A S THE TRAIN moves away from the station, a younger woman, perhaps in her late twenties,
and a man around Sergei's age appear outside the door to our compartment. They are lurking
quietly—as it turns out, waiting for me and Sergei to move. They boarded at the last minute
and are just now making it to their compartment— our compartment.
Following a custom Sergei taught me, we lower-bed dwellers politely move out of the
compartment, allowing our roommates space to spread out their linens and make their up-
per beds. This requires using our lower beds as footspace while reaching above to arrange
things. The four of us finally make our beds and get situated, and all seem exhausted. We
chat enough for me to learn that the young woman is Ilona. Her long blond hair is pulled
back in a ponytail, with a Russian Orthodox cross dangling down over her brown sweat-
er. Travel fatigue is evident in her eyes. “I live in two places right now.” She is speaking
Russian, Sergei is translating, and I am keeping my questions to a minimum as we are way
past bedtime. “My boyfriend lives in Moscow. I was visiting him. Now I'm heading home
to central Russia.” Traveling so often, Ilona sees the train as a third home.
The Russian rails carry nearly a billion riders per year. Ilona is in second class on a ten-
hour trip, a ticket that likely cost her in the neighborhood of three thousand rubles (about
one hundred dollars). Had she chosen third class, she could have made the trip for perhaps
half that. Our ticket for the four-hour journey to Yaroslavl was 1,200 rubles per person (forty
dollars). Much depends on the quality of the particular train, but it's possible to get a third-
class seat from Moscow to Vladivostok—six days, six thousand miles—for as little as two
hundred dollars one way. More well-off Russians use the train to see family whenever they
wish, or to travel to somewhere like Moscow or St. Petersburg for vacation. Russians with
less money, especially in remote villages, might spend months or even years scraping to-
gether enough money for one third-class ticket to see a family member in a place that takes
a few days to reach.
Rounding out our foursome tonight is Viktor, whom I recognize as a fellow member of
the team admonished for using electronic ticketing.
Outside our window, everything is masked by darkness. But I know what's out there,
since I left Moscow for Vladivostok in daylight last time. The landscape is whizzing by.
Vast, sprawling Moscow first: endless blocks of bland Soviet-style apartment buildings, col-