How to Ride the Russian Overnight Train

If you are a student of Russian reading this blog post, either having already applied to AC Study Abroad or still considering (do it!), then you will likely find yourself on a very long train ride in Russia. Do not be deceived—Russia is an enormous country. Its classification as the biggest on earth does not do it justice. If not connected to Eurasia, Russia could easily be considered its own continent. If you are travelling in Russia beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, you may find yourself on a very long train ride. Having completed several such train rides, including one for more than 24 hours, I would like to pass on some wisdom.

What can you possible do for that long in a sleeping compartment on a train? Talk. That one is primary. Think about it—you are trapped in a small room for a day or more with three other people, you might as well get a conversation going. Pray you are seated in the same room as a Бабушка, or two, and talk about everything.  Their stories will never disappoint. There is so much you can learn! Take the opportunity to practice your language and step into another person’s shoes. You will find Russians can be quite open on such trains. One Russian in fact told me rather excitedly, “Эта традиция в России разговаривать в поездах. Можно спросить искренние вопросы!” (“Having conversations on trains is a tradition in Russia. You can ask very honest, direct questions!”) You may never learn someone’s full name, you may never interact with them again but, if you take your headphones out and put your devices down, you may end up in a conversation you will never forget. Try it!

When conversation slows, do not retreat too quickly to movie-watching. A Russian friend and RLASP tutor said it well, pointing out the Black Sea through a train window “смотри, это мой телевизор.” (“Look, this is my television.”) Keep your GPS in hand as you watch towns and cities and mountains roll by. Be sure to notice their differences, their unique qualities. Ask, what is at the center of this city? Why does it exist? Who loves this city? Receive an education in the Russian деревне, (villages, countryside), its farms and countryside, its hidden metropolitan gems that you would not otherwise see. Do not miss watching Russia fly by outside of the train window, let it excite you and grow you.

What to bring? Start with tea—and bring enough to share! Wear comfortable clothes and expect to be too warm. Be sure your baggage is small enough to fit underneath a normal bench or what little room is spared for standing will be taken up. Try to get the blanket into the blanket cover at least one time, it is worth the experience. If you are successful, you might consider putting this on your resumé. Explore the car; meet new people; sit in the café car just to see who might come share a meal with you. Do not be afraid to take the first step. And of course, be sure to sleep.

There are many reasons why the long train ride is a Russian tradition, why it will always be a special and wonderful place for the Russian people. If and when you get to participate on an American Councils program in Russia, be sure to take a few long rides. You will not regret it!

By: Samuel McKnight
Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program
Term: Spring 2019

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