On a Train Platform in Siberia

Sara Alaica

It didn’t seem odd that a heavily armed police officer was leading a German Shepherd through the train, looking in at my open cabin as he passed. It was Russia - they didn’t take terrorism lightly. They had locked down Sochi and brought in hundreds of thousands of armed guards to protect civilians, and I could still remember what had happened to the Chechen militants that had taken hostages in 2002. All forty of them had been gassed and killed while still unconscious.

Or maybe it didn’t seem odd because I had just been reading the Gulag Archipelago. I had thought it would be appropriate to bring with me on a train journey through Siberia, and now it seemed like the police officer had stepped out from the pages of the book.

I sat up in my bunk and looked at the clock on the small table separating the beds. In a few minutes we’d be stopping and I’d be able to go out onto the platform. The windows didn’t open in the cabins and they kept it uncomfortably warm, so that indoors I sat around sweating in a tank top and shorts, and would have to put on layers of clothes before going back out.

Outside the unending birch forest filled the window, clothed in the yellow and gold of October. The book had unsettled me. In one passage Solzhenitsyn had addressed the reader directly, addressed me, in the future, as I sat in a Russian passenger train going past the places he had been exiled to. On all the railroads of the country this very minute, right now, people who have just been fed salt herring are licking their dry lips with bitter tongues. They dream of the happiness of stretching out one's legs and of the relief one feels after going to the toilet.

It made me think of New York, when I had gone to the currency exchange and the man behind the desk had told me that they didn’t sell Russian rubles. “Why not?”
“Because of the issues in that country right now,” he had replied, and I had been annoyed at the inconvenience, but had never thought about what that meant. They weren’t selling rubles because the currency was being devalued so quickly, that ordinary citizens, like the ones on this train, were losing their life savings, while I was travelling for pleasure, in first class, with a cabin door that locked.

I needed some fresh air.

The train attendant folded out the metal stairs and I climbed down onto the cold platform. “Tridstat minut?” I asked her, raising my fingers into a three and a zero, and she nodded yes, that’s how much time I had, so I tucked my hands into my pockets and headed down the platform.

It was just another Siberian town, like all the others, with rows of concrete platforms separating the tracks, a station with a clock tower and stray dogs sniffing under the train carriages. Passengers from other parts of the train stood huddled near their cars, talking and smoking, while others lined up at the wooden kiosks scattered along the platform selling cold water, fresh fruit, dried noodles and off-brand toys.

As I neared the back of the train I could make out another group of passengers in the distance, just past the last car. They were sitting on the ground, surrounded by police officers. The man I had seen earlier, the one with the German Shepherd, walked along the perimeter. He had been on the train because we were transporting prisoners.

I approached as closely as I dared and saw a man being led down the stairs of the carriage, his feet shackled. I had been transported to the past – this couldn’t be happening now, exactly as Solzhenitsyn had described to me. His words came back to me. At times they did make the prisoners sit right there awkwardly on the platform…how are they supposed to look at us? With hatred? Their consciences don't permit it.

So I stood there and stared at them, too afraid to take a photo, already knowing why they were seated and not standing, because Solzhenitsyn had told me, because it was harder to escape that way, until a truck pulled up next to the train station and one of the police officers went over to it.

And since they never blew a whistle to warn you that the train was ready to leave, I realized that I would have to run to the front of the train to get back in time, so I turned away reluctantly, and watched them over my shoulder, with pity.

The train began moving as I settled back into my cabin, and the little town passed slowly and then faster and faster by the window, until it we had left it far behind. The Gulag was closed on the table, so I picked it up and leafed through it until I found the passage I was looking for.

The train starts—and a hundred crowded prisoner destinies, tormented hearts, are borne along the same snaky rails, behind the same smoke, past the same fields, posts, and haystacks as you, and even a few seconds sooner than you…And could you possibly believe—and will you possibly believe when reading these lines—that in the same size compartment as yours, but up ahead in that zak car, there are fourteen people? And if there are twenty-five? And if there are thirty?

I put the book down and looked out the window at the rolling taiga. Yes, I could believe it.