<i>Moscow-Petushki</i>: A Helluva Ride in the Soviet Days, a Hellish Trip Today

Hundreds of regional trains run in and out of Moscow's nine busy rail stations. One route stands above all, having taken a special place in the Russian psyche thanks to the postmodernist writer Venedict Erofeev's 1969 novel.
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Hundreds of regional trains run in and out of Moscow's nine busy rail stations. One route stands above all, having taken a special place in the Russian psyche thanks to the postmodernist writer Venedict Erofeev's 1969 novel Moscow to the End of the Line, which made the train ride from Moscow to the town of Petushki as famous as the Trans-Siberian journey from China to Russia.

Known in Russian simply as Moscow-Petushki, the novel features an intellectual vagabond, the author himself, who travels to visit his family and in the process manages to immerse himself in an alcoholic stupor that stimulates all sorts of stories and revelations. Like Gogol's The Dead Souls (another epic poem in prose), Erofeev's work is a true encyclopedia of the Russian soul, albeit set in the Soviet times. Buy it, read it.

These days, the same train ride is more likely to offer a setting for a violent hate crime than give us a Erofeev-like fast-forward manual to the Russian soul. Russian regional trains and the Moscow city subway have become notorious for violent racist attacks, often perpetrated by skinhead groups.

In this graphic YouTube video, you can see first-hand examples of such violence. The Moscow-Petushki line has also previously appeared in the Moscow-based SOVA Center's monitoring of hate crime:

  • In August 2010, a passenger on the line called the Rescue Service and reported that several dozen youths, armed with knives and brass knuckles, was beating other passengers. Other witnesses wrote that most victims were non-Slavic, including at least two men from Central Asia, though the police denied receiving any reports.
  • In June 2009, a group of neo-Nazis boarded a Moscow--Petushki train and physically attacked at least two "non-Slavs." The local police denied eyewitness reports of the incidents.
  • In December 2003, a group of young skinheads murdered a citizen of Armenia on the Petushki-Moscow train. The same group was later apprehended and convicted for another murder, of an Azerbaijani man, on a railroad platform in the Moscow region.

This week a city court in the Moscow Oblast used article 213, part one ("hooliganism motivated by racial or national hatred, with use of weapons") to convict two young men who last year were returning from a soccer game via a regional train on the Moscow -- Petushki line, spending their time walking between the train cars and targeting for violence anyone who didn't look Slavic. They threatened their victims with a knife, walked them to the last car and kicked them in the face, arms, and legs. For these actions Dmitry Arkhipov was sentenced to 1 year & 8 months in prison, and his comrade-in-arms Yegor Filatov -- to one year and three months. Both sentences were suspended, and the two young men are now free on probation.

Hundreds of miles away from the Moscow Oblast, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina have entered the second, and final, year of their imprisonment. They were sent to separate penal colonies, in Mordovia and Perm, for staging an act of defiance in Moscow's Russian Orthodox Church, Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The women were convicted under the criminal code article 213, part two, for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," which placed this case among myriad of other examples of how the Russian authorities are using "anti-extremism" laws to target dissenting voices: opposition figures and human rights activists, religious minorities, media outlets, and artists.

Pussy Riot's imprisonment following a deeply flawed trial turned the art collective into a worldwide phenomenon. As people continue to argue about the taste of or the reasons behind the "punk prayer," most independent commentators agree that the punishment for this nonviolent action was severe and disproportionate.

In early June, Human Rights First hosted a media briefing with two members of Pussy Riot -- they called themselves Shaiba and Fara -- and organized meetings with American policymakers to urge the release of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina. Whether or not the message resonates in Moscow, we must keep pressing the Russian government to recognize that racist attacks are more dangerous to its stability than a nonviolent act of dissent. The probation given to Dmitry Arkhipov and Yegor Filatov speaks volumes: it's time to #freepussyriot.

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