Trans-Siberian Railway shows Russia’s
many different faces
Many foreigners mainly think of Moscow when they think of Russia.
Expatriates living on Sakhalin know that there are little comparisons between
life in Sakhalin and life in Moscow, but how about the thousands of kilometres
of land in between? The exquisite way to get a real idea of the size and
diversity of Russia is to travel by Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to
Moscow through eight time zones over a vast 9,289 kilometres of taiga, steppe
and desert. The editorial staff of the Sakhalin Independent started the journey
on 2 June 2003 in Khabarovsk, made stopovers in Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk,
Yekaterinburg, Perm and Nizhny Novgorod and arrived in Moscow on June 13. The
following is an account of that journey.
June 2: Departure from Khabarovsk at 07.20hrs with the ‘Rossia’,
supposedly the best train in the country. As we had already been in Vladivostok,
we had decided to cheat a little bit and skip the first section of 758
kilometres from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk. We were now facing a 50-hour journey
to our first stopover Ulan Ude in the recently refurbished ‘Rossia’ train. The
modern green interior has only been in use for three months; it even smells new.
To have more privacy, we booked a first-class compartment with two berths; the
standard second-class accommodation has four berths.
We ask our ‘provodnitsa’ (female conductor) if there is a possibility to have
a shower on the train. “Not officially,” she smiles, indicating we can have a
shower if we pay her a fee. We were told it is worthwhile trying to get on well
with the provodnitsa; she carries the master key of all compartments and may
allow the use of her private toilet, which is usually much cleaner than the
shared toilet. The name-tag of our provodnitsa discloses that the stocky figure
with fluffy peroxide blond hair and one golden eye-tooth is called Marina.
We make ourselves comfortable. For me, that is putting away the luggage and
taking the things out I want to use during the trip; for many Russians, it means
changing into loose-fitting clothes, storing food on the table that could feed
an orphanage and making the bed – even though it’s early morning.
A few hours and 173 kilometres later we stop in Birobizhan, the capital of
the Jewish Autonomous Region. It’s a bit too risky to get off the train, as it
is a stop of only a few minutes and the train doesn’t wait for people who forgot
to be back in time.
By now, some people have gone to sleep, some have escaped to the restaurant
and are already half way to drunkenness, some get acquainted with the other
people in the compartment and others read or keep themselves otherwise busy. I
force myself to study a few Russian lessons; I don’t have the excuse that I’m
At approximately 17.00hrs and another 658 kilometres later we reach
Belogorsk. We have to set our clock back one hour, as the time difference with
Moscow is 6.00hrs here. The train stops for 30 minutes, which gives plenty of
time to buy some dinner from the dozens of traders at the platform; mainly
babushkas selling pelmeni (dumplings with meat filling), pirozhki (bread rolls
or fried dough with filling), boiled potatoes, fried chicken, dairy products,
smoked fish, noodles and instant coffee (add hot water available in the
June 3: Another provodnitsa is on duty this morning - she’s called
Tatyana, looks a bit younger than Marina and has short, brown hair. Marina is
still walking around in her nightie and tells Tatyana how to do the cleaning,
which she seems to think is not part of her job responsibilities. We don’t care
that Marina is a slave driver, as we managed to get on such good terms with
Marina that she allowed us to use her private toilet. She even made an
improvised shower of a hose connected to the water tap and asked as little as 25
roubles for its use.
We get a little bored with our window view of a wall of trees that continues
for hours and hours and go to the restaurant around lunchtime to look for some
entertainment. Two guys dressed in little more than underwear invite themselves
to our table. They are on beer and vodka and order two bottles of wine when we
agree to have a glass of wine with them.
Vladimir from Blagoveshchenk, near the Chinese border, says he and his
tattooed business partner Mikhail had wanted to take a plane from Belogorsk to
Chita, a distance of 1670 kilometres, but as there were no flights due to a haze
caused by forest fires, he bought tickets for the train, which they missed.
Eventually they got a taxi and caught the train at the next stop.
During the 90 minutes that they sit at our table, we toast at least 20 times
and hear the latest Russian jokes, in which know-it-all ‘Vovochka’ often plays a
leading part. “A teacher asks a girl in Russian if she speaks English. ‘What?’,
she answers in English. ‘Good’, the teacher says in Russian. The teacher then
asks a boy if he speaks English. ‘What?,’ he replies. ‘Sufficient score,’ the
teacher says. Finally the teacher asks Vovochka if he speaks English. ‘Yes,’
Vovochka says in English, to which the teacher replies ‘What?’.”
A little tipsy we return to our compartment and watch a dubbed video at
15.00hrs for a fee of 50 roubles. Only one film can be shown at the time and it
has to be reserved in advance. Other compartments can decide to watch someone
else’s choice of video for the same fee. The live video – the view from the
window - still features trees at this moment; although they are hard to see
because of the haze, which catches our throats.
We find ourselves in a cold sweat when the ventilation breaks down at around
18.00hrs. Our provodnitsa says the problem can only be solved in Moscow. So much
for Russia’s best train… The provodnitsa opens the windows, but at 22.30hrs it
is still light outside and hot inside. Only at 23.30hrs it cools down a little
bit. At that time we stop in Chita and wave goodbye to our conversation partners
from the restaurant. They have changed from their underwear to fancy Italian
suits and are a lot less loud-mouthed than when we met them in the dining car.
We buy some ‘Strepsils’ at Chita station to get rid of our sore throats – not
that it helps.
June 4: At around 8.00hrs we arrive at Ulan Ude, the capital of the
Asiatic influenced Buryatia Republic bordering Mongolia. Yippee, we can finally
get off the train after 50 hours! Our aim is to visit the Buddhist temple in
Ivolginsk Datsan, 30 kilometres west of Ulan Ude, which held out as the centre
of Buddhism in Soviet times. A taxi driver offers to take us there and back for
800 roubles. He says the people in Ulan Ude are very tolerant. “With only one
million inhabitants, of which a quarter are Buryat, it is a very small republic.
We help each other. Families support their children by buying them apartments
for example,” he says.
The monastery is lying in the middle of nowhere and it is still very quiet
when we arrive around 9.00hrs. We are just in time for the morning ceremony in
the colourful wooden main temple. Some ten lamas (priests) are seated in the
centre of the floor on pillows and meditate. Buryats come in, write their
request for advice on a piece of paper and pay a fee. Tourists are asked to
donate some money for the new temple that is currently being constructed behind
the existing temple.
We walk around in the fenced area of the monastery that covers some 500
square metres. The lamas live in ordinary wooden Russian houses; only the house
of the head lama, who is also head of all Buddhists in Russia, has two stone
lions next to the entrance. The sky is clear blue and the temperature is slowly
going up to 25 degrees centigrade. We are struck by the peacefulness of the
place and don’t want to leave, but we have to, as we have been testing our
driver’s patience already by staying longer than agreed.
The driver shows us another temple 15 kilometres outside Ulan Ude. This one
dates from 1990 and more monasteries are being constructed, leading to the
conclusion that Buddhism is very much alive in Buryatia.
Our train leaves at 22.50hrs in the evening and it’s only lunchtime when we
get back to the city centre. The capital has not much to offer sightseeing wise,
except for the huge Lenin head on the main square, Ploshad Sovietov.
Wondering how we can kill the ten hours until our departure, we walk around
in the centre. We find another small temple inside an ordinary house. The head
lama sees me taking pictures and asks in broken English if I can take a look at
his camera; it’s a similar type. He takes me to his office and shows me his
camera and a picture he’s taken with it. “Look, how bad the quality is,” he
says. I say the picture may have come out better if a flash had been used,
adding it probably hadn’t been working because his batteries were almost
finished. Bad news, because the closest place where the batteries are available
Outside we run into a drunken man with a walking stick. “Do you speak
German?”, he asks me in German. I answer that I understand more than I speak. He
explains his grandfather was a German Jew who married a Buryat. “I miss speaking
German,” he says with a thick tongue while he is swaying around his walking
stick. He drops it and has difficulty picking it up again. “You’re my friend,
because we have the same blood,” he continues and that’s when we leave him to
We reach the theatre and decide to buy tickets for the performance ‘Carmina
Burana’. The box-office woman tells us it has been cancelled. Instead we kill a
few hours in the cinema, where the American film ‘Tears of the sun’ is playing.
Although it’s dubbed, it is not difficult to follow the story line, as it is
mainly violence that is shown on the screen. The last hours in Ulan Ude we spend
in a nice restaurant not far from the cinema.
For the section Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, we didn’t manage to get first class
tickets. We have to squeeze in our luggage and ourselves. We reserved the lower
berths because then we don’t have to lift the entire luggage to the upper berth.
The disadvantage is that the people from the upper berths sit down on your
bed. I share my bed with an older man who smells of sweat. Colleague Yulia has
to share her bed with a young soldier. Both are not very talkative and wait
patiently in the aisle until we are finished repacking and have put away our
Immediately after the provodnik (male conductor) has been to collect the
money for the sheets and to check the tickets, we make our beds and go to sleep.
It is difficult to go to sleep; the door is forever opening which is when you
need to be alert because it may be a thief wanting to steal the luggage. It
doesn’t need a well-equipped thief to open the door from the outside, even when
it is locked inside. The master key of the provodnik is a very simple tool that
you can buy everywhere. Also, the other passengers in the compartment may leave
the door open when they go to the toilet or the restaurant, providing thieves
with free access to the compartment. Another thing is that you never know if the
people you share the compartment with can be trusted.
After a short night with little sleep, I have to stand in line for half an
hour for a dirty toilet; it’s a shared toilet for 36 people. The provodnik is
nowhere to be seen, so there’s no way I can get access to his private toilet. I
manage to freshen up just before we reach the ‘sanitary zone’, which is an area
measured in time away from the next city. In this zone the toilet may not be
used and is closed by the provodnik. Around Irkutsk, the sanitary zone is half
an hour; around Moscow, the toilet doors are already locked three hours before
you reach the city.
June 5: At around 9.00hrs we arrive in Irkutsk. It’s cloudy and cold
today. The idea is to visit Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. Any
Russian you ask considers this stopover a must. And although a lot of tourists
visit the lake, there are only three buses going to the Listvyanka at the lake
We take a minibus to the edge of town, hoping to find a connecting bus to
bring us to Listvyanka. We ask a guy who makes a short stop at the bus stop if
he knows where we can catch the bus to Listvyanka. “Get in!” We see his
girlfriend sitting in the front and lots of beach stuff in the back so we see no
harm in taking the ride. He certainly knows how to go fast; he drives at 140
kilometres an hour. The road reminds us a little bit of the road from
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Okhotskoye with its hills and bends and trees on the side.
According to the Lonely Planet guide, the perfect 65-kilometre
Irkutsk-Listvyanka road was built in an incredible two months in 1960 after US
President Eisenhower was invited to visit the great lake (some of his ancestors
were allegedly Siberian gold merchants). The trip was cancelled amid the fiasco
that followed the shooting down of an American spy plane, the guide writes.
Very soon we reach our destination Hotel Baikal. For 130 dollars we expect a
nice western-style room, but all we get is a kitsch Russian-style room with an
awful bed. The overpriced room does offer a view over the lake, but the fog
doesn’t allow seeing very far.
Even though it’s freezing with only 16 degrees centigrade and a strong wind,
we decide to walk up to the boat landing and see if we can make a boat trip. I
mean, what’s the use of coming all the way up here and then sit in the hotel?
We see a boat full of Russians that is just about to leave. We ask the
captain if we can join. He comes down with the price from 1,000 roubles a person
to 500 roubles for a four-hour trip to the other side of the lake. We are given
no time for reflection so decide to hop on board.
The Russians in the back seem to have some kind of a private party; drinks
and food are installed on the table at the back of the ship. We are not supposed
to join the party and are dumped at the front of the boat with nothing. We
failed to bring any warm sweaters and are frozen to the bone within 15 minutes.
With three hours and 45 minutes to go, Yulia asks if there is a place where we
can sit inside. The captain says we can sit in the cabin under the front deck.
The cabin is dark and smells mouldy. There are a few mattresses, blankets and
pillows lying around. We cannot imagine spending several hours here. Yulia feels
under a pillow and finds… a gun! We look at each other and don’t know if we have
to laugh or be scared. Maybe it’s better not to stay here after all. Yulia puts
the gun back and goes up to ask the captain if we can take the blankets
upstairs. The girlfriend of the captain asks if we want some hot tea to warm up
and we jump at the offer.
Another guy from the crew puts two boxes at the front of the ship, which has
to serve as a dance floor. The volume is turned up to an oppressively loud
volume. The Russians are already drunk; they sing loudly, dance with a drink in
their hands and have problems keeping their balance. Rolled in our blankets we
stay where we are: on the bench at the front of the boat.
After 45 minutes, we have already reached the other side of the lake. We’re
supposed to leave the ship and spend a few hours on shore. The captain tells us
the partygoers may want to stay even longer. They are going to have a barbeque.
As we leave the ship we see that our boat sails under a death’s-head flag.
We walk some hundred metres to the ‘Tourist Complex Baikal Angara’. Two men
are working on a wooden building. We ask what kind of activities the complex has
to offer. “Sorry, not too much today,” the bearded older of the two says. “The
sauna is being repaired and the bar is closed.” Not knowing what to do in the
hours ahead, we ask if there is a boat available to take us to the other side of
the lake. “Now?” Yes, please. “Just give me 10 minutes and I’ll get my boat. I
can take you to the other side in 25 minutes for 120 roubles a person.” Within
an hour we’re back on the other side of the lake.
I always like to go skinny-dipping in the waters I come across, so no matter
how cold it is, I’m going for a swim. It really it not much more than a dip; the
water is freezing. Besides, I don’t really feel comfortable when I see that bits
and pieces of paper and other things are floating around in the water. This is
probably the place where the sewer from our hotel comes out…
Taking a banya seems to be the only way to get warm and clean. The Hotel
Baikal has several private banyas, which can be rented by the hour. It’s a
perfect Russian-style banya including venik (a bunch of branches with leaves for
massage), Mors (juice from red berries) and honey – the latter to be used as a
June 6: Breakfast at the Hotel Baikal among a bus full of German
tourists. We are walking to the bus station to go back to Irkutsk but manage to
get a ride to town for only 50 roubles without even having left the hotel
Our train departs in the afternoon, leaving enough time for us to explore the
city of Irkutsk. In the centre we see a many buildings dating from the beginning
of the 20th century. Many are in very bad shape. The new market hall on the
other hand is probably the nicest I’ve ever seen in Russia: it has fancy
lanterns, white tiles on the floor and is very clean.
We go for lunch in a restaurant called ‘Snowflake’. It has a chic interior
and has Baikal fish on the menu. The lounging music makes the cosy atmosphere
complete. We would rather stay here than go back to the train, although we do
have a first class compartment this time.
At 16.35 we’re back on the train for the 17-hour journey to Krasnoyarsk.
Yulia goes to bed early and I decide to go to the restaurant by myself. All
tables are full, so I join the table of a man in his fifties who looks like a
foreigner. He’s called Don and says he is with a group of eight Australians. He
started travelling eight years ago, when his wife died. When he drones on about
his trips to China, Europe and the United States for two hours and seems to want
to continue talking for another two hours, I decide to call it an early night.
7 June: In the early morning I run into a German couple who are
occupying the same carriage. They’re on their way home to Berlin after having
travelled all over the world for more than 40 years as diplomats. Only for the
sake of seeing their children more often do the ‘gypsies’ return to Germany;
they wouldn’t mind roaming over the world a few decades more…
At 09.48 we arrive in Krasnoyarsk, a city of 871,000 inhabitants that was
closed to foreigners until late in the Soviet period because of a concentration
of defence-related industries. At the station we try to arrange transport to a
huge uranium mine outside the city. It’s an underground city that used to be
wrapped in a shroud of secrecy. It’s no problem to get there according to the
taxi drivers, but there is no way we can get permission to enter the mine
because it’s the weekend.
As we are going to stay here for two days, there is no need to rush here,
there and everywhere. We haven’t been online for five days and are very
desperate to check our e-mails. We find a crowded Internet cafe in a basement,
where we spend several hours satisfying our digital needs.
For just 70 dollars we get a large room with river view in the Krasnoyarsk
Hotel. It even has air-conditioning - very welcome with a temperature of 35
degrees centigrade. We take the noise coming from the square in front of the
hotel for granted; the square is full of people celebrating the birthday of this
The receptionist sends us for dinner to the best restaurant in town located
close to the hotel in the harbour office building at the riverside. We have a
delicious meal on the balcony at a nicely set table.
At 23.00 it is still light outside and very warm. Dozens of people walk on
the riverside. It strikes me that the people here, 5,000 kilometres from
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, wear more trendy clothes and look different. Especially the
men are poles apart - the average man on Sakhalin has dark to black close-cut
hair and wears black leather; half of the Krasnoyarsk men have light-blond hair
and many have nifty mutton-chop whiskers and snazzy clothes. The women in
Krasnoyarsk on average cover more centimetres of skin than in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.
In the evening we end up in the nightclub ‘Pilot’ where visitors are expected
to participate in the Saturday-night show. Five women and two men are dragged
onto stage and have to pass on a CD-Rom to the next person to music. They have
to take off one piece of clothing or leave the stage when they hold the CD-Rom
when the music stops. Eventually, one guy ends up in his underwear and wins 500
roubles (16.5 dollars), the CD-Rom and the honour - he’s the hero of the
8 June: It’s very hot today so
we take a boat trip on the Yenisey River to cool down. It takes one hour to get
to Divnogorsk along the river, site of the hydroelectric dam holding back the
long Krasnoyarsk Reservoir. We can’t explore the place, as the boat we take to
the village is also the last boat back. The captain says there may be another
boat in a few hours. Too risky for us with a train to catch.
Apart from its beautiful river, Krasnoyarsk has little to offer, except for a
few nice restaurants. No taxi driver has ever heard of the new Italian
restaurant ‘Lasagne’ where the hotel receptionist advised us to go to, so we end
up in the Mexican restaurant ‘Latino’, which is like any Mexican restaurant in
At 22.00 we catch the train called the ‘Yenisey’. Near the entrance for the
carriage, an ‘important’ man orders the provodnitsa (female conductor) to take
very good care of his mother, who will be travelling on the train by herself.
She promises with a smile.
When we show our tickets to the provodnitsa – who has colour-rinsed black
hair with green-blue highlights that perfectly fit with her green costume – she
says she will put us in another compartment than No.1, because it is a noisy one
so close to the train’s generator. She gives us No. 4 and doesn’t even ask for a
fee, to our surprise.
Not only the service on the Yenisey is good; some drinks and sweets are
stacked on the table, the beds are already made and have a coverlet and there is
a real shower cabinet onboard. Pity we are only going to spend a day and a half
on this train.
9 June: A day on the train. Awake at 07.30 and back to sleep at 10.00.
Funny how easy the body adapts to the train rhythm of laziness. You break your
day into smaller days. The movement of the train sort of lulls you asleep. In
between the mini-nights, I manage to do four Russian lessons. No gangsters in
the restaurant this time. I could make some up some exciting incident of course,
but it wouldn’t do justice to the truth: it does get boring to be on the train
after some time…
10 June: We get up at 03.00 to freshen up, before we enter the
sanitary zone. At 04.30 we’re ready; we’re supposed to arrive at 05.00. Then the
provodnitsa comes in and tell us the train has a delay of more than one hour.
Back to sleep…
Arrival in Yekaterinburg at 06.00. Everything is still closed. Supposedly
there’s a hotel at the station. Unfortunately it’s closed, so we have to drag
ourselves around the city all day.
Yekaterinburg is especially known as the city where Tsar Nicholas II and his
family were killed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks in the basement of the house where
they had been held. Six years later, the town was renamed Sverdlovsk, after
Yakov Sverdlov, a leading Bolshevik who was thought to have arranged the
Less known is Sverdlovsk for an incident in 1979, when at least 66 people
died of infection with anthrax after a leak from the biological weapons plant
Sverdlovsk-19 in the city. A small amount of anthrax was released into the open
air due to a missing filter. It was the biggest outbreak of anthrax in the
twentieth century. Russia’s explanation for the outbreak until today is the
consumption of contaminated meat. The factory was closed after the incident, but
anthrax production at other facilities was increased.
Sverdlovsk-19 was part of a chain of biological weapon plants in Russia and
Kazakhstan. At dozens of locations tens of thousands of scientists claimed to
produce vaccines. In reality, they tried to produce viruses and bacteria with an
increased resilience and resistance to antibiotics. Attempts were even made to
weaponize AIDS, Ebola and Legionnaire’s disease.
Wanting to know more about the latest activities of Sverdlovsk-19, we ask
some taxi drivers if they can take us there. The third one knows where the
building is located and is willing to take us there.
It only takes ten minutes to get there from the city centre. Shocking, how
close to a city of 1.2 million inhabitants scientists were playing with deadly
material – a microgram is enough to kill a human being.
The area of the facility is surrounded by a two-metre wall that is falling
apart at some places. For a minute, I consider entering the area where the wall
has collapsed, but seeing a Russian prison from inside is not one of the thrills
I’m seeking, so we decide to take the official route.
At the gate, we say that we want to talk to the director. He’s busy. Only
after a few hours we get to talk to the deputy commander on the phone. “I would
love to tell you about the new achievements of our institute, but you understand
I can’t without permission from Moscow, because it is a secret military site,”
he says. Permission from Moscow takes at least a week. That’s where our secret
mission in Yekaterinburg ends and the sightseeing can start.
Basically the only interesting tourist site is the place where the Romanovs
were killed. The spot – attracting thousands of visitors every year - is marked
with a small cross. Next to it, a bigger memorial is being constructed in the
form of a huge cathedral.
What happened to the bodies of the Romanovs after their deaths is still a
riddle. After decades of rumour, speculation and investigations, experts finally
pieced the story together. In 1991, archaeologists found the bones of nine
people, then identified as Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, three
of four daughters, the royal doctor and three servants. Son Alexey and daughter
Anastasia – aged 17 in 1918 - were thought to be missing. New techniques using
DNA identification lead to the conclusion that not Anastasia, but daughter Maria
was missing. Her and Alexey’s remains are still undiscovered.
In 1998, the royal remains were buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St.
Petersburg, the resting place of most of Nicholas’s predecessors back to Peter
We kill a few hours in the Internet cafe and then head to the city zoo, which
was advertised heavily at the station; every hour several buses leave for a
two-hour trip to the zoo, with a stopover at the Romanovs’ death site.
The zoo building is well maintained and new cages are being built. We wonder
why, because half of the cages are empty. The animals are living in rather small
cages on concrete floors; they have to run around in their own droppings. We
can’t bear watching the unhappy animals very long.
We know we face a night on a very bad train and decide to take a shower at
the station; which is probably also the only place for tramps to freshen up.
Between razor blades, hairs and soap stains we rinse off the sweat.
When we walk to the left luggage office, we witness a drunken tramp, who is
unpacking a tape recorder, falling three metres down on the roof of a photo
kiosk over a 2.5-metre high wall on the first floor. He seems okay – saved by
the kiosk. Within minutes the police arrives and help him to get up again.
Only 15 minutes before departure of the train at 22.45 the platform number is
announced. We need to hurry and ask a few carriers how much it would cost to
take our luggage to the train. Fifty roubles per piece, and then we have to take
it up the long stairs ourselves. No thanks. We rush to the train with all our
stuff and get to the train sweatier than before the shower.
It really is a dirty train. The penetrating smell of urine in the toilet is
enough to make me puke. The best thing to do seems to sleep through this
358-kilometre section to Perm.
11 June: Arrival in Perm at 07.00. We want to visit Perm-36, a former
Gulag labour camp for political prisoners, situated 110 kilometres outside the
city, according to our guidebook. Taxi drivers say the distance is at least 220
kilometres and even though this means we have to sit in the car for most of the
day, we still want to visit the camp, as there is nothing else to see in Perm.
The taxi drivers charge 150 dollars for the trip, but we manage to get 50
dollars knocked off the price.
Our driver says Perm has one million and 4,000 inhabitants according to the
October 2002 census, just a little under the old official figure of 1.03
million. He says that in the eighties, a feasibility study was done to construct
a metro in Perm, as all cities in the Soviet Union with over one million
inhabitants were entitled to a metro. The plans have been mothballed in
Perm is rather wealthy with an average income of 330 dollars for a factory
worker, our driver explains. One of the people who helped the city develop is
Yuri Trutnev, who gained 80 percent of the vote out of the blue in the mayor’s
elections in the mid-nineties and was elected governor four years later.
When we pass the main police building in the city, the driver says this is
popularly called the ‘death tower’, as people who were brought there sometimes
didn’t return in Soviet times. “A relative of mine was kept there for a few days
and came back terrified,” he says.
After three hours we reach Chusovoy, a town with a Soviet-style metallurgical
plant that is still operating; it emits a mustard-coloured cloud. Another 30
minutes later we finally get to the former labour camp.
Perm-36 was built under Joseph Stalin in 1946 as a timber production Gulag
camp; a lot of wood was needed to rebuild cities and factories in central Russia
and the Volga region that were destroyed in the Second World War. Later, the
camp served as a particularly isolated and severe facility for prisoners from
within the military and police.
In 1972, Perm-36 was converted into the primary location of imprisonment for
people charged with political crimes. Many of the USSR’s most prominent
dissidents served their sentence here, for example State Duma Deputy Sergey
Kovalyev, who was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and three years of
exile. Lev Timofeyev was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for anti-Soviet
propaganda when he wrote that 50 percent of all products in the Soviet Union
were produced in private houses and not in state factories.
Perm-36 was one of the last camps within the Soviet Union to hold political
prisoners; it was only closed in 1987. It is in relatively good condition
compared to other Gulag camps, where often nothing remains. However, the site
was purposely vandalized after Estonian and Ukrainian television crews filmed
the maximum-security zone in 1989 and showed the barred windows and barbed wire
fencing. Over the past few years the camp is being reconstructed with the help
of human rights organisations.
Guide Oleg Nichayev shows us the main building consisting of two barracks
that could each hold 200 people. It looks like an ordinary dormitory, except for
the fact that the bunk beds are missing. It seems far too small to hold 400
people, but Nichayev explains that prisoners worked in shifts; they had to
produce iron parts and assembled them.
We then visit the jail within the prison, which is in exactly the same state
as when the camp was closed in 1987. Prisoners could be sentenced for up to 15
days in jail for a missing button on a shirt. A cell of four by three held four
prisoners; the only furniture being wooden beds, a concrete table and concrete
chairs. Water and food was rationed. However, the biggest punishment was the low
temperature, according to Nichayev. “The temperature here was kept at 18 degrees
centigrade and prisoners didn’t get blankets.” We experience it ourselves; we’re
only inside the building for 15 minutes and are already cold to the bone.
Nichayev says there are no records of prisoners being executed in Perm-36.
Nichayev says that the relationship between the guards and the prisoners was
bad. The prisoners knew the rules very well and complained if the rules were not
observed. For example, the prisoners demanded milk they knew they had the right
for after heavy work, while the guards could not even afford to buy milk for
their families. If the rules were not observed, the prisoners sent letters to
the Gulag authorities, which sometimes resulted in an audit.
A few hundred metres down the road is the maximum-security facility, where
prisoners were kept in cells all the time. The facility has four watchtowers and
a triple gate; two guards watched one prisoner. The prisoners were given an
airing for 45 minutes per day in an area of two by two metres and had to work
longer days. They had the right to one letter per month and were only allowed to
receive a parcel after five years imprisonment.
Nichayev says that in spite of its remote location, up to ten groups of
visitors come to Perm-36 every day, mostly Russians. Since the camp was opened
as ‘Memorial Centre of the History of Political Repression Perm-36’ in the year
2000, over 500 foreigners have visited the site; an entry in the Lonely Planet
Guide contributed to that.
On the way back, we stop in Kungur, one of the oldest cities in the Ural
Mountains being 350 years old. Five kilometres from the village is an ice cave,
where the temperature is just below freezing, even in summer. We take a route of
1.5 kilometres through 22 caves and see several ice stalactites, stalagmites and
crystal clear waters.
When we get back to the city, we spend a few hours in an Internet cafe and
have dinner in a real Italian restaurant where Italian wines are served and Eros
Ramazotti music is played. We know we shouldn’t make ourselves too comfortable;
we’re facing the worst train of the whole trip…
Colleague Yulia and I don’t even have tickets in the same compartment; Yulia
has to pay a 10-dollar bribe to the provodnik to be put together in one
compartment. The blankets are dusty, the windows are draughty and there is no
toilet paper, no restaurant carriage and no shower. Need I say more?
12 June: Arrival in Nizhny Novgorod at 11.45. This city is a bit off
the track of the Trans-Siberian Railway, but we wanted to make our last stop
over here because in a sense, Russian history began here; Novgorod was here by
the 9th century and for 600 years was Russia’s most pioneering and artistic
It is Independence Day and the streets are awfully quiet for a Russian
National Holiday. We take a 1.5-hour walk to the Kremlin and pass one of the
oldest buildings in Russia, the Byzantine Cathedral St Sophia that was finished
in 1050. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings we have seen during our
The Kremlin, not to be confused with the Moscow Kremlin (kremlin translates
into fort), appears to be a huge park that is open to the public 24-hours a day.
When we walk within the fort’s walls, we can tell from the smell that it is also
the city’s largest public toilet. Bottles and trash lie about everywhere;
swearing youngsters are sitting on the ground drinking beer. It seems nothing is
done to preserve the old building.
Later in the afternoon it is suddenly getting more crowded. Outside the
Kremlin, thousands of people are walking in the streets. Performances are given
at every street corner. In the evening, famous singers perform at the riverside;
thousands of people are watching the show using the grass hill of the Kremlin as
a stand. As crowded buses and trams leave the Kremlin, we decide to take the
1.5-hour walk back to the station, from where we will take a comfortable train
On 13 June at 06.15 we arrive in Moscow after an 11-day journey. Summarizing
our experience we can say that we have seen some more of Russia, but we cherish
no illusions that we’ve seen it all. And even if we would manage to see
everything, Russia would always be somewhat of a mystery, as it can take a
lifetime for a foreigner to understand the Russian ‘dusha’ (soul).
- Buy all your tickets in advance to avoid standing in
line at every stop. First class really is worth the money, but it may
prolong your trip, as it is not available on each train.
- Make sure you become friends with the conductor (male:
provodnik, female: provodnitsa); he or she can make or break you trip.
- Travel light. Storage space is limited and you have to
take your luggage out of the train at every stopover.
- Don’t leave valuables lying about and don’t leave
baggage unattended in a compartment during station halts.
- Don’t depend on the listing of hotels and restaurants
in your guidebook. Even if it just a few years old, you may find it to be
outdated. Of course the book may still be valuable for its maps and
description of the history of the places you visit.
- Bring plenty of books, games or other distractions;
toilet paper; slippers and loose, comfortable trousers. Food is available in
the restaurant carriage and on the platforms. If you leave the train during
a station halt, check with the provodnik how long the train is staying; it
won’t wait for you if you’re late.
- Note that if you start in/travel to Beijing you need a
visa for China if you take the Trans-Manchurian rail route and a visa for
China and Mongolia if you take the Trans-Mongolian rail route. For the
traditional Trans-Siberian Railway only a Russian visa is required.
This article was published in the Sakhalin Independent.
Do you want to see pictures of this train journey? Then follow this link: