As Moscow’s summer reaches temperatures of 32C we’ll soon be wishing for winter. Mark Dixey, an English Teacher for Language Link, resident in Moscow for 14 years is taking us back in time to a winter’s train journey from Zürich – Berlin where he joins RZD’s new Strizh train to Moscow
Berlin – Moscow TalGo!
What do Spanish and Russian railways have in common? The quality of the trains? Not quite. Spain has come a long way in developing its rail network since the turn of this century with high-speed routes being built faster than the bullet train itself. The ‘Elektrichka’ experience? No. This one can only be left to the former USSR where a ride on an elektrichka is part of the ‘true Russian experience’, immortalised by Venedikt Yerofeyev in his Samdizat novel, ‘Moskva – Petushki.’
So what could it be? Track gauge. This is basically the space measured between the rails. Spain has a track gauge of 1,668mm while Russia has a gauge of 1,524mm. Both these gauges have made things historically problematic for the majority of European countries operating a gauge of 1,435mm. Legend has it Spain deliberately chose a wider gauge to hinder a possible French invasion while rumours are abound why the Russian Empire chose a bigger gauge. Explanations range from the mundane and lacklustre; ‘It was cheaper and easier to construct’ to ‘hindering the progress of invaders’ to the more comical such as ‘Tsar Nicolas I misunderstanding how the gauge was calculated.’ Upon being informed of his mistake, he replied, words along the lines of, “Let our track be bigger than theirs” [referring to the rest of Europe].
So, travel was basically inconvenient for many years and involved changing trains at a border station. After WWII, Soviet Railways came up with the ingenious idea of lifting carriages up from their wheels and changing them, hence the long waiting times in Brest and Chop entering and leaving the former USSR on the way to Europe. In Spain, during the 1960s, the Talgo 3 was introduced, enabling through trains from Madrid-Paris and Barcelona-Geneva with the train changing its wheels while running at slow speed.
On Saturday 17th December 2016, the first ‘Strizh’ or Talgo departed from Moskva Kurskaya for Berlin [20 h 14 minutes as opposed to a full 24 hours on the weekly Moscow-Paris]. I was fortunate enough to travel back on this from Berlin-Moscow, that winter, hence the winter photographs. Many of you, if you haven’t given up reading after this point will probably be thinking, why?
The answer: Travelling by train through Europe is travelling through history. A couple of days before, I had travelled up from Zug, Switzerland by way of Zuerich, Basel and Frankfurt watching the Alps turn into plains and hills before the marshalling yards and industrial skyline of Basel which gave way to hills and vineyards in southern Germany, passing through Germany’s environmental capital (and also my ERASMUS university), Freiburg-im-Breisgau on the edge of the Black Forest. This area is important in European history with Strasburg, Frankfurt, Luxemburg and Brussels all within four hours of each other. However, speeding through small towns in the Black Forest or grabbing a Currywurst between trains in Frankfurt-am-Main or ‘Mainhatten’ as it’s locally referred to is a million miles away from the world of anonymous bureaucrats thinking up the minimum length of a banana or scheming how to punish the British for a rather controversial event last summer…
Night-time beckoned as my ICE rushed through the central German plains reaching such places as Wolfsburg (home of Volkswagen), Berlin Spandau (the reluctant home of Rudolf Hess until 1987), Berlin Zoologischer Garten (the centrepiece of the harrowing novel and film, ‘ Christiane F – We are the children from Bahnhof Zoo’).
Two days later, my big adventure started. Even a simple S-Bahn ride from Berlin Hauptbahnhof – Berlin Ostbahnhof is history in itself – stopping at Friedrichstrasse. Not only the checkpoint between the two Germanies where dissidents from the former GDR were thrown into the West but from where several ‘Kindertransport’, full of Jewish refugee-children bound for the UK via the Hook van Holland and Harwich departed. Swiftly, after this, the Alexanderplatz came into view, home of Europe’s second-biggest TV tower and the host of the 500,000-1,000,000 person demonstrations in 1989 against Honecker’s regime.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Euronightline train number 441 to Moskva Kurskaya is now ready for boarding from platform eight.’’ The announcement, with a trace of that Berlin accent combined with the waiter scowling at me for nursing the dregs of my second Berlinerweisse (A beer with fruit syrup, which only seems sinfully acceptable in Berlin and nowhere else in Germany), brought me back to reality. Listening to the tone of the station announcer, I understood why German is often thought of as a militaristic language – it certainly makes people obey the orders they’re instructed to follow and I swiftly left the snack bar for my adventure ahead.
First impressions? A long, blue and white snake with a red stripe hauled by a hideous pink Polish locomotive which makes a noise resembling a Mozart piece of music when starting up (It was built in Austria after all). I had to reassure myself this wasn’t a psychedelic experience when I saw an advert plastered on the side for some Huawei smartphone.
The train offers 4 types of classes: a seating place which has reclining chairs and includes cold snacks in the price, a bed in a typical ‘Kupe’, 1st class which is a ‘Kupe’ for two people and then the SV (Luxury). My first impressions were quite positive. RZD have clearly made an effort to show their trains offer a service in par with or better than overnight trains in other European countries. However, the small size of the carriages meant space could be an issue – this presents a problem as it has been duly noted that during holiday periods, even during the present crisis when Russians will leave with one suitcase and come back with two or three more… the culinary delights of palm oil – free cheese, forbidden meats and cheap clothes provide a sinful temptation to Russian consumers…
The next but brief stop was Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, a former trading post standing in the heart of former Prussia between Stettin and Breslau back in the days of the Hanseatic League. Now a non-descript town with Słubice (Vordammstadt) on the other side, most of this town was either abandoned or raised to the ground during the last days of WW II. Indeed, for the Soviet Army, the Oder River represented the last major hurdle before Berlin. With Berlin in ruins and facing little resistance, Berlin was in sight.
Travelling between Frankfurt Oder and Warsaw is rather uneventful – dull and flat, like the majority of Polish landscape, bar Mazuria (The Polish Lake District) and the Tatra Mountains. Grim during winter but in spring and summer, is quite spectacular when travelling around sunset – wonderful shots of flat, open landscape. My thoughts about this were literally interrupted by a stop at Rzepin (Reppin) Impressive that during a snowstorm, we were still running and running to time at that! Unlike the UK where the points freeze at -1, resulting in the network grinding to a halt and watching news reports full of people being delayed getting home from Birmingham New Street, Glasgow Central or London Bridge that evening. Well, if the accuracy of local news channels such as London Tonight or Meridian are to be believed…
A brief halt in Poznań interrupted my reading of Lech Wałęsa. One of Poland’s oldest towns, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries being one of the main centres of the Polish state before being incorporated into Prussia after the partition of Poland. The significance of this city is in its name – ‘Stołeczne Miasto Poznań (‘The Capital City of Poznań’) in tribute to its defining role in Polish history. What followed was an extravagant amount of construction of castles and grand estates in a province named ‘Wielkopolski’, meaning ‘Greater Poland.’ Poznań was one of the main centres of resistance to Communism during the 1956 demonstrations when workers at a locomotive plant demonstrated against the general state of the country: increased taxation, poor working conditions and increasing party control in everyday-life. Actually, the very things that news services behind the Iron Curtain such as East Germany’s ‘Schwarze Kanal’ or Black Channel frequently indulged in by twisting news events of NATO countries, usually focussing on the Federal Republic. Oh, the irony of living in one of the ‘Workers’ Paradises’ and not in the merciless, inhumane, capitalist West…
Normally, the interruption of sleep presents annoyance to the habitual traveller. Not for me. After speeding through Poland, I was interrupted by lights and sudden, jerky movements as our train twisted, carefully negotiating a complex set of point work on the approach to Warsaw’s western station. A maze of twisting and curvy metal with waves of illuminating lights in the distance highlights the wonders of rail travel. Indeed, the joining and separating of points symbolises passengers’ lives and their goals – people making choices leading off into different directions and this, combined with distant lights adds, simultaneously mystery and hope as we head into the unknown.
Warsaw – one of the many ‘phoenix’ cities of Europe. Devastated, plundered, by both sides during the war, most of its Jewish population meeting their end in Auschwitz, Treblinka or Sobibor, as did those who fought in the failed, yet courageous uprising against the Nazis during the lays of the war. This city is now a thriving metropolis on par with any capital city in ‘Old Europe’ with legendary nightlife, and a gourmet restaurant scene.
Speeding further east, we were awoken by announcement telling us to have our passports ready. Terespol: the beginning or end of present-day Europe depending on the direction you’re heading. Cursory passport checks, a crawl over the River Bug, past a fearsome-looking army base and into a shed where we experienced the uneventful wheel change. Normally, trains spend 1.5 hours having their wheels changed – the ritual procession of shunting railway carriages into their places, ready to be hoisted up but this time, we crawled slower and slower into the shed. We stopped, hearing some humming and rattling. And that’s it. We were off. Passport checks in Brest were polite and efficient. The Treaty of Brest – Litovsk where the Central Powers agreed a peace treaty with the emerging Soviet Union in 1918. The Treaty entailed Germany controlling swathes of land in present-day Belarus, the Baltics remaining under German control and the division of Ukraine. The treaties imposed by the Allies at the end of WW I overturned some of these points. The Brest Fortress proved its use in WW II when advancing German forces met strong resistance from the Russians who already occupied Brest and could use the fortress to their advantage. Near Brest is the ‘Belevezhskaya Puscha’ – the infamous national park where some might say, President Boris Yeltsin, with Stanislav Shushkevich (newly appointed President of Belarus) and Leonid Kravchuk (Ukraine) signed away the existence of the USSR – something which could be considered a controversial in Russian history and the effects of which we’re seeing today in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.
The next stop was Minsk, as we rushed through Poland’s former eastern territories. Pre WW II, the original border was just past Minsk. This area was formerly part of the pre-war Nowogródek province – a primarily agricultural area with Baranovichi, Lida & Grodno containing sizeable Jewish communities, most of whom either perished or fled to Israel.
Minsk, like Warsaw was devastated and had to be totally rebuilt but nevertheless, possesses a unique charm. Part of the old town has been rebuilt and the city is still untouched by drunken (usually British) tourists on a Stag-night, thanks to the fact Ryanair and EasyJet don’t yet fly there. Like Moscow, Minsk is a city of contrasts with grand Stalinist architecture surrounding the centre of the city but then again, where else in the former USSR can you see a hammer & sickle between two plasma TVs blaring out western pop-music?
After Minsk, the train stops at Orsha. Like many Belarussian cities, this one was raised to the ground during the Napoleonic wars. Orsha can be described as a busy railway junction where the Moscow – Brest line meets the St. Petersburg – Kiev. The next stop is a brief pause in Smolensk, on the Dniepr river, flowing through Ukraine to the Black Sea where several light industries such as food processing and textiles are based. It was here the Soviet Army resisted the German invasion for two months. This allowed the Russians time to prepare their defences from Smolensk up to Moscow’s city limits.
Smolensk is not unknown to tragic events. In an ironic and tragic twist of fate, several prominent members of the Polish Government including the President were killed during a plane crash – they were visiting Katyn where it was revealed up to 20,000 POWs were shot by the NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB. The massacre features in Phillip Kerr’s detective novel ‘A Man Without Breath’ in which the maverick, Bernie Guenther has been assigned to the task of investigating the culprits by the German High Command.
The last stop is Vyazma, roughly halfway between Smolensk and Mozhaisk. Like Smolensk and Orsha, Vyazma is an important railway junction where the mainline meets lines from St. Petersburg to Kaluga and Bryansk and where engines are changed, due to the voltage difference between Moscow’s division of RZD and the rest of Russia and Belarus. What may seem industrial and provincial town is a thriving hub of intellectual debate due to several colleges and universities from Moscow and Smolensk hosting campuses there. While the town is nothing special, it is definitely worth a day trip out of Moscow if you want to “get away from it all.” Certainly, you’d never think this town had been viciously fought over by Napoleon and the Germans – especially when the local population was reduced from 60,000 in 1943 to a mere 716 – not much more than the size of the average village.
The last 2½ hours seem rather uneventful – running through an endless forest with no phone signal, before Moscow’s suburbs, (drab concrete blocks) come into sight. However, don’t be too deceived in thinking that that station Gagarin is yet another insignificant, provincial backwater. You’ve just sped through Yuri Gagarin’s birthplace. Formerly Gzhatsk, the town was renamed in honour of Yuri Gagarin who was born in Klushino, a local village. A short time later, the train speeds through yet another village, another reluctant host to a battle which changed the course of history once again: The Battle of Borodino
It was there that one of the deadliest battles took place with an estimated 250,000 deaths and 70,000 casualties. The Russians, with their ferocious determination had no intent of letting Moscow fall to foreign invaders and with Napoleon’s Army severely weakened, the only choice was to ‘Go West.’ Before you know it, the train speeds heartily through Kubinka, home of the Kubinka Tank museum – well worth a visit for those military enthusiasts.
Suddenly, you find yourself approaching the Moscow Commuter belt with the unsightly view of kiosks scattered around the stations and views of numerous shopping centres as we slow to a steady crawl through ‘Testovskaya’ (alight here for the ‘Moscow Citi’) business complex. Soon, the sidings of Belorusskaya come into view and our speed reduces to snail’s pace as we head along the line to Kurskaya, the last prominent site has to be a view of Moskva Leningradski and Kazanskiy, a minute before my final destination.
So, alighting onto the platforms from my home for the previous twenty hours, it still amazes me how much a simple train journey can travel through so much history. When asked, “Isn’t it quicker to fly?’’ Yes, it is. However, where’s the appreciation of changing landscapes? Where’s the emerging history viewed from the window? Or simply being hypnotised by gazing out the window watching time go by, or just unwinding with a book, listening to your favourite bands without worrying about turbulence, eating sub-standard airline food, standing in lines at security being questioned by humourless jobsworths about why you’re carrying two laptops. After arriving into Kurskii Vokzal, I took a glance at the rails heading east and south… towards the Caucasus or along the BAM, the Trans-Siberian to China and Russia’s Far East. Another journey beckons…
”For travel info, check tutu.ru and rzd.ru for info on prices and times