The Belly Button Window Details

About Belly Button Window

The Semi-Regular Newsletter

Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, April 29, 1998

Ever Take an Elektrichka?

There is a reason they call it 'hard class!'

I was all prepared to write about the singular experience of riding a Russian elektrichka when I read this article in the Moscow Times. Bill doesn't exactly write in my style, I would have spoken more about the people on the train, and how hard those wooden seats are, but he does give it a good go. So please, read on:

Wednesday, April 29, 1998, The Moscow Times

As Moscow's Elektrichka Goes, So Goes Russia

ByWilliam Brumfield

Ahh, the elektrichka! What true denizen of Moscow has not savored its many and peculiar pleasures? Whatever one may think of it, the elektrichka is essential to Russian life as any service, institution, or commodity available today. Indeed, the resilience and shortcomings of this system serve remarkably well as a reflection of the general health of post-Soviet Russia.

Fun In The SnowOfficially known as the elektropoyezd, the Moscow suburban electric train system each day carries over 3 million passengers, not only to the farthest regions of the city's expanding metropolitan sprawl, but also to ancient cities now within its immediate orbit: Tula, Tver, Ryazan, Kolomna, Vladimir and others.

An elektrichka at a station outside of Moscow in winter.

There has even been a novel written within - and in some ways about - the elektrichka experience: Venedikt Yerofeyev's brilliant, hilarious, maddening samizdat masterpiece "Moskva-Petushki," translated variously in English as Moscow to the End of the Line, Moscow Circles and Moscow Stations. Written in 1970 and first published abroad (in Paris) in 1981, the book saw its first publication in Russia only in 1989-a year before Yerofeyev's death - in a journal devoted to promoting the virtues of sobriety

To revive a famous phrase, it is not by accident that the book's hallucinatory force comes from a combination of alcohol and an elektrichka journey from Moscow to the utterly prosaic town of Petushki, 125 kilometers to the east on the Vladimir line. Yerofeyev, a Moscow University dropout, knew both the howling boredom of the commuting train and the ability of rotgut to transcend that pervasive, ineffable sadness for which the elektrichka served as both setting and symbol.

So successful is Yerofeyev's ability to twist the prosaic deceptions of everyday life into something fantastic and abnormal that I find myself slightly shocked every time I see the Petushki station name. This place really exists! Just as in my own New Orleans, there really is a street named Desire. But the streetcar has long since been replaced by an exhaust-spewing bus.

I myself had used the suburban train on several occasions during almost three decades of visiting Moscow, and hid taken this Spartan form of transportation to such distant locations as Ryazan and Kaluga - each some four hours en route, with hard wooden seats and no "conveniences." Yet the view of the Russian countryside and its still surviving churches, or the monasteries of Kolomna and other towns, made the trip's lack of comfort seem inconsequential.

But only this winter did I experience the special qualities of a daily commute. The distance was not great - front an apartment in Khimki to Leningrad Station - and yet the landscape went through remarkable variations as the train passed through station platforms that are forever engraved in my memory: the faceless suburban grime of Khimki's apartments, the bucolic vistas of Levoberezhnaya (on the left bank of the Moscow River), the former estate of Khovrino, the industrial wasteland of Mosselmash, and in rapid succession the housing blocks and shopping marts of Petrovskoye-Razumovskoye, Ostankino and Rizhskaya.

What surprised me on these daily journeys is the proliferation of vendors, particularly during peak hours on my line. The elektrichka has now become a veritable carnival of hawkers.

The most impressive of all was the mellifluous bearded basso purveying a handsomely bound pharmaceutical encyclopedia of prescription drugs. "Our scientists spend sleepless nights so that you, dear friends, can have the latest in medical knowledge." One nervous, sickly pensioner complained that drugs did no good and doctors were scoundrels. Unfazed, the basso gave advice encouragement, and warned: "This book could be your last chance." Few overworked and underpaid Moscow doctors could have done more.

Their there are the collectors of aims, such as the woman with a high-pitched, plaintive voice, who entered the car and began: "If there are any good Orthodox Russians here, listen to my words." At this, the face of the passenger opposite me turned into a sneer that lasted until the end of the trip. Seething irritation often seems to lurk beneath the surface and yet restraint prevails, as it must in a society where so many people are crowded together as a way of life.

And there are the younger petitioners, such as the amputee in a camouflage outfit. A veteran of one of Russia's southern wars? That was the implication, and many passengers responded generously Finally, there are the outright beggars, those who have hit bottom and don't care what anyone thinks about it. While standing at the smoke-filled entrance to the car, I overheard two beggars come to a gentlemanly agreement as to who should go first.

These represent only a small sample of the types that course through crowded, steamy elektrichka cars every working day. Whether entertaining or intensely annoying, the pitch of the hawkers and the response of the public represent a microcosm of life as it is lived for most Russians today.

hi!However colorful this spectacle on a suburban train, it takes place in a setting of almost unrelieved squalor. Why are the cars so filthy and damaged'?

Yes, they get a lot of use, but so does the Moscow Metro. The contrast is startling, the cleanliness, and efficiency of the subway as opposed to the filth of most elektrichka cars. To some degree this is due to less supervision over a much longer track system. Even tickets are rarely checked.

But perhaps the major role is played by the climate in Russia, where cold weather extends for six months. The station platforms are largely unsheltered; snow and ice accumulate; and in order to protect from the cold, the entrances to the cars must be isolated from the passenger section. This in turn creates at each and every end of the car those dim, crowded, unheated choke points that not only serve as temporary refuge for compulsive smokers, but also become moving platforms of almost unbelievable filth.

Yet millions of passengers use the elektrichka daily because it is the only form of transportation that works for them. Any one who has actually lived in any major Russian city is well aware of the contrast between the trash of many public spaces (including apartment vestibules) and the private spaces that people create. These spaces are characterized by another of those Russian words that elude precise translation, "uyut," which implies a sense of tidiness and comfort. Everything else must be tolerated, even ignored, in order to reach that haven at the end of the line.

To say that the elektrichka system needs a major overhaul is both obvious and pointless under current circumstances. The simple fact is that the country cannot exist without this network. Already, the proliferation of cars is choking cities such as Moscow. Without the presence of suburban rail systems for virtually every city in Russia, normal life would come to a halt. However ramshackle and dirty, these trains serve as the indispensable sinews that link the cities with their outlying areas. As the elektrichka goes, so goes Russia.

William Brumfield, professor of Russian at Tulane University, is the author and photographer of several books on Russian architecture. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.

Enter your email for Belly Button Window updates: