war on the rocks

Life in the Platzkart: Dispatches from the Kremlin

October 6, 2015

Editor’s note: for context on Max’s travel so far on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, see the previous two dispatches here and here.

 

Yekaterinburg is not a pretty place. I can’t really give an adequate description of the city’s homeliness, but suffice it to say that among Russia’s larger municipalities (which are not the best-looking cities out there to begin with), Yekaterinburg may have gotten the roughest deal. It was simply … dirty. However, as with many places that give off a poor first impression, I’m sure there is much to enjoy. After all, a lot of people live there.

Sadly, we didn’t get to see much of Yekaterinburg as our plane (from accursed Perm) arrived in the afternoon, and our next train was scheduled to leave in the early evening. Despite being back on track with regards to our trip, we pretty much figured that Yekaterinburg was a wash, and decided to patronize a national chain of German-style beer halls called “Maximilian’s.” Once there, we enjoyed some brats and house-made brews (unless, of course, the tanks in the brewery were fabricated, which isn’t impossible because hey, Russia). I enjoyed the unfiltered lager, accented with noble hop aroma and a slightly malty backbone, while my friends quaffed filtered lagers and dunkels. We enjoyed our beers so much that we took some to go and brought them on our train, which roared out of Europe and into Asia, towards Novosibirsk.

While on said train, we ended up all spending the evening in the rowdy Platzkart section: an open car with beds stacked in nearly every corner which is the principle way most train-borne Russians travel. The Platzkart is definitely the most fun way to wend your way through Russia with regards to tippling. The only downside is the lack of AC, which, combined with copious amounts of vodka and dried fish can lead to quite the olfactory experience. We spent the time in our wagon making good use of the plastic-bottle beer that we brought with us from Maximilian’s. Now, it must be noted that drinking on Russian trains is “strictly prohibited,” which means pay off the conductor or allow them to join in on the fun (for the most part). Many winks and nods were exchanged between those of us who were drinking beer and vodka out of orange plastic cups and the very nice lady who oversaw the train car.

It was in Platzkart that we got our first authentic Russian experience, when a man from another bunk sat down with us and began chatting in Russian, occasionally throwing in very random broken English. I believe his name was Vanya, and he took it upon himself to take care of us that evening. Initially, he pulled an entire dried fish out of God knows where and offered it to us. I did not partake, as my New England blood boils when in contact with fish in a locale thousands of miles away from any ocean or sea, and thus, Vanya and others immediately scolded me. I was reprimanded because in Russia, people very rarely imbibe without some form of a snack, in this case very pungent, old fish. Those who did accept Vanya’s offering to chase their beer with fish ended up chewing the sinewy fish for what I’d guess was the better part of a half hour. I noticed that we were doing Platzkart “light,” as those around us dug for the next bottles of vodka and tried to bribe the lady in charge of the train car to go for a smoke (also prohibited). By the time she told us it was time to wrap it up, we were all warm and fuzzy from our cultural experience and ambled back to our beds, from which we knew that we must all-too-soon rise and tumble into Novosibirsk.

When we arrived in Novosibirsk, I honestly felt like I had time-traveled to a nineties-era shopping mall in the United States. Pink hair dye, pipe jeans, boots that go up to the knee, men in makeup — it had all the makings of an early Three Doors Down concert. Everyone seemed to whiz by on a skateboard, scooter, or BMX bike, and I got the feeling that the residents considered themselves “too cool for school.” Despite the very non-Russian atmosphere there were still ghosts of Soviet history lurking in every corner, and bearing that fact in mind, we sought out a few staples: monuments, memorials, and drinks. First, we visited the largest theater in Russia. The theater’s size caused quite the scandal when it was built. Bolshoi in Russian means “big,” and it was considered rather offensive that the theater in Novosibirsk was more “bolshoi” than the eponymous Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. We then hustled to the World War II memorial, which was quite stunning, like most memorials to the Great Patriotic War are.

By the end of our memorial tour we were exhausted, slightly depressed and eaten alive by the worst mosquitos I have ever experienced. We hurried into a local chain called Shashlikoff, where we enjoyed some kabobs, hookah, and a few too many house beers (the winner was, as usual, a filtered lager with a light hop aroma). After our crushable liters of brew, we ambled back to our hotel through the center of what, upon reflection, is a pretty great town.

Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk were especially interesting portions of our trip, because they shed light on the fact that Siberia is not the barren wasteland many of us perceive it to be. Hubs like these two cities are heavily sprinkled throughout Siberia, and because of their isolation from the rest of the world, time seems to have passed a bit more slowly in these parts. Furthermore, we began to realize that the stereotypes that exist about Russians can actually prove true — e.g. they really enjoy a good beverage almost anywhere, despite many of my Muscovite friends who insist that Russians don’t drink as much as the rest of the world thinks. I, for one, am perfectly fine with a nation that knows how to form a good sit-and-drink. During our sessions, we were ogled in the bars and in the trains’ café cars, but not in a negative way. Locals in Siberia were more intrigued by why we were there than wary of us — most were eager to talk, as we were the first Americans they’d met. People were genuinely excited that we wanted to see their cities and drink with them.

It seems to me that the Motherland’s current political isolation leaves actual Russians feeling socially isolated, because they believe that everybody else considers them the bad guys (and sadly, many do). Novosibirsk especially helped me remember that there is a large discrepancy between how the Russian people behave with foreigners and how the Russian government interacts with its foreign counterparts. Russia is much more complicated than we think it is. It’s not all about vodka (though there is a lot of that), bears, oil, and political corruption — I think it’s much more simple. To me, Russia is all about good people who have ended up in a difficult situation; who continue to struggle in the search for a modern identity. Giving the “Russkies” a chance to show me a good time has never ended up being a mistake, and while there are many different Russians in Russia, one thing is constant: They know how to party with relatively little, and that’s exactly what we experienced on our Trans-Siberian sojourn.

From Russia, Za Strovya.

 

Max Shelton is an American currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (while not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He finished his MA dissertation at Middlebury College in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.