I held the dirty, used mug with the faint white outline of lip skin in one hand while the other clutched an apricot jam-filled pie and a chicken leg as Alex, my new Trans-Siberian bunkmate, poured me just a little bit of vodka. My partner Andy was in the bathroom, and the group of three Russian men sitting across from me in our tiny train compartment decided it would be fun to get the American girl liquored up in his absence. Though my hands were quite full already and I could not reach the table or find a plate as loaded down as I was, Sergei held out a fork piercing a single grey pickled mushroom which he beckoned for me to take.
As I do not have three hands, I could not accept the mushroom, which was a notion that stunned my new Russian acquaintance. So Sergei stood hovering over the table, barely crossing the invisible line that divides the compartment between “ours” and “yours” in anticipation of the group shot. We drank up our vodka all in one gulp and Sergei fork-fed me the pickled fungus, taking care to sit down right before Andy returned, like a child evading the detection of mischief. This foreboding bit of generosity was not what I expected, given the rumors, hearsay, and mud-slinging I’d heard from fellow foreign travelers met along the way.
Second-class train travel is an odd petri dish in which awkward, cross-cultural social interactions flourish. The compartments are narrow cabins with two berths on each side, one high and one low, separated by a table from the other two. Before bedtime, most everyone sits on the lower berth, staring across the table at the other occupants, or else feverishly avoiding eye contact in an awesome display of social bumbling. The relative anonymity of bus or train travel, with those glorious, front-facing rows that enable neighbors to ignore each other with fortitude does not happen in shared compartment trains. This set-up fosters engagement and conversation with fellow passengers just as often as it produces silent hours filled with only documentary-style observations of others’ habits. After weeks of travel in this style, I can whole-heartedly say that there are only a few common behavioral traits or elements among male train travelers from and inside of Russia, and most of them are in no way cold, mean, or American-hating.Most of these assessments, I’m starting to believe, were formed from literal interpretations of James Bond villains combined with an over-analysis of Vladimir Putin’s botox-paralyzed face during the Pussy Riot media circus. Or perhaps my out-of-season, backwards jaunt across Siberia put me in contact with a different sample of people. Within this small sample, I’ve found that you really cannot generalize many things about Russians at all–there are lots of them–aside from some very specific behaviors of Russian men traveling by train.
The first thing you should know about the way men in Russia ride trains is that they always have a knife. Always. Indeed, this is the one behavioral element I will endorse as fact. 95% of the time, these knives are used to cut up salami as part of a self-catered train picnic offered with gusto to compartment mates in most circumstances. Aside from having a knife, the next thing I’d be willing to wager on is that most Russian men on trains heading west do not have a working knowledge of the English language. This means the majority of conversations that happen at all resemble a game of charades wherein everybody loses. Nearly everyone changes into track pants and t-shirt after the train starts moving, with slip-on sandals pulled out of weekender bags stashed under the lower berth. Then, most passengers will have a cup of black tea with several sugar cubes pulled from a small cardboard box. This rounds out the behavioral commonalities of all of the Russians I’ve ever met. From there, the diverse and mostly warm personalties take over.
My first Russian bunkmate was clearly a soldier, given the efficient way he made his bed and arranged his belongings under weight of his bulky muscles. Within 90 seconds of the train attendant’s morning foot tap, he popped awake and returned everything to its proper day-time state. He was not very good at charades, and he did not want one thing to do with our wine, though he offered me items from his sack of morning pastries. The next train brought Igor into our compartment. Despite speaking very little English, I know that Igor is a pharmacist visiting his two daughters while they’re studying economics in Tomsk. He knows every Russian hockey player playing for US teams and tends to a pet bunny at his country home near Lake Baikal where his wife collects berries in the summer. Between jaunts to drink vodka with his friend down the carriage, Igor was eager to serve bread, sausage, and delicious chocolates filled with pine nuts and nougat to Andy, who he perceived as slightly malnourished. Alec was the only bunkmate who packed pizza instead of salami, and had no interest in turning the compartment’s shared table into a buffet (but, he still had a knife). Adrian, who we only met shortly, ran after us when we disembarked the train to yell, “Texas forever!” into the crowds huddling in the cold morning air at the station.
Of course, Alex and his friend Sergei were the most colorful, which was slightly annoying to our other bunkmate Eli who they placated with liquor and bites of chicken. The old army buddies had taken up truck driving in the tundra in their later careers, sometimes hopping Trans-Siberian trains to get from one gig to another. Apparently, Russia’s own ice road truckers are accomplished train travelers, who have the meal time picnic down to a science. From some cavernous space under his seat Alex pulled various breads and pastries, roasted chickens, jars of homemade pickled vegetables, squeeze packs of mayonnaise, tomatoes, salami, cheese, pine nuts still in the shell, and a large bottle of vodka. My own provisions of cheese, chocolate, and bread looked scant in comparison. Between rounds of baby shots I was praised for eating the handfuls of food placed in my lap (it makes your boobs bigger, apparently) and praised for the times I turned it down (it makes you fat, apparently).
As the drinking continued, the eating and socializing got messier. Alex pulled out a second 0.5 liter squeeze bag of mayonnaise and poured it into his pickled mushroom jar to eat with a spoon as he revealed his past working on submarines for the Soviet army while he spied on Cuba, Iran, and…the United States. Sergei demanded that we play American music and that we dance. I agreed, reluctantly, and was ignorant as to the look-I’m-not-touching-her-butt motions he made Andy as he tried to twirl me around in the cramped space. The more the men drank, the more they forgot we do not speak Russian and had not learned it in the 5 or so hours since the train left the station. We watched videos that they’d filmed of wildlife in the tundra and recorded some new ones for their children while pretending to listen to long-winded anecdotes, stories, and lectures delivered to us all in Russian.
I was relieved when the vodka ran out and I could climb to my top berth without remand, to slip away to peaceful sleep in the quiet night while train cross swampy marsh on sinking bridges. Then, I remembered: The train cars are never quiet at night. The last quality that unites all Russian men traveling west by train is a propensity to snore loudly and vigorously. Big, fat, ear plug-shredding snores are the last universal truth of the Trans-Siberian railroad, the truth to rule them all. Luckily, a little bit of vodka helps drown them out.