The ritual bargain of the Russian train: your life story for mine

In ‘A Journey into Russia’, which was shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book Award, JENS MÜHLING sets out to find an ageing religious hermit living in the forests of southern Siberia. In this extract, he reports on the train trip from Moscow

When I woke up in the morning, Moscow was already a distant memory. In the frame of the train window hung a painting of monochrome austerity from which the nocturnal journey had extinguished every urban element. Pale yellow steppe grass occupied the lower half of the picture, stone grey sky the upper, sharply divided by the knife blade of the horizon. Every now and then birches crossed the picture, straws in the boundlessness of Eurasia.

I woke up very early. Almost everyone else was still asleep; only my grey-bearded compartment neighbour nodded a silent good morning to me. He sat at the window reading. His book was called The Murderess with the Tender Eyes.

The conductress brought me tea. I blew over the edge of the cup to cool it, as I stared, not fully awake, into the infinity behind the train window.

‘Marsh and grass and birches,’ said the bearded man, who had guessed my thoughts. ‘You’ll see nothing else until shortly before Novosibirsk. If you are travelling that far.’

‘Further. To Krasnoyarsk.’

‘I’m from Novosibirsk. And you – you’re not from here?’

‘From Germany.’

He whistled through his teeth. ‘You have the longer route.’

Thus began the ritual bargaining I have so often experienced on Russian trains: your life story for mine.

Volodya was a native Siberian. He made a distinction between three classes of Russians: city-dwellers, steppe-dwellers and forest-dwellers. For the first two he had little time. His own world began where the first coniferous forests make their stand against the grassy plains of the steppe. Volodya spent every free day in the wooden labyrinths of the Taiga. ‘People always tell me what they experience on holiday, in Turkey, in the Crimea, in Europe. Who needs that? Give me a tent and a shotgun and I’m happy.’

He pressed an invisible rifle to his shoulder and aimed from the train window. Silent shots convulsed his body as he killed invisible game along the route.

The train was not Volodya’s preferred means of transport – at heart he was a motorist. Earlier, in the Soviet era, he had been a racing car driver. He showed me photos of his machines: converted Ladas, souped-up Zhigulis, welded together from parts Volodya and his racing comrades stole from socialist production. In those days they had worked as mechanics in a Novosibirsk agricultural machinery combine. ‘They paid us the minimum salary, we did minimal work. We didn’t give a damn about the tractors, we just needed the tools, the spare parts. It was all there, we just had to help ourselves. No one checked us, no one asked questions. Those were heavenly times!’

But the time when Volodya had driven racing cars himself was long past. ‘I’m too old,’ he said regretfully. ‘I don’t understand the sport any more. Everything has become more difficult. You can’t do anything any more without money. If I went into the combine today and said: “Kids, mill me a bumper,” they would say: “Volodya, bring us material to mill.”’ He laughed a short, dry laugh. ‘Market economy.’

Today he worked as a trainer. He showed me photos of the drivers he trained in Novosibirsk: boys with shaven heads, most of them hardly of age. With paternal tenderness Volodya commented on the photos. ‘Maxim, very good boy, he’ll have a bright future.’ – ‘Here, Sasha, he has driving in his blood.’

The training job was on an honorary basis, Volodya earned his money as a freight transporter. With his truck he transported racing cars from one competition to the next. He had just come from Moscow, where he had left his transport vehicle until the next race. In a few weeks he would pick it back up. If there was no competition taking place, he transported building materials, furniture, cars, anything that came up.

Next there was a house move pending; Volodya would transport a friend’s belongings all across Russia. ‘His wife desperately wants to live in the south. Now they are moving to the Black Sea.’ Volodya shook his head uncomprehendingly. ‘What good is the Black Sea to a Siberian? My friend doesn’t really want to go, but his wife is constantly harping: “the climate, the climate.” I don’t understand what is wrong with our climate. Our summer is a real summer, our winter a real winter. At the Black Sea there is not even snow. His wife says: “I don’t need snow, I never liked snow.” She’ll see what it means, a life without snow. That is not for Siberians.’

He asked me about the goal of my journey. When I told him he nodded. He knew the story. ‘The Taiga attracts people,’ he said. ‘My cousin works for the police. Last summer he was sent into the wilderness. A hunter had found a corpse in the middle of the forest. It took him a week to battle his way to the spot. In the end he found a small wooden hut. Inside was an old man, eaten away by insects, his beard reaching down to his chest. The hut was almost empty. All they found were animal traps and dried meat. No one knew the fellow. No one knew how long he had lived there alone.’ Volodya let the story take hold, and then laughed his dry laugh. ‘Siberia!’

As we talked, the carriage slowly came to life. Blue and white sheets glided from sleep-crumpled bodies, mountains of laundry transformed into human beings. Greetings were muttered, unknown bed neighbours furtively examined; outside the toilet a procession of toothbrushes formed. Collectively our Trans-Siberian community awoke and prepared for a day of sustained idleness.

Around noon I roughly knew the destinations and life stories of all my immediate neighbours. Masha (Moscow – Irkutsk) had a man at Lake Baikal and another one in the capital. The Siberian drank, but was the better lover; the Muscovite had money but no soul. Sergey (Yaroslavl – Yekaterinburg) sold gems from the mines of the Urals and did not let his sample case out of his sight for a second. Tamara (Moscow – Chelyabinsk) was a policewoman; in her professional life she solved criminal cases, on the train, crossword puzzles. Sonya (Kiev – Chelyabinsk) was studying German and did not grasp the difference between die gleichen and dieselben, those peculiar German words that mark the difference between things that look identical and things that are identical. ‘The birch trees outside the window,’ I explained, ‘are die gleichen as yesterday, but not dieselben.’ Sonya nodded, enlightened. ‘Is word for trees, yes?’

In the afternoon I took a short nap. When I came to again, I was suddenly no longer sure whether I was really seeing the birch trees outside the window for the first time. The monotony of the landscape was confusing. Had the train moved at all while I slept? Or was a tapestry of unchanging landscape transported past the windows, as had been done at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, when the Trans-Siberian Railway was presented to an astonished public for the first time?

The glamorous luxury cars which Parisian society strolled through at the exhibition were never used in Trans-Siberian reality. Far simpler models commuted between Moscow and Vladivostok when the line was completed in 1904. The first symbolic cut of the spade had been performed 13 years earlier on the Pacific coast by a young boy named Nicholas, who did not realise that he was digging his own grave — three decades later Tsar Nicholas II rolled to Yekaterinburg in a Trans-Siberian carriage, towards his execution.

ajourneyintorussiajktExtracted from A Journey into Russia by Jens Mühling (The Armchair Traveller at the bookHaus).

Jens Mühling, born in 1976, was an editor of a German newspaper in Moscow for two years, and has been working for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel since 2005. He has been awarded the Axel Springer Prize and the Peter Boenisch Memorial Award for reportage.

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