not have been so bad if she’d stuck to the topic in hand, but having started the conversation talking about photography from a train window, a few sentences later she was on about Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea, which made it awfully difficult to follow. She was highly critical of my choice of food for the journey – a few pot noodles and Snickers bars – telling me there was too much salt in them, and instead offered me what she considered healthy food – an entire roast chicken and boiled eggs. Such is the nature of travelling on Russian trains.

If any budding writer was stuck for material for a new book, he could fill volumes with what he saw whilst riding Russian trains for a month.  Lacking fancy Western gadgets like iPods, the entertainment is laid on for you.  Watch the people, watch the scenery.  Look on with amazement though grimy windows at the surreal scenes unfolding before your eyes as the train pulls into a station.

It may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with Russians, but on their home turf they are extremely confident people.  They will think nothing of talking to a complete stranger in a train carriage (lack of Russian language is not a problem, you are there to listen not speak), and if your correspondent happens to be a woman, she will interfere with everything you do as though you are a long lost son who needs looking after.  In Western society, it would be considered rude to criticise a stranger’s choice of food.  Not so on Russian trains, where your business is everyone else’s.  But so friendly.  Not an ounce of malice or condescension.  Just harmless busybodying.

And yes!  The preparations!  Trying to buy food at a station in St. Petersburg before my journey to Kazan, I thought 20 minutes or so would be ample time.  Not a chance!  There was a queue … no, not a queue, a rugby scrum … of formidable Russian women crowding the counter in the food shop.  They were all shouting, and jostling, and handling a multitude of food items, bullying the staff behind the counter into giving them some extra meat or cheese. I couldn’t get a look in.  I stood there with my jaw hanging open.  Not only was there the usual pre-packaged and dried food on sale, there were enormous hunks of raw meat with the ribs still attached, and cheeses the size of footballs.  The meat looked as though a butcher had gotten lazy and only cut the carcass into three before going down the pub.  Yet women were sticking these things whole into stripey nylon bags, along with four loaves of bread and a hunk of cheese, before boarding the train.  Anyone would have thought a call had gone out for citizens to take food to the Red Army, stranded in Novosibirsk and desperate for food.  After 10 minutes, I gave up and went to my train, leaving my Russian friend to do the buying on my behalf.

I could write for days about Russian trains.  Damn, I miss Russia.


10 thoughts on “Night of Stone and Russian Trains

  1. Night of Stone is a wonderful book. I’m really anxious to read her new book Ivan’s War. Many people in the historical profession pan Merridale’s work, but I think it is an amazingly readable narrative and very humanistic. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. Thanks Sean. Ivan’s War is on my list of books I’ve bought and am planning to read.

  3. Pingback: Taking Aim » Blog Archive » Life on a train

  4. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Russia: Train Rides

  5. Even on short 3 hour train rides in platzkart, you see couples and families unwrapping entire picnics on the train – complete with table clothes, napkins, silverware, etc. I was impressed with these insulated plastic baskets that some carried with them. I was less impressed by those who had been riding the train since the evening before, walking around in pajamas and yelling at you to shut the door, it’s cold outside.

    But I agree, Russian trains are definitely a very interesting (if somewhat dirty) experience.

  6. Tim, thanks for this picture-in-words. I love riding the rails in Russia. I’ll confess to spoiling myself sometimes with SV on the way up to Piter, but I think this summer I’m going to give platskart a go – most often in the past, I’ve been in kupe, because even all of my Russian friends tell me to avoid platskart. But I think I should do it at least once.

    I miss Russia, too, man – thank goodness I’ll be back over there this summer, but that may be the last time for a few years, which is upsetting. Stay cool down in desert country.

  7. This is so true. My Russian girlfriend loves trains and would far rather go by rail than fly, though in Russia that’s just sound common sense. The amount of food Russians take with them is amazing, as is the cutlery. Older Russians are extremely good at packing a huge number of things into tiny spaces having grown up in tiny flats shared by several families, and this expertise comes into its own on trains.

    The things they eat as well. It’s the smoked eels that defeated me in the end. The distances in Russia are so epic that just taking a train journey is like reading a novel in itself.

    You’re also right about the confidence of Russians, especially Russian women, who will organise your wardrobe, travel plans and relationships unbidden while talking non stop and chewing on those bloody brown shrivelled eels.

    Great country. Totally nuts though. It’s the huge statues of Marx which still creep me out, plonked right in the middle of the station. They got so used to ignoring them in Soviet times they still don’t see them, or realise the impression they make on visitors. Tourists and businessmen are not encouraged by still seeing finger pointing Lenins everywhere 15 years after the fall.

  8. help me find my russian girlfriend. I can give you here mobile phone number & an old address. THANK U

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