Moscow Turns to Mirage on Vast Desert Steppe

It had been quite some time since I travelled in Russia, when I was invited out of the blue to give a lecture on modern literature in the far-off town of N. in the Urals. I won't give the name of the town, since it doesn't matter. I accepted the invitation and set out at the beginning of May.

The first surprise was that there were only three people in the huge train compartment in which I was traveling. What had happened? Where were all the other passengers?

A pleasant woman conductor was surprised that I was surprised. The price of a four-bed compartment is so high that everybody now travels second-class. But shouldn't the ticket price for these compartments then be lowered? Half the train is made up of them. Surely it can't be profitable to transport these empty cars through this vast country?

It is bureaucrats, however, not businessmen, who are still master of the country. And, of course, a government official thinks only of filling his own pockets at the expense of the common interest.

I thus settled alone into the compartment for four like an Arabian sheik when the conductor knocked at the door.

"Would you mind if I stored a small bag in your compartment?" she asked.

"A little bag? By all means," I replied.

A minute later the conductor brought in a bag as big as a refrigerator and neatly stuffed it under my seat.

"What's in the bag?" I asked.

"Shoes," she said.

And so, it turned out that the conductor was making money on the side by transporting illegal goods and hiding them from inspectors in my compartment, and I, a writer from Moscow, was made into a shuttle trader, a shoe salesman.

Within a half hour, Moscow was left behind, and an hour later, the city's environs, with its many barbarous, New Russian mansions, which look like Rococo-style meat grinders, disappeared from sight. Then the endless expanse of the country began. And how great Russia is! It took 24 hours to reach my destination. I traveled 1,500 kilometers, more than the length of all of Italy. Yet I did not see a single city or town, only steppe, forests, fields, groves, villages, stations and rivers. It seemed a huge, desolate stretch of land. And I traveled only a small part of the country. It takes an entire week by train to arrive in Vladivostok.

In Moscow it is so crowded that it is easy to forget how vast, and how sad, the country is. And this endless steppe, this breathtaking distance under the shadow of clouds, has not only weighed heavily on Russian history and society but seems to have slowed down the very course of time.

As I traveled through the country, I saw thousands of people planting potatoes in the their tiny plots of land. The entire country was digging into the poor soil with shovels. How tiny were the plots of land. The fences surrounding them were made of the devil knows what: boards, wire, even parts of old iron beds. What was clear, though, is that all these people with shovels were relying only on themselves. Not a single person had any hope for state support. People counted only on their plot of land. If they planted potatoes, they wouldn't go hungry in winter.

Such a sense of estrangement from the state can be dangerous. The government becomes a source of chaos, a menace, a burden and a thief who is prepared to take everything away. The schism between the state and the people has taken on ominous traits.

The view of Russia seemed so sad that I felt moved to tears. Anywhere you looked, there was poverty, rubbish, broken glass, abandoned houses and empty factories. Here were refugees living in train cars near the station, children playing between the tracks, laundry hung out to dry on tree branches. There was a Gypsy camp with a fire burning right on the station square, lighting up the only taxi. I saw a young man, a "person of Caucasian nationality" with his hands cuffed behind his back, being led along the platform by five policemen. There were scratches on his face. This picture flashed by and then there was the great expanse again: the forests, the rivers, the small villages and television transmitters sticking out like Martian ships from the "The War of the Worlds."

Russia's territory became a problem long ago for the Russian people, a problem of national identity. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are still the largest country on earth. And if Catherine the Great had not sold Alaska to the United States, Russians would have owned nearly the entire northern hemisphere. Russian philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyayev and Vasily Rozanov have written about how such a boundless territory has required great sacrifice from the people and wasted their spiritual energy.

The values of family and ancestry, the concept of beauty and of individual rights, and even ethnic and national identity have always been subordinated to the aims of the state. If earlier, under the monarchy, the Russian people managed to cope with the burden of the goals of the state, which steadily conquered more and more parts of the globe, today Russians clearly do not have the strength to revitalize and settle their own uninhabited steppe.

Russia, it seems, has grown tired of Moscow, of its aggressiveness, television, advertisements, frenetic energy, its waves of decrees and its reformers. Russia has been plagued by Moscow. Nowhere in Europe is there such a gap between life in the capital and in the provinces as there is here in Russia. In France or Austria, you can find a piece of Paris or Vienna on every corner in any town. But not here. From the poorest, most remote steppe, Moscow is neither seen nor heard of. The further out you go into the expanses of the forest, the more the capital of the country becomes a mirage on the edge of a desert. And the only thing this mirage does is to beckon, startle and promise, but it never quenches your thirst. Moscow looks like a load of empty cars with only a handful of passengers, while the rest of Russia prefers to travel on foot.

This is what I thought about while looking out the window of a night train.

But what struck me most of all was the sight of a boy on a raft in the middle of a lake at night. Darkness had almost fallen. The moon was bright. The boy of 10 or 11 years rowed a decrepit little raft through the water with a white board, making silver ripples on the sleepy lake. Where are you rowing to at such a late hour? I thought. Why are you alone?

But there was no answer.

Where is Russia now sailing? Why does it seem alone? In what direction should this heavy fleet be sent?

Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose works include "Aron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.