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Russia By Rail: Setting Off From Moscow

Seven time zones, nearly 6,000 miles, and a lot of tea and borscht. That only begins to describe the long journey by David Greene, NPR's Moscow correspondent. He's been in Russia for just over two years and for his last reporting trip, he's riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok.

While crossing the world's largest country and bridging two continents, he'll make stops to capture the mood and the culture of Russia at an important milestone, two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Trans-Siberian has played a significant role in Russian history, life and culture, encompassing both the good and bad.

Since they were built at the dawn of the 20th century, the Trans-Siberian railways have attracted factories along their path. As communities grew up along the railroad, the Trans-Siberian became the spine of Soviet industry.

But the railroad is also a symbol of horror – carrying people eastward to exile or to their death in the gulags.

Today the Trans-Siberian remains the backbone of Russia, both for transit and trade. And taking a trip along the length of the rail line provides an excellent way to grasp the country at a pivotal moment — 20 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991.

The train itself is a story. During those long hours on board, Russian travelers often make new friends, talking politics and sharing food (and, yes, sometimes vodka). In a country with low salaries, visiting family in distant places often means going by train, as air travel simply costs too much.

Standing at the "0 Kilometer" marker at Yaroslavsky station in Moscow, passengers board trains bound for the eastern reaches of the country. One trans-Siberian veteran, Sergei Trakhov, a geology professor, served up some advice.

"These trains have a lot of stops," he says. "Along the platforms there [are] a lot of local sellers – you can catch local food." He suggested eating dumplings in the Ural mountains, Mongolian and Chinese as the train pushes deep into Asia, and sampling the Pacific seafood in Vladivostok. His menu is just one sign of how many cultures the train passes through.

No one captures the essence of the trans-Siberian better than 69-year-old Tamara Ostrovskaya. Wrapped in furs and surrounded by overstuffed parcels, she was waiting for her train to Krasnoyarsk – a three-day journey to the east.

The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock.
Alyson Hurt / NPR
The route of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostock.

But she wasn't dreading the trip.

"Good nature and good people," she said through an interpreter. "Nice people in the cabins, so we have good time during our long journey."

As for those overstuffed bags?

"Here, I have rug, a small rug, my clothes and something to eat and over there I have some presents for my family," she explained.

Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow.
David Gilkey / NPR
Tamara Ostrovskaya (left) and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya (right), stand on the train platform at Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in Moscow.

So here, on a frozen train platform stood two Russian babushkas, Tamara and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya. Tamara rode the rails to Moscow to keep Albina company – she lost her husband a decade ago at age 49.

It's one of the realities of Russian culture — the male life expectancy is barely over 60 due in part to hard work and alcoholism — and women often live their later years alone. It's a hard place and a hard life for many people — one of the many realities of this place, and this culture, that David and his team will be exploring over the course of the two-week trip.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Krantz
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.