Night Train From Leningrad

Jan Vijver and I went to Moscow to meet company personnel and some Russian authorities. We were there to announce the opening of an officer under the auspices of  the giant Japanese  Trading Company, Toyo Menka, and to hold meeting with Novosti, conduit for national news in and out of the country. [TASS handles news to and from Russian republics.] It was December. My travel notes tend to be all over the map… Jan and I flew  from Brussels to Helsinki [eventually] and on to Leningrad for a couple of nights and then we caught the overnight train to Moscow.  [Glasnost was being talked about in Europe but not so much in Russia. Jan and I ,seeing all the prostitutes at foreign currency hotels immediately proclaimed the phenomonenon, assnost.

 

Finnish puukko is sheath knife, worn on all sorts of occasion. Blade never longer than the handle. Sheaths made of birch bark or leather. Lapp version called leuku (Lapp Knife). Women in province of Karelia and elsewhere wear them on chains, suspended around their necks. Knives at home usually stuck in wall over door to ward off evil spirits. Stuck in tables before card games. Such knives found in ancient graveyards are considered to have the strength of spirits in them.

  At the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel in Leningrad, the following room sign: We kindly request you: to maintain tranquility from midnight tell noon time; not to leave visitors in rooms alone without notify hotel administration; to keep on animals or birds in the room;and, to notify the floor maid when you are gone a day in advance.

  The current hotel currency exchange rate is 6 rubles to the dollar.

The hotel faces the Gulf of Finland. 2,400-guest capacity. 16 floors, 10 for guest rooms, 6 for restaurants, 6 bars, and 10 snack bars, one on each guest room floor. There’s also a two-lane bowling alley next to the sauna. 

The hotel is filled with besotted Finns in red elf hats; they are celebrating Finnish independence, a three-day holiday but it is too expensive to drink in Finland, so they come to Russia to tie one on. The Russians call them alcohol tourists.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas is blaring in Finnish over the hotel intercom. We have to step over a passed-out Finn to get into the elevator.

 

There is food rationing everywhere in Russia except Moscow. In Leningrad for a month citizens get per person: 1 kg meat, 1 kg sausage, 10 eggs, 2 kg sugar. Meat in specialty shops is 2 rubles/kg. In the “open market” the same meat is 12 R/kg. Benzene is 40R/liter; hardboiled eggs were 6 for 2 rubles under Breshnev. Now under Gorbachev, everything is compared to Breshnev’s time. Going to a “good” restaurant will be about 60 rubles/person. The Russians tell us, “You need to have a lot of friends with connections.” The old Russian proverb is “Better 100 friends than 100 rubles.”

 

Restaurants open at noon. No people there. Maitre d says, just a moment, but nothing can happen until the head waiter arrives; if he or she does not show, the restaurant will not open. Posted times mean nothing. Stale bread is so hard you can used it as a hammer. The tea in some establishments is putrefied pink punch that tastes vaguely of water in which strawberries were briefly dipped. We go to dinner at the Neva Restaurant. Our meal: Excellent chicken noodle soup with spaghetti noodles, no visible chicken. Followed by cold cuts of hard salami, gray-brown medallions of beef tongue, ground chicken, cold peas and cold pickled cabbage and four or five slices of browning green apples. Then a slab of mystery meat arrives on a thin layer of gristled ham, more pickled cabbage, hot mushrooms in a sauce, wrapped in a slate-hard pastry shell and this was the best meal in what was considered to be the best restaurant in the city. Not putting it down. Just reporting what happened. Life here is not easy. We, of course dub dining, nobratwurstnost. By the way, heavy black Russian bread is wonderful and lots of it.

Despite prices, food shortages, the Russian people talk constantly about entertaining frequently, and in this culture the host always provides food and booze. Vodka is at 2 R at the state store, but 7-12 R /bottle in the “open” market.

 Hotels hosting foreigners are magnets for Russians looking for contacts and hustles, even something to do; all kinds of kids hang around outside, throwing snowballs at each other. The kids are well dressed, always smiling. 

Housing here is 25-30 R / month, including servies (which are never detailed). 

Fear of winter is palpable here: Shortages of food, batteries, fuel, etc. We’ve heard that several Russian airfields are shut down due to fuel shortages. They’ve had three consecutive light winters and the Russians can’t believe there will be a fourth.

Restaurant menus are as thick as encyclopedias, but only the few items with prices next to them are available – if then. Very few street lights in the city. Cars drive in darkness and follow mysterious rules. Pedestrians do not seem to have the right away. Whenever you get out of your vehicle, even for a few minutes, you take off your windshield wipers and take them with you; if you don’t they won’t be there when you return.

Furs are ubiquitous. Women all seem to wear high-hell boots.

Steel doors in tenements are all dented, many of them covered with graffiti.

No restaurants open the next morning for breakfast. When asked about this, hotel personnel shrug.

Moscow train station in Leningrad. Dark. Hundreds of people milling around on the platform awaiting boarding; people with livestock, old men in bear skins with ancient firearms, bevies of young army soldeers with AK-47s, military issue pull-on boots, fur shapkas, women in fur coats and French dresses. The temperature is under 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Breath clouds float everywhere and everyone chain-smokes. In the latrine everyone stands on toilets and rains their piss down on the indescribably scabby commodes. The smoke in the urinals hangs halfway down from the ceiling. The weirdest place I’ve ever seen. Road to station is pitted and muddy; porters wear dark blue and white and stenciled letters on their backs.  They pay attention only to foreigners and high ranking military officers. A woman walks around carrying a dead cat (it stinks).

Train doors open and close violently – sound like rifle reports.

A small woman in a rail uniform collects 2 rubles from Jan and me for tea. Later we find a public samovar in our car. She is running a scam, not a RR employee at all, the nigh porter tells us. We both laughed!

Our compartment is tiny. Dinner of moules (mussels) in garlic butter, English sweet biscuits, white cheese, Swedish beer, lemon fizz water, hot tea and sugar.

 Every time we pass a village or crossing it is blocked by a sidelined train, We can occasionally see factories or military installations in silhouette, but they are blacked out. Presumably all this is to prevent strangers from seeing anything. The run is made only at night, probably for the same reason. We occasionally pass other trains, moving slowly. When we can see house, we see small wooden hovels, like something from the Dark Ages and we get the feel that life in the country is very different than life in a Russian city. One of our Russian contacts calls the L to Moscow train the Love Train – favored by party bosses and mucky-mucks to travel with their girlfriends.

  Car fills with snoring all night. And occasional sexual outbursts. Rails clang beneath the car.

  A gussied-up woman stops in the middle of the night to see if we are interested in company. We aren’t. It is like the train is a country separate from the land it traverses.  Jan and I enjoy this sort of experience. When we tell our colleagues in Moscow how we got there, they turn white. Our Russian employees look dumbfounded, ask how we could do this when we speak no Russian. Jan tells them in his Fresian accent, “We speak fluent RRRR-ubles!” The Russians grin and nod.

      

Leave a Reply