Berlin to Moscow by Train: 30 days to USSR Collapse
(Berlin, MOSCOW) — It was Saturday night in December 1991, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when we crossed the line into East Berlin. Expecting a city in rapid transition, full of eager Western wannabes, and night life rivaling its western counterpart, West Berlin, my husband, David, and I found ourselves walking alone on the famous Alexanderplatz.
Walking the lonely streets to areas unknown, a half dozen cars pulled toward us, each asking us directions in rapid German. It was assumed we were East Berliners, but I was convinced by now the locals were mostly at home drinking hot tea, and everyone else was as lost as we were.
The drabness was broken by a stretch of well-lit stores, now closed, built some time after the fall of the wall. A fashionable pub was open, with a limited menu of ice cream, coffee and liquor. The only obvious place to eat was at Wienerwald, Germany’s answer to Denny’s.
We stumbled upon Zur Letzen Instanz, a smoke-filled tavern dating to 1612 on a dark hidden street. Napoleon and his team of men favored this place, and they probably got better service than we did. Nothing can be said for the food since we were never waited on, but the atmosphere brimmed with old world flavor, which is why we stayed in the first place.
Returning to West Berlin, where Saturday nights don’t end until noon on Sunday, neon streets lit the way to our hotel, the Schwiezerkoff Berlin, a brand new addition to the Intercontinental chain with the largest hotel swimming pool in Berlin, then anyways.
Set in lush white surroundings, the immense lap pool evinced the extremes of Western extravagance and provided a last chance workout before riding a 32-hour train the next day to Moscow, where the Soviet Union would collapse in 30 days.
“May we have two first class tickets with a sleeping cabin to Moscow,” I said to the woman at the railway station who greeted me in English. She laughed. Should I have asked in German? Was it my emphatic “first class?” “Moscow,” she shook her head. “That’s a long way.” Smiling and breaking into chuckles throughout the transaction, she gave me reason to worry. “Do many Americans take this route?” She laughed again. “No. Only the Russians.”
It was an investigatory trip for us. We were exploring business opportunities in Russia and were scheduled to meet at the White House with senior officials of the Prime Minister’s Innovation Council. Tourism was one of our interests, which is one reason why we took the train from Berlin.
Our train attendant spoke only Russian and a few German words. She appeared in her late fifties, with severe brown eyes that missed nothing and a strong sense of authority that didn’t match her five foot frame.
Whenever she asked a question, we’d both say “yes,” a polite way of saying, “We have no idea what you are saying.” She understood when I asked “Parlez-vous francais?” and shot back her answer: “Russe”. She left with our train tickets and returned with an old dictionary pointing to a key work, spelled “t-e-e”. Yes, we answered in emphatic fluency. We’d like a cup of tea.
Two ornately carved silver covers held the glasses of bland tea that she set on the table. It reminded me of Hedrick Smith’s book, “The Russians”, when he described things created just for show.
David returned the favor with a pack of Marlboros, which brought her hand to her heart and a smile to her face. I hoped she wouldn’t light up in our non-smoking cabin, but that was before I learned rules don’t bend or break on a Russian train. Marlboros, like bubble gum and coins, are typical Western tokens desired by the Russians, so we were prepared in case we needed a favor or wished to return one. Marlboros, like bubble gum and coins, are typical Western tokens favored by the Russians, so we were prepared in case we needed a favor or wished to return one.
It was a quiet train, interrupted only by the calls of regimen. We slept through the rest of Germany until a passport policeman entered our cabin. “Russe?” we asked. He laughed. “Polsh” (sic). We were a long way from Russia. Delight filled his eyes as he thumbed through our U.S. passports. He toyed with David’s worn out one, running his thumb over the photo a couple of times. We asked for a stamp, he smiled and gladly gave us our only token of Poland.
Having ridden trains across countless countries, it was surprising, almost suspect, how quiet this one continued to be. I knew the Russians were not known to be gregarious and expressive, but 32 hours on a train would drive anybody a little stir crazy. I inspected the aisle to discover a couple speaking inaudibly. Two young children came to peak in our door and ran away.
The train dragged through a dull day in Poland, rolling past bare yellow hills and still people in muted clothing fishing in lakes lined with scraggly trees. We passed run-down farmlands and lonely tin-roofed houses, some in bright yellows, blues, and reds, Crayola colors that lent hope to a somber season. Storybook garden houses were well-groomed, waiting for their bare lands to brighten at the breadth of spring. Wafts of white vapor hung in the air. Colorful gates surrounded families of gravestones. Men huddled around fires, others repaired train tracks in the rain.
The day grew dim in mid-afternoon and Poland took on a warm pink hue. Soft sloping hills folded into the mist and bare birch trees made spider web-like impressions against a graying shroud. Fiery pink, the hard-edged sun dropped into the last fold, bathing the land with an unearthly luminescence. The sky was black at 4:30.
At night there was nothing to do but sit, read, and think of food. Hot water and tea were the only refreshments available on board, no food. There was no dining car, so it was good that we had stocked up in Berlin, especially because the Warsaw train station had nothing to offer either.
A black trench coat appeared at the door, signaling our approach to the Russian border. Surprised at the sight of our passports, he asked “U.S.A.?” staring my husband and me hard in the eyes. Guilty!
It was a scene from an old Russian spy novel, but it was December 1991. There was nothing casual about the officer’s demeanor, as if he hadn’t learned about perestroika, and the inevitable changes that are happening now and still lay ahead.
He checked the pages of my passport several times. David’s tattered one showed the ravages of a fall in the Sea of Cortez, so it required more scrupulous inspection. He ran his thumb across his photo over and over again, much more severely than his Polish counterpart. We laughed. There’s something about having a governmental invitation in your back pocket that sets you at ease when you’re being scrutinized by the Russian police. Our laughter ceased when he ordered us out of the cabin, but he was only checking for stowaways. (I could understand that if we were heading the other direction, but we were going to Moscow at a peerless time of turbulent change and unrest). On the floor lay the Arizona Republic I had saved with a photo of a man and woman rummaging for food in a garbage dump near Moscow (as seen in America, but they’d never believe that).
“We’re dead,” I thought, remembering the section on the customs form about foreign literature that I left blank. He didn’t notice it. He stamped our visas, which were tucked into our passports and handed them over. Relief.
Next came a green suit with emblems who snatched our customs forms. He perused them quickly. “Golt?” he barked, bending over me and pointing to my wedding ring. I nodded and the ring was registered as a commodity that cannot be sold or exchanged.
Discovering that our passports weren’t stamped I gathered the gumption to follow them to the door to request the official mark of Russia. Stamps are not required, and certainly not part of the regimen, so my request was already denied by protocol. Pointing to my stamped visa, the policeman’s hard expression was enough to tell me that another stamp was out of the question. They stepped onto the wet crackling gravel and disappeared into the night mist.
Returning to the cabin, the cast of our railroad car appeared in the aisle staring in wonder at the foreigner who questioned authority. Drama on the Moscow Express.
Our train conductor followed me to our cabin attempting to explain why I didn’t need a stamp. Imitating her reaction to the Marlboro gift, I took my hand to my heart, and she understood my persistence. Passports in hand, she went outside to the officials, only to return in minutes. “Nein,” she said shaking her head.
We were entering the land of regimen, a land where change requires a jolt to the Eastern mindset. One way to do that is for the Russians to come face to face with those once forbidden foreigners who now visit more often, to do business, explore and profit from their land —a land of growing joint ventures with firms of wealthy nations that some say will save them from economic ruin.
Two weeks later the land we were crossing, Balrussia, became part of the new commonwealth. Boundaries and new policies may change overnight, but the people, long set in regimen, are slow to recognize their new independence and how to make the most of it.
Our train conductor tried to make the most of her face to face opportunity. That night, she drew me to her quarters, turned on the light and showed me a tacky watch with a guys face on it. The light flickered, and the face was Gorbachev, still tacky. She took out a German dictionary, pointing to “kaufen” (to buy) and I began to feel squirmy. I pretended I didn’t understand, excused myself, and sent David to her.
Peeking through the door, I saw her write $50 on his pad and hoped in his reluctance he was pondering a polite way to exit as I did. We still had a long way to go and she was the last person we’d want to offend at this point.
Boredom struck. Escaping our first class confines, we headed for the dimly lit second class cars which seemed twice as full as ours. Russians stood in the aisles talking in monotone, casting puzzled looks our way as we passed them smiling. Nobody laughed or smiled, not even the group in the next car which was full of empty bottles of Cobemckoe Ulaunarickoe, a Russian champagne. I took an empty bottle so I’d know how to spell it, drawing a car-full of eyes upon me as I slithered back to my cabin.
The first class aisle was empty, save for a plump young girl who directed me from a cabin I had mistaken for mine; and for our next door neighbor who stood outside our door. “On a tour?” he asked. He was a developer working on a new joint venture with a German firm and he wondered what two Americans were doing traveling alone to Moscow.
If we were on a tour, we were the only two in it, he probably could figure on his own. So I had the impression he wanted to talk with us. We welcomed his dry questions on a train where even the children seemed severe and unapproachable. Our tickets were set on the table, marking our approach to Moscow. One at a time the cabin doors slid open and the cast reappeared.
The two cars next to us were full to the ceilings with boxes of goods to be sold in Moscow, and we realized why the train was so quiet. The family of the young girl who stirred me away from one of the cabins earlier owned the boxes. Our neighbor had told us her parents worked for one of the embassies and were capitalizing on their freedom to travel back and forth.
We chugged slowly, endlessly through an immense jungle of high rise apartment buildings and dimly lit streets, bringing to mind images of Gotham City in the 1930s, or East Berlin with 50,000 more high rises. It took more than an hour to make it to the Moscva Train Station. On arrival we bolted from the train, ignoring the black market money changers who swooned upon us.
Outside a sidewalk orchestra played a concert hall rendition of Dr. Zhivago’s theme song to a crowd of men; a surreal effect in a seedy neighborhood of pesty opportunists and hustling taxi drivers who wouldn’t leave us alone. When the music stopped we left in a waiting car ready to explore the new land of opportunity.
Teresa Shaw Lengyel is a travel writer and lifer at Venture Up Travel and Team Building Events.