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.