By Catherine Owen
In the last four years, I have twice had the privilege of travelling by train from Bishkek to Moscow. The journey is a three-day passage from the capital of Kyrgyzstan across the length of Kazakhstan, entering Russia through Orenburg oblast in the south. The open-plan dormitory-style platzkart carriage provides abundant opportunities for sharing companionship with fellow travellers (obshchenie in Russian, a word for which there is no adequate translation in English), passing the time by exchanging life-stories, discussing politics, sharing food and playing cards. Out of the window, the jagged mountains of Kyrgyzstan melt to the intense and seemingly interminable Kazakh steppe, which finally gives way to the verdant, pastoral landscapes of southern Russia. In short, it is a gift for a romantic ethnographer with a backlog of reading to do.
Four years ago, the train was full from the beginning to the end of the journey, chiefly with migrant Kyrgyzstanis travelling to Russia to work on building sites or in the service industry in order to send portions of their comparatively generous wages to their families back home. Today, given the abundance of cheap international flights, fewer and fewer migrants are choosing to travel by train: taking the plane is now both quicker and cheaper. As a result, my train left Bishkek station on 12th June at about two-thirds capacity – a phenomenon that appears to have afforded its staff a number of new opportunities for the exploitation of the rail system, and has curtailed others.
As is customary at every international border, officials patrolled my carriage at the border towns examining passengers’ documents. At the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border in 2011, however, every document excluding mine was judged to be in some way amiss. Its owner was required to hand over a not insignificant sum of money that in more severe cases reached 500 roubles. Each traveller, I learned afterwards, had saved up for this extra, unwritten charge and passively handed over the money when asked. Clearly, it was seen by the authorities as too risky to attempt to extort the holder of a Western passport.
In 2015, I did not witness the extortion of passengers by border guards, and it was not clear to me whether this was just an aberration or whether the practice was no longer considered expedient in light of the decreasing numbers of passengers. My travelling companion, an ethnic Russian with Kyrgyz citizenship and apparent veteran train traveller (on her way Krasnodar to spend the summer months with her son and his family), told me that she had not been levied with an ‘extra charge’ at the Kazakh border for some years now. Nonetheless, various other means for railway staff to make a swift buck were flourishing in 2015.
Taking Unticketed passengers
Once we crossed into Kazakh territory, the train swiftly began to fill up with new travellers who, rather than buying a ticket in advance, handed over their fare directly to the carriage steward. Soon there were many more people than there were available spaces: platskart compartments that usually hold four passengers were occupied by up to nine or ten people squeezed round the small tables. Many of these were rural, headscarfed women with wide-eyed children on their laps, chattering loudly in Kazakh and able only to speak in broken Russian. All night long, the carriage lights were kept blazing, with people jostling in and out at every station, children wailing, men shouting, and irate passengers who had paid full price arguing with the carriage stewards. I was thankful for my top bunk spot, which could not be occupied by these illicit travellers. However, by the time we reached the Russian border, the carriage was cleared of stowaways and calm was restored.
Transportation of contraband
The most brazen and well-coordinated form of corruption I witnessed on the train was the smuggling of illicit goods across the borders to sell at bazaars in Moscow and Samara. These goods were brought onto the train by passengers at various stops in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and were stuffed by the carriage stewards into every available corner of the train. These passengers then travelled into Russia and helped to offload the goods at their destination. The sheer volume of contraband was astonishing: pairs of shoes were jammed behind the rugs stored on the top bunk in case of cold weather; bags of dried fruit and bottles of yoghurt drink were stowed in coolboxes under the carriage floor; clothes were disguised in rectangular zipped storage bags as passenger luggage; unidentifiable items were wrapped tightly in cling film and hidden in the bags used for dirty laundry; electrical equipment was packed into the carriage stewards’ compartment; boxes packed with bottles of Kyrgyz cognac were shoved under seats. When I asked one of the men whether he was planning to sell the huge box of cognac at a bazaar in Russia, he smiled and replied that they were ‘presents’.
It was clear that the Russian border guards, in particular, had been paid off: when one of them opened the box of cognac, it was quickly and silently selotaped up again. In contrast to the German Shepherd that was meticulously led past every bag in the carriage at the Kazakh border, the Russian border guards’ cuddly cocker spaniel did not explore beyond the first compartment.
When we reached Kinel’, a small station just south of Samara, a crowd of surly men were on the platform waiting to transport the goods their final destination. The men on the train helped to empty our carriage and I watched incredulously as the bags I had assumed belonged to my travelling companions were thrown onto the platform and carted away into the dusk. Later, I chatted with the carriage steward who told me that she had recently paid $800 for an unsuccessful visa application to the US and was now saving up for another attempt; clearly, her activities were a welcome supplement to what would normally be a meagre salary.
The abundance of corruption on this train has given it a terrible reputation in Bishkek. Stories of violence and extortion abounded; nearly everyone I spoke to had a tale of doom to impart and I was cautioned many times on both occasions not to take this route. One old woman had told me that if I refused to buy my tea and coffee from the carriage steward at its inflated price and instead brought my own supply, I would probably be thrown off the train and eaten alive by wolves in the Kazakh desert. Other people told me that rapes are common on the train, and that people sometimes get pushed off by criminals and left to die of thirst or exposure. Needless to say, none of these things happened to me or my travelling companions but, especially now that flights have become cheaper than the train, it is not surprising that the number of railways passengers is dwindling. However, in light of the illicit operations I witnessed on board, this is undoubtedly a good thing for the railway staff.
One final point is worth making. It would appear that the customs union between Kazakhstan and Russia, already in its fifth year of operation, has had little effect on the transportation of illicit goods. Either smuggling remains somehow more beneficial than legitimate routes or corrupt practices have become so ingrained in everyday behaviour that institutional reforms are powerless to curb them. It will be interesting to take this journey again in a few years’ time to see what effect, if any, the Eurasian Economic Union will have on the practices of everyday corruption on the train.