Deeper Than Oil: Trains, Kittens and Wake-Ups

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
I was snoring away happily as the Kostroma-Moscow train approached the Russian capital after an overnight journey. But not for long. “Wake up! Wake up! We arrive in 30 minutes,” yelled the provodnitsa, the woman (it’s usually a woman) responsible for the well-being of the passengers in my carriage. I closed my eyes again.

I was snoring away happily as the Kostroma-Moscow train approached the Russian capital after an overnight journey. But not for long. “Wake up! Wake up! We arrive in 30 minutes,” yelled the provodnitsa, the woman (it’s usually a woman) responsible for the well-being of the passengers in my carriage. I closed my eyes again. Some fifteen minutes later, she was back. “Come on!” she exclaimed, an element of urgency detectable in her tone. “We’re almost there!”

Obviously, this wasn’t the first time that I’d been on an overnight train journey in Russia, nor was it the first time I had been woken up by a screaming provodnitsa. Oddly enough though, it was the first time I’d ever felt the need to demand an explanation. Why did I have to get up? Why couldn’t I snooze all the way to the platform?

“What are you on about?” the provodnitsa asked, genuinely stunned by my query. “You have to get up to brush your teeth, to use the toilet, to check you have got everything before you leave the train.”

I wasn’t convinced. I’d counted on brushing my teeth in my own bathroom once I’d got home, the condition of my bladder is no one’s business really but my own, and I’d been traveling almost as lightly as possible. I pointed all this out to the provodnitsa.

“Look,” she said, exasperated, falling back on the “I only work here” excuse. “The rules say we have to wake you up an hour before we arrive. But I only woke you up with half an hour to go.”

There wasn’t much really I could say to that. And I certainly didn’t want to come across as more of a whining foreigner than necessary. So teeth unbrushed and bladder bursting to leak, I made my way to the subway station and home.

Apart from my early morning encounter with the provodnitsa, the journey from Kostroma to Moscow had been incident-free, not something that always happens – to me at least – on overnight trains in Russia.

There was, for example, the time I traveled alone from the central Russian city of Voronezh to Moscow in a compartment meant for four. Alone, that is, apart from the five or six kittens climbing all over the curtains, table and bed. To explain. I’d volunteered to take the kittens off my mother-in-law’s hands and find owners for them in Moscow and had gone down to her home to pick them up. But, realizing their constant meowing might be a touch off-putting for other passengers, I’d slipped the provodnitsa some cash and got a compartment to myself.

Of course, the provodnitsa wasn’t aware what was in my bag. And the kittens, as if in on the plan, had stayed remarkably quite as I boarded. I’d been planning on leaving them in their bag for the entire journey, hoping they would sleep the whole way to the capital, but they woke up a few minutes after we pulled out of the station. So I let the cats out of the bag. They immediately set about exploring and it wasn’t long before I had to rescue one that had gotten stuck in the overhead luggage space.

Still, at least I was able to explain the situation to the clearly taken aback provodnitsa.  Something I hadn’t been able to do when I found myself vomiting all over a train during my first few months in Russia.

I’d eaten a plate of tepid shrimp before boarding, and the rocking of the train had churned them round in my stomach for an hour or so, before they decided to make their way out of my body and explore the world they had left not so long ago. Cue projectile vomiting. I didn’t make it to the toilet, and found myself aiming for the tiny rubbish container just outside the WC. The provodnitsa wasn’t too pleased. I’d been studying Russia for a while, but all the words I had learned left my brain, and I couldn’t make her understand that the problem was shrimp, not alcohol. I still feel embarrassed by that to this day.

I was traveling platskart that day, the lowest possible class of travel. Platskart is basically a huge communal room on wheels, some 50 or so people all snoring away in unison. It’s also where you meet the most insane passengers, the borderline psychos who have managed to scrape together the minimal fare to make it to wherever they have to go. I also once met some guys in platskart who had just been released from a prison colony after serving some ten years or so. They were both sitting in the very corner of their beds, still not used to taking up much space after doing their time in extremely overcrowded cells. I’ve also had chats in platskart with guys back from Chechnya, who insisted on telling the whole carriage their gruesome war stories.

All Russia’s life is in platskart. It’s not too relaxing though and I’ve taken to traveling in a compartment, where there are just three other people to deal with. It might not be as exciting, but at least you get a good night’s sleep. That is, of course, until the provodnitsa decides it’s time to get up and attend to your toiletries.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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