Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg

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On The Railroad June 21, 2009

Filed under: Russian railroad,train travel — mdoukmas @ 5:10 pm

There’s something very romantic about traveling on the train. Perhaps it’s the explicit sense of journeying: watching landscapes creep past and change, the rhythmic clanking of the wheels, stopping periodically and seeing old ladies sell pies, beer, and fish. Food on the train always seems to taste better and tea is served in metal podstakanniki, or glass holders. These are the things I imagined before taking the trip to Saransk and my expectations were pretty much on point. The train was actually cleaner than I expected and our companion much more interesting (see story below).

My mother said that the trains were in much better condition than when she used to travel in the 80s. But the window in our compartment was not functioning well and our inability to close it was cause for calling train maintenance.

“I’ve been working on this railroad for a long time, and this kind of stuff happens all the time!” said our car attendant, Galina. The train we were on was old, and small repairs such as ours were left up to the reluctant work of the sour maintenance man who took a very long time in coming. “He does stuff but it’s almost impossible to get him to help out when you need it, he whines all the time!” Galina said.

“The trains to Moscow are better, they try to put better cars on the rails, and we get whatever is left over,” she explained, “I think that these are the same trains that Lenin took to see Krupskaya! You know, some are ok, everything works well and they have modern windows, but this one’s an old lady.”

Galina services the line from Saint Petersburg to Tolyatti, on the Volga River in the Province of Samara. “I used to go to Moscow, then to Adler (in the Sochi region), but I can’t go to Adler any more, I get headaches, it’s too hot and I don’t handle heat well. It’s hot on this line too but it’s still not the south.”

She has been working for Russian Railroads since 1988 and she talked a little about her life in this unusual profession. “You can say nothing has changed [in the past twenty years]. Things used to be simpler,” she said nostalgically, “the railroad is more or less kept up but now with the crisis they’ve stopped maintaining anything at all. Before things would be changed, repaired, and now…there’s no money, no resources…”

Galina was curious about us as well. It seemed that our compartment companion Vladimir Vasilyevich told her that my mother and I had come from America. “The grandpa in your compartment said you guys are coming from America?” she asked and became slightly flustered at my affirmation.

“I’m just asking because I’m thinking you’re probably in shock due to our transport! I told the others, I said ‘they must be shocked! Over there it’s not like it is here!’ It’s probably more civil over there in America…”

She added: “I’m ashamed! Goodness! I said we should be ashamed in front of these people! But then I think ‘Well, they’re ours, they’ll understand their own! They’ve come home after all!’ I already yelled at [the repair man]! What is this!? I was like ‘We’ve got Americans on the train!’ Don’t tell them over there in America about these trains of ours! It’s a shameful sight!”

After this lament about the state of her work place, Galina told me about her schedule and prospect on the railroad. She travels for five days and then has three days off at home in Tolyatti. She gets a 28-day vacation and a free round trip ticket on the train every year.

“But I’m sick of it!” she said, “I have 6 years until retirement, but I don’t know if I’ll work that long. Our medical commission is very hard to pass.” To continue working on the railroad, the attendants have their vision, hearing, balance, vibration and heat sensitivity tested. They also receive an electroencephalogram. “They check us like we’re going into space, and if anything little thing is off, that’s it, we lose the job!”

Those attendants who fail to pass the commission sometimes defer to the few private railroad companies which have appeared in recent years. “I work for Russian Railroads, it’s a state company, it’s a little more serious than the privately owned ones, and we get paid a little more. But even so, we’re not paid very much, especially with the crisis. We used to get a 50% bonus and now it’s down to 20%. At the beginning of 2008 we were getting 17,000-18,000 (about $600) rubles per month, now it may be down to 12,000 (about $400). And I don’t even know how much the retirement pension is.”

It was not always Galina’s dream to be a train attendant. “I’m from Siberia, from the Novosibirsk region,” she said, “then my husband got a job in Tolyatti. First I worked at AvtoVAZ, and then as a secretary, then at a milk factory, then got this job. It seemed so romantic back then! And now I’m so sick of it all!”

Despite this Galina seemed upbeat and caring for the passengers. Eventually, the grouchy, overweight repairman showed up wearing a mesh tank top and dirty pajama pants and fixed our window. We could not open it again until we reached our destination in Saransk, one of the last stops before Tolyatti. Galina hassled him the entire time he was working, but thanked him once he was done. To this he only replied “‘Thank you’? That’s not any kind of currency I’m familiar with.”