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One could be forgiven for thinking that trains in the Soviet Union were propelled not by diesel fuel or electricity but entirely by vodka
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After All: The Soviet version of a driverless vodka train

Image credit: Getty Images

From the comfort of his house, our temporarily ‘isolated’ columnist recounts his scariest and most incredible techno travel story.

 For a compulsive traveller like myself, suffering since childhood with a severe case of dromomania – a medically described irrepressible passion for purposeless travel, or ‘a travelling fugue’ – being stuck at home as a ‘high-risk case’ for at least three months due to a pandemic, or for any other reason, is almost physically painful. I am sure that many E&T readers must also be feeling claustrophobic.

So, how to satisfy one’s hunger for travel in the periods of forced immobility?

These days we have, of course, both augmented and virtual realities, when one can virtually travel anywhere in the world by simply staring at a computer screen and pressing the buttons. I want to suggest instead the time-tested recipe from my Soviet childhood – by vicarious, or ‘armchair’, travelling, i.e. by reading books, looking at maps, telling (or listening to) stories and thus unleashing the power of one’s imagination, which, in the words of Albert Einstein, is often more important than knowledge.

I am often asked at parties and public talks to share my most incredible travel story – not an easy thing to choose after decades of (often purposeless) wanderings in over 70 countries. Yet, there is one that stands out. As it is also technology (or rather railways)-related, it may be appropriate to tell it now.

The year was 1972 or 1973. As a second-year university student in the Soviet Ukraine, I took a summer job (we all had to) as a sleeping-car attendant on the train that ran between Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast and Kaliningrad in the Baltics – a 48-hour journey.

Each carriage had two attendants working alternate shifts. My fellow worker, Mitrich, was an old man (probably in his late 40s, which seemed ancient to me then), with an amazing capacity for vodka. He drank two half-litre bottles three times a day, locking himself in his compartment and gulping each one down within the space of five to ten minutes. Then he would attend to his chores: checking tickets, sweeping the carriage floors and taking small bribes (usually in the form of vodka) from stowaways. A litre of vodka didn’t seem to have much effect on him, though his normally expressionless eyes would start gleaming. “Wine is bad for you, but vodka is very healthy,” he would say then. “Doctors recommend it!”

On our train’s itinerary, there was only one station which had a vodka shop in the vicinity. The train stopped there only for ten minutes.

An hour before that vodka stop, Mitrich would become agitated. As the train approached the station, he would stand on a floorboard with an empty pillowcase in his hand. Then he would leap off while the train was still moving and race to the shop for all he was worth. He would jump back on the train when it was already sliding along the platform, with several vodka bottles jingling amicably inside the pillowcase. 

Officially, the railway was a no-drinking zone. But this did not inhibit the staff on our train. The chief attendant, my boss, would routinely ransack the compartments of his subordinates in search of a drink and would confiscate (and consume on the spot) anything with an alcohol content: vodka, beer, perfume, shampoo, toothpaste, or even shoe polish, which he used to spread on a slice of bread. Shoe-polish sandwiches were supposed to give you a mildly inebriated feeling (I didn’t try one myself, mind you!).

One night, when I was on duty in carriage 13, smoking a cheap Cuban cigar (alongside the super-strong rum, cigars were among the unlikely consumer items from ‘brotherly’ Cuba that were never in short supply in USSR) so as not to fall asleep, a very drunk and unshaven man in a soiled railway uniform stumbled into my tiny service compartment. He said, stuttering, that he was a ‘mashinist’ (an engine driver).

“Enjoying your holidays?” I asked him politely, thinking he was one of the passengers in my carriage.

“Which h-holidays, you fool?!” he shouted. “I am the d-driver of this very train! Let’s have a drink!”

He then showed me his train driver’s ID and a pocket logbook, which left me in no doubt that he was telling the truth.

The train kept chugging ahead through the dark at a high speed.

Before I started to panic, the driver explained that he had left the engine on automatic operation, as there were no scheduled stops for the next 200km. He also tried to calm me down by saying that his young assistant was still in the driver’s cabin, “in case of em-mergency”, although the latter was apparently so drunk that he couldn’t even stand (or sit) upright and was sleeping on the floor after they had celebrated his wife’s birthday together. “I hope his wife isn’t in the cabin with him,” I muttered to myself.

Having locked the delirious ‘mashinist’ in my compartment, I dashed out in search of the chief attendant, who, luckily, was a bit less drunk than usual. Together, we dragged the semi-conscious driver all through the 13 carriages back to his cabin. We woke up the assistant, who was indeed slumbering on the floor, lifted him, shook him well and installed him behind the train controls... I suggested we pressed the emergency stop button, but the chief attendant refused, saying that it could affect his approaching salary bonus.

The train continued to fly ahead and reached the next station, at which the locomotive crew was replaced, without an incident...

If you look at me now, you’ll see the mane of snow-white hair on my head. I can tell you with certainty – as I made sure myself, having looked in the cracked mirror above the sink in my carriage’s smelly toilet the following morning – that my first ever grey hairs sprang up during that very night, on board that very vodka-propelled train, rattling ahead unstoppably through the starry Soviet darkness. 

As the global quarantine continues and most of us stay at home, please email your technology-related travel stories to vvitaliev@theiet.org

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