A Literary Road Trip Into the Heart of Russia

The train to Kazan stretched for what seemed like miles alongside the platform at the Moscow station. The green-painted locomotive and the long string of gray carriages looked like something from wartime. We had a second-class compartment with four berths, and as the train slowly pulled out of the station, I took out my book on Lenin, tucked my suitcase under the bed and settled myself by the window.

The book, “Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait,” by Victor Sebestyen, was intriguing. Lenin’s favorite writer was always Turgenev. I found that strange, because Lenin was one of the most strong-willed men who ever lived; he was at once zealously one-sided and emotionally evasive, but nevertheless, throughout his exile, no matter where he happened to be, in Zurich, London or Paris, he made sure to have Turgenev’s collected works with him.

I was reading about Lenin because the places we were going to for the next seven days had been set up in part with him in mind: In just a few weeks it would be exactly 100 years since the 1917 October Revolution, when he almost single-handedly seized power in Russia. We were going to Kazan, where Lenin studied law and where he was radicalized, and then we were going to Yekaterinburg, where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed in a cellar on Lenin’s order in 1918. That act, in its ruthless brutality, marked the end of Russia’s old world and the beginning of its new one. Everything in the old world would be eradicated to make way for the new; no price was too high and there would be no way back.

I desperately wanted a cigarette. Brown said it was against the law to smoke on the train, but if we just bought something from the crew, a candy bar or some tea, she was sure they would be able to suggest something.

After we finished our tea, I followed Brown through the carriage. Just then the conductor emerged from her little cubicle. Her face was set and solemn, grim almost. She opened the door leading to the…

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