From Red Square to Tiananmen Square
A Trans-Siberian Tale
A Tribute to Tolstoy
As Tolstoy devotees, we felt it would be sacrilegious not to visit the Tolstoy museum in Moscow and his estate - Yasnya Polyana - in Tula. Tolstoy loved his country home but his wife dreaded that their children would not receive a proper education there. The Tolstoys -- papa and mama Tolstoy and their eight children moved to their Moscow home in 1884. In this abode, Tolstoy wrote his famous long stories Kroytzer Sonata, Death of Ivan Ilych, Father Sergius etc. It is a beautiful old home a large two storied wooden structure with a lush green backyard, a stable, a separate kitchen, summer porch and servant quarters. In the living room, Tolstoy read from his manuscripts to Chekov and Gorky among many other literary figures of his time. We also saw Tolstoian eccentricities on display the equipment he used to make his own shoes, the bicycles he rode even when he was nearly eighty, his weight-lifting and exercise gear, his low-ceiling office room with a first generation type-writer.
One problem in almost all Russian museums is the absence of information in English. We felt it most acutely in Yasnya Poliana. The museum guides did not speak English either. Almost everywhere we saw more Russian than foreign tourists. Thanks to domestic tourism, Russia can afford to ignore the need for providing information in English. Yasnya Poliana was the estate that Tolstoy inherited from his maternal grandfather. Surrounded by birch and fur trees and apple orchards, the estate is soothing and tranquil. No wonder it was the love of his life. It is where Tolstoy created his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Nikolai Levin's estate the idealist hero in Anna Karenina and a Tolstoy self-image bore striking similarity to Yasnya Polyana. Here in Yasnya Poliana, Tolstoy started his school for the local village children. It is humbling to see that Tolstoy used the most elegant structure in the estate for the school and took an ordinary building for his family's use.
The place when Tolstoy's body was laid to rest.
Tolstoy was a hermit in progress. It took him a lifetime to denounce wealth and embrace simplicity. The process was gradual. He was always conflicted between his obligation as an aristocrat and his inner spiritualism. Slowly but surely, that inner struggle becomes evident in Tolstoy's work. His grave is the testament to his final victory. It is without a tombstone, without any ornate markings or walls. Tolstoy's grave is simple, only adorned with grass. It's almost as powerful as his prose, radiating simplicity as he held close to his heart.
The four-hour long drive to Tula was uneventful. It was, however, interesting to see that a large number of Russian made cars - mostly Ladas and Volgas - that broke down on the road. The drivers of these vehicles were mostly elderly Russians. While they desperately tried to fix their cars on the wayside, the hip Russian youth sped by in their Japanese and European-made vehicles. Like the cars and their owners on the highway, the nation itself seemed to be on two different speeds. The older generation seems to be lagging behind and falling through the cracks in the heartless modernization of Russia. Their cars and their lives are facing the challenge to keep up.
Roads are often the microcosm of the society that they connect and serve. Rich Russians seemed reckless in the way they drove their BMWs and Porches. Moscow highways were abuzz with these drivers they drove as fast as they could without any concern for traffic rules, fellow travellers or pedestrians. This almost resembled their race to become rich overnight.. But, there was still some order in that chaos. Dhaka roads also mirrors the society we live in. They manifest a total disregard for a rule-based traffic. It is symptomatic of our disregard for rules in general. In Dhaka, we negotiate or bargain our 'right of way' at every turn and at every traffic light. There is no set rule. Our streets are near-anarchic. Our rights on the road are tentative and ad hoc as they are in general.
On the Train
After spending four nights in Moscow and a pilgrimage to Yasnya Polyana, we felt ready to embark on our Trans Siberian journey. Armed with the Lonely Planet Russian Phrase book, we boarded the train from Moscow's Kazansky station. I was surprised that the platform, as large as it was, did not have a roof or shed. On a sunny day like this, we did not mind boarding the train from a bare-bones platform. I wonder what it would be like to wait for trains when the thermometer dropped 30 degrees below freezing. Thank God our honeymoon was not in the winter.
Our first class compartment was tiny. It had upper and lower berths and could accommodate four. But we were glad it was entirely ours. After all, it was our honeymoon. We also belong to a generation that is willing to pay a higher price for privacy. Our train rolled out of the station ten minutes after at the scheduled time. In this first ten minutes, we discovered that air-conditioning would work only if the train moved. We also found out that all windows were sealed off. What happened during the winter then? Did the heating stopped too, with the train coming to a halt regularly? We shuddered even at the thought of it. Again, we were grateful that it was not winter.
Our train snailed through the armpit of Moscow. There was more evidence of poverty before our roaming eyes than what we saw on the main streets of Moscow. Russia surely seemed divided and the sights through our window made it vivid. In the first eight hours, we passed many small towns and hamlets before the sunset at around 10:45 pm. We were yet to get used to this almost 'midnight sun' phenomenon. Our first major stop was Yaroslav an industrial city about 500 km north-east of Moscow. At Yaroslav, we bought sunflower seed candies and Russian delicacies.
The first night went by quickly. In the dining car, our Russian phrase book did not come of much help. We pretty soon resorted to sign language, which proved more effective than our frantic search for the right words from the phrase book. Our ticket price was supposed to include all meals but we discovered, rather disheartened, that it only covered one meal a day. We ordered some tasty vegetable soup it was nothing like the Chinese or the Japanese soup that we are used to. We also found that Russian cuisine, at least the ones offered on the train, contained a lot of dill and salt. Back in our Kupe - what we call a compartment - I was engrossed in the enchanting Master and Margarita and my wife was deep into Anna Karenina before thick Russian prose and the rhythm of the train put us to sleep.
To be continued
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