Lost Cosmonaut (Sample) – Udmurtia
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 carriage windows.
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 town.
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 ugly.
- 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 shacks.
So we can see: the troika is racing through a wasteland full of junk and poor people.