September 20, 2019 | Narrative
a meeting of souls on the midnight express
Thanks to the staggering devaluation of the ruble in the last 10 years, almost everything in Russia is dirt cheap. An illustration of this fact: A high-speed train ticket from St. Petersburg to Yaroslavl, home of my study abroad program, can be purchased for the low, low price of $34 USD. For this sum, you may obtain a 20-square-foot bunk space (linens and pillowcase included) in a train car shared with 59 fellow travelers, at least one of whom is guaranteed to snore. Russian travelers have no problem with this, bunking down as soon as the train starts moving and the lights go out. To facilitate sleep if you’re not used to such a cramped and public environment, vodka is strongly recommended. However, alcohol is prohibited outside the dining car, so sojourn there, but beware of the feet hanging off of the too-short top bunks and the frigid outside air when crossing through the cars separating you from the promised land.
The dining car is a great place to meet and talk with locals as my study abroad friends and I found out. The man closest to the door, overhearing our English chatter, immediately introduced himself as Vasya and invited us to join him at his table. For a time he entertained us with his impressive knowledge of English swear words, and we humored him by calling his wife and explaining that, yes, her husband really was speaking to some Americans. Then things took a turn for the worse. After he began pouring wine only for the girls and insisting we take a walk in the woods with him at the next station stop, we fled back to our bunks, only to realize an hour later that we had effectively dined and dashed. Three of us returned bashfully to the dining car to pay our dues and were relieved to find a much more subdued vibe, sans creepy man. We ordered tea, paid the reproachful waitress, and settled in to do our cultural linguistics homework. That is, until a graying man with a distinguished walrus mustache turned to us from the booth behind us.
“Everything good?” he asked seriously—referring, no doubt, to the uncomfortable interactions from the hour before.
“Yes, thank you,” we all chimed, touched that this grandfatherly man had kept an eye on us over his whiskey.
“Liva good?” he asked in the same tone.
“Ur… yeah, Liva good,” we repeated. None of us with our third-year Russian language skills had any idea what Liva was, but study abroad had taught us that da was the most appropriate answer to most questions. Not in this case. The man’s face darkened, and he lurched out of his booth and into the seat next to me. “Liva not good.” he spat.
“Yes, yes, Liva bad,” we agreed nervously. We weren’t going to get out of this one just by agreeing though. The man fiddled with his phone, swearing under his breath, before turning the screen towards us.
Liva, as it turns out, is the Russian word for Libya, where Russia had recently begun heavily intervening in a civil war. We found this out not via a quick Google translate, but by watching a grainy video of a group of Libyan mercenaries chopping a Russian soldier into tiny little pieces. No wonder this man was livid about our answer.
“War is very bad. Not good.”
The guys with me had turned quite green, either in response to the video or the threat of this man’s wrath. I threw a nervous glance in his direction and was surprised to see, in place of fury, a sad expression on his face.
Suddenly, I understood why this man had randomly plopped down with some American college students to chat about a distant Middle Eastern conflict and watch X-rated YouTube videos. In fact, he was not talking about Libya at all. He wasn’t enraged, he was afraid—not of the Libyan conflict, but of the perceived threat of one with the U.S. I asked him if I was right.
“…yes. Yes!” He seemed delighted that I had caught his drift. He paused the video and pulled up a picture of a young woman and a child. “This is my daughter. We went to the beach. Every family has a black sheep. Doesn’t mean anything! War bad.” He repeated a variation of this several times. I puzzled over the black sheep, conjuring up all the dysfunctional relatives he might have until I remembered the idea of the “national family,” and it clicked: The sheep was Vasya, and this man did not want us to judge the behavior of all Russians by that of one drunk on the night train. I told him I understood this, and he slapped a hand on the table in satisfaction.
“That’s it, that’s it! We Russians…we good, we bad. But your president think we all bad. You like Russia?” We nod. “You go home and tell them you like it here, you meet good people. You tell them no war.” He launched into a story of his own military career, from which he’d recently retired, interrupting the narrative to go on a thousand tangents, each as seemingly random as the one about sheep. He would stop every so often and ask if I understood; I always said I thought so, even when I wasn’t sure. But what I said didn’t matter—he knew when I didn’t get it and would repeat his idea until it clicked, when he sensed that some mutual understanding had been reached and he could move on. To my shock and growing awe, he was right every time. This man knew how I felt and thought, sensed my hesitancies and anxieties, and the reverse was true as well; we just got each other.
“When I was in the army, I learned how to do interrogations…I asked what they wanted me to ask, learned what they wanted me to learn. I don’t do that anymore. Instead I say, “Hyello. My name—Pavel. What your name?”
We told him.
“Good names. You see? There are better questions.” He sat, silent. “I am an old man, and I am tired.” He seized my homework, and with a great flourish wrote his name and phone number. “If you need anything, call me.” With a firm handshake for all, he departed, leaving our lives as abruptly as he had entered them.
I have thought for a long time about Pavel. Six months later, one thing remains clear in my mind: I have never understood anyone so well as I understood this man, and no one has ever understood me as well as he did in so short a time. My description can never do our conversation justice, because it cannot capture the sudden flash of insight I experienced, the sense that I was one of two souls communing. I say souls intentionally, even though I did not believe in souls and am still not sure I do. I do believe, however, that Pavel was and is confident of his own soul; it’s his belief that made his soul visible to me, made it possible to experience a sense of my own. Because of my bond with this man I will never meet again, I feel obliged to tell this story of Vasyas and Pavels, of a midnight train ride in a faraway country. That way I will have gone home and told someone that I liked it there, that I met good people, and that I want no war.