We began with an assembly at the Royal Aurora Hotel in Moscow. The travelers had gathered from various parts of the world. Some had taken a comfortable river cruise from St.Petersburg, most had been met after arrival at Domododevo Airport. En route to the city we were greeted by numerous hoardings featuring a large Gerard Depardieu, a new Russian passport holder (and 13% taxpayer), advertising something forgettable. Others announced the release of some torrid film called “Sin City 2”. There are many new Orthodox churches with beautifully gilded domes, countered by 7 storey Munich-style glass walled motor car showrooms. Traffic lights on major roads have a 60 second numbered countdown for drivers. We pass branches of “Makdonalds” (several recently closed down in retaliation for sanctions, though officially on “health and hygiene” grounds). The Dostoyevsky monument stands out in front of the Russian State Library. Nearby, a flower-selling cabin is offering a 24 hour service.
Unlike the old Soviet days, when even luxury hotels, like the huge Rossyia, were controlled by the floor ladies and it was advisable to bring your own toilet paper and rubber washbasin stoppers, our hotel was fully equipped (while the old Rossyia has been demolished to be replaced by some complex inevitably designed by the ubiquitous Norman Foster). Like all Marriott managed hotels, the Aurora included a drawer containing a Bible, a Book of Mormon and a company mission book, in which Bill Marriott assures us that “if you treat your employees well, they’ll take care of the customer”. There were magazines offering very complicated watches, and cocktails, also a large catalogue of jewelry by ultra refined Boucheron from Paris (who have a branch in the hotel building). The nearby GUM department store even contains an unofficial but very Apple Store-like retailer.
The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express has prepared drinks, dinner and briefing in the elegant Petrovsky Room. Our fellow participants have come from Montparnasse and Monceau, Ballerat and Peppermint Grove, Hawick and Clapham, Totness and Cardiff. Some others from Anchorage and Manhattan, New Forest, Toronto and even Taiwan. All inspired by the romance of this journey, a rich mix of stories and experience.
We are introduced to our traveling on-board physician, Dr Judy, from the Cotswolds, and even our own Oxford Don, Professor Healey from St.Antony’s (so all aspects seem covered, taking note of Paul Theroux’s warning that travelers may not know where they are going, but tourists don’t know where they have been).
Next morning Golden Eagle have arranged a privileged early entry to the Kremlin Armoury buildings. We walk past President Putin’s office on our way to the building that contains the most important exhibits, including the renowned Fabergé display. This includes a tiny Trans-Siberian train of five carriages, which used to be rolled up inside an egg. It can stand freely, while the little mechanical engine can pull the carriages two whole inches.
On the way to the Kazansky station, we pass near Lubianka square. The ex-KGB building is being renovated. The organisation is now known as the Federal Security Bureau. There is talk of the Feliks Dzerzhinsky statue, removed in 1991, being returned. This founder of the Cheka, set up to counter so-called internal threats, ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents without trial. Now his bust is already back at the Moscow police headquarters. In a 2013 poll, some 45% of Russians would approve the return of the 15 ton monument. At present the memorial to the Victims of the Gulag stands near the empty original plinth. Dzerzhinsky himself was twice sent to Siberia during Czarist days, a reminder of a more recent deportee, the oligarch who developed the Siberian oilfields, Mikhail Khodorovsky, whose ordeal evolved from an economic and political opposition to a simple defense of his human rights. Sent to Siberia near Chita (where our train is scheduled to stop briefly on the way to Khabrovsk and Vladivostok) in 2005, Khodorovsky was finally pardoned by President Putin and released last December. He is now based in Switzerland.
On the train, regular briefings/talks/debates are scheduled, as well as the 2-part BBC documentary “Putin, Russia and the West” also providing a background to the Khodorovsky confrontation. Other topics will include a discussion on Stalin and a film on Genghis Khan. We will be fully involved with the different regions every day and will hardly have time to access the comprehensive and relevant DVD library on board.
For now, champagne awaits us in the Imperial Waiting Room of the station, our enthusiastic young train attendants are introduced, a band plays and we board the elegant blue coaches of the Trans-Siberian Express. There are fifteen carriages: accommodation for our 50 passengers, two restaurant cars, a bar lounge with live music, a kitchen car, a staff car and a generator. Each guest compartment includes private toilet and shower facilities. Secure safe-deposit boxes are a standard feature. The attendants take turns to be on duty 24 hours. Ready to begin our classic journey of over 10,600 kms, the train moves out, towards Tatarstan and its capital Kazan tomorrow.