The 13:24 to Gorky

I arrive at the station early. This is my first trip on a train with a dog in Russia. The information online regarding the do’s and don’ts of pet travel in Russia had been somewhat conflicting and I am eager to be prepared for every potential bureaucratic niggle. I listen to the announcements on the public address system. What were last year a series of soft, buzzing sounds colliding with one another have become (partially at least) intelligible words. As the snow started to melt, the strange sounds turned into meaning. The appeal of this land started with these whispered, slippery sounds amidst icons, censers and pale-eyed belles dressed in furs.

Not so long ago, such a railway platform would have been choking with steam. There would have been the sounds of heavy train doors slamming in quick succession just before the moment of departure, guards’ whistles, mothers shouting teary farewells to their sons leaning out of the carriage windows. Now, the platform is near-empty. The passengers sit in the heated waiting room, browsing their iPhones, looking occasionally at the silent digital passenger information system which constantly alternates between Russian, Chinese and English.

Trying to keep warm and preferring generally to be outside, I walk briskly up and down the Kursky railway station platform. I am armed with pet passports, vaccination certificates, veterinarian letters translated into Russian and copies of pet transport regulations, but it is thankfully all in vain. A thorough check of the documents by the provodnitsa (conductor, but literally ‘those who lead’) and I am allowed on the train and shown to my half-compartment. I am on my way to Nizhny Novgorod. The 13:24. Nizhny is a four hour train ride east of Moscow that takes you through Vladimir – an ancient city of white churches – and flashes of small villages. This first class compartment is bit of a treat for me and Stan, my two year old spaniel. We have two comfortable leather seats, a fold down bed and a tiny ensuite bathroom. It is going to be a far-cry from the third class communal wagons (platzkart) where you might find card-playing, vodka drinking army cadets travelling for six days on the train from Vladivostock to Chechnya.

Moscow (indeed Russia) is a country designed with train travel in mind. There are eight vokzal (railway stations) dotted around the circumference of this impressive, bulging city, enabling you to reach the distant corners of Russia with minimal need for changes. Buying the ticket was quite a test of my Russian. Russian is famous for its panoply of verbs of motion, all of which combine with a dozen or so prefixes and have an imperfective and perfective form. As I experimented with various verbal permutations until my rather simple request was understood, the queue behind me at the counter in the Kursky railway station began to snake out of sight. The woman serving me had not sold a first class ticket to somebody travelling with their dog before. Let alone a foreigner who puts the stress on the wrong syllable in every other word. At one point, six sets of pale blue eyes stared at the screen, debating I am not sure what. Behind me, brows began to furrow, arms waved in protest ‘Собирается ли он на Камчатку? ‘Is he going to Kamchatka?’, I heard one of them grumble.

Aboard the train, my provodnitsa introduces the compartment fittings and more importantly furnishes me with the menu for the adjacent dining car. As I have bought the compartment and not just a seat (one of the requirements when travelling with a pet on this particular train), I will be served two sets of everything. What is more, Stan is invited to join me. This is not the slow train and soon we speed pass endless lines of soulless, identical housing blocks splashed across the utilitarian canvas that is the Balashikha oblast. This dehumanising Lego – architecture for a classless society – stretches through the edgelands of post-Soviet Russia. The socialist utopia of Moscow’s satellite cities eventually fades into fields of thinly covered white snow and half-empty villages of wooden dachas. There is the occasional sun-dappled hillside. These two Russias – city and countryside – seem to be worlds apart.

I listen to the sound of footsteps in the corridor that runs alongside the compartments. Muffled voices speak laconic words. I hear the faint sound of coffee cups cluttering in their saucers. A knock at the door and the provodnitsa invites me to take lunch in the restaurant wagon. ‘How civilised’, I think to myself. Toy penguin in mouth (the hippopotamus, beaver and elephant having long been destuffed), Stan joins me at the table. Refusing to let go of the fluffy toy, his eyes fix on the woody hunting grounds that soon disappear from sight. I contemplate my fellow passengers who speak in determined, harsh tones. An older gentleman sits taciturn, lost in thought as we train-travellers sometimes are when the outside world receding from us at such haste becomes blurred. At the neighbouring tables, bored couples talk of how they could not remember such a mild winter. Anton, my sturdy waiter, explains to me that I can have two of everything, but they have to be the same dish. Seledka pod shuboy (literally ‘herring under the fur coat’, small pieces of herring mixed with boiled potato, beetroot, carrot and mayonnaise) is brought to me with a beer and a bread-roll.
And before I have a chance to consider the main course, another seledka pod shuboy, beer and bread-roll appears. After having eaten in addition two Siberian pelmeni washed down with two cups of black tea with two bits of lemon, I am sufficiently replete all I want to do is retreat to my carriage for a post-prandial siesta.

We arrive in Nizhny in early evening under a psychedelic sunset. The railway station seems to lie in the margins of the city, partially hidden under its forgotten shadows. Nizhny, one of the former ‘closed cities’ of the Soviet Union, is carved into two by the immense Volga river which at points is 40 miles wide. Most of the sights are to be found on the east bank where the kremlin is situated. Up on the hill, the kremlin is a showcase of Soviet tanks, Eastern Front military paraphernalia, a cathedral, an impressive art museum and an architectural monstrosity whose function I forget. As with most kremlins, it is a kind of city within a city. ‘Here they gunned down the Luftwaffe’, a passing tour guide says with a proud grin. ‘Nizhny provided the military equipment for the Front. Big factories here’, he continues. The Germans bombed them for two years. Then, the city was known as Gorky after the writer Maxim Gorky who was something of a poster boy for the socialists. Every year he would be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature, just to be sent back to the city named after him and discover it had gone to Bunin.

Just beneath the kremlin lie the Chkalov Stairs, a monumental sweeping staircase with over 500 steps. The staircase is named after the aviation pioneer, Chkalov who was the first person to fly a plane over the North Pole, and was built to outdo the famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa. It is here where Stan and I take our morning constitutional, jogging from bottom to top with Stan always surging just ahead. We enjoy a well earnt rest at the top on a bench and take in the view which stretches out across the Volga, over the tops of Orthodox cathedrals in various shades of pink and persimmon into industrial gloom. Beyond, lies the town of Bor connected uniquely with Nizhny by cablecar. On the neighbouring bench, an elderly lady dressed in furs sits upright, scrutinising something or other on the river. ‘Is there anything to see in Bor?’, I ask her. She turns, surprised at the question. ‘No, ugly city. No need to visit’. As always, the Russians are brutally frank about what is worth seeing and what is not worth seeing in their country.

The sky is grey; the wind biting. Wishing to escape the cold and in search of Orthodox salvation, I go from church to church hopping on and off trams that grind down cobbled streets and sweep around the busy lanes. Stan’s face glued to the window, we pass a collage of dissonance: neo-classical buildings, wooden houses and Soviet splurge. Viking traders once walked these streets. The churches’ golden cupolas sit like rose buds behind ashen façades of Brezhnev appartment blocks. These housing blocks seem to serve as concrete curtains to hide Ceaușescu style the churches. Right at the end of the main street on the east bank lies the thirteen century Annunication Monastery where black-scarved nuns, bibles under arm, dart past me on electric scooters, weaving their way through the complex of white stone churches.

One afternoon, I ascend the steep hill to the upper tier of the city on the level of the kremlin. Here, off the main shopping thoroughfare lies the rather eccentric Russian Museum of Photography where at the entrance I am told ‘the Museum will not be of interest if you are not interested in photography’. I confirm my interest in photography and persuade her to allow me to enter. I leave my coat at the ‘garderob’ and spend an hour or so admiring Soviet rangefinder cameras piled up in dusty cabinets. Later in the day, I relax in busy cafes where poets once sat secluded from the gnawing cold, and try to grasp the language of imperatives around me. There is a sense of protest in their voices. I watch couples articulating pleas using words still for the most part alien to me. A young man sits alone in the corner. He had married for love. She had married for status and money, and now he looks like he has already run out of dreams. Outside, passers-by on the snow-sludge-stained streets cross themselves earnestly before the golden cupolas. Not once, but four times. I counted. And not the Catholic way, but right to left.

I stayed four days in the city. If it were not for the Pyatkin restaurant, two would have sufficed. Friends in Moscow had given me a few suggestions for places to visit and restaurants to eat at. On the first evening, I eked out this restaurant. I say ‘eke’, it wasn’t terribly difficult to find. Located on the main street, Pyatkin is housed in a columned, classical style building oozing almost a colonial charm. Inside, it is like a 19th century pre-revolution Russian aristocrat’s living room. Diners are surrounded by giant silver samovars, Prussian art, dog-eared books and grammophones. There are elaborately patterned rugs. The damask, floral table cloths and upholstery match the curtains and their chintz pelmets. I think Laura Ashley would have approved. Apart from the excellent service and opulent, bloated by Empire décor, Pyatkin is a celebration of Russian food at its best: delicious fish soups (solyanka, ukha, shchi – always a difficult one to pronounce), a dozen different types of pelmeni, caviar (pike, salmon, sturgeon), kvass (a slightly fermented rye based drink), mors (sweetened berry juice mixed with water), dozens of beers and vodkas and home made rye bread. For he who likes plain food, there can be few things better than a Russian fish plate of herring and salmon with bread and gherkins washed down with ice cold vodka.

Pyatkin was such a hit, I saw little reason to explore the other recommended restaurants and so I came here each evening. Each evening I would be greeted with the same bemused smile as a gun-dog pushed past waitresses dressed in intricately embroidered sarafans, anxious to take up his place by the window. Head rotating left and right watching his four-legged peers pass on the snowy pavements, Stan focused on the goings-on outside whilst I wrote my notes and snacked on zakuski of cured fish and pickled vegetables. Such zakuski were always to be found in the pantry of any 19th century Russian gentleman worth his salt; they would be served to travellers staying at the house whose arrival time was not known. Each evening, my dinner would end with cheese cake and a cup of ivan chai (willow herb tea). As I collected my things and untied Stan from the gilt bronze Russian Gueridon table, one of the waitresses would rush over to see me off the premises. Each evening, she would tell me how to dress up for the cold, making sure I did not venture outside before having my hat on. She would cast a glance at my shoes to make sure they were suitably polished before allowing me to leave the restaurant, even though they were about to be caked in slush or kasha (porridge) as the Russians call it.

On my last day, I explored the other side of Nizhny. This side of the city feels gritty and unruly. The occasional stray dog follows us through streets of proud melancholy on the peninsula where the Volga flows into the Oka. The embankment is pitted with cranes. Here was to be found the fruits of some eccentric urban planning; a bricolaged landscape of glass and steel shopping precints, Soviet housing, baroque churches and wide open spaces serving no obvious function. The nineteenth century Alexander Nevsky cathedral is oddly juxtaposed with the new football stadium built for the 2018 World Cup. The intention was to plant lots of trees to make the awkward juxtaposition look a little less austere, but thus far the area around the stadium remains an empty concrete car park.

I push open the heavy door to the Alexander Nevsky cathedral and enter the hallowed, indispensable silence, the spiritual warmth. The blessed 60 ton bell begins to peal. Except for the occasional warden removing burnt candles, the fire of God’s love, I am the only person here. I walk under arresting domes of fresco paintings and return to the entrance to buy a candle from the lady at the candle stand. ‘I like the silence’, the head scarved lady says with a smile. ‘This is life. Our silent relationship between God and what is intimate to us’. I reflect silently on her words. She hands me the candle. ‘You like our church?’, she continues. ‘The cathedral was closed by Soviet authorities in 1930 and not reopened until 1992’, she whispers. ‘You see that icon there?’, she points to a small icon on the left hand side of the nave. ‘My mother hid that icon in her house for over 60 years’. She crosses herself, smiles and says ‘thanks be to God’. Elderly babushka, the girders of Russian society, risked their lives by hiding the icons from the cathedral in their attics. Few icon painters survived persecution from the KGB in that long, troubled century. I am happy that finally religious life in Russia refound its footing. I thank her, place the candle in front of the once hidden icon, reflect on the magic of these places and take my leave.

Outside – the tyranny of noise – sleet has become swirling snow. Dogs bark. Men smoke cigarettes. My reminiscence is broken. The birds are returning home, and it is time for me too to repair to the hotel, collect my things and make my way to the railway station. I am on the 17:43 to Moscow.