MOSCOW – The centuries-old monasteries and country estates on Moscow’s outskirts may speak to Russia’s history and traditions, but the train trips to get to them say a lot about what Russia is like today.
The short-distance electric trains, or elektrichkas, are little changed from Soviet times. They are crowded, stuffy and dirty, with no amenities, just rows of bare benches, sometimes still made of wood.
But they have a life all their own. As soon as a train pulls out of Moscow, a cast of colourful, enterprising vendors, beggars and musicians begins to move through the cars, one right after another, shouting or singing over the pounding of the train wheels.
Since the vendors technically operate illegally, railway officials pretend they do not exist, creating one of those Gogolesque situations that are still all too common in Russia.
The hawkers peddle an array of items, anything from fishing rods, flashlights and mini Tasers to safety pins, adhesive bandages, socks and books. A multi-disc BBC documentary on oceans has been a favourite this summer, and toys are always a hit.
On a recent Saturday afternoon trip, a vendor sent a plastic bird flying through the car as he listed some of its special qualities. “It doesn’t drink vodka, won’t eat your food,” he said, offering the bird to all comers for 50 rubles (about $1.65).
Another held up a Rubik’s Cube that he said had a “unique technology” allowing it to spin on its own.
Two teenage Gypsy girls followed, singing about the hardships of poverty.
The electric trains are used by commuters who live in bedroom communities around Moscow, but on summer weekends most of the passengers are headed to their dachas in the countryside. They sit on hard benches, their bags and baskets piled around them.
Young men often congregate on the platforms between cars to drink beer. If they need to urinate, they aim for spaces where two cars join, since there are no toilets on these trains. Once in a while, fights break out.
Among these passengers are the occasional foreign tourists, most likely on their way to the monastery in Sergiev Posad, about 75 kilometres from Moscow. The star-studded blue onion domes of one of its cathedrals have helped make the monastery one of Russia’s top tourist destinations.
The Abramtsevo Estate, which in the late 19th century became an artist colony for some of Russia’s most gifted artists, is nearby.
Some Russian passengers on the trains are so used to the vendors they barely look up. Others find them annoying.
“They sell all kinds of junk,” said Vera Kuzisuyeva, a 60-year-old nurse. “They bother me, they get on my nerves.” But she said she sometimes buys little things from them.
Given the shaky legal ground of their profession, most vendors did not want to be photographed. Three vendors surrounded an Associated Press photographer and threatened him.
“You won’t make a career on this,” a massive bald man with a thick scar across his forehead told the photographer as he loomed over him.
A group of vendors waiting for a train to depart at the Yaroslavsky train station in Moscow warned an AP reporter not to ask too many questions.
“Watch where you stick your nose,” said a middle-aged woman selling pocket fans.
The Moscow railways company denied the vendors operated on its trains.
“We do not have sales on the elektrichkas, God forbid,” said one press officer. Another press officer said asking whether vendors operated legally on the electric trains was like asking “Will you marry me?” She said there was no simple answer. Both press officers refused to give their names.
Russian Railways, a state-owned monopoly, has hired some vendors to sell ice cream and other snacks on the trains, and outfitted them with blue smocks. Some of the vendors selling ice cream wear the smocks, but most do not.
Tatyana Matyushina, an analyst with a market research consultancy, said she suspects the sales are an organized operation. Police condone the sales, most likely after taking their cut, she said.
“It’s like a corporation,” Matyushina said. She estimated the business could be worth several million dollars annually.
Back on the Saturday afternoon train, the parade of vendors continued.
A large man wearing a blue shirt and red pants hawked a toy propeller with blinking lights for 100 rubles (about $3.25). “You can spin it like a wheel, or send it into the air,” he said.
He was followed by a thin man in a tiger shirt offering a variety of scissors. The next vendor, all in black, slid through the car holding up black cellphone sleeves in a raised hand.
Lyubov Korneva, a 55-year-old sales manager, bought one of the propellers. She was on her way to see her family and hadn’t had time to buy a present for her grandson.
“He will play with it, he will be happy,” Korneva said.