The Iron Scar
Tickets to ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad run in the thousands when crossing nearly six thousand miles in second class, and if you miss a connection, you start over, you must buy new tickets, you are simply out of luck.
Our ride out of Yekaterinburg was scheduled to leave at 8 p.m., so my son and I lounged in the hotel across from the station, reading, relaxing, and talking about how much we loved the city, this gateway to Siberia, the town that sits on the European/Asian border with cafes, outdoor concerts and festive activities running up and down the colorful waterfront. We talked about the heart-wrenching museum and cathedral on the spot where the last Czar’s family was slaughtered. We were tired and sunburnt from the seventy-five-degree temperatures and the bright day. He read, and I glanced at the tickets in some sort of compulsive need to know again that 20 hundred hours was 8 o’clock, just over two hours away since it was just 6 p.m.
Then I saw the ticket. The train was to depart at 1806. Six minutes after six. Six minutes away. About the time it takes just to catch the ancient, tiny elevator to the lobby. My heart sank. I yelled for Michael to grab his things; I grabbed mine, bypassing my normal compulsive inspection of the hotel room to make sure we didn’t leave anything behind. He asked if I was misreading what at home we call military time, but I wasn’t. We rode the elevator and saw on the agent’s sheet that she had, in fact, written 20:06, but the actual, official, paid-in-full, use-it-or-you’re-screwed ticket said 18:06, and at that moment I trusted the ticketing agency more than the lady in London who wrote a letter.
We ran. At fifteen minutes past six we arrived at the station, nine minutes after the train’s departure time according to the ticket. I struggled with the Russian language on the board, looking for Irkutsk, the next stop on our journey, but it wasn’t listed. I asked everyone around in front of the terminal schedule sign but every person shrugged and walked away. Finally I found a guard, and I asked about the train to Irkutsk and he shook his head, his hands up in an internationally recognizable apologetic manner: Sorry, he said, “Izveneetia.” There was no train.
I wondered if I had suddenly put my son in some sort of dangerous situation. This rail was all about the contemplation of parenting, of wondering if we’ve made the right decisions. This is the same rail ridden by Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra and their son and daughters for the last time, slaughtered just a few hundred yards from the station. This is the line, this same wretched rail, this iron scar carved across thousands of kilometers, that carried more than three thousand Jews from their homes, their families, their histories and futures to Irkutsk, ironically called the “Paris of Siberia”; it carried tens of thousands to new settlements on the Amur River, a quarter of a world away. Stalin sent them there to be free to pursue their Yiddish Culture as far away as possible from where these folks wanted to be. This is the same line used to escape the Nazis, find freedom, imprison political revolutionaries, and seek out new possibilities.
I just wanted to get to Lake Baikal, north of Irkutsk, without having to spend another three thousand dollars. I feared we had missed our connection by two solid hours.
A gentleman nearby said, “You are early. It leaves for Irkutsk at 8:06, 20:06. At the train station, all tickets are marked in Moscow time; that is two hours before us.”
I stared at the man.
“Moscow time? Not local time?”
“No, all tickets throughout Russia on the rail are registered in Moscow time. Rest.”
“That is very confusing,” I said. “And stupid,” I added. “Moscow time? So it is six?”
“No it is four.”
“In Moscow it is four, so here in the station it is four. If you go back outside, it is six. That is why you are confused. You didn’t notice when you took the train here?”
“No, the ticket said we were leaving at five and we left at five.”
“That is because you were on Moscow time both inside and outside when you left that time zone. When you get to Vladivostok, it will be seven hours ahead of Moscow time outside the station in the city, but inside the station it is Moscow time. So right now in Vladivostok it is just after eleven at night, but inside the station it is only four.”
“Welcome to Russia.”
We went back to the hotel room and rested, returning almost two hours later at eight o’clock for the six o’clock train with time to spare. When the train left I turned off all devices with a clock. I didn’t need to know. My life is ruled by time, by schedules, so by God I took advantage of the crossing and stared instead out the window toward the endless forests. I was to learn that all people think in Moscow time for train travel. In the markets on the lake north of Irkutsk, ask what time the train leaves for the next city and the answer will be in Moscow time. The clocks on the trains are all set to Moscow time, and when the train pulled into the stations all across the eight time zones this train crossed, the prompt on my cell phone asked if I wanted to switch to Moscow time, even when I was nearly half a world away.
Should I find it strange that throughout the empire everyone thinks in Moscow, knows what time it is in Moscow, has their attention for scheduling their lives on Moscow time? Some have said it makes it easier to travel so you are not constantly going in and out of other time zones. No, it doesn’t. But I never thought about Moscow so much as when I wondered what time it was. And I’m not so sure that isn’t the point.
Bob Kunzinger’s work has previously appeared in the pages of The Ilanot Review, as well as in World War 2 History Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Southern Humanities Review, Best American Essays. He is the author of five books of essays.