OK, I’m out of Russia now, in Mongolia, so an update is in order. My Trans Siberian Railway journey got weirdly uncomfortable, due mainly to the sanctions that America imposed on Russia two days after I headed east from Moscow. Several of the Russians I met along the way expressed a good natured sense of humor about the unfortunate timing of my travels, but some found my presence to be an insult & a provocation, as you will see below.
Leaving Suzdal on August 4, my route along the TSR was to be as follows: Vladimir (still in European Russia), eastward across the Ural Mountains into Asian Russia, through Western Siberia to Krasnoyarsk (which divides Western & Eastern Siberia), on to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal), Ulan Ude, and then south- leaving Russia on the “Mongolian Express” to UlaanBataar, Mongolia (where I am now).
The first leg is from Vladimir to Krasnoyarsk, which is long train ride of 3 days & 3 nights. Here’s what happened:
So, when I board the train in Vladimir and enter my 2nd class, 4-birth cabin, there are already three Russian men booked into the cabin who had boarded in Moscow, two twenty-something year old college students, and a bald headed middle aged guy. One of the young students-Vlad- introduces himself in good English and asks where I’m from, and we have a pleasant introduction. Vlad is good-looking and smooth talking, and spends most of this 3 day trip trying to pick up girls, with success. The other kid is Alexey, a very nice and well-read Communist Party member from Tyumem (yes, Russia still has a Communist Party). After introductions with Vlad and Alexey, in comes Michael, a stocky brick of a man, who apparently has already been advised that he’s sharing his cabin with an American. Michael promptly asks me a question, to which I offer my oft repeated answer, “Sorry, I speak no Russian, only English”. Michael loudly explodes in a Russian tirade and stomps out of the room, griping noisily all the way down the corridor. He comes back a minute later, still griping, and then he gets right up in my face, giving me a full-on ass-chewing, as if I had just kicked his dog. To which I respond with the only words that seemed appropriate, “Hi, my name’s Mac, and I’m an American”, and I hold out my hand. Michael didn’t take my hand. Then Vlad says nervously, “Umm, uh, it seems that he is angry about the sanctions that your government has imposed on Russia.” So I move on to plan B, reaching into my backpack for my peacemaker- a bottle of excellent Russian vodka, and I say, “Michael? Vodka?”. To which he says “Nyet!”
At this point both Vlad and Alexey excuse themselves and disappear down the corridor. Michael, soon calms himself down to a silent boil, so I start to gaze out the window at the passing countryside. Then I heard a “CLICK” sound that I immediately recognized from deer camp, and looked over to see Michael holding a buck knife, which he had flipped open one-handed, preparing to skin a cucumber. He left that buck knife out on the table, open, all through his leisurely dinner, using it to slice his bread and to stab his sardines. Meanwhile, I had lost interest in the view out the window. Finally, finished with his meal, he very lovingly cleaned his knife and, at last, put it away in his back pack.
Later in the evening Vlad and Alexey engaged Michael in a long conversation, apparently on my behalf. They explained to him the reason for my travels, and how I was a lifelong “Russophile”- a student of Russian culture (which is quite true), and how this was my 2nd trip to Russia. Well, after their long discussion, none of which I understood, Michael eventually relented, and offered his hand, which I grabbed with enthusiasm. Then I grabbed that bottle again and said, “Michael? Vodka?”. I offered a toast to Russia, and we drank. He did not offer to drink to America, which he should have done, but I let well enough alone.
It was a long 3 days and nights. When Vlad and Alexey both left the train in Tyumen, it was me and Michael alone in the silent cabin. Finally, when Michael left the train in Novosibirsk, I breathed a long sigh.
I must add- Alexey later made it clear that most Russians did not feel that the sanctions were directed at the Russian economy, but only at the few elite Russians who held foreign bank accounts. He said that Russians don’t hold American citizens responsible for the sanctions. I really liked Alexey, he’s a fine fellow.