Articles From the November 1997 Unification News
Slow Train to Moscow
by Joy Pople
The days were growing shorter and the night air crisper in late August, 1992, as the final seminars on Reverend Moon's teachings ended in the Baltics. Fourteen participants were returning by train to Moscow from our lake-side retreat in eastern Latvia, and I wanted to see Red Square and the Kremlin before returning home to Syracuse, New York, after a month of helping to teach Divine Principle and leading discussion groups.
People in my group at a previous seminar were outraged at being sent home on a third-class coach. Our staff had a logistic nightmare trying to arrange transportation for the 20,000 people who participated in the summer seminars. It was especially difficult to secure transportation back to Moscow at the end of the summer holidays. Special trains were chartered. We explained the circumstances and apologized for the inconvenient schedule, but there was no quelling the uproar. I wanted to deepen my foundation of heart with the Russian people by traveling with them. What started out as complaints changed to shock that an American wanted to travel third class with them.
A bus will take us to the train station. We collect our supply of food and say our goodbyes. I give away little gifts. I feel a special fondness for Tanya, the young English student from Minsk who was almost never at a loss for words as she translated my lectures. The camp coordinator gives me chewing gum and lifesavers to share on the train. The more I give away, the more I receive. The few people remaining at camp wave and sing. From inside the bus, we wave back. There are tears in some eyes.
Tatiana, the doctoral student in nuclear physics, and Xenia, the student of art history, want to sing from the workshop songbook. Xenia has a strong, high voice, but Tatiana is an alto, and periodically we change key in the middle of a song. I have become fond of the haunting melodies of several Russian folk songs, and after much practice I can stumble through most of the words Twenty three years ago I took a college course in Russian, and some things are familiar. We sing English and Russian songs the whole two-hour trip to the train station. A couple of teachers join in. I occasionally nod off, but the energetic girls never lose their verve.
Our train consists of a long line dark green or gray cars. Third class coaches have compartments with two sets of ledges and a small table between them. Across the passageway are two small seats with a table and a sleeping shelf above. The table collapses to form a sixth bed. There are no doors or curtains. All the lower bunks in the coach have been claimed by the time we board at 1:00 am in eastern Latvia. We will arrive in Moscow, some 400 miles away, around 8:00 pm Moscow time.
The women my age flock like mother hens around me, apologizing for the conditions on the train. They usher me to the last compartment, "where it will be quietest for you during the night." The people sleeping on the lower bunks don't stir. The women look anxious, and I tell them not to worry. They wonder whether I want an aisle space or the upper bunk of the compartment. I choose the latter . Luggage is stowed on the floor. Although somewhat aged and worn, the coach is fairly clean, and there are no signs of graffiti. There is a pillow and thin mattress rolled up on the ledge. Someone goes for sheets, a pillow case, and thin towel, and they arrange it for me. I'm very sleepy. The train sways a little from side to side, to rhythm of wheels turning against the rails. I remember nothing after my head hit the pillow.
I find out later that at least three of our group had to sit up until 4:00 am, when enough people left the train to clear space for them to stretch out. One of these was Alla, an English teacher who had stayed up until 2:00 the previous night trying to translate into English a poem written by her 13-year-old daughter in honor of the seminar. When asked how she feels, she shrugs and says she will sleep during the afternoon.
At 6:30 I am awakened and urged to move down to a compartment with an empty lower bunk. I will be more comfortable there, I am assured. To no avail I protest that I am comfortable now and in fact am quite capable of continuing to sleep where I am. Someone rolls up the bedding, and another person gathers my luggage. I am marched down the aisle. Amazing how people can't understand English when they don't want to hear your protests.
After an hour and a half, I am awakened again and told it is time to get up and eat. Bread, cheese and salami are laid out for me. I am not hungry yet. I have my own bag of food from camp. This time my no is accepted. Anyway, I don't feel like eating until I use the bathroom at the end of the coach, and I don't look forward to that visit. Everyone who returns from the bathroom reeks of old urine and feces. Xenia is concerned; she tells me not to use the bathroom until she shows me how to operate it. When it finally becomes free, she takes me there. The toilet hole empties onto the tracks. I suppose that people don't go for leisurely strolls along the railroad tracks in Russia. The faucet in the tiny sink releases water when you push up on a plunger. There is a smidgen of cake soap. The bare wooden floor is wet and slippery, and Xenia suggests that I stand or squat on the toilet seat and aim down. That's a little hard to do with the train moving.
There are small squares of newspaper for people who don't carry toilet paper (which I do). In earlier years the choice of toilet paper was one of the few unassailable methods of expressing divergent political opinions. One student told me in all seriousness that under Brezhnev, there was little paper available other than the abundant propaganda leaflets bearing his image; once the Soviet leader had to use the bathroom while touring a collective farm and found a stack of his likenesses strategically placed by the toilet.
During the 18-hour ride I sip a 16-ounce jar of orange drink and eat black bread, salami, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, apples, boiled eggs, and a sweet roll. I use the bathroom only once.
"When we ride the train, we eat and sleep. There is nothing else to do," one woman explains. And it is true that people seem to eat all day long. However, there are creative ways to pass the time. We tell stories, sing songs, and hang out by one of the three windows on the coach that can be opened. As the afternoon wears on, the sun grows hotter and the air more stale. Where was all this warmth in the Baltics when we had a lake a short walk from our camp? We reminisce about swimming, even nighttime swimming in the chilly water .
Maybe a third of our group can carry on an English conversation. I ask people for comments about the seminar. Tatiana, who teaches high school physics in addition to taking university classes, suggests that the slides using scientific examples be more carefully worded. Nadyezhda, who always asked intriguing questions after each lecture, talks about her work as a child psychologist at a research institute in Moscow. I urge them to continue searching for truth and developing their spiritual life.
Tatiana and her brother Alexei, a mathematics student, sit and look out the window. People stretch out for naps. Last night's bus chorale becomes today's train chorale, and we sing softly so as not to awaken our elderly companion in the compartment. "You sound so feeble," Irene complains, one eyelid partly open. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, we didn't want to awaken you," Xenia replies.
"I'm not asleep," she grunts. "Anyway, it's too hot to sleep."
An unkempt man stretches out on the top bunk. Occasionally he climbs down and walks off down the passageway.
As the afternoon wears on, I wander down the car to collect addresses of our "train family" as I call it. Various combinations of people sit and chat. Rosalia the artist, at 72, was the eldest at the seminar and now on the train as well. Each afternoon at camp she climbed the glaciated hills to paint watercolor scenes, giving away many as gifts. I have one of her paintings. She is treated with the respect due her years. Vladimir gives me his business card. I decipher the Russian words and learn that he served abroad on Soviet trade missions. He has a dignity befitting his advanced years (well beyond the 55-year average lifespan of a Russian) and his diplomatic career. Sophia is pregnant; she is accompanied by a teenage son. Respected for her intelligence and stories of innovative teaching methods, Sophia speaks to me in slow, intense English, but we communicate more by heart than by vocabulary and syntax.
I feel ashamed that we were unable to arrange more suitable transportation for such people, but even our third-class tickets had been bought at exorbitant prices from scalpers. People had complained that our staff did not do its job properly, for although we had two tickets, each good for eight people, we found less than 16 empty berths upon boarding our coach. However, at each local stop, people come down the aisle carrying tickets for nonexistent seats. Those who are perceptive realize that the train employees simply sell more tickets than there are spaces. There is no longer even a hint of complaint. Reciprocal concern for others creates a warm, family atmosphere.
When I return to my compartment, I find the man from the upper bunk smiling in my direction. Irene holds out a book for me. It is a gift from our fellow traveler. When he learned that I was an American, he wanted to present it to me. The title is Hobo, a translation of an American book about riding trains. I can read it to practice my Russian, he says. Touched, and chagrined at my tendency to judge people by appearances, I accept the book graciously and offer some candy in return.
Irene is sweating. I fan her with a newspaper. She protests, but not too vigorously. More singing by the train chorale. Not too loudly, since some people are dozing. My fanning varies in its intensity, but it makes some difference. Eventually Irene wanders off to spend some time near on open window.
Periodically the train stops, sometimes at a station, other times for no apparent reason. Women pass through, carrying baskets or buckets, looking for a place to sit down. "This compartment is full," we tell them. It is true. There are seven of us sharing space for six.
Outside, the flat landscape is mostly forested, with evergreen trees and occasional large stands of birch. Passing through the vast expanses of woodland in western Russia, one wonders why people panic about global deforestation. In this forest and meadowland country there are occasional towns and cultivated fields. In contrast to the neat houses and intensively-planted garden plots in the Baltics, Russian buildings look dilapidated and the grounds around them are often unkempt. One woman tells me that Khrushchev forced the Russian peasants to sell their cattle and move to the cities, leaving only the elderly behind. There aren't enough people in the countryside to work the land and care for the buildings, she explains.
Russia does not grow enough food to feed its people, and the transition to a market economy is rocky. There was little freedom under Communist Party rule, but in Moscow at least there was food. People tend to forget the former and remember the latter. The women talk sadly about last winter, when there was little to buy but potatoes, and even they were sometimes scarce. Fortunate are the families with a grandmother to spend the day scouring the city for groceries.
Food prices have risen dramatically in recent months; beef that used to cost 2 rubles a kilo now sells for around 200. Salary increases lag far behind the inflation rate. A Moscow teacher earns about 2000 rubles a month. In addition to working full time, the women typically have to shop for food and do all the cooking, cleaning, child-care, and laundry. Hard times place stress on marriages, and I hear stories of recent divorces. The women shake their heads and wonder what the coming winter will bring.
One woman walks up and down the line of cars offering bottles of diet Pepsi (25 rubles), shampoo (110 rubles), and candy. She doesn't get any business from us. Irene is skeptical of the contents of the shampoo bottles. Constant eating doesn't seem to diminish the contents of our food bags.
Xenia comes running down the passage way; she has a lot of energy for any occasion. "The train will be at the station for five minutes. Let's get some fresh air." On the platform old-looking women are selling apples. We stretch and breathe deeply.
Back in our compartments, we look out the windows. "Were close to Moscow," Xenia bubbles. She jumps up to watch the countryside give way to suburbs. Tall apartment complexes stretch above the decrepit buildings and unkempt empty plots. "I'm almost home." Then her mood changes. She called home to tell her parents what train she was to travel on, but she didn't know which of several Moscow stations it would arrive at. Maybe her mother would be waiting for her at the wrong station.
Earlier, Xenia said she is a descendant of the noble family that killed the infamous Rasputin. The older women beam at Xenia and add for my benefit details about her well-known ingenious and persistent ancestors.
People put on fresh clothes for their arrival in Moscow. They are surprised that I don't want to change as well. The only place that affords privacy is the bathroom. I look down at my tee shirt and cotton slacks and decide they will do. I will stay two nights with Alla and her daughter before riding another slow train back to Riga, Latvia, to catch my return flight to New York.
We pull into a train station of blue and white stucco with several barrel arches flanking a large vaulted entrance. There I am able to buy a second-class ticket to Riga. In contrast to the congenial atmosphere among seminar participants, the three young people who share my compartment enroute to Riga raise their eyes from their pornographic newspapers only to gobble down food.
As we disembark in Moscow, the gray evening sky unleashes a downpour. There was no opportunity to take a shower on the train, so one greets us upon our arrival. Xenia introduces me to her smiling mother and insists that I use her umbrella until we get inside the station. I try to assemble everyone for a photo, but the rain isolates people in forlorn clumps. The dreariness of the rain tempers the sadness of saying goodbye. On the other hand, the rain is refreshing and cleansing, symbolic of our experience at the seminar.
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