Kharkov-Moscow: Russia has boarded the infernal ‘Sapsan’ high-speed train

Leningradsky train station, Moscow, where the “Sapsan” departs. (Credit: RaiyaniM/Wikipedia - Creative Commons)

A train ride separates Moscow from the closest Ukrainian cities and yet the two worlds couldn't be more different. Sooner or later, however, the indifference to the war in the bustling Russian capital will come back to haunt it, writes Russian journalist Dmitri Glukhovski.


Travelling aboard Russia’s high-speed Sapsan train, from the lively Spring-time capital, the bustling Patriks [Patriarch's Ponds, a park and affluent residential area in downtown Moscow - ed], and the Moscow theatres – ‘there's no room to spare in the stalls, the prices are exorbitant!’ – you'll get away from crowded shopping malls and eternal traffic jams and find yourself in sunny, cool St. Petersburg.

You will walk along the embankments, squinting in the cool breeze, take a little tour of the world-famous St. Petersburg gastropubs or the reckless local drinking establishments. It seems that St. Petersburg is far away, but there it is, just over seven hundred kilometres away. It's only four hours by high-speed train, and it's already a completely different vibe.

And if Sapsans went not to the north from the Leningrad station, but to the south – from the Kiev station – then for the same four hours Muscovites would arrive in Kharkov. I remember when I was a kid, I was going south through Kharkov, but by an ordinary train. We stood in Kharkov for an hour. Everybody on the platform spoke Russian, we bought pirozhki with potatoes, sunflower seeds and lightly salted cucumbers. It left a memory that will last a lifetime for some reason.

Now the Moscow-Kharkov train would take you straight to the underworld; to a city where Russian bombing and shelling have destroyed two thousand homes. Multi-story buildings, schools, hospitals.  A town from which one-third of its inhabitants have left, while the rest, clinging stubbornly to the shards of their old lives, risk daily death under the shrapnel of Russian missiles and shells. A city besieged by a ruthless enemy who showed what he was capable of in Bucha and Irpen.

A ruthless enemy? Who is that enemy? Not the people who go for a walk at the Patriky (Patriarch’s) Park, who buy all sorts of things in Moscow's shopping malls and traffic jams, dreaming of getting home as soon as possible to where their families are waiting for them? These people are just people, they can't want to kill other people in the same apartment buildings, speaking the same language and often called by the same names. Right? They can't. They don't commit any crimes, and they don't shoot anyone. So what do they do?

They pretend that nothing is going on. They try not to discuss what is happening four hours away on the infernal Sapsan.

Fortunately, from Moscow the Kharkov cannonade is not heard, and it is a hell of a drive from the Russian capital to Mariupol, and no one cares where it is! If you type in "Yandex" [search engine] with the query “Distance from Moscow to Ma…”, the first thing that pops up is the Maldives. Here’s a hint: it takes fifteen hours to travel by car from Moscow to Mariupol. Fifteen hours driving from Moscow's packed theatres to the theatre with the inscription “Children”, bombed by the Russian air force. To that very maternity hospital. To Azovstal, which is resisting like the Brest Fortress.

Resisting who? Let’s not talk about it, let's not talk about the war, let's not say the word “war” either, because everything is not so unambiguous.

Let’s dance, let’s go to a restaurant, let's go to the theatre, let’s just go to the movie at least, let’s pretend that life is going its way, that everything is normal. Well, yes, some kind of special operation, some Azov Nazis, and to hell with them, it’s not us, it’s out there. And we, by the way, are having a hard time, too: the bastards will shut down Apple Pay, or they will cancel McDonald's, and they think they will beat us to the punch. But we will still go out and have fun in spite of them. As we say in Russian “we scared the hedgehog with our naked asses”! *[*А мы им назло будем все равно гулять и веселиться, напугали ежа голой жопой!] Moscow and St. Petersburg look fine, they have a normal life, just like before.

It’s a bubble. In the bubble: a plate of salad or soup, a theatre scene, a movie screen, the road to work, the road home. And what is bubbling with blood and pus outside this bubble, what the rest of the world is now made of, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. Except that it does exist. Yes, it has not yet burst the placenta, it has not gushed into everyone’s life with blood and pus, but the pressure outside is getting stronger, and inside the bubble it is growing, too.

There are no Russian trains going to Nikolaev, or Odesa, or Kramatorsk. To Bucha, to Donetsk. Ukraine, populated by living people whom the Russian army kills every day for nothing, for nothing, for nothing and for no reason, is reliably cut off from communication with Russia. We stare at our plates, but do not look away from them in any way. Not even an inch.

But it is on behalf of Russia that the murders and destruction in Ukraine are carried out every day under false, and different daily pretexts.

And they still become known to the people in the bubble. The cadaveric stench seeps in, the placenta can’t filter everything out. And here’s something even scarier: the stench becomes part of the norm, the killing of civilians under the same names and surnames as you do becomes part of the norm. It becomes the norm not to notice it, not to talk about it, and if you talk about it, it becomes the norm to use the clichés prepared by the state, known lies. Biblical prohibitions are lifted, even prehistoric taboos are abolished, cannibalism is justified.

One should not believe that “the new normal” will be like the old normality. The poison has already penetrated both body and soul, it just doesn't work in an instant.

We refuse to think that the train from Moscow to hell takes four hours, we are not going to go to hell from bustling springtime Moscow, but the expressway there has already been laid, and now hell is rushing towards us.

Dmitri Glukhovski is a Russian journalist and science-fiction writer best known for his novel, Metro 2033. This article was originally published on 26 April in Russian in Novaya Gazeta Europe, a new Europe-based media outlet that was launched last week after its Russian counterpart, the Novaya Gazeta, ceased operations amid clampdowns on the media.

The outlet, headed by Nobel Peace Prize-winning editor Dmitry Muratov, had been repeatedly threatened with closure for its reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Muratov himself was attacked on a train in Russia last month by an assailant who covered him with red paint. He will be in Geneva on 3 May for an event to honour press cartoonists on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.