Do you talk to the person sitting next to you on public transport? Maybe not on a five minute bus ride, but what if it takes 50 minutes? Or 50 hours? We set out on a journey on the Transsiberian railway, talking to the people we met along the way. This is more than a journey of self discovery. It is an exploration of both vast and confined spaces. The overwhelmingly big size of the Russian Federation, and the cramped and packed train carriages. A country that for insiders is the motherland so big, they only discovered their own back yard. For the stranger a mystery, that is so much more than just political headlines.
We start our journey in Moscow, capital of modern Russia and one of the largest cities in the world. An incredible mix of past and present, that is not only large by population. The subways are deep, the roads are wide, the monuments tall; it was built to impress. Its no surprise that until recently, the clocks on all the russian train stations were ticking at Moscow time.
Before Putin came to power, he used to be a regular guy having his regular life in Novosibirsk, when one day his friend’s little son saw Putin on TV for the first time. “Look, mommy, that’s uncle Vasily!” From that moment on, his life has never been the same.
The Fortune Teller
The cutest and charismatic Russian granny who had a stroke six months ago and can no longer leave her house. How do you connect to younger generation without social media or smart phone? Her way is numerology and esotery, a “science” that describes personality, health and predicts the future.
Heading east, we didn’t take the classic transsiberian route, but decided to follow the Volga and see life along Europe’s longest river. Seeing the sun set over the water, it was easy to imagine how this river has been a source of inspiration for generations of poets and painters. And like the cities themselves, their residents had surprising connections to the past.
She calls herself “an extinct dinosaur in a modern society”. Indeed, it’s almost like she travelled here by time machine. Her job is a well-respected profession in 18th century: lace maker. She lives with her husband in patriarchy, meaning that she obeys him all the time, thinks that her life mission is to be next to him and asks for permission each time she leaves the house.
Have you ever looked at the lit windows of random homes and wondered, who is living inside and what their life is like? Kazan’s hospitality had no borders, so here’s a twist to our usual approach: we didn’t meet people in the street or the train this time, we were invited into their homes. Meet three men who were not scared to change their life. 180 degrees. For the better.
Crossing into the asian part of the Eurasian landmass to Ekaterinburg. The last megacity and – according to one lady – the end of civilization. We were warned of russia’s wild east before, but never so plainly. The city itself feels young, with a lot to offer and an afternoon in the park with songs and a guitar, makes us feel like we are living within a movie about russia ourselves.
Walking down the main street of Ekaterinburg we see a guy in a huge KFC fries costume handing out flyers in the street. This guy’s story is an impersonation of Drake’s “started from the bottom”: he’s got a passion for music, but his mom wanted him to get a profession for a “real man”: that of a miner. Coming from a poor family, he started working when he was 12 with a fake ID.
As we get to Ekaterinburg downtown, we see a group of teens sticking yellow tape all over their bodies. As they are leaving we aks them about it and are invited to follow them and spend the whole day in the park together. They are there to sing songs and just to talk: no alcohol or cigarettes involved. The group has some LGBT couples as well as a transgender. In between songs on the guitar we get to talk to them about their dreams, bullying at school, misunderstandings with their parents and plans for the future.
After two days on the train the landscapes changed to the endless Taiga. Finally, Siberia. The place that evokes so many associations with untamed, raw nature. Are people different? Maybe. Is it dangerous? Probably. We saw signs warning of bears, but the animal that’s going to bite you is much smaller. And after all: we came back alive to tell you about it. Definitely because we were taken care of, by the warm-hearted people of Siberia.
Don’t be deceived by her age. At 59, Irina climbs with impressive skill and absolutely no sense of fear. When she was four, she got to the top of the mountain by chance and fell in love with the heights ever since. She is a part of the Stolbist culture. We talk about the friends she lost as they climbed, what climbing is for her and aout the culture of Stolbisti that combines rebellion, freedom and climbing – without ropes.
Viktoria is not a real name. In Russia if you are employed by police, you sign a document that prohibits you to talk about the cases you worked on for 10 years. And there is a lot to tell, but most importantly, about a role of a woman working for police forces. Viktoria has seen it all, she would not recommend any woman to join police in Russia. At the same time, she feels like women are very important there.
As we get our dinner in wagon-restaurant, we meet miners who are getting back from a soccer match with another mine. When one of them makes a rude joke, the foreman stands up and makes him apologize. We talk about what it takes to become a miner, what life is like in Russia’s far north and what happens with gays on the bottom of a dark mine.
In three years of travelling russia as hitchhikers, Olya and Jenya have never felt unsafe, despite the stories they tell of their adventures. How they got a lift from a guy who just got out of prison. How once their driver was so kind to take their photo in front of a lake, forgot to pull the handbrake and the car went into the water, or how long-haul truck drivers let them steer the wheel.
After three weeks, we reached the far east of Russia. Thinking this will be the end of it, we were told it is actually the beginning. The sun rises in the east so this is where the country starts. Life along the Amur, or on the pacific coast is already in full swing, while Moscow is still asleep, 9288km away.
A former prisoner we meet at the shoe repair store who spent many years in Russian jail. The ugly truth he tells us is … ugly. What are the social layers in Russian prison, how to do a prison tatoo and what they mean, how to live in prison like a fucking 5 star hotel. No regrets about the past, just complains about how difficult life has become in comparison with the 90’s with the invention of drones and cameras.
Apparently illegal car racing is a thing in Vladivostok. 300 km/h is not unheard of. The rules are simple: two cars line up at the start line and go as fast as hell for a quarter mile. On an open road, with regular traffic. Don’t tell anyone, cause the cops might come (and in the end, they do). An important figure in Vladivostok racing, Sergey tells us about the culture of street racing in Vladivostok.