orful mega-malls with IKEA furniture stores, flower shops, and produktys , or minimarts.
Then the city will give way to snowy forests and the occasional crumbling village, with
smoke rising from a few chimneys. By far, Russia takes up more of the earth than any other
country. I knew this. But the earlier Trans-Siberian trip I did back in 2011 made me feel
it. Four, five, six hours would pass, and all we would see outside was empty, white wil-
derness. Then a forest. Then a small city, with some decaying buildings—often an empty
Soviet factory. Then hours more of nothing. The map would show that these hours barely
made a dent in the trip across the country.
Last time I did this leg from Moscow to Yaroslavl, I wandered into the adjacent com-
partment and sat down for a while with a man named Sergei Yovlev, an employee of Rus-
sian Railways. He's in his fifties and often travels by train back and forth between Moscow
and his hometown of Yaroslavl. Sergei is a midlevel bureaucrat, and I got the feeling his
nicely pressed pinstriped blue suit, which he wears every day, is a symbol of pride, the uni-
form that reminds his family that he's working hard on these trips that take him away for
days at a time.
I was sitting beside Sergei Yovlev, and Sergei my translator was facing us. (This seems
an appropriate moment to point out that Russia's limited supply of first names makes
storytelling a special challenge.) Our conversation turned to a tragedy in Yovlev's homet-
own, Yaroslavl, an awful story that made the news worldwide. The industrial city, in 2011,
lost its entire professional hockey team in a fiery plane crash. It was an accident eerily
reminiscent of the tragedy in 1970 in which Marshall University in West Virginia lost its
football team when the team plane went down. I remember the scenes of carnage described
in the news stories from Yaroslavl—the plane took off and quickly crashed to the ground
near the Volga River in “flames as high as a nine-story building,” one police officer told
the BBC. A resident said she “saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats
with seatbelts on.”
Yovlev was a fan— is a fan—of the team. He sat in his train compartment, looking at
me, speaking in a hushed tone.
One by one, he named the dead players. To honor them. And to show me how deep his
love for the team ran.
Painful as the memories remain, Yovlev has no doubt that the city's hockey tradition
will come back because, he said, surviving tragedy is “the way the soul of a Russian person
is built.” His deep stare as he said those words was briefly hypnotizing and sent a powerful
message: I was not supposed to feel sad for him. In a country where today there is little to