This meant choosing between leathery smoked chickens, pirogi and their cousins belyashki, vareniki, cabbage salad, vinaigrette, semichki, baggies of potatoes, flour-intensive torts and various bread products. Everything was white. The foodstuffs aren't necessarily bad - I love good pirogi and vareniki, when they're hot. But a babushka standing on a train platform in the Russian steppe can't keep her pirogi hot -- not in November.
The other passengers didn't seem to care much about food temperature, but I couldn't like the idea of eating pirog-grease several days old. I avoided the restaurant car and attempted to get as many calories as possible from beer.
There was one nice thing about the restaurant car -- it was the only place to sit and enjoy a cigarette. Otherwise, you were forced into the unheated back-end of the car, where there were always at least three other men smoking in the unventilated 3-by-10 chamber. The haze was enough to set you hacking, but that was preferable to opening the outside door and letting in the arctic chill.
Glory To Tynda! The police station where the slasher friends are sobering up
And I still went back there regularly, because it was too depressing to sit at the restaurant and think of food. Cigarettes became an essential time-killing device, and I found myself creating Byzantine rules as to when it was and was not OK to smoke. I made a rule that the minutes before a long (15-minute) stop were no-smoking, because that was time that could be killed anticipating the station's approach. Short stops were also unacceptable, because I could kill that time wondering if the train would leave on time. Cigarettes were best enjoyed in irregular increments so that I didn't get complacent and then violate another rule, and so on.
I didn't even think about shitting for the first four days. Shitting is, after all, largely mental, and can be delayed almost indefinitely by the strong-willed. During my first stay in Russia as an exchange student, there was this one mousy Midwestern girl who managed to go an entire month without shitting, so horrified was she by Russian toilets. And Russian train toilets, shared by up to 38 asses, make other Russian toilets look pristine.
But alas, on my fourth night, the little I'd eaten on the trip caught up to me, and I found myself squatting over the tin toilet, gripping the assortment of pipes, praying for Godspeed and good balance.
By the time Misha, a kontraktchik [Russian soldier fighting in Chechnya for pay] got on, Sveta and Andrei were gone and Sergei had been long since replaced by a woman whom I wanted to kill. She hadn't done much except sleep on the bottom bunk when I wanted to sit and appropriate my hanger, but after four days in the koupe, I felt entitled. This bitch with a scarab-sized wart on her right eyelid was an interloper and needed to be taught a lesson. It was that line of thought, along with Misha's appearance, that led to my getting pretty drunk on the last night.
Misha was 26 and had served two tours in Chechnya, one six months and one for a year. He was already fairly wasted when he boarded. He wasn't assigned to our car, but his old friend Vanya from the navy was in my koupe and Misha deigned to keep us company.
Veterans are a weird breed -- you never really know when war-story cliche eclipses fact in their tales.
The line blurs further when they aren't particularly bright. Misha was not the brightest bulb.
His war stories were clearly based in truth -- he showed me a photo of himself and his troop in Gudermes -- but he contradicted himself too much to be trusted. He said he wanted to go back to the war because it was the only chance he had to make money, but then he claimed that the yearlong tour, his last one, hadn't paid well, only 50,000 rubles.
Misha said war was like summer camp with a group of close friends. He claimed federal regulations prohibited killing women and children -- but later he described zachistki [Russian "mopping-up operations"/ethnic cleansing raids] he'd been on. They'd order everybody out of the houses, then toss grenades in to blast anybody still inside.