Riding Russia’s trains with Dmitry: You too can have a roof

Ride the train in Russia and you'll learn a lot, and you may end up with your own roof. Putin is Russia's roof; the Donald and Hillary aren't even close.

Vladmir Putin in Italian jogging suit | Image Courtesy Russian Dept. of State

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2016 — Has Donald Trump rubbed your nerves raw? Hillary is too corrupt, Cruz too reptilian, Rubio too robotic? Their campaign commercials are dishonest, platitudinous and shrill?

It could be worse.

In the mid ’90s, over 30 parties ran candidates in Russia’s parliamentary (Duma) elections. Victor Chernomyrdin, the incumbent prime minister, appeared on the Russian version of “Name That Tune.” A candidate from the party of General Lebed—the grim, Trans-Dnistrian military commander who threatened to become Russia’s military strongman—was the celebrity judge on Russia’s version of “American Gladiators.”

Some parties hosted infomercials, complete with wild-eyed hosts who couldn’t get over how wonderful the political guests were and audiences that threatened to riot joyfully over the punch-lines.

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One of the more traditional commercials was for the “Our Home is Russia” party, the party headed by Chernomyrdin. It was the Party of People in Power, supported lavishly by the country’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, whose director was coincidentally Prime Minister Chernomyrdin himself. The commercial showed the audience all the good things the government was doing to promote national development.

It closed with Chernomyrdin, wearing a Power Suit, seated in a Power Chair in a Power Den, his hands peaked so that his finger tips were touching. Then his hands faded into the image of a white, red and blue roof over the word, “Russia.”

“Because every home needs a roof.”

Donald Trump would have loved that commercial if he understood the meaning of “roof” in Russian. It was sheer chutzpa, the most Trumpish commercial in a three-ring Trump extravaganza of a political campaign.

So let me explain what “roof” means, and in the process explain how I acquired one of my own.

It was winter, and I was on the train from Kiev to Moscow. Train travel in Russia was and remains an adventure. A friend of mine had a family of six or seven Gypsies (the Russian word; they might have been Azeris or Chechens for all he knew) settle into his cabin once, including a toddler who urinated all over my friend’s luggage under the indifferent stares of his elders.

I decided to save myself that kind of adventure by going first class. That meant a compartment for two rather than four, and presumably better service. I’d still get pot-luck with the draw of cabin mates, but I hoped I wouldn’t have one at all.

The train station platform was a riot of young women selling shares in privatization firms, old women in bright scarves selling hot vareniki (dumplings) and beer, middle-aged men in fur hats and older men in tall sheep-skin hats staring hard at nothing at all and occasionally spitting on the platform, running children and their frantic mothers, porters with carts loaded with luggage and young men wearing satin jogging suits in all the colors of the rainbow.

Those jogging suits were the hot item of masculine apparel back then.

It was chaos, with a smell of urine, sweat, rotting trash and oil fumes. The station loomed over it all, big, dark and very much like the set for a movie featuring spies or deported Jews.

It was exhilarating and wonderful.

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The train lurched, and I congratulated myself. I was alone in my cabin, a winner in the railway lottery. I’d no sooner thought that than I heard a loud whoop outside my cabin door, and I knew that I’d congratulated myself too soon.

The cabin door shot open, and two men were standing there. Rather, one was standing, half-carrying and half-dragging the other. He heaved him onto the second berth, tossed a bag into the overhead, gave me a big grin and said, “Don’t worry! He’ll sleep all night. Here’s his passport. He’s really a great guy!” And with that he ran out of the cabin, down the aisle, jumped off the slowly-moving train and vanished into the crowd.

A sleeping drunk is much easier to handle than an awake drunk. Unless he wakes up sick, he’s really no trouble at all. I took a good look at him: early 20s, muscular, short hair, a nose that had been broken a time or two. He had green smudges of “zelyonka,” an antiseptic, over one eye and on his very large knuckles.

Obviously a fighter.

He was wearing a dark orange, felt sport-coat; brightly-colored felt sport-coats were even more stylish than satin jogging suits, especially among members of criminal organizations. Under it he wore a maroon turtleneck. He was the epitome of the stylish young thug. According to his passport, his name was Dmitry.

Well, nice to meet you, Dmitry. Sleep well.

I slept lightly, knowing we’d get to the Russian border around 2 a.m. Dmitry slept like a log. I remained fully dressed. Men with machine guns were going to come barging into the cabin in the middle of the night, and you feel at a definite disadvantage if you’re in your pajamas when they do.

The train stopped, and soon there was the sound of doors sliding open at the other end of the wagon. More doors sliding open, getting closer. Muffled voices, a pause, more sliding doors, then the conductor’s voice outside my door. “There’s a foreigner in this one.”

The cabin door slid open, and a man with a machine gun came in and demanded my documents. I gave him my passport and Dmitry’s, too.

Our documents were in order. I don’t think anyone was dragged off the train from my wagon. Russian border guards sometimes enjoy dragging people from trains, just for the fun of it. I know people who have been dragged off, and they always have good stories for parties afterward, but it’s not a story you enjoy when it’s happening to you at 2 in the morning.

In a couple of hours we were on our way again, and now I let myself sleep soundly.

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When I woke up, Dmitry was sitting on his berth, staring at me with red eyes. He got up and staggered out the door and down the hall. I guessed I’d find out soon enough just how great a guy he really was. I went out into the hall to stare out a window at the passing countryside.

In a few minutes I felt a very large, very strong had settle on my shoulder and a soft, pleasant voice rumbled close to my ear, “Let’s talk.”

We sat in the cabin and stared at each other for a minute. Finally Dmitry asked, “who are you?” I told him. “Where do you come from?” America. “Where are you going?” Moscow. A pause. “Why are you here?” He was starting to sound like a Mormon missionary.

He didn’t look like he had much interest in religion, though, so I told him that I was an economist on my way to Moscow for “business.” He nodded and smiled in understanding. He had a charming smile.

“Moscow is a dangerous place for foreigners,” he said. I muttered something non-committal. He went on, “If foreign businessmen don’t have the right help, they get into all sorts of trouble.” He looked thoughtful, then added kindly, “It’s also dangerous for foreigners to travel alone on trains.”

Of that I had never had any doubt, and if I had, this conversation would have cured me of it.

Dmitry gave me another dazzling smile. “You don’t have to worry. I like you.” End of conversation. I was relieved that Dmitry liked me and promised myself that I would never give him a reason not to.

I hadn’t counted on Dmitry’s level of intoxication. He dozed off, and a half hour later we had almost the exact same conversation. We had it for a third time a half hour after that. But by the third time his eyes were clearer and the conversation seemed to penetrate fully into his brain.

This time it went slightly further. He handed me a business card.

“That’s my father’s phone number, but you can get me there, too. My father’s an important man. He can take care of problems, and I help him do it.” Indeed. He told me again how much he liked me, and told me that if anyone gave me any problems in Moscow, I should call him immediately and he’d take care of it.

I expressed my deep gratitude and told him how important I thought it was to make friends in a new city.

We chatted about this and that for the next couple of hours until we pulled into Moscow’s Kievsky train station near noon. The station was a little less crowded than Kiev’s (Moscow had eight train stations), the crowd more subdued. There were still young men in colorful, satin jogging suits, old ladies selling salted fish and beer, and people schlepping huge bales of goods for sale.

I bade Dmitry good-bye and went out into the crowd, secure under my new roof.

Because that’s what Dmitry and his father were—a roof, protection. Moscow is still full of them, because as Dmitry said, a business without a roof is in for trouble. I never needed a roof, but it really puts a spring in your step knowing that, for a nominal fee, you can read in the paper about the bureaucrat who hassled you suffering from broken knees and your cheating landlord falling from his ninth-floor balcony.

I last rode Ukraine’s railways just a couple of years ago. The experience has hardly changed at all over the last 20 years. Nor in many ways has Russia’s politics. Victor Chernomyrdin and his friends were Russia’s roof, but they lost the job soon after to Vladimir Putin and his friends. It’s sad for Russia that, after all these years, its government still operates like an organized criminal gang, and that people as pleasant as Dmitry adapt so casually to that kind of “business as usual.”

But Russia remains a wild and amazing place, full of possibilities that its leaders seem determined to squander. America’s political circus is boring in comparison. However you feel about them, be glad that Trump and Hillary are no Hitler, nor even Putin, and Congress is no Duma.

But if you go to Russia, do ride the train. If you’re lucky, you might end up with a roof of your own.

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