The Moscow-Tallinn Express runs a long 16 hours to its destination. My policy is to evade conversations in order to avoid the potential boor or psycho. This strategy usually serves me well, but broke down yesterday evening.
The two young Russians sharing my compartment were returning home to a village outside the Estonian city, Narva, renowned for its uranium processing plant. They assured me the factory closed and was cleaned up. Andrei pressed me to accept that Western powers had plotted and brought to fruition the breakup of the Soviet Union, while Kolya avoided confrontation. As we dipped into some bottles of Saku, Estonian lager, and began to share impressions of countries we'd seen, tensions eased. Andrei bemoaned the Estonian attitude toward Russians, and complained that Tartu University had turned down his application because he doesn't speak Estonian. Ignoring the obviousthat Moscow University probably isn't receptive either to applicants without RussianI commented that all the Estonian Russians I'd encountered couldn't get out of Russia quickly enough.
"Oh yah. Russia's a mess." he agreed.
"That's what I hear." I said, instead of the tempting question, "I wonder why that is?"
On either side of us a Moscow troupe occupied the wagon's other compartments. The actors traveled mostly with the doors closed, but bottles clinking and girls giggling could be heard over the cadence of steel wheels against rail. A few of the women were head-banging beautiful, and one later turned out to be a most excellent kisser.
A few hours outside of Moscow a pair of gangsters passed through our wagon on their way to the dining car. The larger of the two was in heat and trapped in the narrow hallway one of the women conductors and then the prettiest of the actresses. Observing the ugly scene, the smallest actor jumped in, yelling "What's the problem?!!" Three colleagues rushed out at the first commotion and a sort of scrum-Mexican-standoff ensued.
"Four of you against little ole' me?" the hood chortled. The portly woman conductor came out into the hall and broke up the crowd. Returning to their compartments, the actors said the heavy had waved a pistol at them. The conductor fretted, said she would inform the authorities to have the man removed from the train, and instructed us to stay in our compartments for safety sake. An hour and a few stops later, I headed to the diner. There I found the two hoods deep in their cups, eating caviar, the bigger one with his arm around the dining car manager.
In the middle of dinner I heard from over my shoulder, "You're a normal guy, but who are these other bums?" I looked over to see the gangster waving his pistol at everyone in the diner. For an instant the barrel trained on my face and I envisioned my brains on the wall. His companion said it was only a gas gun, which seemed true enough, but nonetheless I asked for the check.
At the boarder town of Ivangorod we ran the Russian customs gauntlet. One of NBC's crack correspondents two days prior had been duped for $1,100 at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and he was sure the customs clerks were complicit. Under the old regime officials were quaintly exacting and surly, but now capitalism has made them brazenly acquisitive.
We drew a curious, in both senses, customs official. Seeing our table covered with dead soldierswhat the natives call a battalionhe commented, "Looks like there was a major battle here."
"Yah. We won." Andrei said. With a walkie-talkie antenna sprouting from his uniform breast pocket, the clerk rutted through our bags like Yoda in the "Empire Strikes Back." He found radio phones that my two companions had just purchased.
"Do you have a licence for these things? You know you can't take cellular phones across Russian boarders without documentation."
"That's not a cell phone." Andrei sighed. "It's just a regular phone."
The customs man found my Russian issue of Playboy. Really my interest was anthropological, but opted for the simpler explanation that I'm studying Russian. The days of Russia being a pornographically free country are long past, and we all began to question our man's interest. Discovering more robust pornography on Kolya, he inquired,
"Have you read this? It looks like you've read this." The magazine looked exhausted.
"Yes, I have read it." Kolya answered.
"May I have it?" the official asked.
Clutching his prize, the customs man abruptly left us. The actors later told of his consternation when he discovered a revolver and an enormous phallus among their props.
The train delayed four hours in Ivangorod. Word circulated that a drug addictanyone with hair touching his shoulders qualifieswas discovered dead in the adjacent wagon. "Criminologists" had been called to the scene.
"So the looser croaked! Big deal. Now we're going to miss our bus and be late for breakfast," Andrei despaired.
"The Estonians would have said, "Just another dead Vene (Russian)," dumped him beside the tracks and let us go." I observed.
Andrei conceded that the Estonians do have some good qualities.
When morning came the train jolted to a start, only to stop again on the other side of the boarder in Narva where Kolya and Andrei got off. The actors beckoned me into one of their compartments and foisted breakfast upon me.
One of the actresses entered, saying that she was sick to her stomach. Apparently the "drug addict" had stolen some icons, and got into a row with his two partners over their arrangement. The accomplices started punching the complainer, bound and gagged him, then beat him to death, and exited the train several hours before officials discovered the body.
Moving again, the actors gazed out at the passing Estonian landscape, mocking Russian chauvinism.
"These birches are lovely, but not quite like our own."
"What about that one over there? It looked rather Russian."
"It's very nice, but not like ours."
The prettiest actress asked me how I liked Russia. I answered, "I like the people."