Russians may bid farewell to the dormitory on wheels
Ask anybody who has spent some time in Russia how to get a deeper insight into the realities of life in the world’s largest country, and the chances are they will advise you to make a long-distance journey by train in third class, or “platzkart.”
A legacy of the Soviet era, platzkart carriages are open-plan sleeping cars accommodating as many as 54 passengers. Cheap, sociable and full of passengers from all walks of Russian life, platzkart offers the chance to experience a journey that may not be entirely comfortable. Despite being frequently derided by wealthier Russians, for many, platzkart carriages are a nostalgic reminder of childhood journeys and holidays.
But now the end of the line could be in sight for the humble platzkart carriage, following recent comments by Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin, who has announced plans to replace platzkart cars with more comfortable rolling stock in the near future.
"In my opinion, an anachronism such as platzkart needs to be replaced by more comfortable forms of transport,” he said.
Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has also weighed in on the issue, comparing platzkart cars to “a flophouse” and lamenting their lack of space.
“It’s impossible to sleep,” he said. “People walk past and nudge your foot. Where can you put your feet? You can’t find carriages like this anywhere else. They were invented by the proletariat.”
Traveling platzkart is indeed a communal experience that leaves no room for class snobbery. Unlike second-class carriages (“kupe”), which resemble European-style sleeping cars, a platzkart carriage is more like a mobile dormitory. While in kupe each compartment has a sliding door, the bays in a platzkart carriage are open, linked by an aisle running the length of the carriage. Additionally, whereas in kupe there are only four beds in each compartment, in a platzkart section there are six – two double bunks facing each other across a table, and on the other side of the aisle, two more narrow beds against the wall.
However, tickets for platzkart are significantly cheaper. A typical Moscow to St. Petersburg platzkart ticket costs between 1,000 rubles and 1,500 rubles, while a kupe ticket is 2,000 rubles to 3,000 rubles. The Moscow to Vladivostok train, which takes six days, will cost a minimum of 7,000 rubles, while kupe starts at 12,000 rubles.
Detractors of platzkart are quick to point out its deficiencies: It is crowded and often stuffy, there is no privacy, and there are only two toilets for 54 people. Moreover, as Zhirinovsky noted, the beds are short, and the feet of taller passengers tend to protrude into the aisle. Yet for many travelers, the inconveniences of platzkart are far outweighed by the sense of adventure, as well as the fascinating close-up it provides of ordinary Russians – platzkart is a true Noah’s Ark.
Here you can meet students on their way home to the provinces, musicians, factory workers, engineers, miners, athletes en route to a competition in another city, or traders bringing cheap imported goods from China or Central Asia to Russia. In contrast, your companions in kupe are likely to be drawn exclusively from the middle classes.
The platzkart car is above all a great leveler, and a special camaraderie is fostered on longer journeys, when a spirit of solidarity often results in bonds being formed between passengers surprisingly quickly. Stories are told, family histories recounted, politics debated, and food and drink freely shared.
A five-day odyssey I once made from Vladivostok to Omsk was transformed by an engineer from Novosibirsk and two young naval conscripts returning home to Samara from a posting in the Far East. Not only did we spend several days eating, drinking and playing cards together, but we were even invited for dinner with the carriage attendants and entertained by a group of soldiers rescuing a man who had fallen out of the train.
On another journey, I boarded an Irkutsk-bound train in Barnaul in southern Siberia to find it packed with Uzbek traders and their cargo – hundreds of boxes of fruit stacked in the aisle, piled on the beds and crammed onto the luggage racks. On locating my berth, I discovered that it was loaded with a hundred or so melons. I spent the next half an hour negotiating with their owner to get him to move the offending fruit.
Such episodes are part of the everyday currency of life in platzkart, and veterans have a lifetime’s worth of such stories to tell. But for how much longer?
While it seems likely that platzkart cars will run on more out-of-the-way routes for years to come, such picaresque adventures are likely to become more and more a thing of the past, as Russia gradually moves away from “proletarian” forms of transport and toward a more European model.