Time and Motion Day 3Tue 05 Feb
The silvery vastness
“Late evening depart Moscow Yaroslavskaya on first train leg to Perm.”
My holiday romance began in a masterpiece of Russian Revivalism. I was waiting to board the Trans-Siberian Express in a hall decorated in wrought-iron and frosted glass. I love railway stations at night. The animation that I had sought on Moscow’s streets I found here. Energy was pulsing from the tracks. Faces were etched with worry, anticipation and impatience. Endless queues of passengers moved along raised gangways between wooden handrails. On the rows of plastic seating we coughed, spat, shifted about, and spoke in voices that resounded in a loud hum under the vaulted ceilings. A woman wept in the arms of her mother while the rest of the family tactfully formed a circle around her luggage. The Trans-Siberian is not primarily a tourist train. It is a commuter train for passengers who cross continents in search of work. Built for Siberian gradients, it is the most powerful freight locomotive in the world. Dressed in red and grey, the Rossiya was unveiled at Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant in Rostov-on-Don as part of Railwaymen’s Day celebrations on 3rdAugust 2014.
Finally, my platform was announced. I was as giddy with excitement as I had been on approaching the Aeroflot jetbus at Heathrow. This time I was greeted by a provodnitsa (conductor) in a red and grey uniform and a jaunty cap. She was a tiny copper redhead with a cheeky, freckled face and a confusingly taciturn manner. She showed me to my cabin. She didn’t speak English but managed to convey through mime that the samovar was at the end of the carriage. She had the efficiency of movement that only the petite have. With the flick of a wrist I understood there were toilets at either end of the carriage, and the dining car was the next carriage along. She left me in a cabin that was caramel in decor and charmingly sooty and snug. I was limbering up to be enchanted. I wouldn’t have to wait long. The train heaved into action and Moscow faded from view. Soon I would be feasting on the sense of immensity that mirrors my yearning for something larger than myself and that I had caught a glimpse of in Scriabin and Amazon Prime’s Music Store.
I made my way to the restaurant car stepping from one carriage to another over chains and cables joining the coaches together. It was worryingly windy as I stepped over the metal grate, under which I could see the rails slipping past very fast. The car was empty except for two men drinking beer. One was a small shaven-headed man in combat trousers topped off with a string vest. I had seen many men like this so far in my journey. They were the lost generation of manual workers whose muscles came from labour, not the gym. His companion was a large man in casual sports gear with Mongolian features. He was rather more prepared for the digital world. He was scrolling down the screen of his mobile shooting disapproving glances at his drinking companion whose head was now resting on the table in front of him. He was breathing through his mouth and dribbling. The Mongolian raised an eyebrow at the dining car attendant. She nodded wisely. He threw down some roubles and left the sleeping beauty to dream.
I ate my vegetable soup by the cinemascope window watching suburbs become farmland become abandoned factories and a reversion back to Nature. Rows of birch get monotonous after a while, and here were curtains of them. I could not help feeling that something interesting was going on behind these stretches of tree and that my view was barred. I thought I would go back to my cabin and read a book.
Back in my cabin, where it was seductively warm and enclosed, I watched the trees go by. I watched my thoughts arise, disperse and vanish into the silvery vastness, and with no warning, grief rose up that had been a long time shelved. It needed airing again and I started sobbing. When I came up for breath, I saw that a clearing had emerged. Just as soon as I saw it, the curtains closed again. But a log cabin lit from within had stopped my tears.
The little houses that line the track remain as they have always been. Constructed like log cabins, or simply of wood planking they are built directly into the earth. Some lurch dangerously, about to topple. Many have seen fire and the scorched wood has not been replaced. They face the passing train with windows framed in fancy carving. Their inhabitants are resourceful. At the back and around the sides of each cabin were outbuildings, lean-tos and cabbage patches. Trees of very small apples and, sometimes, bundles of multi-coloured flowers. Old ladies in headscarves tended their gardens. Some tethered cows; they stacked their winter hay; they left their chicken and geese to wander. Here and there stood a nursery-rhyme well, and sometimes a muddy tractor.
Golden spires and domes of a cathedral high on a hill indicated we were approaching a major city. With her exquisite economy of movement the provodnitsa set out the steps onto the platform at Vladimir, and indicated with her watch that we had 26 minutes to enjoy the platform. It was white with moonlight. There were four vending machines to choose from and a woman in a headscarf selling homemade loaves of bread. I’m gluten-intolerant, caffeine-shy and sugar-free so I sipped on my flask of herbal tea and watched the bored and grumpy provodnitsa gossiping with her colleagues.
The train was stopping for a re-fuel. At every halt, the Rossiya’s passengers disembarked. Only the English – myself and the retired couple from Kent, tramped up and down the platform with the resolution of the Brit in search of exercise. Our fellow travellers watched us unsmilingly and with no comment. From what I could see of the surrounding town it was crowded with dreary apartment blocks and forest. In my 20-odd minutes I watched the night lights and thought about what it might have been like to visit Vladimir when travellers entered the city through a Golden Gate. Vladimir was founded in 1108 by Vladimir II Monomakh, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’.
The vastnes of Russia cries out for strong leaders. Vladimir fought off a pillaging excursion of this region headed by the leader of a Turkic tribe. He was known as Maniak, which carries the same meaning today. The people of the Rus’ territories were grateful for V2M's intervention. He kept the big, bad foreigner away.