Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
tury, aside from the educated city dwellers, Russia had “millions and millions strong” liv-
ing in the provinces—“poor, uneducated, slowly drinking themselves to death and mentally
still residing in the Middle Ages.” That's a harsh and unfair characterization today. And
it's worth mentioning that Moscow may be a wealthier and more educated place—but we
found far more warmth, generosity, and personality everywhere else in the country. Still,
the division that has always been there, the feeling of two countries—rich and urban versus
rural and poor—still exists.
H AVING SET OFF the alarm at the security checkpoint—and avoided any further scru-
tiny—Sergei and I are boarding an overnight train to Nizhny Novgorod, where we will
spend two nights with Sergei's family, at Aunt Nina's place. I am excited to meet more of
his family, to get a better sense of his roots. Thus far I just know Sergei's wife and son
in Moscow and his dad in Ukraine. Tania, his wife, is a tough woman who works, often
overnight shifts, at a sock factory. She is, as Sergei likes to say, his true “boss”—a view
on marriage he and I share. Sergei's son, Anton, is an eager young man, twenty-four years
old, who attended medical school in Moscow. He often slept on the couch in NPR's office
to make his early classes or overnight shifts at the hospital in Moscow, avoiding his two-
hour commute from the city out to his parents' house in the suburbs. Anton has arrived at
a risky time in his life. He is in between medical school and residency, a moment when the
Russian government could intervene and demand he perform his mandatory year of milit-
ary service, a requirement for all young men. This could mean awful things—perhaps an
assignment to the volatile North Caucasus, where Russian militiamen are often targeted by
Islamist radicals. Whenever Sergei speaks of Anton, he always tries to stay optimistic, hop-
ing that a residency program accepts him and the authorities delay his service to allow him
to complete his medical training.
Sergei and I are climbing aboard our next train, and I am bracing myself for my first
experience with third class. To control cost, Sergei and I decided to go under this option for
most of the remainder of the trip.
Third-class cars are arranged more like open dormitory rooms. There is a narrow aisle
that passes through areas that each sleep six people. In each area, to the right, there is a
table with two seats that becomes a bed, or berth. There is a second berth above. To the left
there is a table with two benches, perpendicular to the window. The two benches double as
berths, and there is a berth above each of them. If Russians can seem selfish, heartless, and
disinterested in public, they are often warm and considerate in intimate quarters like this.
The unspoken ground rules are not unlike those in second class: If you have one of
the upper berths by the window, it's entirely okay to spend time sitting on one of the
lower berths—call it a communal couch. If someone in a lower berth is sleeping and you
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