One of those fun reads that always comes in the last double issue of the year.
What makes trains weigh so heavily on Russia’s consciousness is the sheer size of the land mass. European railway journeys, with their short distances between stations and the constant sight of human life outside the window, leave little time or space for thought or soul-searching. In Russia, however, train journeys are measured in days and nights rather than hours. It takes six days to travel from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of more than 9,000km. All one sees is forest, occasionally interrupted by a clearing or uncultivated fields cloaked, in winter, with snow. You can go for hours, sometimes days, without seeing a settlement or a soul. “In western Europe people die because their space is cramped and suffocating,” Chekhov wrote in a letter. “In Russia they die because the space is an endless expanse.”
As a result, trains rumble through Russian literature and poetry with remarkable frequency. Rail travel occupies the same place in Russian culture as the road trip in America. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina meets Vronsky at a railway station at the beginning of the novel and ends her life under a train. (Tolstoy, too, happened to die at a station.) In Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago”, the comfortable, softly upholstered trains at the beginning of the novel give way to the freight trains in which Zhivago and his wife escape a Moscow devastated by revolution and civil war.