Bob Dylan’s utterly brilliant song evokes the romance of the train in the American West and creates a beautiful analogy between images :-
Don’t the sun look good,goin down over the sea,
Don’t the moon look good, mama, shinin through the trees
Don’t the break man look good mama, flagging down the double E,
Ah but don’t my girl look fine, mama, when she’s comin’ after me!
This lyrical tune was running sonorously through my head as Elena and I arrived on the station platform at Archangel. It was as wide and long as the terrain the train was about to cross.
The great train sat like a resting Conga about to digest its hoard of people and then slide and slither across the forested countryside to Moscow, a thousand kilometres and an expected twenty hours away.
We were travelling third class, with the people, the broad masses, the modern day proletariat of Russia, and we were looking forward to it - I felt like Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and James Bond all wrapped up in an eleven year old boy’s body and soul.
The train was like everything infrastructural in Russia : solid and square, Isambard kingdom Brunel would of approved of it, it would create its own tunnels, and if it left the tracks it would plough fields for miles until it found them again - but this solidity comes at a price, a price worth paying mind, and that price is elan, or dynamism, or the sense of the futuristic associated with the train. This train won’t cut through the air, it will shove it aside, bulldoze its way through and crush any obstacle.
Yes, it is stolid and solid, and British readers may aleady be booking their tickets - it is Victorian, built to last forever, and since it will last forever there is little point in replacing it with the passing whims of design fashion.
The sun comes up every day, and these trains will run every day. Period.
And it is comfortable in a good Victorian way. The people of Russia deserve more than Spartan functionality, or the glossy and misleadingly called seat shapes on the new generation of British trains which are impossible for the human spine to conform to with any comfort.
And bliss - silence from the tannoy!
On a British train it is impossible to read because the bing bong electronic attention distractor goes off every two minutes to warn you not to do something pleasant. On this journey, just a short simple announcement that the train has arrived at a station, and the name of the station. Brevity is the soul of wit.
The seats are arranged in opposite pair with a transverse pair running alongside each quartet and the corridor runs between these arrangements, so one is forced to commingle with fellow travellers making their way to the toilets, which were clean and available and now, a recent innovation, with toilet paper. The seats become beds and bunks at bedtime and they are as comfortable as a firm mattress anywhere.
Our companions were quiet, varied, respectful but friendly and we had the occasional conversation that travellers have - where are you going, how come. Our opposite was a single mother who lived in a small village 600 kilometres away from Moscow. Her husband had died, there is no welfare state in Russia, she had to work, so she took a job in a shop in Moscow and lived on the premises, two weeks on, two weeks back home. Her late husband’s Mother looked after her child. A tough life, but no real choice if you have your pride. She had arrived at her station at 5am, slept on the train for a few hours and went to work for her fortnight shift. She smiled a lot and was pleasant company, no hint of self pity. Perhaps here was a shining yet modest example of the independent spirit that Stalin had tried to crush?
The train eased itself like the great iron snake that it was slowly through the forested and flat countryside. At the bigger stops, everybody piled off to stretch legs and smoke or in our case take photographs of a proud Soviet style town square in Yaroslavl’.
Most people, like us, ate packed lunches and breakfasts they had brought with them.
It was lovely in its unremarkableness - just people respecting each others privacy in confined quarters and allowing the entire journey to be restful, something you could do before undertaking something arduous, such as a tough menial job which demands that you live in a dormitory away from your child and family.
Thank you, Northern Railway, a part of the entire Russian Railway system, a national treasure of Russia actually still owned by the Russian State.
A peoples Railway!
Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce