Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tracks of Time

Railway enthusiasts are lovingly restoring narrow-gauge locomotives in their quest to create Russia's first private train museum in the backwoods of Pereslavl-Zalessky.

TALITSY, Central Russia -- For a handful of Russian railway enthusiasts, this is the end of the line. And at the end of the line stands their pot of gold: the Pereslavl Railway Museum.

Tucked two kilometers off the main drag from Pereslavl-Zalessky to Talitsy over a rutted dirt road, this collection of narrow-gauge locomotives, passenger cars and railway memorabilia is the brainchild of Muscovite railway engineers Artur Berzin and Vadim Mironov. The two men, plus Andrei Bespaly, an expert in radio electronics and now the museum's curator, all nurtured an interest in railroad models during their youth. But, as Berzin said, "There is a category of people who outgrow toys."

Graduating from childhood models to the real thing seemed natural, particularly given the recent changes in Russia: "Because the political situation has changed a bit in our country, it's become possible to do something with our own hands," said Bespaly.

These hands have turned to collecting narrow-gauge railcars, which play primarily a supporting role in railway history, for reasons that make sense to anyone obsessed with the minutiae of the past. "It's more attractive. The technology is smaller, more compact," said Berzin. Extra appeal comes from the fact that narrow-gauge railways snake through woods, forests and impassable terrain. "They are closer to nature," he said.

The Pereslavl contingent is representative of a larger group of Russian railway buffs -- from railway professionals to doctors to composers -- who are charmed by the many facets of this technology that transformed the Russian landscape.

Sergei Pashinin, chairman of VOLZhD, the All-Russian Society of Railway Fans, whose several hundred members methodically collect postcards, pins, stamps, old tickets, photos of stations and locomotives, arrange trips on restored trains and compose historical film montages, summed up the motivation of the founders of the Pereslavl museum and other railway aficionados very simply. "They're in love," he said.

The Pereslavl Railway Museum's transformation from dream to tangible reality has been a slow but steady process that started six years ago. In 1990, during the height of perestroika, Mironov and Berzin met Yaroslavl businessman Anatoly Gusev to pitch their plan for a museum. Gusev, who is interested in the region's general development, purchased 2.5 kilometers of the ailing Pereslavl narrow-gauge track in 1993 with the hope that the museum would eventually attract tourists.

Since then, the museum has achieved official status and obtained a base in an old depot at one end of the Pereslavl line. It is not yet a full-fledged tourist site, but it has attracted various film-makers, including Pyotr Todorovsky, who have shot films based on Chekhovian and revolutionary themes. Other visitors include delegations of train experts, who have hailed from as far away as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Britain.

In its present embryonic stage, the museum rests at one end of a 750 millimeter gauge track that unfurls to its conclusion in the thick of Talitsy's pine, spruce and birch woods. The depot looks out onto an unkempt yard overgrown with stubborn grass and wildflowers and encumbered with 200 tons of rusting scrap metal. Amid these organic and inorganic distractions, an assortment of locomotives and railcars stand in varying states of decay and restoration.

One particularly ravaged passenger car, built at the Kolomensky factory in the 1920s, teeters uncertainly on the tracks. Once used as a shed, the car's oak walls sport a shade of ghastly fluorescent chartreuse, the ceiling and window frames a garish neon lemon. Much of the car's flooring is gone, and the toilet fell out on the tracks as the exhibit was being carted to Talitsy. Remarkably, though, the car still carries the telltale features of a smoker: ashtrays at elbow level on the walls. But it looks like one vigorous sneeze would fell the remains of the car on the spot.

Safe inside the depot's smaller engine shed and protected from the destructive assaults of rain and snow lurks one of the museum's prize exhibits, a lovingly restored Polish locomotive made in 1955. Manufactured according to Soviet specifications at the Fabryka Lokomotyw im. F. Dzierzynskiego in Chrzakow, the 16-ton beast was painstakingly revived over a two-year period. It is now fully operable and would make quick work of Madam Karenina.

Through a door into the larger engine shed rest two other fully restored vehicles: a baby blue motor-trolley and a blood-red fire-trolley. Their polished and seemingly new appearance provides a sharp contrast to the surrounding walls and ceiling of the shed, blackened by a fire several years ago and never repaired or repainted.

Though the present appearance of the museum itself and many of its items may not impress the casual visitor, the history of their journey to Talitsy might. One Finnish-built tank, brought to Talitsy from a plinth in Leninakan, survived the brutal 1988 Armenian earthquake. A German tender locomotive successfully escaped the destruction of war in Chechnya. And a passenger car manufactured in Goerlitz in 1898 has survived revolutions, world wars and the heavy hand of Cronos.

The Pereslavl artifacts include not just these hulking, multi-ton vehicles but also smaller items related to rail travel. Bespaly strained to hold up a 50-kilogram bronze station bell, salvaged from an anonymous station. "If something has some sort of historical value and we see that, in a while, it will be shunted aside and forgotten, we prefer to take it and put it here," he said. "Even if it sits here for a while and gathers dust, it will eventually find a place." Besides the bell, other finds include candle, kerosene and electric signal lanterns and a cache of signs with at times ridiculously simple slogans: "Work Here," "Climb in Here," "Protect Your Hands," "Don't Stand Under Cargo Being Lifted -- Cargo Could Fall."

But the physical objects at the museum comprise only a part of the attraction here. The atmosphere combines the quiet of a monastery, the camaraderie of a men's locker room, the slow progress of an archeological dig and the organized chaos of an active machine shop. Save the occasional striking of blunt instruments on metal, a certain hush pervades the grounds, a hush borne of intense concentration by a group of men bent on one goal.

Only a few representatives of the fairer sex -- often a wife or mother of museum volunteers -- come here to enjoy the tranquility of the surrounding woods. Their duties in the enterprise, according to Sergei Dorozhkov, 20, a volunteer restorer from Moscow, largely include "making sure we eat on time."

Eating on time probably does not concern the rail-thin Bespaly, who has lived in a small room off the main engine shed in ruthlessly spartan conditions for three years. His most constant companion and colleague, retired railway veteran and crack machinist Sergei Zakharov, lives in the area and comes daily to the museum to troubleshoot mechanical problems of recent finds. Dorozhkov, a fourth-year student at Moscow's Institute of Transportation Engineers, comes to Talitsy when he can, particularly on weekends and holidays, often with his peer Sergei Kostygov. While at Talitsy, the volunteers share Bespaly's simple lifestyle, sleeping in bunks off the main engine shed in barracks whose walls drip with moisture in summer and shudder with cold in winter.

The environs of Pereslavl-Zalessky -- a hamlet of some 40,000 residents located 140 kilometers northeast of Moscow and one of the ancient towns comprising the Golden Ring -- provide a neat historical backdrop for the museum, the only private railway museum in Russia. Nestled on the shores of Lake Pleshcheyevo, Pereslavl-Zalessky has been a quiet player in Russian history since its founding in 1152.

Monasteries have dotted the region's landscape since the12th century, and the nearby lake attracted a young Peter the Great to establish a flotilla 300 years ago that essentially laid the foundation for the creation of the Russian Navy. And here, in the 1930s, the Soviets built a narrow-gauge rail line to carry peat from its local source in Talitsy to the region's new electric power stations, where it fueled the burgeoning industrialization of the nascent communist state.

To fully understand the allure of the museum is to delve into the fine points of railway history. Most railroads the world over are constructed using wide-gauge tracks. During the 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I engaged an American engineer, Major George Whistler of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to assist in building a rail line in Russia. Whistler proposed a wide-gauge line of an even 5 feet, or 1,520 millimeters, which remains the Russian wide-gauge standard to this day.

The importance of wide-gauge railways cannot be overestimated. "The railroad is like a pioneer," said Pashinin of VOLZhD. "Coal extraction developed because the railroad appeared. Steel production developed because the railroad appeared. The timber industry flourished because the railroad appeared. If there were no railroad, what growth could there have been? There would be no Omsk, no Novosibirsk, no Krasnoyarsk ... the railroad breathed life into those places."

The story of narrow-gauge railways -- of 600, 750 or 1,000 millimeters -- runs on a parallel track. They were developed because they could be built quickly and were used in many countries during the 19th and early 20th centuries to move cargo efficiently over rough terrain or relatively short distances. Narrow-gauge locomotives and cars were generally lighter, smaller and less costly than their wide-gauge counterparts.

"Narrow-gauge railways were kind of the backbone of the railway system," explained Joe Rice, editor of Live Steam, an American publication for railway model aficionados. When railroads were first being built, said Rice, "there were so many out-of-the-way places. The lumber industry used narrow-gauge tracks almost exclusively. They had to lay track in the forest or along mountainsides where they didn't have a lot of room," he added.

The era of narrow-gauge railways came to end with the development of modern earth-moving machinery, which enabled railroad engineers to smooth out terrain and lay wide-gauge tracks. This phenomenon -- in tandem with the decline in demand for peat supplied by Talitsy to the region's energy industry -- led to the near extinction of the Pereslavl- Zalessky line. But Gusev and his cohorts stepped in to save the day.

In the West, railway preservationists, often working as volunteers, have saved some narrow-gauge lines from extinction by developing them as tourist attractions. Surviving lines in Wales and the Denver and Rio Grande system in the United States now thrive in their new guises.

In general, "[railway preservation] is a really big thing in the Western world," said Stephen Wiggs, a London-based attorney who is a member of the British railway preservation movement. According to Wiggs, who read about the Pereslavl museum in The Narrow Gauge, a journal for railway buffs, "The railway museum at Pereslavl must be viewed in the context of the railway preservation movement in other countries ... The Pereslavl outfit is very much like similar projects in the West in their early stages."

Although visitors are already welcome at the Pereslavl museum, it lacks standard museum trappings such as an entrance fee and cordoned-off exhibits. In the meantime, the few dedicated hands there will continue to cover costs themselves for travel throughout Russia in search of new memorabilia, plus the purchase and transport of those items.

It is no small task, but Dorozhkov remains undaunted. "We're not eccentrics," he said. "This is serious work. It's not just a hobby."

To drive to the museum, take the main highway from Moscow to Pereslavl-Zalessky and turn left at the Goritsky Monastery. Follow the two-lane road to a sign for Kupanskoye, turn left, travel on the winding dirt road through the woods for about two kilometers, go past a small dacha community until you reach the depot that is the museum. Another alternative is to take the two-hour bus ride from Shchyolkovsky bus station just outside metro Shchyolkovskaya to Pereslavl-Zalessky. At the Pereslavl bus station, take a cab to the museum using the above directions.