It was 10:34pm when the train drew into the station at Yekaterinburg, wheezing as it crawled the last meters to platform’s end. Its final exhalation flung dozens of men and women from the high doors of each dust-encrusted carriage, clasping dearly sought cigarettes and bounding for the stalls that had opened in anticipation of their arrival only three minutes earlier.
The cabin was empty as I entered, abandoned in the tumult. Blankets had been drawn over three of the beds – the last, clad in tattered brown leather, was mine. The unmistakable fragrance of smoked herring, sold by the armful on stations hundreds of miles to the east, still clung to the sheets. The side table was strewn with fruit-skins and half-devoured cured meats; a large red sausage balanced on the askew lid of the inevitable jar of pickled cucumbers. I never met a Russian who travelled without pickled cucumbers.
A single bite had been taken from the flank of a tomato, and a pungent shot glass sidled up to an open carton of tropical juice. Seven minutes later, without so much as a demonstrative warning or a blaring horn, the train inhaled, filling its steel lungs once more with dozens of passengers clad in low-slung track pants. The locals are deft students of the railway’s unforgiving scheduling. Within a minute the great belly of the engine had began to churn, and we recommenced the westward crawl.
Three men tumbled into the cabin mid-chortle, to find me propped up against a laundry bag of fresh sheets in the corner of their cabin, buried beneath the browned pages of Pasternak. Reeking of hastily-stubbed smokes, they didn’t appear so inviting at first glance: a haggard, moon-faced old man with a crown of coiled grey hair and three gold teeth, a young man with a scratchy black bear and low-cut singlet bursting with chest hairs, and a third who wore his unwashed matted hair combed straight down over his forehead, just shy of a pair of dark eyes bulging out from a hollowed face.
“Drast-vuy-tye!” I offered in a well-rehearsed echo, setting down the book to throw in a broad wave of the hand and a toothy grin. Clad in coat and scarf, face swaddled in a poorly-kept ginger beard, I was easily marked as a foreigner whilst travelling in eastern Russia’s early autumn. Only belatedly did I find that fashions had progressed (largely by way of sweat pants) since Dostoevsky dipped his pen to describe the student haunts of nineteenth century St Petersburg. Perplexed but not perturbed, the three men stashing cigarettes and swinging into place on their respective bunks and had questions.
In the wide expanses east of Moscow, foreigners remain a novelty in regional trains and lower class carriages. Days earlier, setting out from Lake Baikal in the forty-strong platzkart compartment, an assembly of curious babushkas, Ukrainian nurses and soused old men fanned out to the adjoining carriages to find me a translator. We happened on a wannabe spiritualist who was interested foremost in discussing the creationist theories of American actor Ben Stein.
This night, four men to a compartment, we made do on our own. As the lights of Yekaterinburg faded from view behind the grime-caked windows, the first question was lobbed. It is always the easiest, safe to jump into without parsing the language to and fro. “Sydney. Australia,” I responded, forefinger directed at by chest. “A-vy?”
Any follow-up sentence heralds an impasse. Over-pronounced place names can only get one so far. The Russian phrases I had mastered, allowing me to apologise profusely, ask directions to the local Kremlin or order up to ten pieces of various foodstuff, were of little use. The trio similarly had half a dozen English words between them a best. We needed to find a better way to communicate.
Fortunately, my new companions were deft hands with props. From the rings on each man’s fourth finger on the right hand we discovered they were married – by my lack of band or gold, that I was not. From the crescents slung around their necks on silver chains we discovered they were Muslims – by my lack of iconography, that I had no god to speak of. Less easily adapted are notions of “it’s complicated” or agnosticism. Best to let them lie.
The men did not begrudge me my absences but powered on, to conjure children from the stale air with height estimates and phantom hugs. To evoke their work they had merely to flash and flex well-honed muscles, built heaving and hauling in the mines east of the Urals. My flexing of fingers and proffered notepads of scrawl in a foreign script did not translate quite so readily. I did not need to ask where the train was taking them, for the nostalgic smiles as they contemplated absent wives and a bevy of children promised enough – home.
The trio were not ethnic Russians at all, but Tartars – descendants of Mongolian and Turkic tribes that were incorporated into the Russian Empire four centuries ago. Bound by an independent history and language, the Volga Tartars that make up the majority population of the province of Tartarstan have ceaselessly pushed for greater autonomy in the decades since the USSR’s collapse. In Europe, the very name, Tartar, was associated with the latin Tartarus – for great primordial pit of the underworld, a reminder of the fear the Great Khan’s hordes once stirred. Three giggling men in comfy red and blue track pants fail to evoke a similar horror.
Rough biographies can be mustered by sign and speech, but solidarity in Russia, even for its Muslim denizens, is only found in the dregs of a bottle of vodka. I would have imagined the recent outlawing of hard liquor on Russia’s passenger trains would prove an impediment; my previous nights in the open dorm of platskart were dry, cowed by the roving eye of the provodnitsa. Yet with the handy security of a door and latch in 2nd class, a bottle ‘concealed’ in a brown paper invariably emerges.
Our elder statesman grasped the vodka’s narrow neck and raised the stained shot glass, which I had viewed with such terror less than half an hour before, to its lip. I rationalized quickly; whatever bacteria could have accrued in that thimble (how much better had it been a thimble!) was liable to be killed by the alcohol. Perhaps that should not have been a comforting thought. Hand to hand the glass went, filled to the brim.
Vodka drinking in Russia is a dialect of three phrases, easy to mimic if not master. In the first motion, the liquor is slammed without sip or ceremony down the open gullet; in the second, the glass is slammed down on the table’s edge; in the third, the victim grunts approval (as if savouring the searing burst, but just as likely stymieing a cough or splutter). A chaser – a mouthful of pickled cucumber or a swig of tropical juice – is optional. A second round, then a third, inevitably follows hard upon. If you are lucky, a man will bear his golden teeth, clasp you by the shoulder and, eye to unblinking eye, deem you too “Ruski”.
I was tasked with hiding the bottle at first, burying the feted drink between tossed sheets as our provodnitsa peered in to strike off tickets. She was young and plump, bearing a jolly grin and sans the cold stare so common in a first spar with the carriage’s no-nonsense manager. There was an altogether different reason to fear her. No sooner had the bottle been drained by we happy four (a feat I’d surveyed with no small satisfaction) than the provodnitsa returned with a wink and a giggle, bearing its successor swaddled in newspaper.
She was no enforcer but an enabler, running a market in contraband from her humble storage locker. Our provodnitsa paid heed to the calls of “Nostrovia!” and cries of carousing only when they began to dry up – returning to offer yet another bottle through the cabin door. With each rat-a-tat-tat, the clandestine prize became a torrent. The Tartars forced down bites between the shots, tearing into the horde of cucumbers and cracking open sunflower seeds with a swift gnashing of molars. They jangled the prospective courses before my eyes; I accepted the seeds, but drew the line at the nibbled sausage and tomato that had bled out on the carriage table. The more fool I.
Alcoholism is so often the harbinger of other vices; it should have been no surprise to see playing cards dancing between my gaunt companion’s nimble fingers, liberated from beneath a mound of sunflower seeds. “Poker?” the youth with dark-ringed eyes ventured. “Da da da!” I implored. On this field of Kings and Clubs we discovered a mutual language ready-made. Even in the central Asian hinterlands, a flush will quash a straight, two twos trumps an ace and a full house calls for celebration.
We had no stakes and no chips, merely pride and chemically inflated egos on the line. The discarded shells of sunflower seeds make for a poor currency substitute. Our contested hands bred hands as we clustered tight around and atop a single bunk, concentration often punctured by roars of rage or triumph. Within the narrow confines of a world between the two of spades and the ace of hearts, we understood all. Ambition would get the better of us – each attempting to teach further variations, only for the game to devolve beyond comprehension, led by impulse rather than understanding and saturated by drink. But for that single hour, we could have been arrayed about any table in the world.
Intermittently the Tartars would take their leave in pairs or threes with a fistful of cigarettes and a corner-store lighter, to crowd around a window jimmied a few centimeters open and exhale into the fleeing evening air. Quickly earning the familiarity of custom, on each departure one of the trio would offer a cigarette, and I would reluctantly demur. But as the train rollicked on to Kazan, hands passing midnight on the clocks set to both local and Moscow time, afire with vodka and flush with imaginary gambling winnings, one last prospect of communication with my hosts lay open; to join them for a smoke in the cramped confines at the carriage’s end.
I joined the huddle lashed by the thin stream of evening air, cigarette perched between my lips and waiting for the lick of flame. Yet just as I raised the lighter, the old man plucked the butt from my mouth, and threw it out the tiny gap in the open carriage window. It flickered for a second, illuminated by reflection of the carriage lights, and was lost to the darkness.
“Nyet!” he insisted, wagging a forefinger even as his younger companions cackled and the odor of a half dozen smokes clung to his own breath. Drawing the finger across his neck, he imitated the gasp of a garroted man; too late to spare himself the coated lungs, but he would not abide my capitulation. Once more I lacked the words to explain it would not be my first, or distain a belief in slippery slopes. Far better to match a smile, accept his hug, and slur my thanks: “spasiba.”
Finally, I could collapse knowing we had communicated, garbled as the words finally became, replaced by flung aces and slammed glasses. The train rolled on through the night, rocking and lurching, inviting one towards deep sleep for a time, then fitful bursts. My body revolted and railed against the evening’s assault, and as I woke to the intermittent morning light spilling between birch trees and into the cabin, I expected to see the trio similarly despondent. Instead, my eyes found them standing attired in broad smiles. They were packed and prepared for their final exhalation from the wheezing train. I could hardly have mustered a roll to the door – they, unmoored, were glad to saunter, back to homes beyond those encrusted cabin windows.
My goodbye was as feeble as my first greeting had been: an over-enunciated word, a half-smile and a broad wave as we parted on the carriage threshold. When my stop came an hour later – Kazan, the once-capital of the old Volga Tartar Khanate – I was spat out onto the gravel of the platform, lurching for a few steps before dreaming of respite. I slumped on a wooden bench, bereft of languages at last. My receding friends would have laughed at my state, yet in the same breath offered me any morsel from their table for relief.
The train did not tarry for long. As the engine churned, and the lungs filled and steel roared against steel, I caught sight of the provodnitsa hanging from the carriage doorway. She began to wave as the train lurched on, borne southward, still beaming. She may even have winked.
Stuart is a writer & filmmaker (and occasional legal practitioner) currently living and working in Sydney, Australia. For more of his tasty, tasty words, you can check out his blog here.