Slow train to Moscow
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
by Joy Pople
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 grey 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
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
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
smidgeon 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
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
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
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."We're 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
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
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.