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Archangel to St. Peter

Give me my fill of railroad water.
Boris Grebenshikov,
Russian poet and singer.

 

Nastya & company saw us off with two bags full of provisions for the twenty eight hour train ride from Archangel to St. Petersburg. Trying to conceal our nationality and avoid unnecessary attention, Mike & Steve Bowden and I quietly took places in the open communal wagon arranged with rows of bunks like army barracks. Exhilarated as well as exhausted by the expedition, we looked forward to rest and writing about our experiences.

The Petersburg-Archangel Express recently discontinued food and beverage service due to budget cuts. Once underway, we had to settle for tea. Andrei, our twenty year old conductor recently released from the army took the opportunity to make money on the side by selling his refreshments. He asked me where we were from, and invited us into his cabin. Asked if he saw many foreigners, Andrei said that only Soviet troglodytes road the train to Archangel. He continued on a fiery litany against Soviet society, punctuated by a proclaimed desire to leave and work in America.

"I don't care what you foreigners buy here. I'll sell you anything you want. Our timber, churches, or girls. You name it. No one owns anything here anyway. There's only the state which has thieved us blind for the past seventy years. Now it's my turn." I bought the blazer from his railway uniform for five dollars.

At Obozersky I jumped down from the train to stretch my legs. In reference to my striped navy shirt I heard, "Here comes the navy!" A barrel-chested man with a walrus mustache and Cheshire smile stuck out his hand to me. Showing extensive documentation to support his claim, Igor quickly introduced himself as a naval investigating magistrate which translates into American as judge, jury, and hangman. Two nights earlier a young private broke into a shop in Archangel to try on an imported sweater. When he turned around the police sprayed his face with mace and beat him senseless. Igor had the job of riding up from St. Petersburg and transferring the private to a local military prison.

Having completed the job, Igor decided to celebrate. Finishing his fifth bottle of vodka, he said he would meet his quota after three more. His red watery eyes kept perfect eye contact with mine. Back in Andrei's cabin, Igor held court, singing Russian and Ukrainian songs in a powerful, emotional voice, verging on weeping at times. He told stories and jokes with improvised Spanish, German and Armenian dialogues. Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and Stalin were Igor's favorite figures in Russian history. The most crude Russian obscenities comprised thirty to seventy percent of his word-choice. This statistic alone wouldn't distinguish anyone in such company, but his innovative use of obscure obscene predicates and adjectives did. Igor boasted of his access to the most sensitive party archives. No liberal, he openly discussed politics and his role in them.

Igor spoke of the "fund" used to support demobilized army officers loyal to the communist party. I took this as a reference to funds absconded from the national coffers by party members during the later stages of Perestroika. He mater-of-factly spoke of his commanding officer selling army jeeps to the Japanese. I didn't feel it necessary to find out to which fund, private or party, this money was allocated to. When I asked Igor about a BBC report that around two hundred American POWs from the Vietnam War were being held in camps in Kazakhastan he smirked. "Not two hundred." he replied, "More like two thousand American servicemen are held in small villages all along the Urals. The Cold War was a lot hotter than people think, and some of these prisoners were taken as far back as the World War II.

"I am a communist, and proud of it." Igor declared. "I will never betray the party. I keep my party card at home. This doesn't mean I'm not God-fearing. I christened my daughter, and she wears three crosses. Our priest says he sees a remarkable future for her Gorbachev is a scurrilous traitor and Yeltsin is the spineless puppet of foreign powers. Bush says jump and Yeltsin asks 'How high?' The democrats are strangling Mother Russia, and we must exterminate them. The party decided to ride Zhirinovsky back into power and dump him once he gets there. I have a better idea. I want to form elite, mobile units and send them around the (Soviet) Union to knock off the liberal leaders. We must liquidate all those liberal generals who want to break up the army. Then we will bring Russia to her feet again."

Others in the cabin looked away and drank quietly.

"To tell you the truth, I don't like you communists much." I told him. "I spent some time in the US Marine Corps, and the one thing I respect them for is their unofficial motto which is, 'the Corps takes care of its own.' Not with you folk though. Your motto should be, 'the Party eats its own.' You guys have no esprit de corps. Only fear by firing squad, and I have no respect for that."

"You got me on that one." Igor admitted unflinchingly.

Conductors from neighboring carriages drifted in and out. Sanya, the portly Falstaff ofthe rails chain-smoked Russian tube cigarettes and complained about the troublesome passengers. Wearing sandals, a billowy blue shirt draped over his pot belly with the badge of a senior conductor, he essentially had the authority to do as he liked with the passengers. Sanya offered to give my colleagues and I a private cabin, but we refused preferring the present company. We hit it off well.

Angelica, a spry girl with Kewpie doll hairdo and a shiner was also eager to make our acquaintance. In conversation she talked of her fascination with America in terms of the high quality and wide selection of furniture on sale there. Angelica fell head over heals for Steve and woke me up throughout the night to interpret. In the absence of an interpreter they found other means of communication. Angelica was beside herself when she learned that her find would soon leave for America while she was on her way back to Archangel. Trying to comfort her, I pointed out that she had the train which she could ride to America.

"Oh, but it's so far away!"

"Not so far." I continued. "Only two weeks by train."

The others giggled. Angelica maintained a worried look. When she gave my Steve her address she wrote the city in Russian as "Lenengrad." Angelica's illiteracy was breathtaking, even by American standards.

Passengers periodically knocked on the door to ask if the fire in the carriage's samovar couldn't be stoked again so there would be hot water for tea. Andrei answered, "No, it can't." and referred people to Sanya's wagon next door. Behind the closed door he remarked, "I don't get paid one dollar for doing that work." Earlier Andrei told me he receives a monthly pay of eight thousand to ten thousand rubles; more than double the average Russian salary. At one point the train ran out of linen to issue to the passengers, and Andrei began to turn people away. When I lamented my own procrastination and the predicament it put my companions in, Sanya and Andrei jumped up and produced three complete sets of linen.

At five in the morning I awoke to find Igor alone drinking a beer while tucking an adolescent mother in at the stall across from me. Even the Northern sun dipped below the horizon for an hour or two. Igor on the other hand hadn't rested, but instead drank all night. During that time a hint of inebriation dawned on his face. Everyone else in the carriage slept. We stood together in the open door of the rushing train. Sometimes leaning out the door to see ahead, the diesely wind whipped through my sparse hair. Contemplating my position to this would be mass murderer, a giddy sensation came over me. Throwing a hand at a thick swatch of forest, Igor remarked, "That's Mother Russia! So beautiful, yet so tragic."

Our train rambled through the Northern Russian countryside, passing small villages and towns, stopping to take on passengers. Andrei was still recovering from the previous day's festivities and in no condition to work, so Igor and I took over his duties. We operated the door to the wagon and helped people on and off at each stop. Most stations along the way were built in the traditional Stalinist style with a gaudy decorations in front like a painted silver statue of Lenin. We passed many vintage steam engines painted bright colors, with large red stars an busts of Lenin. Igor said these trains were maintained in working order in the event of war. Sometimes the train would stop in the middle of an open field to let on old peasants with walking sticks and bundles on their backs.

When the train pulled into Petersburg I told Sanya that I planed to return to Archangel in a few weeks and that I would like to ride with him and his brigade. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him so he could get me a free cabin of my own, then presented me with his ashtray carved from wood in the shape of a foot with huge toenails.

 

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