For our journey overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow, I wanted to travel on the Red Arrow train (Krasnaya Strelya), largely because it’s the only train I’ve ever heard of that has its own theme tune. As the train leaves, just before midnight, the stirring Hymn to the Great City (the anthem of Saint Petersburg) plays over the station’s tannoy system. In Soviet times, the Red Arrow transported the Communist Party elite between Moscow and the town formerly known as Leningrad. “Lenin travelled on this train to Leningrad and it has its own theme tune!” I said to my spouse. “Can a train get any better?” In fact a train could, because on the night we needed to travel, the Red Arrow had no available tickets. I sulked, sighed, then booked what turned out to be an equally enchanting (and much cheaper) experience on the beautiful blue Smena train, leaving slightly earlier.
The Smena began service in 1984, and was named in celebration of the 65th anniversary of the first publication of Smena, the official illustrated magazine for the Young Communist League. “Smena” translates variously as the “Rising Generation”, the “New Generation” or the “New Guard”. “This train is named for revolutionary youth!” I said to my spouse. “Can a train get any better?” We might never have known as the various byways of the bustling Moskovskaya Station threatened to defeat us. Luckily, we eventually found someone helpful who deigned to look at our e-tickets and point us to the right office where we could exchange them for the real ones (much checking of dates, times, passports and visas required). Ceremonials done, our provodnik (steward) welcomed us onto the firmeny (the word signifies a top quality long-distance train), posted us into a cute sleeping car, and delivered us a snack and breakfast menu. And what would we like to drink? Tea? Coffee? Vodka? The Smena is the only train ticket I’ve ever bought that included a (miniature) bottle of vodka. The ticket wasn’t expensive, even before the vodka. “It’s cheaper than the Red Arrow and it has free vodka!” I said to my spouse. “Can a train get any better?”
He found it hard to sleep, as the train bumped its way across the country and in and out of sidings for around eight hours through the night, but I slept perfectly. Must have been the vodka.
PS: The Hymn to the Great City is from the ballet, The Bronze Horseman, by Reinhold Glière. It was first performed at the Kirov in 1949 and won a Stalin Prize (first class). The music memorialises the heroic defence of the people in the Siege of Leningrad (now again St Petersburg). You can hear it here. Shostakovich hated hearing it, apparently, according to his Testimony.