My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 3

A stand of birches from the window of our Trans-Siberian railway car.

The Russian tundra, with only part of its snow cover intact, is endless. Today’s train ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad will be 45 hours. Once every hour or so there’s a stop at a tiny town, but other than that there’s nothing but empty land guarded by the birch trees. The land appears never to have been touched, never plowed and hardly entered. There are no houses, no people, no old wrecked cars or other cast-off junk and waste that people leave behind.

Some say that global warming will benefit Russia as this huge eastern part will become more useable. Of course we all know, “There’s oil in them there hills!” It would seem that, now freed of the shackles of communism, Russia has unlimited possibilities for the future.

For now we are here for, as Lionel Sosa used to say, “Art, Love and Money, Honey!”

It’s a strange, wide-open land, cold and forbidding and huge; it has survived for the millennia mostly because it is cold and forbidding and huge. Out my train compartment window the snow is half melted in April. Some of the flat land looks like swamp with the recent thaw, other parts are still white and the reflection almost hurts my eyes. A freight passes in the opposite direction. Some of the boxcar doors are open and it creates a very effective strobe light effect, and the railroad sound becomes amplified by five times as it passes. And then, zap, the extra noise gone, the strobe and roar cut off and we’re back to the postcard look of the snow and the birch forest.

Jim reading

There is no dining car. They come around offering plates of meat or fish and French fries and vegetables. I try it but then resort to the peanut butter I brought along. Howard produces a bottle of fine French red wine. Ah, a feast! American peanut butter, French wine, and Russian dark bread. Seriously, this is good eating!

Every couple of hours the train pulls in to a station and there are little stands on the platforms selling food and stuff. I indulge in Lay’s potato chips.

I don’t know how we let our great trains get away. My family often used the Katy (Missouri-Kansas-Texas or MKT, which came to be known as the KT or Katy for short) to travel to Dallas. You could get on any time after 8:00 PM and go to bed. At about 2:00 AM., while you were asleep they would pull out. If you rose at 7:00 dressed, had breakfast in the diner, you could step out on the street in downtown Dallas well-rested and ready to hit it at 9:00 AM.

The Russians do a pretty good job. Trains are right on time, the roadbed is in good shape, the ride is smooth.

Valeri's chess set and tea service in our compartment.

Of course I do know what happened to our trains. The death blow, during the Eisenhower years, came with the Interstate Highway Act. The government built the roads. The railroads had to build their own roads and ultimately it was an un-level playing field. The car people, the oil people loved it. Most Americans don’t think about what a mess it’s made of our cities and how it has diminished our quality of life. We’re just beginning to wake up to the problem.

But back in Russia the Trans-Siberian Railroad is one of the country’s best features. We’re headed due west and after about 20 hours a few plowed fields are beginning to appear at my window.

I sleep on and on, wake, eat and sleep, watch the panorama framed by the window and sleep. Maybe that sleep is the reason I have always so enjoyed the trains. Upon awakening the attendant brings me a series of cups of hot tea. It is the best, I think, and they bring it in a heavy glass set in an elaborately decorated silver holder that comes halfway up the glass. The train is filled with tea-drinkers.

Coal-fired samovar (tea boiler).

Each car has an old-fashioned coal-fired boiler to heat the water for the tea. Below is a bucket of chunks of coal. The old fire box glows red. Passengers need to be a bit careful not to burn themselves as they pass up and down the car. In fact there is a great deal more “enter at your own risk” than we are accustomed to. The old communist bosses didn’t allow you to own anything so they controlled your life but didn’t care about small stuff. If you were fool enough to step into the tea boiler, go ahead!

Today’s tea party is in the Ural mountains. They contrast with the flat landscape we’ve passed through for a thousand miles. This is the Southern Urals, and, if it were not for the beautiful bank upon bank of birch, they would look very much the same as the Texas Hill Country. I imagine, however, that the Urals cover an area 100 times as large as our hills. Also, no one is slowly making them ugly by building tacky McMansions on top of them the way they are in Texas.

In these areas outside Russia’s great cities, there is such poverty that no one could afford a McMansion. One positive effect of this is that the beauty of the Urals remains unspoiled so far.

Given a choice between American wealth and Russian scenic beauty I would have to opt for the former—but muse to myself: couldn’t there be a compromise? Couldn’t most of those hilltops be saved for future generations? Take a few hundred hills and force all the ugly houses to be in one area. Probably they wouldn’t like that because nobody wants to have to look over at the his neighbor’s ugly house. He wants to look over at the beautiful natural hilltop while it lasts, and oddly he curses when someone eventually builds on it.

Tiny village in Siberia, thaw water next to railway.

The great thaw: April and May is, I imagine, the time Russians hate to see coming. For all is partially frozen, partially melted, water standing in fields on and on and mud, mud, mud everywhere. Shoes are often caked with snow and mud and are always left at the door of Russian houses. The host provides slippers for every guest. In public places there are shoe polishing machines with one revolving soft brush for brown and another for black, and, most importantly, a revolving stiff brush for mud.

My mind fast-forwards to tonight’s concert. The train will arrive just in time for it. I run down the program. Some pieces must stay in, but the band plays many hundreds, close to a thousand from memory. My human computer runs them down.

One is stuck in my mind and we’re playing it at every concert. It’s simple—contrasts with some of the others and we sing its clever lyrics:

I like pie, I like cake,
I like everything you bake,
And I like some crackers, too,
Crumbled up in a stew.
When I see a jelly roll,
I lose all my self-control.
But of all these things I like you best of all.

Valeri translates this before we start and adds that “jelly roll” doesn’t mean what it would seem to mean.

The audiences have been laughing over this but I’m not sure they get it.

This is another piece from Boots Douglas. His band, Boots and His Buddies, were active on the San Antonio East Side, going strong from 1935-38. And what a great band it was! At some point along there Boots quit the music business and went to California. He found work with the Highway Department, and there he remained, never to drum again.

We think he may be still alive, in his 90s. Contact was made by a friend of mine about five years ago and Boots said he had no interest in talking about those years in San Antonio. He might be interested to know, however, that 70 years later audiences all over Russia are flipping over his music.

Reminiscent of a scene from a Bogart movie, I hear a rustle through the car. Teams of Russian soldiers are moving through. An officer is saying in Russian or some other language, reflecting the stereotypical equivalent of the deadly serious German officer: “Your papers, pleez.”

They rap loudly on my door. The first wave of them is at ease giving at least a hint of a smile.

“Passport?”

I fumble for it and quickly hand it over. As he leafs through the pages of my passport he blurts something in my face which I can tell is a question. He pauses for my answer which doesn’t come. Another man says in English, “Job?”

“Oh! Music,” I say. “Musician.”

They hand back my passport and move on.

It seems that the agents who have organized the tour have us traveling one leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad through the top corner of Kazakhstan. In the Soviet days it didn’t matter, but now we have without realizing it left Russia and entered another country without a visa. It seems that they want us to get off the train.

What then?

A second group of Kazakhstan police enter, complete with polished boots, army green officers’ uniforms and Russian fur hats. They ask to enter the compartment and sit down on my bed. They smell very strongly of some powerful spice they have had for lunch.

Valeri stands in the doorway arguing like crazy in Russian. He slips a word of English to me. “They really want us to leave the train.”

“What?”

“Yes!” he says, but he’s really arguing. It seems that we don’t quite have proper documentation to enter Kazakhstan. “But it’s American artists here for good will,” he says.

Somehow he prevails; although I’m not sure how. The officers disappear and the train rolls on through the night.

The concert at Ufa the next night took place a couple of hours after our arrival We had been on the train some 45 hours. It was one of the band’s best.

Bassist Don Mopsick and drummer Mike Waskiewicz "sit in" at a jazz club in Ufa.

They present the formal dinner, but because of our lateness we wolf it down at intermission. Afterwards all streets are coated with the muddy thaw. Valeri says, “You’re going to a jazz club for more food.”

The place is sophisticated, expensive-looking and modern, in contrast to almost everything else we’ve seen so far. I am impressed, but not with the music, which for me is a kind of torture. It is very heavily amplified. And, it’s in a small room. The food and beer are good. We are blessed by a long intermission. Eventually, Valeri, drummer Mike Waskiewicz and bassist Don Mopsick take the stand and play a couple of pieces that are much more tasteful and pleasing, and we’re off, back to the train.

Valeri says, “You see what a difference it made to have Mike up there. These Russian drummers don’t swing. Get a thousand of them and no swing. You have to have an American to swing.”

I don’t challenge him but, I know that about this, he’s wrong. The day of the Americans being the only swingers is long past. Mike swings because he is truly talented but also because he’s been exposed to it, been doing it for 10 years. The problem Valeri is talking about comes about because the Russians never hear anything that swings.

Neither do most young Americans. In order to swing you gotta live and breathe Louis Armstrong or his disciples. Otherwise, you won’t swing, whether you’re American, Russian, or Zulu.

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