Pondering the Поезд, or Musings on the Russian Train.

October 10th, 2009

Let’s start off with a bang: I spent около (about) 50 hours of my life in the past ten days on a train. A Russian train. And mind you, this was not the kind of train where you get your own sleeping cabin that you share with three other people. Oh no. The whole car was a sleeping cabin… And people sat on your beds and ate really stinky fish. I am happy to say it was an очень русский опыт (very Russian experience, something I’ve had a lot of in the past week). Both times I was not seated with any of the Americans, but with Russian and Uzbecks. The first train (a simple overnight trip, as opposed to the thirty hour trip from Астрахань near the Caspian Sea to Москвa) I sat next to a Russian couple who didn’t say a whole lot at first. Knowledge of Russian culture came in very handy here: after I offered them food (which they politely refused) there was not a moment of silence. They praised me for my excellent Russian (that’s a stretch at best), and told me all about Russian culture. Overall, it helped make a very unpleasant experience more pleasant.
The second ride; however, was not quite as pleasant. First of all we were on the train for 30 hours, and I sat across from an older Uzbeck gentleman, who, I’ll be honest, scared the dookie out of me. After offering him some fruit, he turned out to be pretty pleasant. But before that the only impression I had was a rather intimidating man with Гулаг (prison) tattoos. Not a person you want to find yourself sitting across from anywhere. It turned out to be fortunate that we shared food, he shared his perspective on Russian culture and the steppe (more on that later); but more importantly I think he actually saved our loud American butts. I feel I have a solid grasp on when to be quiet (strange, right?) as an American in Russia. Some of my 50 peers; however, did not. And this upset a group of young, drunk, Uzbecks on the train. There were some threats thrown around, but no one seemed to get the hint that it would be better to keep our heads down. Luckily my Uzbeck (yes, he is my Uzbeck) and another older couple later went to talk with these men and said something like, “No, no, no, they’re not all bad.” This did not stop the complaining, but it certainly made it seem less physically threatening. So if we have learned anything from this experience it’s: share your food with people on the train.
The second train ride took us all the way across the Russian Steppe and through Kazakhstan. As it was explained; however, we weren’t technically in Kazakhstan as the rail-lines were Russian territory. But seeing the sun set and the moon rise over the Steppe was quite an experience, as one of the Russian professors put it “Там нечего нет” (There there is nothing). The land was almost completely flat (I can understand why people thought the earth was flat) and uninhabited aside from some Tartars. Tartars, as best I can describe them, are a group of people who have stuck to a relatively simple and sometimes nomadic lifestyle. As to how they scrape a living out of the Steppe I do not understand, it was explained to me that nothing lives there, water even avoids the Steppe. The Tartars keep herds of animals which they often just let wander, which I found very strange. Apparently you just have to know what your cows, horses, and goats look like (and please don’t be fooled, the horses in the picture were for meat).
We were lucky enough to see a lot of Russia on this cruise, but Volgograd (aka Stalingrad, as it is still fondly known, despite the attempts to stamp it out) was by far the most memorable thing on the cruise. If you didn’t already know, the Battle of Stalingrad (or siege if you prefer) is one of the best-known in WWII history. The entire city was practically razed to the ground, and yet the Nazis never took Stalingrad. Rebuilt today, it is home to what I consider to be the greatest war memorial I have ever seen (I took a fantastic video of the changing of the guards, I hope it uploads for you guys…). Unlike many memorials I have seen, there was an overwhelming sense of despair there. There were quotes written all over the staircase leading up to the main memorial, including one that has stuck with me: “Они были простыми смертными” (They were all simply dead/gone). You can’t help but understand the travesty that was WWII, something no other memorial has ever done for me.
The memorial complex in Volgograd is huge, but the crowning jewel is definitely the statue, the Motherland Calls. It was actually modeled after a woman in Volgagrad, legend has it people would recognize her on the street because of the statue. Built in the late 1960’s, the statue is about 85 meters high, and a little under 8,000 tonnes of concrete. Sadly, the statue is leaning and they don’t expect it to be able to lean much farther without collapsing. Go to Volgograd while you can!
Volgograd is also home to what I consider to be the best war museum I have ever seen, the Panorama Museum. The museum gave a very thorough history, and had more war artifacts than I have ever seen in my entire life. We joked that this was because they simply had to pick up the city after the Germans fled. The memorial and museum aside, the entire city stands as a monument to the hardship that WWII brought to Russia and is something everyone should see within their lifetime.
Now that the fun part of the cruise is over, I have a few culture notes to share: Firstly, and most importantly, peers and parents of peers, study abroad is not a vacation nor an excuse to act like a jerk. It is not an opportunity to be loud and obnoxious (like on the train, or worse, at war memorials where people are weeping at graves). Nor is it ever appropriate to stand on someone’s gravestone to take pictures (luckily an older Russian took care of this one, I’m sure if I’d understood everything he’d said to the young man standing on the gravestone my ears would have been on fire). The Americans I saw at the monument (not just my group of students) simply did not know how to behave. It was appalling, so for heaven’s sake please learn from this and have some respect for whatever country you decide to visit. Have fun, enjoy the sites, but respect it.
I guess that’s all for today folks, the Germany v. Russia soccer match is coming on soon and that is not something I want to miss. This week’s song: Счастье@ru by Маркшейдер Кнуст and also Катюша. I would youtube Катюша, it’s one of the most famous Russian songs from WWII, and if you find a translation please don’t be like me and think it’s about a woman, it’s about a bomb (Катюша was the name of a Russian WWII rocket). How very Russian, to write a love song to a bomb.

One Response to “Pondering the Поезд, or Musings on the Russian Train.”

  1. Jim Clough Джим Клафon 23 Oct 2009 at 1:34 am

    Just discovered your blog, очень хорошо! I graduated Wooster in 1975, with 2 years Russian (almost majored in it) then 2 more years to accompany my graduate studies in geology. Just returned from my 3rd trip to Russia, where I have many friends and colleagues throughout the country. Keep up the cool writings, I enjoy them.

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