My railway carriage contained four humans. Aside from me, there
was an old guy in a cheap shiny Russian suit and two women. The
old guy liked to touch me. He touched my knee whenever he got
up to go to the toilet. ‘Excuse me’ he’d say, and then touch my
knee. ‘Excuse me’ he’d say when he sat down, and touch it again.
Maybe he was just being friendly. As for the women, they were
divorcees in their early thirties. One was fat and blond, the other
thin and a redhead. The redhead was very bitter. She bitched and
whined a lot. In particular she bitched and whined about the old
guy. ‘Are you going all the way to Izhevsk?’ she asked. ‘I hope so.’
he replied. ‘How boring!’ she exclaimed.
The old guy didn’t reply. He was too startled. I said nothing at all
for about an hour and then climbed onto my bunk where I was
silent for the rest of the journey. That was about twenty hours of
silence. It disturbed my travelling companions greatly, and gave
me great pleasure.
The train stopped at several towns during the night. At around
midnight the train wheezed to a halt and I heard a clamouring from
outside. I looked up and saw a bizarre procession of crystal,
vases, chandeliers, soft toys, even furniture parading past the
Voices yelled at us to buy the goods. The hungry, desperate
citizens of this town worked in factories that paid them in the items
they produced, so the only way they could make cash was to flog
things to the night trains that would stop for twenty minutes in their
The fat blond got up to look. She smiled, and shook her head at
the people on the platform. ‘I don’t want your stuff’ she said to one
man, laughing. He was holding a giant teddy bear in his hand.
She was greatly enjoying herself, enjoying the separation,
enjoying the sense that she had wealth and they had none. She
was returning home to Izhevsk from Moscow after all, where she
had no doubt been reminded continually that she was a poor hick
from the provinces. Now it was her turn to feel big.
And thus the weak get their jollies lording it over those even
weaker than they are.
Russian Iron Road
‘Russia, are you not speeding along like a fiery and matchless
troika? Russia, where are you flying? Answer me. There is no
answer. The bells are tinkling and filling the air with their
wonderful pealing; the air is torn and thundering as it turns to
wind; everything on earth comes flying past, and looking askance
at her, other peoples and states move aside and make way.’
As the train moved through the night I thought of this passage
from Gogol’s book Dead Souls. I often did when I travelled
through Russia. It is a favourite quote of writers on the country;
usually they are expressing how the Russians are a wild and crazy
bunch and all that. I think it appeals to Westerners with withered
souls sitting in armchairs, dreaming of a life of daring, of a land
where there are still risks.
Well, I decided to answer Gogol’s question once and for all by
taking notes of everything I saw out the window from Moscow to
Izhevsk. And I saw…
• Fine, fine towns of concrete high rises and broad streets.
The stations inform me they are called Arzamas, Zeleny Dol,
Mozhg, and, my favourite, 92 km.
• Enormous & filthy vats of oil.
• Very strange machines with long arms and odd bodies.
They sit on tracks, rusting. I cannot fathom their function. They
look as though they have been designed expressly to rot and look
• Trains rush by, and yet there are no passengers on them.
The empty carriages are lined with wooden benches. The eye
feels uncomfortable just looking upon them.
• Huge factories lit up at night. I look inside, however, and see
they are abandoned. Nothing moves. It is easy to imagine that this
is their permanent state, that they must always be empty.
• Small towns, seemingly without names, stranded by the side
of the tracks. Indeed, names would be wasted on them. Why grant
them an identity they do not have? They are holes, pits, for
humans to live in.
• A moment of poetic beauty: light reflected from the train on
the edge of the neighbouring track. It gleams, dazzling, alongside
us, and races from darkness into darkness.
• Wooden homes, buried in the night. Mostly they are
abandoned. Every now and then, however, a solitary light
illuminates a single window in a vast plain of darkness.
• Two men, squatting by a smoky fire about100km from
Moscow. One of them has a thick beard and shaggy hair. Are they
fugitives? I ask myself.
• A prison: barracks, barbed wire. Watchtowers, where fat
guards sleep, their guns propped up on their knees. Very grim in
the March mud and slush. Painted on its walls, the legend: Peace
to Planet Earth
• Under a glowering sky, a tin Pushkin stands next to some
So we can see: the troika is racing through a wasteland full of junk
and poor people.
Flag of the Republic of Udmurtia