Russia’s vastness, history and literature are etched into its trains. Sara Wheeler has spent the past two years on a dozen journeys covering thousands of miles

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2014

THE SAMOVAR AT the end of the carriage hissed in a friendly way and a bouffant-haired stewardess—our provodnitsa—patrolled the corridor issuing instructions about bedding. On the platform, a platoon of young Russian soldiers, green plastic sandals swinging from packs, said goodbye to their mothers and girlfriends in shafts of pale summer sun. The 658AA St Petersburg-Petrozavodsk express was about to begin its daily nine-hour journey to Karelia, Russia’s swampy north-western republic.

As we pulled out of the suburbs the provodnitsa yelled that facilities were temporarily closing, and set about her cleaning duties. She unhooked the rail from a net curtain in the corridor and—thankfully first slipping off the net—used it to plunge the lavatory. Then we were off again into the birch forest, cocooned in the world of the Russian vagon.

Over the past two years, I have ridden the rails for thousands of miles on a dozen journeys, attempting to learn Russian along the way. As with many experiences in life, from love affairs to car ownership, that first journey on the 658AA to Petrozavodsk was the most memorable.

It was the time of white nights, the sky pearly till dawn. As we trundled east out of St Petersburg, the marshes merged into the silvery waters of Lake Ladoga, where a solitary line of ducks forged a dark trail. At Shlisselburg a bridge carried the train over the Neva, the mighty river that drains over 100,000 square miles, including much of south-east Finland.

A Russian second-class sleeper carriage has nine compartments, called kupe, each with four berths, two upper (nad) and two lower (pod). Wherever you board, you find on your bunk a polythene-wrapped package containing linen, towels, a toothbrush and a pair of slippers. The uniformed provodnitsa rules over her fiefdom like a benign dictator with a weird hairdo. At larger stations on that first trip, ours climbed off to buy snacks from itinerant platform vendors. These she sold on to passengers over the journey. At Svir I bought a bag of Karelian dried smelt; the fishiness perfumed the compartment all the way to Petrozavodsk.

Most of my fellow travellers had changed into shorts and T-shirts soon after boarding, as the train was overheated to a tropical degree. When not sleeping or eating, they stood in the corridor gazing out of the window. I was keen to recharge my phone and computer in this corridor. But the single socket was in constant use, a cable under the carpet trailing enigmatically into a closed compartment. THROUGH THE SMEARED windows of a Number 22 sleeper from St Petersburg north to the White Sea in spring last year, I saw for myself the economic and social polarisation within Russia. Overnight, the birches grew shorter and the air colder. Cars also shrank: rust-bucket Ladas instead of the BMWs of metropolitan mobsters. Houses that looked derelict turned out to be inhabited. It felt as if the landscape had just hung on through winter. There were no factories here, and no toppled statues of Lenin sneering skyward in Ozymandian decay. Just the noble rot of the backwoods: a woman in a housecoat milking a goat, gabled snowmobile lock-ups on the shore of Lake Vyg, and, at last, the port of Kem, halfway between the Kandalaksha Gulf and Onega Bay.

The train does not belong to the Russia of glittering restaurants, art dealers and oligarchs—unless, that is, they fall out of favour. The Number 22 stopped at Segezha, a Karelian barracks-style prison Russians call "The Zone", which at that time was still home to Mikhail Borosovich Khodorkovsky. As the provodnitsa fussed around on the platform, I imagined Khodorkovsky making paper folders in the corner of a hangar for $15 a month. Family visits to Russian prisons are infrequent, but when they do occur they last three days as it takes everyone so long to get anywhere.

The platforms at Segezha were bleak, and empty except for a hunched couple hauling luggage in relay. The sky that day was a bitter blue.

Swathes of the country remain out of the reach even of prison zones and Russian Railways. The far-eastern reg­ion of Chukotka covers over 250,000 square miles of barren soil. In their book "Between Heaven and Hell: the Myth of Siberia in Russian Culture", Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine quote a saying about north-eastern Siberia: "12 months of winter, and the rest is summer."

Not only does Chukotka have no rails. Beyond the capital, Anadyr, it has no roads. I was there five years ago, researching a book about the circumpolar Arctic; the region is officially closed to foreigners, but I had wheedled my way in spuriously as a member of a scientific-research team. Like a lot of Russia, Chukotka was economically moribund. A resident had taped a note to a lamp-post in Anadyr offering his flat in exchange for a single plane ticket to Moscow. Roman Abramovich, on his way to Chelsea, chose Chukotka as his fiefdom. Taking advantage of the region’s low tax base, he registered his companies there and got himself elected governor. Small boys who have never seen a train run around wearing Chelsea hats.

TSAR NICHOLAS II signed his abdication papers in a panelled compartment of the imperial train as it idled in the sidings at Pskov. Tolstoy died at the lonely Astapovo transfer station in 1910. He had secretly left home, renouncing the world, and was planning an ascetic life in the Caucasus with a small band of acolytes. But he had fallen ill on a train to Rostov-on-Don and was forced to alight at Astapovo. Footage exists of Tolstoy tottering alongside the snowy tracks before taking to his final bed in the stationmaster’s cottage. His acolytes wouldn’t let his wife in as she was not one of them. The couple had been married for 48 years.

Top A half-hour pitstop at Svir: the provodnitsa (in the red hat) buys pies and berries to sell on to her passengers

Middle The early train: Ladoga station, St Petersburg, on a winter's morning