When, in 2013, Russian Railways announced they were phasing out platskart, the cheap communal carriages, the plans were met with indignation. Vladimir Yakunin, the then head of the organisation, later clarified that old platskart carriages would be replaced by double-decker carriages with comparatively priced private compartments. This spring Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, no doubt with half an eye on hosting the 2018 World Cup, reiterated the need for this move, saying “the time has come to move on.”
It is common in Russia to measure distance by train time. Vladivostok, say Muscovites, is “six days by train”. St Petersburg is one night. Russia’s electrified railway network is not the source of pride it was in the Soviet era, yet today its sparse strings still bind Russia’s west to its east and everything in between. Excluding pipelines, 90 per cent of freight in Russia still travels by train. From Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus to Vladivostok in the east, the cultural space of Russia’s trains — and of platskart in particular — is a national constant. Like willing inmates, the passengers know its rules and how one is supposed to break them; they bow to the traditions of the carriage.
The Russian platform is a place to say goodbye. The commotion, the passengers jostling, lumbering luggage through the narrow corridors, double-checking crumpled paper tickets for place numbers — the last-minute cigarettes, the shrieks of the engine, the slowly gathering momentum, all cumulates into a Stravinsky-esque tumult of no return. Although it is a waning tradition, many Russians still take a moment to sit in silence before a long journey; then they leave the apartment. It is bad luck to go back for something you have forgotten. Whenever I board a train, I reflect on the millions of people who said their final goodbye on these platforms. This must be part of why friends and family accompany travellers not only to the station, but deep into the yellow-lit carriages to the bunks where they will spend the ensuing hours and days. Even as the stewardess — who will prove the journey’s curse or blessing — calls for accompanying parties to disembark, they do not truly leave, they remain with the travellers in the form of home-made food supplies, of blini and cottage cheese scones wrapped neatly in tin-foil and stretching into day three. The train creaks and moves off. Normally at this moment the passengers converse, if at all, in contemplative whispers.
Travelling eastwards, through time-zones and thousands of miles, you stay at the same latitude and the vegetation does not change much. All is dappled green — birch, pine and evergreen fir. Only the gentle rhythm of the train changes, rocking its passengers, their bodies and dreams into new, seemingly arbitrary rhythms, a secret between the train and the tracks. Neither do the countless station stops display much local specificity, their buildings following central tropes, either Soviet or set down in Catherine the Great’s architectural hierarchy. There’s a code for how to behave on the platform, too.
It is important to identify the kiosk or free-roaming babushka with the biggest queue and stand in line for fresh supplies: berries, pastries, ice-cream, kvas, beer, cigarettes. All the kiosks sell the same thing, but it is a habit preserved from Soviet times, when the length of queue meant everything. Sometimes on the platform you meet strange muttering salesmen who scuttle away when they see the train security. Sometimes there are cabinets of odd things you would never buy were it not for the uneventfulness of this twenty-minute stop.
But mainly people stand together quietly, breathing fresh air and petting the station dogs. They exchange idle words with the train staff or find out a little about their co-passengers, but never too much.
It is possible to drive from Moscow to Vladivostok by car, but the road is elusive and often ragged, especially in eastern Siberia. Those that need to move at the pace of the modern world fly. That has its Russian specifics. Yet the train remains Russia’s beloved, a ready-made caravan for Russia’s nomads, a site of collective memory whose rituals – from bringing the right things (definitely slippers, definitely tea, crosswords and books, definitely a vest, ideally sailor-style with blue and white stripes), to taking it in turns to make your bed, to collecting tea glasses from the stewardess – are common knowledge.
Recognisable for most Russians, the two-part glass and metal mugs are something that you would probably like to keep as a souvenir. Their robust design is like the trains, practical and Soviet; the lacey imprint on their cast-iron base alludes to an older folk heritage. Russian trains were created for drinking tea. The boiler at the end of the carriage issues steaming water. It is designed beautifully. You can strike up a conversation here. That happens more in the fluidity of platskart.
You know you are travelling, because the passengers change. Ethnic Russians are joined now by Tartars, now by Turkic peoples, by Kazakhs and Mongolians, by Buryati. Grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren for the two-month summer holiday; they travel together. People passing through the carriage might stop for a conversation, standing in the corridor and addressing the compartment. Or they’re invited to take a seat and drink tea. Our companions share stories, they give us a sense of place. They know something about our destination. I am an Englishman learning Russian; people are open and sociable.
“Would you like to lie down?” I ask my neighbour in the early hours of our acquaintance, suspecting she wants me to vacate the long lower seat so she can sleep. “I’ll lie down on my own, thank you.” She replies and continues with her paperback, The Marriage Breaker. She has been in Moscow watching her son being sworn into the army section of the police force. My Portuguese friend Guilherme is a source of hilarity for her. “Tell Gleb to get a Russian girlfriend and then he’ll Sprechen Sie Russki ok!” She tells me. “Gleb” evolves to “Khleb” (bread); soon he becomes “Batonchik” (Little loaf). “Don’t forget to take the noodles off your ears tonight” she tells me as she leaves the train. It means she’s been hanging noodles on my ears. It means she’s been taking the piss. People seldom exchange contacts. Time on the train is separate, suspended from real life.
It is lodged somewhere between waking and sleeping.
Outside, all is birch and pine.
Inside, you can travel. The journey softens and socialises you; spits you out at your destination ready to go among the people: a little more open, a slither more Russian, if that is possible for foreigners; a couple of paper-backs more fatalistic.
For Russians, on the other hand, the train is a second home.