I met him on a train-station platform somewhere in Siberia. It was after Krasnoyarsk, but before Novosibirsk. I can’t quite remember where I met him. Three days and fifteen hours on the #69 train from Irkutsk to Moscow have since simply morphed into a hazy, lazy mush of memories somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain, the exact details of which escape me. I can’t even remember his name. It was either Vitaly or Vasily. For the sake of this anecdote, let’s call him Vitaly, for that is where I would put my money, were I a betting man.
He noticed me on the platform, my bright red t-shirt emblazoned with a barley-yellow Hammer and Sickle on the front. I had bought it in Laos quite some weeks before, but all my other t-shirts were utterly foul and in desperate need of a date with a washing machine, so I had no choice but to wear it, however conspicuous I was. Curious, he approached, and asked the obvious question at first in Russian, but then in English.
“No I’m not a Communist,” I chuckled in reply. “I just think it is an interesting t-shirt.”
“Yes! In Russia it is very interesting…” laughed Vitaly, relishing the rare opportunity to speak with a foreigner.
I returned the question, as one does when making polite small-talk with strangers.
“Yes, I work for the Communist Party in Russia,” he elaborated further: “I am government official for Russian Communist Party.” Russians sometimes miss out both definite and indefinite articles when speaking English; the words ‘the’ and ‘a’ do not exist in the Russian language. “I am travelling to Moscow for Communist Party meeting, it is a big meeting.”
“Yes!” he clicked his fingers and pointed sharply at me, wide-eyed. “Conference.” He raised a clenched fist to his lips, thinking, his eyes darting up to the left and then back down to me once he had formulated the question in his head. He was a very tall man, easily over six feet, with heavily gelled and combed brown hair but not without the odd flake of dandruff, no more than 10 years my senior.
“What…are you doing in Russia?” he asked, rolling his R’s in a satisfyingly stereotypical accent.
The conversation carried on for a few minutes before we headed off back to our own carriages, but with a promise to continue our getting to know each other in the days to come.
Still rumbling through the enormous Russian wilderness, the following morning (or was it afternoon?) I headed down the train cautiously, very wary not to drop my camera, diary or pen, or perhaps all three, on to the century-old tracks as I passed between each carriage.
“This is platskart” proclaimed Vitaly with a heavy irony as I arrived in the 52-berth open carriage.
This is how the foolhardy Russians travel on the Transsibiriskaya Magestral’: there are no compartments, and no privacy whatsoever, and little space to store whatever luggage you may have. The beds, stacked twice above one another, are barely long enough for those who, unlike me, are blessed to be more than 5’9”, their feet dangling in the aisle. Kids with more energy than a nuclear power station toddle and chatter up and down the carriage, disturbing the dozing that anyone might be able to nab in between the providnitsa coming along every now and again with a bucket of soapy water and a mop, keeping her mini-fiefdom devoid of any dirt and rubbish. Occasionally someone may wake from their mid-day slumber, most likely to fetch some boiling water from the samovar to have a brew or to “cook” their third pot of instant noodles in as many days.
I sat down at Vitaly’s table, magically folded up out of his bed. These trains are fantastic: there are hidden cubbyholes and little tables everywhere. You just need to find out where they are.
“Okay I explain how we talk,” he said very forthrightly but by no means impolitely. “I ask you question, you answer, then you ask me a question, and I answer. It is good?”
“Yes absolutely!” I replied, opening the back of my six-week old, Vietnamese-bought diary, now slowly starting to fall apart. Vitaly rustled his many sheets of fastidiously penned questions and vocab lists he had been preparing. I felt guilty, having done no preparation at all, but ran with it all the same.
When starting off language-learning one tends to stick to the simple topics that belong to innocent and totally meaningless conversation. I remember the days of penning answers to “Do you have any pets?”, “Where did you go on holiday?”, and “What do you like doing in your free time?” in Herr Doktor Taylor’s German lessons back in year 8.
“What do you think about migrants?” asked Vitaly.
And so the conversation continued for the rest of that afternoon and the entire day after that about protection of the environment, minority languages of the United Kingdom and Russia, the Syrian Civil War, the most important event in Russian history (this was, according to my new friend, the October Revolution of 1917), the UK political spectrum, attitudes towards homosexuality, King James I of England, and what our hopes for the future are.
“Where would you like to live when you are older?” asked Vitaly.
Having signalled my desire to stay put in the UK, but hopefully to have a job which takes me different places, I returned the question.
As was his habit, the Communist raised a clenched fist to his lips, gazed wistfully out over the endless empty forest of Russian taiga and replied, “I would like to move to America…”
My ears started. Surely not…
“…because I like the free speech and the, erm…”
He paused for more thought. “And free market.”
Had the conversation been in Russian, I would have enquired further into his somewhat mismatched politics. Perhaps he had misunderstood what a free market economy is; perhaps he had misunderstood what Communism is, despite, supposedly, working for the Communist Party; perhaps he just picked the wrong words in a language that wasn’t his own.
I chose not to probe, out of politeness, but needless to say some doubt as to the truth was put in my mind. Speaking of which, Putin.
“What do you think about Putin?” I asked on a different occasion.
Looking around cautiously, but speaking with confidence hoping that no-one around could understand, he gave his opinion.
“I think he is a thief and is destroying Russia’s reputation” was the crux of his argument.
Eager to expand on my Russian vocabulary, I asked for the Russian word for “thief”. Vitaly quickly came over very cold and very stern, unnervingly so, like a teacher about to hand back a less-than-impressive exam. He took out his pen, took my diary, jotted down three Cyrillic letters, gave them back, all with a most serious expression, and before I even had a chance to read it, Vitaly once more raised his right hand to his face, but this time with an outstretched index finger over his lips. His eyes widened.
You never know who’s listening. Not here. Not in Russia.
On our final evening on the train, we decamped from Vitaly’s quarters and made for the restaurant car. Our conversations continued much in the same vain as before, with my new friend’s English becoming stronger by the hour as we sipped on our lukewarm beetroot soup, called Borshch in Russian, but most frequently spelled borsch in English.
I had made it my goal to eat borsch on the Trans-Siberian Railway many months before I bought the tickets. I don’t mind all the stereotypes and clichés. I prefer to embrace them. And so now with the opportunity, I seized the day to upgrade my cliché from simply eating borsch in Russia to eating borsch on the Trans-Siberian Railway with communist.
It could only have got more stereotypical if a tattooed, slightly inebriated football hooligan with a bloodshot eye and a scar on his scalp from having had a bottle smashed over his head by a rival had overheard our conversation and joined in. He was actually a really nice guy!
I arrived in Moscow at 4.11am the following morning.
P.S. Below are some really rather interesting pictures of old Soviet iconography from around the Moscow Metro, which I hope you also find interesting.
First published: 12th May 2018
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