The darkening countryside of northwestern Russia speeds past the windows, pierced only by the snow-laden forest and lonely telephone poles. Dreary, wet, gray, flat. The great groves of naked white birches outside of St. Petersburg merge into proud conifers – pine, spruce and fir, weeping under their burden of white.
Railroads are the highways of history and it is this line that carried Vladimir Lenin on his treasonous journey from his Swiss safe haven to St. Petersburg to assume the helm and the credit for a revolution that had already happened and to launch a civil war that no one wanted.
On the train I am reading “A County Doctor’s Notebook” by Mikhail Bulgakov, given to me as a birthday gift by a friend at dinner in the St. Petersburg restaurant “The Year 1913.” Bulgakov’s vivid accounts of the body- and mind-numbing tribulations of peasant life in 1916 are told with his unique sense of irony. He is my favorite Russian writer for the absurd truth of his humor. The country speeding by my window is not very different from the Ukrainian back-country Bulgakov endured as a young untrained doctor serving a pre-literate, superstitious peasantry only 60 years ago – the snow is as wet, the mud as deep, the winter as cold. But, it no longer takes 24 hours to go 31 miles as it did in his day. Things have progressed, but for Russia, catching up is an unending process.
For example, take the train I am on. I had a choice – the Russian train or the Finnish train, called Sibelius. I chose the Sibelius. He is one of my favorite composers, so why not? I shouldn’t be surprised, but here I am in unexpected luxury. The couch is comfortably designed, new, clean, and everything works. I also travel First Class on Russian trains (or “soft” class as opposed to “hard” class, as they call it.) On this Finnish train there is a parlor section with lounge chairs and tables and a business center room with 220 volts for a computer. The WC is large, clean, and missing the familiar stench of a Russian toilet. And, most importantly, it has toilet paper and paper towels. The dining car is attractive and the tables are set with clean white tablecloths and flowers. My meal, from an extensive menu, was a fresh Greek salad, and reindeer steak with lingonberries. Absolutely First Class – I paid by Visa. The service friendly and attentive. It is not just a different economy, it is an entirely different state of mind.
Passing from Russia into Finland nothing changes to mark the border, there is no bump in the road to let you know. The only change is in the mindset. On the Russian side there are broken automobiles with cracked windshields, half insulated hot water pipes still above ground, unplowed roads, broken cement steps into a decayed brick schoolhouse. A pile of boards and other debris behind a rust-stained gray apartment house, a bundled young father leaving his apartment through a broken door, coughing on his cigarette. The Westerner asks, “Why can’t they just clean it up?” The contrast between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico is nowhere near as distinct. The populace may blame “Russia,” like the character in Chekhov’s Platonov, who attempted suicide by jumping into a lake, only to find it knee deep and then walked into the living room complaining about his shrunken ecru cotton suit and blamed, “Poor Russia” for his failure to die.
On the Finnish side is the same dark, wet, late winter cold. But, the fields are orderly. Shiny cars with bright headlights wait on narrow, but paved and well-maintained crossroads with unbroken edges. The houses are neat and well lit. There are carports, with lights. Everything is orderly, at right angles, clean and painted. I know there will be toilet paper in every bathroom. The train is no longer in contrast with the country it speeds through and the tracks are smooth and silent. Even a clean shiny blue and white engine has replaced the rusty Russian machine in its depressing military green and red uniform. The economist or political scientist may explain the difference in many ways, but to me it is simply lack of pride-pride of ownership and a sense of individual responsibility.
It is the feeling that even experienced “old hand” Westerners have when they leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. After years in Russia one gets used to the bureaucracy, inefficiency, and corruption, and through it all sees hope, progress, dynamism, and a rich and colorful culture-which is true as I well know. Yet, it is with a sigh of relief that every foreigner sits in his seat aboard British Airways, Lufthansa, or Delta and leaves the chaotic Russian world behind. It is like taking a shower for the soul.
I have to say something about the conductor on this train, like so many others I have seen in Europe, genetically expressionless and totally perfunctory in his four-button jacket, stovepipe collar, and little round hat that looks like the last four inches of an oatmeal box. What is it with conductors? Are they born that way?
My Finnish conductor spoke no English, but I engaged him nonetheless in a discussion of the width of train tracks in Russia and Finland and learned that the extra wide Russian tracks run all the way to Helsinki. In any case I was relieved to know that we would not have to detrain at the border and slop through mud up to our knees and walk the rest of the way as the Russian troops had to do in 1914 when they invaded Poland.
In a Russian train, the provodnitsa, or conductor, sits in her sweaty gray uniform in her hot (or cold) little room at the end of the car over the jolting wheels, across the aisle from the charcoal heater and built-in samovar. If you insist, she may bring you tea, but don’t ask her for toilet paper. She may reply: “Why should I bring you toilet paper? If you are rich enough to travel First Class, you can bring your own toilet paper.” Maybe so.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.