Monday, October 24, 2011

Red Arrows and Moscow Mules

With the Russo-ferro-historic adventure I had just had, I was ready for one last epic Russian train experience to end my trip, and so I sought it out and caught it and refused to let it escape my clutches. If I didn't have time to do the entire Trans-Siberian, I would at least partake in some form of transit steeped in Russian tradition and history. What kind of history, you ask? Read on, Dear Reader, and see.

Every night at 11:55 the Krasney Strela* departs from St. Petersburg, headed to Moscow on an eight hour overnight trip. If you are wondering why the train leaves at such a specific time (why not round up to midnight?) you are very perceptive and hopefully a healthy cynic. Like most aspects of Soviet life, it was not planned by a mere coincidence. During the days of yore when Soviet bureaucrats would often travel between the two cities, they scheduled this luxury train service to shuttle them back and forth, leaving just before the official end of each day so that they could justify paying themselves for an extra day's work. The train is encrusted in the trappings of Soviet refinement and hypocrisy; red velvet is draped over most surfaces, red silk curtains frame each window, and silver and gold embroidery remind passengers more times than necessary exactly what train in which one currently has the pleasure of sitting. As the train pulls away from the station each night, speakers tucked high in the rafters of the cavernous station play a pompous ditty composed to be the theme song of this self-important vehicle, an embodiment of one of the major reasons that the Soviet system collapsed**.

It was glorious.

(exhibit A)

Before my departure I somehow stumbled upon a Couchsurfing party of students and travelers from over a dozen countries, where, using mysterious powers of persuasion, I convinced a representative of each country to sing their homeland's national anthem.*** My internal clock seemed to sense the importance of timeliness in this moment, however, and I left the party with more than the proper amount of time to get to the station, and arrived there composed, ticket in hand, and even found my track number without a hitch. I cannot recommend enough the revolutionary idea of arriving at the station more than 15 seconds before you are meant to depart. Really.

I was magnanimously escorted to my compartment,**** where I settled in to sip a canned Russian beverage blending black currant juice and champagne. I was told afterward that this is a drink that no one over the age of eleven would embarrass themselves to be seen drinking in that country, but it proved to be a delectable beverage of the highest quality, so I have no regrets! The theme song played, the wheels groaned into motion, and just as I thought I would spend a quiet night sweeping through the Russian countryside, being carried forward in time and space with nary a disturbance or distraction, a loud thump resounded in the hallway and the pocket door swung open violently, revealing a dark, swaying silhouette.

Startled, I took stock of the situation. The figure was a man, obviously intoxicated, and he gripped the door frame with white-knuckled determination. From the looks of him, he seemed to be a wealthy Russian businessman who had been booted from an swanky bar after ten or twelve too many overpriced vodkas. He attempted to speak to me in Russian, but before I could offer up one of my well-practiced survival responses, he lurched sideways and collapsed onto the nearest bunk, luckily unoccupied, and left the conscious world.

Thus alone again, I returned to my libation and writing, and settled in for the night, my last in the Russian Federation.


*Russian for "Red Arrow," which I have on good authority is the most politically charged train moniker in history.

**In my humble, biased, and shockingly unqualified-to-make-such-sweeping-statements opinion.

***Speaking of which, America, the optimism and glory of your national anthem is SO impressive when compared to those of many small European countries, whose anthems I assume must have been composed by lesser-known monks and hurdy-gurdyists during the black plague or some other time of severe internal strife.

****A second class, four-person cabin with sofas that were converted by agile attendants into beds that were made of the Russian equivalent of goose down, marshmallows, cumulus nimbus clouds, and the wings of cherubs.

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