Ever Take an Elektrichka?
There is a reason they call it ‘hard class!’
I was all prepared to write about the singular experience of riding a Russian
elektrichka when I read this article in the Moscow Times. Bill doesn’t
exactly write in my style, I would have spoken more about the people on the
train, and how hard those wooden seats are, but he does give it a good go.
So please, read on:
Wednesday, April 29, 1998, The Moscow Times
As Moscow’s Elektrichka Goes, So Goes Russia
Ahh, the elektrichka! What true denizen of Moscow has not savored its many
and peculiar pleasures? Whatever one may think of it, the elektrichka is
essential to Russian life as any service, institution, or commodity available
today. Indeed, the resilience and shortcomings of this system serve remarkably
well as a reflection of the general health of post-Soviet Russia.
Officially known as the elektropoyezd, the Moscow
suburban electric train system each day carries over 3 million passengers,
not only to the farthest regions of the city’s expanding metropolitan sprawl,
but also to ancient cities now within its immediate orbit: Tula, Tver, Ryazan,
Kolomna, Vladimir and others.
An elektrichka at a station outside of Moscow in winter.
There has even been a novel written within – and in some ways about – the
elektrichka experience: Venedikt Yerofeyev’s brilliant, hilarious, maddening
samizdat masterpiece “Moskva-Petushki,” translated variously in English as
Moscow to the End of the Line, Moscow Circles and Moscow Stations. Written
in 1970 and first published abroad (in Paris) in 1981, the book saw its first
publication in Russia only in 1989-a year before Yerofeyev’s death – in a
journal devoted to promoting the virtues of sobriety
To revive a famous phrase, it is not by accident that the book’s hallucinatory
force comes from a combination of alcohol and an elektrichka journey from
Moscow to the utterly prosaic town of Petushki, 125 kilometers to the east
on the Vladimir line. Yerofeyev, a Moscow University dropout, knew both the
howling boredom of the commuting train and the ability of rotgut to transcend
that pervasive, ineffable sadness for which the elektrichka served as both
setting and symbol.
So successful is Yerofeyev’s ability to twist the prosaic deceptions of everyday
life into something fantastic and abnormal that I find myself slightly shocked
every time I see the Petushki station name. This place really exists! Just
as in my own New Orleans, there really is a street named Desire. But the
streetcar has long since been replaced by an exhaust-spewing bus.
I myself had used the suburban train on several occasions during almost three
decades of visiting Moscow, and hid taken this Spartan form of transportation
to such distant locations as Ryazan and Kaluga – each some four hours en
route, with hard wooden seats and no “conveniences.” Yet the view of the
Russian countryside and its still surviving churches, or the monasteries
of Kolomna and other towns, made the trip’s lack of comfort seem inconsequential.
But only this winter did I experience the special qualities of a daily commute.
The distance was not great – front an apartment in Khimki to Leningrad Station
– and yet the landscape went through remarkable variations as the train passed
through station platforms that are forever engraved in my memory: the faceless
suburban grime of Khimki’s apartments, the bucolic vistas of Levoberezhnaya
(on the left bank of the Moscow River), the former estate of Khovrino, the
industrial wasteland of Mosselmash, and in rapid succession the housing blocks
and shopping marts of Petrovskoye-Razumovskoye, Ostankino and Rizhskaya.
What surprised me on these daily journeys is the proliferation of vendors,
particularly during peak hours on my line. The elektrichka has now become
a veritable carnival of hawkers.
most impressive of all was the mellifluous bearded basso purveying a handsomely
bound pharmaceutical encyclopedia of prescription drugs. “Our scientists
spend sleepless nights so that you, dear friends, can have the latest in
medical knowledge.” One nervous, sickly pensioner complained that drugs did
no good and doctors were scoundrels. Unfazed, the basso gave advice
encouragement, and warned: “This book could be your last chance.” Few overworked
and underpaid Moscow doctors could have done more.
Their there are the collectors of aims, such as the woman with a high-pitched,
plaintive voice, who entered the car and began: “If there are any good Orthodox
Russians here, listen to my words.” At this, the face of the passenger opposite
me turned into a sneer that lasted until the end of the trip. Seething irritation
often seems to lurk beneath the surface and yet restraint prevails, as it
must in a society where so many people are crowded together as a way of life.
And there are the younger petitioners, such as the amputee in a camouflage
outfit. A veteran of one of Russia’s southern wars? That was the implication,
and many passengers responded generously Finally, there are the outright
beggars, those who have hit bottom and don’t care what anyone thinks about
it. While standing at the smoke-filled entrance to the car, I overheard two
beggars come to a gentlemanly agreement as to who should go first.
These represent only a small sample of the types that course through crowded,
steamy elektrichka cars every working day. Whether entertaining or intensely
annoying, the pitch of the hawkers and the response of the public represent
a microcosm of life as it is lived for most Russians today.
However colorful this spectacle on a suburban train, it takes
place in a setting of almost unrelieved squalor. Why are the cars so filthy
Yes, they get a lot of use, but so does the Moscow Metro. The contrast is
startling, the cleanliness, and efficiency of the subway as opposed to the
filth of most elektrichka cars. To some degree this is due to less supervision
over a much longer track system. Even tickets are rarely checked.
But perhaps the major role is played by the climate in Russia, where cold
weather extends for six months. The station platforms are largely unsheltered;
snow and ice accumulate; and in order to protect from the cold, the entrances
to the cars must be isolated from the passenger section. This in turn creates
at each and every end of the car those dim, crowded, unheated choke points
that not only serve as temporary refuge for compulsive smokers, but also
become moving platforms of almost unbelievable filth.
Yet millions of passengers use the elektrichka daily because it is the only
form of transportation that works for them. Any one who has actually lived
in any major Russian city is well aware of the contrast between the trash
of many public spaces (including apartment vestibules) and the private spaces
that people create. These spaces are characterized by another of those Russian
words that elude precise translation, “uyut,” which implies a sense of tidiness
and comfort. Everything else must be tolerated, even ignored, in order to
reach that haven at the end of the line.
To say that the elektrichka system needs a major overhaul is both obvious
and pointless under current circumstances. The simple fact is that the country
cannot exist without this network. Already, the proliferation of cars is
choking cities such as Moscow. Without the presence of suburban rail systems
for virtually every city in Russia, normal life would come to a halt. However
ramshackle and dirty, these trains serve as the indispensable sinews that
link the cities with their outlying areas. As the elektrichka goes, so goes
William Brumfield, professor of Russian at Tulane University, is the author
and photographer of several books on Russian architecture. He contributed
this essay to The Moscow Times.