Yekaterinburg is about 900 miles east of Moscow. I took the overnight train from Kazan to Yekaterinburg in 2nd class. Like all trains up to this point in Russia, it was mostly full so I was sharing a compartment with 3 others. When I got on at Kazan, the three others had already been on the train for most of the day as the train originated somewhere else.
Sasha was an older man who immediately started talking to me in Russian. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak much English and was slightly tipsy. The others in the compartment were Demyan and Maxim. Demyan was probably in his mid to late 30’s and spoke the most English but was rather shy about it. Maxim was the spitting image of Harry Dean Stanton wearing giant 80’s-style gold rimmed glasses. All three spoke at least a little English; and Maxim, curiously, could write English very well. No one knew each other before they got on the train but they were all chatting away like old friends by the time I got on in Kazan.
Technically, you are only allowed to drink in the dining car and bringing alcohol on board is forbidden. Sasha, however had brought on a 5 liter plastic bottle of sweet wine that he immediately insisted that I try with him. Occasionally the train attendant (provodnista in Russian) would poke her head into our compartment, point to Sasha’s wine and say something in Russian. Sasha would then say something back and she would scurry off. Sasha was probably in his 60’s and a navy veteran so I think the provodnista gave him a little leeway.
The wine was sickeningly sweet but I didn’t want to be rude so I slowly sipped on my wine while Sasha asked me about various rock bands that I liked. He was more of a classic rock guy and went on and on about how much he loved Credence, Deep Purple, the Beatles, etc. At one point he pulled out a phone that looked like a 10 year old Nokia and started playing some of his favorite songs.
As the evening wore on, Demyan’s shyness started to fade and he began asking about where I was from, if I had children, what I did for a living, etc. etc. He showed me pictures of his children, wife, and house on his phone and I did the same. Since he spoke the most English, he served as de facto translator. Occasionally his English would fail him and then Maxim would write something down in English for me. Maxim barely spoke a word of English but wrote very well. I’m not sure if he was shy about speaking or if he only ever learned writing.
Sasha then pulled out a picture album and showed all of us pictures of his family and his modest but lovely dacha (cabin) which he was very proud of. He also had a small bag of pins that he had collected or earned while he was in the navy in the early 1970s.
Around 8 pm, all three began pulling out food to eat for dinner and insisted that I share with them. I had some bread, salami and cheese that I offered but they vehemently refused to take any of my food. Even though we were all four strangers to each other, I felt, as the non-Russian, like a guest and was treated with warm hospitality by all three.
No one in the compartment was drunk despite the wine so by 11 pm everyone was drifting off to sleep. Except for Maxim who I think sat in his bunk all night doing crosswords or leaving to smoke between the train cars.