The biggest country in the world is meant to be seen by train. To that end, I suppose, developing Russia’s railway infrastructure is one of the most important factors when it comes to deciding the future of internal travel - but no one can be sure if that is to be achieved by a huge monopoly. And in a country as big as this, the very concept of “local” has a different meaning altogether.
Among Russians for whom traveling by train is first and foremost a lifestyle choice, no love is lost for Russian Railways (RZhD), the state railway monopoly. Whenever RZhD makes a major leap forward - such as introducing the high-speed Sapsan train between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod - most passengers moan about how much work still needs to be done on the enormous railway network.
They have a point. Even when the summer peak season is over, Russian trains are hit-and-miss. You can pay $100 for a ticket and end up in hell, or else in a nice carriage with nice compartments. I understand this is one of the reasons why even the more tech-savvy passengers still prefer to queue up at the railway stations for tickets, as opposed to buying tickets online or at specially equipped RZhD terminals.
“If I buy my ticket from a teller, I can at least talk to her about a particular train,” Larisa, who takes frequent trips to visit family members who live everywhere from Kuban to the Urals, told me. Larisa is a frequent fixture at Moscow’s railway stations - with her expensive luggage on wheels, and the requisite small, shivering dog peeking from her handbag. She is the face of the “new” class of train travel in Russia, brash and unafraid to complain about poor service.
“Most of the time, the tellers are honest. Sometimes, even if you’re paying for a luxury compartment, you run the risk of getting ripped off,” she said.
“So you hate RZhD then?” I asked her.
“The scary thing is, if they privatize the sector now, I’m sure things will get even worse,” she replied - and perhaps she was right.
I once paid $200 for a spot in a two-person luxury compartment in a train from Moscow to the Crimean town of Feodosiya. Among the good aspects of the journey was the fact that the air-conditioning worked and the train attendant in our carriage was exceptionally well-mannered and nice. Among the bad aspects was virtually everything else.
And yet I remember that trip fondly. My soon-to-be husband and I bought the famous local pryaniki (thick, delicious ginger cookies) at a stop in Tula. At way-stations, women selling toys for the littlest passengers idly flirted with him - hoping, perhaps, that I was his sister. In one of the border towns at night, a drunk man with an accordion was cursed by the entire carriage. In another border town, someone wanted to sell me a kitten.
There is a certain gravitas to train travel in Russia, because it slows down time. You are able to see the country - see a small path leading through the tall grass in the distance, and wonder where it may lead. When I was 17, I stood once at a way-station, watching such a path lead away from me. Beyond it was an abandoned factory building. Above the factory building, a fat harvest moon. We were in the Vladimir region, and the only other person awake was a shirtless carpenter who was traveling in an adjacent compartment.
“I think things are looking up,” he told me, unprompted. We had been discussing RZhD, and had fallen into a long silence.
“Looking up for RZhD?”
“Looking up in general,” he said.
I no longer remember his face, but I remember being grateful for our long, ponderous journey. Since then, the railway station at Vyazniki, my destination, has been spruced up. And the passing train to Nizhny Novgorod - not the Sapsan version, but a slow train, that still makes all of the rural stops - is clean and modernized. I wonder if Shirtless Carpenter Guy still goes on the same journey from time to time. I wonder if things did, indeed, look up for him in the end.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.