In the late 90s, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign tourists flocked to the fetishised, artificial border between “east” and “west”, where they sensed that, by crossing the invisible Iron Curtain, they were venturing into an entirely different world. No route was more romanticised in the western popular imagination than the Trans-Siberian railway, which, as it belted through the vast, snowy tundra of Siberia, seemed to be heading for the edge of the Earth. When I took the journey in 2004, before the trains were renovated, the decor etched itself in my memory to a rattling rhythm, as outpost towns rushed by: the carpets on the floor, which stern attendants with big hair would duck in to straighten; the faux red leather, net curtains, wood panelling, and the samovars in the corridor from which tea (taken black, in glasses) was prepared. Being thrown together with strangers in a cramped carriage space was a common occurrence, especially given the opaque bureaucratic whims of a culture in which service had not taken hold as a lauded concept. Despite having booked a compartment together, my three friends and I were split up into different cars, thrown together with locals from a father and son who played one game of chess after another, to a Moscow economics student returning to visit family who drank spirits with us, or smugglers hiding contraband under seats and hurling it out of windows over the border.
Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen has, brilliantly, channeled the larger-than-life romance of the Russian railway of that era into his arthouse comedy-drama Compartment No. 6, igniting the nostalgia of scores of backpackers anew, while slyly challenging exoticising assumptions and stereotypes of a rough and untamed Russia that still persist today. And he did so successfully: the film charmed the jury at the 2021 Cannes Festival enough to bag the Grand Prix (an award only second in importance to the Palme d’Or). It was recently screened at Karlovy Vary, a prime showcase for Central and Eastern European cinema. I sat down with Kuosmanen at the film festival, held in a Czech spa town that normally is a popular getaway spot for well-heeled Russians, but was quiet due to the Covid pandemic, to discuss touristic adventures and the beauty of chance meetings in a pre-digital world.
“Sometimes we have this idea that encounters, if they are just short ones, don’t mean that much,” said Kuosmanen about the relationship between two passengers that forms on an Arctic-bound train, on which Compartment No. 6 turns. “But I think that’s a very stupid idea, that everything should last forever, and that we should value experiences according to their length. I have had tons of encounters where I don’t even remember [people’s] names, yet they still mean a lot.”
Compartment No. 6 sees Laura (Seidi Haarla) bid farewell in Moscow to her lover Irina, a worldly intellectual who sees Laura as a mere fling, and boarding a long-distance train to Murmansk with her videocamera to see the Kanozero Petroglyphs, centuries-old rock carvings found near the Arctic city, in the Kola Peninsula. Booked into the same compartment is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a young miner with a shaved head, who is headed back north to work. Intent on company, Ljoha’s macho bravado rises with each slug of vodka he takes. Laura, at a loose end between her brief taste of the sophisticated life on the cultural scene she aspires to and her unformed future, pretends to be an archaeology student.
Kuosmanen sets up stereotypes in Compartment No.6, only to then deconstruct assumptions. “Everybody would like to be loved, but if you are not totally okay with yourself it’s really frightening, so you are usually playing some kind of a role, as a shield almost, not to show who you are,” said the director of the pair. “They don’t tell each other any dark secrets, but I have the feeling that they share some similar emotional backgrounds. They are lonely in the same way, and wounded in the same way.”
The cabin-mates are at odds as seeming opposites, but as hostilities thaw, a surprising bond forms, and they experience a different side of one another’s characters. “If you go on those trains, you will meet somebody that seems to prove a stereotype to be true,” the director said. “If you stay with them for just one hour, you only get the stereotype, but if you stay with them longer, then you start to understand much more of them, and the stereotype starts vanishing.”
Compartment No. 6 is the second feature for Kuosmanen, whose debut film about a boxer, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016), also enjoyed critical acclaim. The new film is loosely based on a novel by Finnish writer Rosa Liksom. While the book is set in the 80s, Kuosmanen decided to bring the story forward to an unspecified time in the late 90s or new millennium. “I didn’t want to set it in an exact time, because Russia is a country with very strong politics, and I didn’t want that backdrop to draw focus away from the two characters,” he said. However, it was important that the era remained pre-digital. “The film is essentially a memory — it has this nostalgic tone,” he said. “The world has changed after smartphones. Now you don’t need to ask anybody for help, you can just google anything. There is more connection to other people when you travel just with a map, and I somehow miss it.”
As travellers turn away from planes and back to the railway in a new era of climate crisis and coronavirus, it could be that it’s time for a renaissance of Russian railway romance, in guises old or new. And Compartment No. 6 reminds us just what we had nearly left behind
As a Finn, Kuosmanen was no stranger to the Russian railway. “I have travelled by train in Russia quite a bit, because it’s the only country we can go to by land,” he said. While shooting the film, the team calculated that they traversed more than 25,000 km on the tracks. In Liksom’s novel, the characters travel from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, but Kuosmanen changed their destination to Murmansk, largely because the route appeared more frozen in time. “We scouted places on the Trans-Siberian, but I knew from my previous journey on this track that it’s not the same as it was in the 80s. It’s such a popular route that they renovated all the stations. We were trying to find train stations and views that looked older. Then we went on this track from St Petersburg to Murmansk, and found great places,” he said. Not to mention the dramatic possibilities of a rising snowstorm by the sea, towards the end. “I felt there is much more air in the Arctic than in the Mongolian desert.”
Trains with old carriages are still possible to catch on the Murmansk route. “From outside they have these new colours, grey and red — we didn’t find the green ones I was hoping for, and we didn’t have enough money to paint them — but these are still the ones you could ride in the past. There are pictures of David Bowie on this train in the 70s, and the compartment interior looks exactly the same. The new generation ones are good also — for long-distance travel there are some benefits like showers and air-conditioning — but they’re missing something.” As travellers turn away from planes and back to the railway in a new era of climate crisis and coronavirus, it could be that it’s time for a renaissance of Russian railway romance, in guises old or new. And Compartment No. 6 reminds us just what we had nearly left behind.