Today, I received devastating news: Russian Rails is discontinuing the tickets in communal cars (platzkartnye). If you heard my mother kvetching about me making her ride platzkartny (third class) in the weeks leading up to her visit to Russia, I beg you to notice that you didn’t hear anything bad about them afterwards. This is because platzkartnye, though not glamorous, are wonderful.

A British traveler wrote an elegy to the platzkartnye that is more complete and correct than anything I have to say on the subject. Below is the Reader’s Digest version, but I recommend reading the whole thing (it’s not long).

From Vladikavkaz in the Caucasus to Vladivostok in the east, the cultural space of Russia’s trains — and of platskart in particular — is a national constant. Like willing inmates, the passengers know its rules and how one is supposed to break them; they bow to the traditions of the carriage.

Those that need to move at the pace of the modern world fly. That has its Russian specifics. Yet the train remains Russia’s beloved, a ready-made caravan for Russia’s nomads, a site of collective memory whose rituals – from bringing the right things (definitely slippers, definitely tea, crosswords and books, definitely a vest, ideally sailor-style with blue and white stripes), to taking it in turns to make your bed, to collecting tea glasses from the stewardess – are common knowledge. 

Recognisable for most Russians, the two-part glass and metal mugs are something that you would probably like to keep as a souvenir. Their robust design is like the trains, practical and Soviet; the lacey imprint on their cast-iron base alludes to an older folk heritage. Russian trains were created for drinking tea. The boiler at the end of the carriage issues steaming water. It is designed beautifully. You can strike up a conversation here. That happens more in the fluidity of platskart.

People passing through the carriage might stop for a conversation, standing in the corridor and addressing the compartment. Or they’re invited to take a seat and drink tea. Our companions share stories, they give us a sense of place. They know something about our destination. I am an Englishman learning Russian; people are open and sociable.

Time on the train is separate, suspended from real life.

It is lodged somewhere between waking and sleeping.

Outside, all is birch and pine.

Inside, you can travel. The journey softens and socialises you; spits you out at your destination ready to go among the people: a little more open, a slither more Russian, if that is possible for foreigners; a couple of paper-backs more fatalistic.

For Russians, on the other hand, the train is a second home.