Looking at America from the Trans-Siberian Express
Rosa Liksom Talks to Russians About Trump and Putin
Writer Rosa Liksom boarded a train in Siberia this past November and stayed in compartment no. 6 once again. The same trip 30 years ago was the inspiration for her novel Compartment No. 6 (Hytti no. 6), published in English in 2016 by Graywolf Press. Liksom won the Finlandia Prize for the novel in 2011. The following was translated by Mia Spangenberg.
What do Russia’s train stations look like now? How have Russia and its inhabitants changed?
The Trans-Siberian train arrives at Krasnoyarsk’s station at platform 4.
The conductor, a stylish lady, compliments me on my coat and with a smile leads me to compartment no. 6 and wishes me a pleasant journey. I put my backpack under the bed in the metal storage bin.
A young woman who looks like a hipster from Berlin sits on the edge of the other bed; her name is Mila. She’s on her way home to Moscow from a business trip in Irkutsk.
I go back out into the corridor to join other passengers who are chatting and milling about. The train is new—every nook and cranny is gleaming, even the samovar. There’s no smell. Smoking is not allowed, and the man standing next to me smells of Obsession aftershave.
The train rolls into motion, and the speakers softly begin to play Chopin’s prelude. A lively looking grandmother steps out of compartment no. 4 with her five-year old granddaughter in braids. Both of them wave at the people standing outside on the platform.
We leave Krasnoyarsk behind. Its main street is a mixed architectural wonder: there’s a dark, shiny skyscraper with a community garden quietly hibernating in its backyard. We leave behind a late constructivist concrete block, a new building built in Stalin’s socialist classicist style, and two Hrustsovka, brick apartment buildings built while Khrushchev was in power, with a dainty blue onion dome church squeezed in between them.
We leave behind the old Siberian banya on the outskirts of town, and the Soviet grannies who bathe there and covered my skin in salted honey, who whisked me with two birch branches and massaged me and threw water on the sauna stones with woolen hats on their heads and slippers on their feet.
We leave behind the trendy cafes and organic restaurants, the modern art museums, the clubs, the coffee snobs, hipsters, and dandies. There goes electric, pulsing Krasnoyarsk, a city which used to be closed and forbidden, and a feared staging area for deportation to labor camps.
The compartment features a small flat-screen TV and pretty reading lamps, and white cotton curtains hang in the windows, just like at a summer cottage. The table is covered in a white table cloth, and there’s a white vase with a yellow silk rose.
There’s also a white cardboard box for every passenger on the table. It’s been packed with a croissant, a muffin, a roll, jam, butter, cheese, a bag of black and green Lipton tea, and a rosy red apple. Two traditional tea glasses sit on their porcelain saucers. Passengers can retrieve hot water from the large samovar out in the corridor.
Mila’s phone rings.
“I’m not going to answer. My grandmother has already called me 20 times today. I just talked to her a little while ago and don’t feel like talking to her right now. I didn’t tell her that I am on a business trip to Siberia because she can’t stand them. She can’t sleep because she’s afraid something will happen to me.”
The conductor, whose name is Pasha, arrives in her snug uniform, which includes a dark blue skirt, a white shirt, and a dark blue vest. She shows me how to open the bed. It’s been made with white bed linens. Pasha tells me that the restaurant car is open, and that if I need anything, I should feel free to ask her.
I pick up the tea glasses and retrieve hot water from the samovar. Pasha sits in her compartment and watches an episode from a Russian TV series on her laptop. Mila and I put raspberry jam in our tea and open our muffin wrappers. Mila tells me that she is an English teacher.
“My father was a miner and died from alcohol abuse when I was little. My mother is an economist, and she moved to New York ten years ago. She fell in love, but then they broke up, and she ended up staying there. First she worked at McDonald’s, then as a cleaner, and now she works at a Russian investment firm. They told her she can have the job if she doesn’t steal anything! My mom is planning to return to Moscow. She loves the arts. She thinks Russia could brand itself as a superpower of culture. Not a bad idea!”
I ask Mila what kind of feelings she has about Soviet times.
“Foreigners always ask about Soviet times. What’s so interesting about that? I was one year old when the Soviet Union became Russia. I don’t know anything at all about Soviet times.”
Mila watches the scenery for a moment. We catch glimpses of a valley covered in a thin layer of snow reaching out towards the horizon between the birch trees. A narrow river courses its way through the valley, and the water steams in the current. The frozen sun colors the sky a hazy violet.
“My mom has told me that when the Soviet Union collapsed, my dad didn’t get paid for half a year, even though he had two jobs. My parents were fighting starvation because we didn’t have any family in the countryside to help us. Things got better for a while, but when the value of the ruble collapsed in 1998, we fell on hard times again when salaries weren’t paid. One time when my dad came home from work, he had a Swiss chocolate bar in his hand. His monthly salary had been paid with one chocolate bar. I clearly remember the wrapper. It was light blue and had a big round cow on it. My mom put the chocolate bar in a metal container on top of one of the kitchen cabinets. When I was home alone, I climbed up on a chair and took out the chocolate bar. Then I admired it at the kitchen table.”
We talked about life and the problems caused by globalization in Finland, Europe, and Russia.
“I followed the US presidential election on the internet. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I was very disappointed when he lost to Clinton. In Russia, no one talks about equality and the common good, and how globalization could benefit everyone like Sanders does, and also Obama. Greed and corruption are completely acceptable and prized in Russia, as I guess they are in Finland, too. No one really misses the Soviet Union, but there are other alternatives in the world, like Bernie’s alternative. The middle class is disappointed, even though they still lead normal lives.”
“I’m just upset all of the Finnish cheeses disappeared from the shelves,” Mila laughs.
Pasha knocks on the door, and she enters with a small basket and an embarrassed smile. The basket contains souvenirs: some thumb drives and thermometers in the shape of a train, tea glass holders, and notepads. Mila buys a thumb drive.
After Pasha leaves, Mila explains that if the conductor wants to receive a bonus to supplement her small salary, she has to sell trinkets to the passengers.
Then she continues her story.
“Rich people and millionaires, and there are millions of them in Russia, live downtown in cities or in their own private, guarded compounds. They buy their clothes from fancy boutiques, and they have their own very expensive services everywhere: restaurants, gyms, department stores, beauty salons, resorts, spas, and so on. Those who aren’t doing so well live in the countryside, in small cities, or in suburbs on the outskirts of town. People look down on migrant workers from Central Asia and anyone without papers, even though they do all the shit work that isn’t good enough for any Russian. Society’s different classes never mix. The poor were angry for a while, but they’ve already given up a long time ago now. They’ve been abandoned to their fate.”
We decide to go to the restaurant car.
It’s decorated with red-gold curtains, plush benches and flowery tablecloths. There are only three other customers: a Mongolian woman with a model’s figure wearing a black dress paired with a blue fox fur collar, her two-year-old son, and her restless mother-in-law from Tula.
I order tea, and Mila orders a latte. The waiter smiles and says: “Unfortunately we don’t have a latte machine, but I can make you an espresso.” I receive a cup of hot water, a Lipton tea bag, and a slice of French bread, and Mila receives her espresso.
It’s so quiet and dreamy that we decide to return to compartment no. 6. It’s cozy and full of ambiance.
The beauty box I’ve been given contains all the toiletries I need, and I make my way to the restroom. It smells like pine forest air freshener. I wash my face with warm water and listen for a moment to the calm clanking of the rails. Mila has put on soft H&M pajamas. She sits on the edge of her bed with her iPad on her lap and surfs the internet. She responds to her emails, posts on Facebook, and puts pictures she’s taken of Irkutsk on Instagram.
“Can you believe this picture I posted yesterday has already gotten more likes than all of my other posts combined?”
She shows me a picture of her cat ripping a book on the floor.
The day starts quietly. I dress and watch the warehouse district flickering past outside the window. The train moves slowly and then stops at Novosibirsk’s train station.
Mila stays inside to sleep when I rush out with my camera. Pasha says that we’ll stop for 25 minutes.
The large, solid train station looks as if it has just been renovated. The emerald green buildings shimmer. The door to the entrance is still as heavy as it was 35 years ago. I slip inside.
Inside I walk through a metal detector that doesn’t seem to work. Five policemen in crisp uniforms are chatting among themselves and keeping an eye on it. The duty officer is stationed in his customary spot next to the metal detector. The elderly gentleman is wearing an official dark blue uniform. He looks relaxed as he sits behind the table and yawns.
Ten or so central Asian cleaners incessantly clean the floors. Some are pushing along cleaning machines, while others are polishing the doorknobs and railings. Here they don’t pretend to work. They actually work.
The kiosks sell icons, books, souvenirs, food, fruit, beer, clothes, and herbal remedies. A few people are sitting in the waiting area. Two policeman are inspecting the papers of a Central Asian-looking teenage boy, and something is amiss. They lead the listless but scared youth into a back room.
I walk outside and onto the passenger bridge that leads into town.
The sharp rays of the cold sun cut up the landscape. Bank billboards and digital advertisements flash from the tops of high-rise buildings. I don’t recognize the view anymore—old buildings have been torn down and replaced with dozens of new buildings. They look both humorous and cocky. Millions of LED lights watch the people as they rush to work.
I run back to the train. Pasha sighs with relief; I almost missed it.
Mila is dressed. She has already made her bed and is surfing on the internet. I go out in the corridor. A handsome young man named Elnur has boarded the train in Novosibirsk and is staying in compartment no. 5. He’s on the way to Tyumen and is eager to talk.
“Are you married?” I ask.
“Of course not. I’m still young, I’m only 28. I didn’t finish my studies, and I do odd jobs. Most recently I drove a truck. I was visiting my grandmother, and now I’m going to go visit my mother. My grandmother is Urdmurt, and my father’s mother was Azeri. I was born in Azerbaijan, but we moved to Moscow when I was five. My parents divorced, my father and I stayed in Moscow, and my mother moved with her new partner to Tyumen. I never want to live in Siberia. Everything’s better in Moscow.”
“Do you know that Trump will be the next American president and the most powerful person in the world? It’s bad news, it will bring war. Two roosters won’t fit in the same henhouse. Putin is a tough guy, he loves war. I was in the army for a year and seven months. They weren’t fun times. I was in the Nargorno-Karabakh War and had to shoot Armenians at close range. It was unpleasant, but in war you have to abide by war’s rules.”
“Obama was a good president. Trump is a racist and a fascist, but so is Putin. Still, Putin has managed pretty well in his position. He won’t let the West humiliate Russia. We want to be proud of our country, history, and culture. We want to be treated equally. We don’t want to end up on the outside, shivering by ourselves. We want to be part of the world and sit at the same table with Americans and shake hands. We’re all people here, all of us.”
Elnur goes off to call his mother and let her know he is on the train. Mila tells me a friend sent her a picture from Sheremetyevo Airport showing a cardboard statue of Vladimir the Great with a text that reads: Welcome home, Krim.
“My friend Sasha thinks that the Stalin-era propaganda machine has come back. And of course it is true that the government’s TV channels disseminate garbage and that people are too lazy to read the papers or to get information from the internet.”
Someone knocks on the door, and a waitress named Vania asks us if we would like to have dinner at 7 o’clock in our compartment or in the restaurant car. We choose to go to the restaurant.
I ask Mila if she has enough money to live a decent life. Mila looks at me with her head cocked to the side.
“When I get paid, I first buy trendy and high quality clothes or shoes, then some skin care products, and finally food with the rest—if I have anything left.”
When the train stops at the station in Barabinsk, Elnur, Mila and I rush outside. Trine, a Danish backpacker traveling in compartment no. 3, joins us.
The platform is utter chaos: fur traders run around offering their wares to critical travelers. Fried fish, frozen fish, smoked fish, dried meat, salted meat, barbecue steaks, woolen socks, and scarves are also on offer.
Elnur looks at me and grins.
“Those grannies are Finno-Ugric like you. You should buy something from your kinswomen so they can buy some vodka. They’re all alcoholics!”
Pasha calls out that the train is leaving, and we rush back inside. A disappointed trader gives me the evil eye from the platform and extends her middle finger.
Trine is a freelance journalist and a fan of Copenhagen’s Christiania, and she tells me she has spent ten days in North Korea. The trip cost 1,500 euros, and included full room and board as well as trips within the country and a guide.
There are enough of us to fill three tables in the restaurant car.
A man with a large belly, dressed in straight pants and a sweater, sits at one table with his small and slender girlfriend. Mila whispers that he’s a gangster. I ask her how she knows that. “He has an American Express card on the table, and only crooks and the new rich use that credit card.”
Grandmother Sonja and her son’s daughter Pauline are sitting at another table. I now notice that Sonja has a nose piercing. We’re sitting at the third table: Elnur, Volodya, who is sharing a compartment with Elnur, Mila, and me.
We have three choices for dinner: meat, fish, or vegetables. The men order meat, Mila vegetables, and I order fish. The wine is French, the food is good home cooking, and there’s plenty for everyone.
When we return to our compartments, we say goodbye to Elnur since the train will arrive so early in Tyumen that we’ll probably still be sleeping. I end up talking to Volodya, who has been reading in his compartment since he boarded the train. He’s a banker from Omsk, and he’s on a business trip to Moscow.
“Stocks went down 20 percent as soon as the results of the US presidential election were in. But it’s not a problem; they’ll stabilize sooner or later. Trump has investments in Russia, and it could have a positive effect on Putin’s and Trump’s relations. A businessman wants profits, and if he can get them in Russia, everything will be OK. The worst isn’t abjection or despair, but chaos.”
“Russia’s economy is in a tailspin. Many Western companies have left. Even Turkish businessmen have abandoned us because Putin doesn’t understand the first thing about the economy or about business in general. It’s sad. Where are you headed, Russia?” Volodya asks.
We watch the dense forest retreating into the freezing darkness and are silent for a while.
“I live with my wife in a house on the edge of town. I woke up yesterday at five, and when I looked out the window into the yard, I saw three wolves trotting along the edge of the woods. When it’s really cold they seek out humans. They kill stray dogs for food, and we kill the wolves. That’s how we keep things in balance.”
When I wake up early the next morning, the train has stopped. Mila is sleeping. I dress quickly and go outside. We’ve arrived in Yekaterinburg.
The sun winks at me from behind the steaming train station. People huddle in the freezing fog that has wrapped the city in its embrace. Well-fed strays are milling about on the platform; I count 16 of them.
I pick up a leftover roll and croissant from my compartment and throw them on the platform. A few dogs wander over to sniff at my alms but scurry away in disappointment.
Pasha watches me and laughs. “Those dogs aren’t after pastries, only meat is good enough for them!” An old, feeble little dog returns to the offerings and nibbles at the croissant as if offended.
I return to my bed, read a book, fall asleep, read again, fall asleep, draw, and rest.
I look at the valiantly persevering villages enveloped in the mist of the cold light. Some of them have been abandoned, and some of them have gone through the facelift brought by the euro. I glance over at the top bunk. Mila is watching a movie with headphones on. One station after another whizzes past compartment no. 6. We pass Perm, and dozens more little stations along the way.
Vania appears at the door with a basket full of warm potato perushky. We buy two juicy perushky and have them with some tea.
In the evening we arrive in Udmurtia, in the small town of Balezino. Mila doesn’t feel like going out, but Trine joins me. The thermometer reads -22 C.
Blue booths appear in the middle of stately snowbanks, as if torn from the pages of a fairy tale. They sell knitted plush toys, handmade knickknacks, Snickers and Mars bars, Oreo cookies, Coca Cola and ginger ale, porn magazines and romances, outerwear, and souvenirs.
Trine tells me she enjoyed her trip to North Korea, but she sounds slightly sarcastic. She has never been on a trip where things were made so easy. She didn’t have to do or think about anything.
Back in the compartment, Mila tells me she’s read that there will be a supermoon in the sky the next evening. The last one was seen in 1948. The news spreads, and soon we all start to really look forward to it together.
A man who looks like Pierce Brosnan joins Volodya in Balezino. Boris is a taxi driver on his way to Nizhny Novgorod. We talk in the corridor the next day, and Boris tells me he was born in the province of Krasnoyarsk, in the city of Norilsk.
“My father was Latvian, and he was deported to Norillag labor camp after the big nationalist war. He was freed after Stalin’s death, stayed in Norilsk, got married, and so I was born.”
In the evening almost all of the passengers are standing in the corridor waiting for the supermoon.
The sky is clear, the train is racing along its tracks, the snow is billowing, the stars are twinkling, but there’s still no sign of the supermoon. Then, before we reach the train station in Kirov, Boris shouts from his compartment. Mila and I rush over, and there it is: the pale neon orange disc covers half the sky and shines with a surreal glow.
“It shines its light over the guilty and the innocent, the victims and the criminals alike,” Boris says.
Before we return to our cozy compartment no. 6, we say goodbye to our traveling companions. There are selfies and big hugs. Mila and I play our favorite songs for each other on YouTube, and we listen to CNN News.
Mila says that compared to Trump, Putin is beginning to look like a humanist, and she’s really looking forward to returning home to her cat and her boyfriend.
“Irkutsk has good lattes and amazing sushi restaurants, but everything is still better in Moscow.”