Thursday 2 April 2009

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Back in the USSR

© John Sawyer – March 2009

Moscow Station isn’t really what I’d expected. Sure, I hadn’t really expected to see anyone like Geraldine Chaplin in Doctor Zhivago; dressed in the expensive pink and grey furs and waving enthusiastically at Omar Sharif from her Wagon-Lits as she arrived back in Moscow after her Grande Tour to Paris. Happily there is no sign of anything like the railway worker who was killed when he fell in front of a shunting locomotive in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but the vodka is flowing freely and the country’s general level of alcoholism makes any activity that requires quick reactions extremely dangerous. Intellectually I know that Lenin arrived at Finland Station in Petrograd, but I’m just a little disappointed that I see no cinematic tableau of fur hated soldiers and brave sailors waving their rifles and cheering the glorious revolution. From the brief time we’ve spent in Moscow, I think it would probably be pretty hard to rustle up any sort of crowd to demonstrate their praise for the glorious revolution.

Last night, we’d gone to a pretty plush restaurant and bar at another Moscow Railway Station where the elite ate and drank very well and danced to an enthusiastic Dixieland jazz band that played Kenny Bell’s “Midnight in Moscow” at the end of each bracket. We were only there to burn up some of the Intourist vouchers we’d been forced to buy and which we couldn’t possible use before we left the country. There is no way that ordinary Russians could ever hope for such luxury.

Ever ready for the chance of queuing up for a sale or having a long leisurely window shop, Wendy’s certainly not impressed by the retail opportunities: in a state controlled economy: “This is terrible. People queue outside the State Bakery for hours and when they get to the front of the line they have just one type of bread to choose and they can only two loaves of that. It’s then over to the State Butcher’s shop to queue for a pretty meagre portion of meat. Yeah and all the shop windows are empty. I tell you I couldn’t live here. And it’s so awfully bloody cold.”

We push past the illegal money changers and the sharp looking young citizens who want to buy our blue jeans, denim shirts or grubby tennis shoes. Anything from the ultra cool, ultra decadent West is much sought after. Wendy’s pink runners with the yellow daisies she painted on were very highly regarded.

We find our carriage in the middle of the train right next to the restaurant car and our chubby faced, tall, blond, middle aged conductor beams a welcome as she checks our tickets, helps us aboard and leads us to our sleeping compartment; a four berth compartment. Eight bloody days sharing our space with two others and even for the swinging 1970’s, sleeping in a mixed sex environment is a bit forward.

I only just finish storing our hiking tent and my rucksack next to my mattress on my top bunk when the conductor arrives back with our travelling companions. There are now five of us in a very narrow space: an enormously tall, enormously wide Scot’s ship’s engineer called Jock, a short skinny, sad looking, Japanese electronics engineer called Sakata-san, a very petite Wendy, our unnamed, pneumatic, bosomy conductor and me. Our conductor instructs us in German on how to manage ourselves in the confined space. The trick is to only have one person out of bed at any time. Wendy catches on quickly and dives out of the way onto her bottom bunk. Sakata-san places his suitcase at the foot of the other bottom bunk and retires silently to bed. Ever a bit slow on the uptake, I have to be temporarily man-handled onto the bunk next to Wendy by our jovial, bone crushing hostess with the intimidating bosom.

Jock is travelling very light. He has a very small, almost dainty plastic airline bag with a pair of pyjamas, a change of underwear, a plastic raincoat, a small spiral notebook, a well thumbed Harold Robbins paperback and what appears to be an inexhaustible supply of excellent scotch whiskey. He’s wearing very sensible leather boots, a tweed suit with a pen, a screwdriver and a worn toothbrush poking out of the plastic pocket protector in his breast pocket.

Jock decides he won’t make the climb to his bunk just yet and when the conductor leaves to collect the first of the innumerable teas from the samovar, he decides to remove his street clothes and get into his pyjamas; far more comfortable and sensible travelling attire than a suit. Just before he downs the tweeds he calls: “Avert ye eyes!” but too late for Wendy and me to avoid the sight of Jock standing in his string vest and enormous baggy, saggy underpants. “Awa again!” is supposed to warn us of the removal of the tent like underpants, but it has the opposite impact. It arouses Sakata-san and we are all mesmerised by his enormous, nightmare inducing, hairy testicles as he pulls the pyjama pants into place. The pyjamas are to stay in place for the rest of the journey. The Scots apparently scared their Sassenach enemies by lifting their kilts and displaying their genitals; on reflection, it’s probably the horrifying site of the disrobed Jock that sent our Japanese companion into his silent retreat and kept him confined to his bunk for the rest of the journey.

Jock squeezes onto the bottom bunk next to Wendy and the three of us drink tea and scotch and watch the view of Moscow disappearing into the darkness while we wait for the restaurant car to open.


It’s our second day aboard the Trans Siberian Express and I poke my head around the compartment door and look towards the dining car. I still haven’t worked out the pattern of opening hours. There’s no sign hanging on the door and the English announcements on the train's public address system are limited to news headlines that inevitably involve a diatribe against the fascist German military and their imperialist American masters or a discussion of how the Glorious Soviet Army saved the Motherland by defeating the fascist German armies in the Great Patriotic War. The war finished 25 years earlier but memories of the deaths and hardships are revived constantly in a propaganda campaign that seems to have been lifted directly from Orwell’s 1984.

I’m hungry and I need a beer. There’s nothing else for it but to walk the 20 yards to the end of our carriage and try the door. The problem is that I have to pass the conductor’s compartment and the problem with the conductor’s compartment is that it contains the big, beaming, buxom blond who I swear must have trained with the Russian Women’s Olympic Wrestling team. Every time I walk past her compartment, she comes out into the passageway to engage in a smiling conversation that seems to involve the qualities of the tea she serves from the constantly boiling samovar in her compartment. She stays in the narrow corridor and there is no way of getting a beer without squeezing against her jingly, robust bust which given her Amazonian height pokes threateningly into my eyes and ears. This causes her a great deal of mirth which leads to even more dangerous jiggling and makes me a sure candidate for an ear, eyes, nose and throat specialist.

Aunt Hilary must take some responsibility for my overwhelming irrational fear of women with large bosoms. Hilary was a barmaid with a truly magnificent chest who always wore a low cut dress. From a young age she insisted on giving her “darling handsome young nephew” an engulfing, literally breathtaking cuddle each time we met or said goodbye. I came to dread family get togethers. I was awkward at the best of times and with Aunt Hilary, I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do with my hands.

I blame Wendy for some of the trouble. Her wedding ring is on her left hand, but the Russians wear the wedding ring on the right hand, so the conductor thinks I’m available. We’ve already had similar problems in the open hard-class sleeping car from Kiev to Moscow. It was basically a Formica dormitory car with hard bunks, no mattresses or bedding. I spent the night driving away a young teenage sailor who had taken a fancy to Wendy and insisted on tickling her feet as they stuck out the end of her bunk. It wasn’t helped by the fact that she thought he was sweet and giggled and smiled at him indulgently. By the time we’d reached Moscow, I was sorry we hadn’t paid the $5 upgrade that the Intourist clerk insisted on. I’d locked myself into political semantic position that was hard to retreat from: “Well, Comrade, it seems the Soviet Union is worse than your capitalist foes in the West. At least we only have First and Second class on our trains. The supposed classless workers paradise has four classes: Extra soft, soft, hard and open hard. No, this worker insists on sharing the travel with other workers in Open Hard Class.” Those workers and soldiers turned on a bit of a wild dancing, drinking, singing party and luckily a family shared their food with us because there was no restaurant car on the train.

“Wid ye like a dram, mon?” Ah good, Jock’s awake.

“Not now thanks, Jock, but I’d love a beer and a feed. I’ll shout you one if you like. You go first and I’ll follow behind.” If Jock goes first, the conductor will have to clear the corridor. There’s no way the two of them will fit together.

Jock removes his toothbrush from his pocket protector and cleans his teeth as he walks along the corridor with me shuffling closely behind holding onto his pyjama top. He easily gets past the conductor’s compartment, but as soon as he passes, the conductor forms a one woman flying wedge and lodges herself between me and Jock. While she laughs and discusses tea and her samovar again, I turn my back and start to squeeze past. At least this time I won’t have to look and I can pretend the back of my head is rubbing against a stack of soft pillows or something.


The restaurant car is the centre of our universe really; it’s our bar, our meeting place, the foreign club, our library, our lounge and our dining room. It’s also extremely cheap. The foreigners all suffer a surfeit of non-refundable food and drink vouchers, so it’s all basically free. We splash out for each other and the Russians at the surrounding tables. There are lots of toasts, most to friendship. Very few are to the communist party or the glorious revolution. Most Russians we meet seem to speak German and we wonder how many had been captured and sent to work in German factories during the war. Many speak very good English.

“Guten Tag Frau Comrade.”

“Guten Tag, … was kann ich für Sie tun heute.”

“Err what can I …? Err… die Biere. Err Beefsteak mit ei.” Two beers; Steak and egg.

Jock orders a Russian red wine and Borsch, a beet soup. We have no idea if we should be having lunch or breakfast. The train is running on Moscow time and all the station clocks are showing Moscow time, but the dining car seems to be running on local time. By the time we finish our journey, local time will be 7 hours ahead of the train time and we’ll become completely disoriented.

“Ma ship trades oot o Hong Kong, up an doon the China coast. I tell ye the Gret Leap Forward were the worst thing the eejit communists did for the country. They closed guid steel mills down and tried to turn every wee toun into a cootage steel mill. They were making bluddy rubbish that ye cud bend wid ye bare hands.”

Despite the evidence, I’m still young and naïve enough to hope that there might be a better alternative to the greedy waste of the capitalist system: “You know when we crossed the border from Hungary our train had a sleeping car that travels through from Turin to the Fiat factory at Togliatti on the Volga. It’s mainly used by managers, trainers and technicians who are helping the Russians build better cars. There’s a company that can see some benefit in sharing their wealth and helping other people”

“Ye mon, but who wull drive em and wha wud they drive. There are noo bluddy roads mon.”

“You know very well you’re talking rubbish. Again!” Wendy shares her usually strong ideas on my enthusiasms. “Look at those student guides who conned you into giving away all our reading matter when we crossed the border.”

“Well they looked at each book and told me they were all censored and customs would take them all. How was I to know there’d be no bloody search?”

“Yeah they certainly conned you. So much for the socialist state with everyone helping each other. The books they didn’t keep for themselves were probably sold down at the local flea market at a gigantic price. Now we’ve got nothing to read”

“Gee Wendy. There’s a few Pasternak short stories in the library cupboard or we could always have a bit of a err … cuddle back in your bunk.”

“Don’t start any of your silly nonsense now. It’s just not appropriate while we’re sharing a cabin. You’ll just have to wait till we get off the train and stay the night a Khabarovsk.”

“But Wendy … a whole bloody week …”


The journey drags on interminably, eating, drinking, arguing, sleeping, laughing and singing. I know everyone’s story and I’ve read nearly every English book in the library. Most of them appear to be not so subtle soviet propaganda that often describes the endless struggle of the red and white guards along the very railway we’re now travelling on. I’m so hungry for ideas that, I even read Jock’s Harold Robbins, again.

As we move east into Siberia, the landscape flattens and the snow turns it into an eerie monochrome. I watch the passing trains. An endless parade of freight trains loaded with farm machinery, trucks, tanks and frozen fish from the Pacific Coast. I don’t see anything that faintly resembles the Tom Courtney character’s armoured train from Doctor Zhivago, but I do fancy I see the house that the good doctor lived in alternatively with Geraldine Chaplin and the beautiful Julie Christie while he wrote poetry. When we stop at each station I scan the crowd for a sign of Julie’s searching blue eyes, but the only blond I see is my smiling Amazon waving me back onto the train. I usually join at another door so I can escape any unwanted frontal assault.

Twenty minutes before we’re due to leave the train at Khabarovsk, we gather in front of the samovar but not for tea this time. We’re plied with very strong Vodka with sliced apple as a chaser. It’s supposed to protect us from the cold that will hit us when we climb down onto the platform. I try to protect myself by placing Wendy and Jock between me and the conductor and I manage to leave the train with just two crushing bear hugs. The foreign contingent all shiver on the platform while we wave the train on its way to the terminus at Vladivostok, the major Pacific Naval Base and closed to foreigners. My face is smothered with a particularly flaming red lipstick and I look like a refugee from an exceptionally bloody revolutionary battle.


48 hours later we’re in Nakhodka, where we board the twice weekly ferry to Japan. We’re sharing the eight berth cabin with six Japanese businessmen, led by Mr Tanaka from Osaka. Mr Tanaka bows deeply: “Hello Mr Jack. I want to talk to you about two items to make our journey very auspicious. First Mr Jack, I would wish to pay you a fair price to carry out speaking with me. I read English very fine but my speaking is not so good. Do you manage one hour two times each day?”

“Yes Mr Tanaka, it would be my pleasure.”

“Second Mr Jack is your wife. Every man must …”

“Err hang on …”

“Every man must have a special time every day to be alone with his wife. My colleagues have decided that your special time will be for twenty minutes at four o’clock every afternoon. We will all leave the cabin for your special convenience.”

“Why thank you Mr Tanaka, I am so very grateful.” I bow politely.

Wendy’s reaction to the news is sort of OK under the circumstances but it leaves just a bit to be desired: “Twenty minutes is pretty generous of them. Give yourself the usual 30 seconds of foreplay, and even if you can concentrate on something else like computer algorithms for a while, two or three minutes max is about the most you can normally manage. You’ll have more than 15 minutes left to lie back smugly, smoke one of your cigarettes and talk about the cricket or the book you’re reading.”

Needless to say all these arrangements go overboard when we leave the harbour and meet the open sea where a typhoon is slowly building up and the ship is tossed around like a cork. Each day when I optimistically return from my deck pacing at four o’clock, our cabin is like a sick bay with Wendy, Mr Tanaka and most of his colleagues groaning away in their bunks. My very special time has well and truly expired.


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