Everyday Trains Go to Heart of Soviet Society
While traveling through the Soviet Union last fall, researching a book on lifestyles of the Soviet elite, I unexpectedly needed to catch a train from Moscow to Kiev. A sign declared that all tickets had been sold out, yet it was impossible not to notice empty seats on the train. Acting on a tip from a Soviet friend, I waited until no one was watching, then casually slipped the first train attendant I saw 50 rubles ($10) in small bills. In seconds I was waved inside.
Once on the train, I found myself seated in the no-frills platskart class (a series of overnight compartments with no doors), exposed to the sights, smells and sounds of ordinary Soviet citizens being themselves. On one side of me sat young newlyweds with a wailing baby; on the other, two huge smelly bags filled with sheets and towels. When I asked the attendant to move them, she got offended.
As the train pulled out, the family, along with everyone else in the car, swung into action. First came the food. Out of a motley assortment of bags came roasted chickens, kielbasa, bread, butter, cheese, bacon, eggs, sunflower seeds and tomatoes.
I wasn’t particularly hungry, but my neighbors insisted that I join them. Liquor, illegal on trains, was easily obtainable from grinning car attendants for triple the normal price.
Flies swarmed through compartments; the smell of urine wafted from a nearby bathroom. Guitar playing and singing competed with political conversations and the snores of those foolish enough to try and sleep. My reading of the Moscow News was interrupted by a man trying to pass me a copy of the Kamasutra sex manual. Luckily, I was rescued by the attendant who came around with clean but damp sheets (2 rubles or 40 cents) and the usual cup of tea served with two cubes of sugar (8 kopecks, about a penny).
Most tourists who travel to the Soviet Union don’t enjoy such picaresque experiences. They opt for prepaid travel packages, which usually include only Moscow and Leningrad, tend to segregate foreigners from locals and often place people on overnight runs which leave late at night. Moreover, the tourist trains, which are cleaner and provide better service than those reserved for locals, offer a sugarcoated perspective on life in the Soviet Union.
As a result, Westerners have no idea that the country is plagued by a chronic problem of train ticket shortages. Nor do they have the opportunity to meet ordinary Soviet citizens from different republics (15 total), and experience firsthand how people cope with the deficit of practically every imaginable consumer item in this economically depressed country.
For the adventurous traveler who yearns to penetrate the facade created by Intourist, the state-run travel agency, and meet Soviet people in an informal setting, there is hope. It is possible to deviate from the regulated Intourist itinerary and circumvent the decades-old prescribed system of travel to the Soviet Union. For intrepid travelers, self-planned train trips are the gateway to the various cultures that make up this multinational federation.
Traveling in this fashion enables foreigners to witness the warmth, generosity and brashness of Soviet citizens. One can engage in spirited debates on numerous topics, since Soviets love to practice their English on captive audiences.
Unlike my previous visits to the Soviet Union, when people were hesitant to express their feelings about political subjects, now they were only too happy to chew my ear off.
About Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, for example, one man told me, “Americans are foolish to support Gorbachev. He’s only out for his own political interest.” Another woman, obviously fed up with the endless food shortages, exclaimed, “He gets the Nobel Peace Prize, while we’re living on rations!”
Another man, married with two children, sounded a different but no less urgent note when he pleaded with me to find a willing single American woman in her 30s who would marry him and sweep him off to the United States.
One thing Soviets unanimously agree on is the dismal quality of train restaurants. While the meal provided is inexpensive (six rubles or $1.25) and the setting peaceful (for good reason, the restaurant is usually less than half full) the food leaves much to be desired. The average one-shot menu provides passengers with a piece of dark bread, lettuce leaves mixed with cabbage in a salad bowl, a bland broth with bits of meat and cabbage and a hot plate of potatoes served with a slab of meat. The less than inviting beverage consists of colored water mixed with sugar. Small wonder then, that Soviet citizens are stocked like kitchens for their journeys. Another quickly acquired tip is to bring toilet paper along with soap, since both are notoriously hard to come by and run out quickly. A good pair of shoes is a must since bathroom floors tend to be covered with water. Bathroom visits should be completed before the train approaches a destination, since attendants lock the bathrooms minutes before arriving and will not open them until the car is once again in motion.
The wait at certain cities can be as long as 25 minutes. During this interim, women wrapped in long scarves often roam the trains hawking freshly fried potatoes, apples, pears and tomatoes. If they’re lucky enough to spot a foreigner, they’ll relentlessly beg to buy any item the tourist is willing to part with, be it a pair of sneakers or face powder.
Train travel is the only remaining method of long distance transportation that’s still payable in rubles (foreigners can change their dollars to rubles in any bank). If one has excess rubles, it is wise to either buy something with them or give them away since the ruble is not convertible and foreigners are not allowed to take large sums of them out of the country. To boost its stagnant economy with hard currency, the Soviet government recently imposed new in-country travel laws for foreigners which now require anyone not in possession of a Soviet passport to pay for air travel fares with foreign currency.
The history of Soviet trains dates to 1834, when two brothers by the name of Cherepanov drafted a design for the country’s first steam engine. However, the first Russian-built trains were not produced until 1845, with the first big rail lines inaugurated in 1851, linking Moscow with St. Petersburg (the former name of Leningrad). European-bought trains ran on the first rail lines started out of St. Petersburg in 1837. The lines were short, as they were built to transport the Czars from the city to their summer dachas in Pavlovsk, just outside of St. Petersburg. Provided there is enough time in each city, those on Intourist tours can still get away to take the roads less traveled. However, independent-minded travelers wishing to depart from a scheduled tour to take an overnight train trip will have to resign themselves to the loss of that night’s hotel fare, which is almost always prepaid.
Day-trips, however, do provide a satisfying alternative. For example, a traveler wishing to go by train from Moscow to Yaroslavl (four hours north) to see the castle of Rostov the Great and the beautiful churches of this ancient provincial city would first go to the Ovir office in Moscow to get a visa stamp granting permission to take the trip, then stop at the Intourist cashier office for a ticket. But since the wait in line at Ovir, as well as the central Intourist office on Petrovka Street, can often exceed the time it takes to travel from city to city, the smart traveler can employ the time-honored Soviet system of bribes and favors.
For those daring enough, reaching destinations without visa permission is also an option (although not a recommended practice) since train attendants do not check for them. In my case, I had arranged for a four-month visa to all the cities to which I knew I would be traveling, enabling me to travel at a moment’s notice.
Despite the country’s ticket shortage problem, boarding trains is not difficult if one is skilled at deception, Soviet style. For knowledgeable travelers, manipulating the Soviet train system is made easy by coaching from Soviet residents, and practice.
People learn to use various evasive tactics that include bribing ticket cashiers (through the back door, not the window) and buying tickets from free-lance ticket brokers who split their commission between themselves and the station administration. If money does not suffice, one can offer an assortment of hard-to-get items including champagne, cigarettes, makeup, cheese, chicken and coffee. The stakes are higher depending on the quality of the compartment.
Another way to get tickets to cities such as Leningrad or Kiev, or less frequented but equally beautiful cities such as Yalta or Tbilisi, is to go to the reserved ticket cashier office in Moscow, which normally services only those with reservations from Soviet government organizations, and is located on Leningradsky Prospekt (Leningrad Avenue), right beside the Beloruskaya metro entrance. If all tickets allotted to this office have not been sold out, the cashiers will gladly sell them to anyone who takes the time to go there.
The Soviet government offers four classes of trains for public use. Foreigners and government officials and their families receive first crack at s/v (pronounced es-veh) class (equivalent to first-class in Western parlance or two-person overnight compartments with doors) or kupe (second-class or enclosed four-person overnight compartments).
Ordinary Soviet citizens have better chances of finding seats on platskart (economy or four-person compartments without doors that have two additional seats facing the compartments along the hall) and the vobshchy, or coach class, in which passengers can only sit or stand.
Amtrak riders would be surprised to discover that on Soviet trains, men and women are arbitrarily assigned together in sleeping compartments. This has its drawbacks. On one overnight train ride one pot-bellied man, obviously annoyed that I had spurned his advances, called me a “capitalist pig,” and further warned me that I looked 10 years older than my age and would be rejected by my husband when I returned home.
To escape from situations like this, passengers can try to switch roommates. I was not so fortunate. My roommate not only refused to switch compartments, he shut the light off while I was still reading and then snored incessantly. I wound up sitting with the attendant until 6 a.m., sipping tea and talking about the chronic infidelity problem faced by Soviet wives.
Train fares are inexpensive by Western standards. From Moscow to Leningrad and Kiev, one-way s/v generally costs 30 to 35 rubles ($6 to $7); kupe , 13 to 15 rubles ($2.50 to $3); platskart , 10 to 15 rubles ($2 to $3), and vobshch class, 10 rubles ($2).
The nomenklatura (the apex of the Communist Party hierarchy) travels in a special class which is sometimes added to a train as a separate car. The privileged occupants can enjoy private bars, toilets, phones and bathtubs.
Despite the colorful advantages to train travel in the Soviet Union, most Westerners will no doubt choose to fly from city to city. But those willing to spend the time on trains and bear the Spartan conditions will be rewarded with surprises and unexpected glimpses into Soviet customs.
On my numerous train rides through the Soviet Union, I encountered Soviet millionaires with guns, countless philandering husbands and black marketeers from distant cities such as Samarkand. I would never have these memories had I taken a tour package.