Summer Reads: Exploring the St. Petersburg-Tallinn Train Line with an 1894 Map

In 1870, St. Petersburg and Tallinn became connected by rail and the trip took 11 hours. Tiit Pruuli looks at the storied line through the lens of a map from 1894 he acquired. Photo: Türi Railway Museum
8/6/2013 3:18 PM
Category: Features

Tiit Pruuli - businessman, journalist, former adviser to the Estonian prime minister, prolific traveler and travel writer - has written a new book called "St. Petersburg to Tallinn by Train."

The EU-funded product, slightly textbook-like in appearance, is not available for retail purchase, but is worth a trip to a reading room or library to check out.

It is essentially a collection of essays, with parallel-text English and Russian, one for each of the nearly 40 historical stops along this great, empire-building rail route. While certainly a tool of expansion in Alexandrian Russia, the rail line also ties in with the dawn of modern tourism and the tug of war between state and private railmen, which remains a salient issue.

Though they pale with the concession-holding Polyakovs who started upstaging the tsar in the 1880s, even Estonia has its big railmen. It should be disclosed here that Pruuli is a part-owner of GoRail, which now operates on this very route, serving six of the stops along the way - Kingissepp, Ivangorod, Narva, Rakvere and Tapa.

Pruuli steers clear of any sort of promotion though, bringing a "backpacking academic" sort of spirit to the rest of the stations, many of them now dilapidated. He seeks out old women in villages who surprisingly still speak the old Finno-Ugric languages. He butters up Russian museum directrices for access to vaults.

(Not only is the railroad a strategic asset, museums can be privileged zones in Russia. Pruuli notes that the first railway museum in Russia was founded before there was a railway and remained off limits to the public for a quarter century after the first segment of the St. Petersburg line was built in 1837. At one point, Pruuli meets railway workers who joke that they are still keeping the line a secret from the British, and the real humor here may be that history so ancient is still joked about.)

Like many a good travel writer, Pruuli operates well on both sides of borders and class divides. He searches for a descendant of a Baltic German scholar, Verlander, who wrote a famous 1880s tourist guide to the railway. He also gains admission to the grease-monkey fraternity of Russian railway workers in spite of the aforementioned English espionage suspicions: "It is so typical in Russia - someone asks for a light and you become a brother and comrade from the first drags on the smoke, no prolonged aristocratic initiation rites needed here."

Most importantly, because of the neat dividing line of the national border - half of the stops in Russia, half in Estonia -  this isn't just a volume for train hobbyists or Russophiles, as essays on the stops on the Estonian side delve into history of the War of Independence and armored trains, the strained relationship between republican Estonian forces and the Whites, how the rails were used by the 1924 coup plotters, and the national oil shale industry.

Some of the territory he covers is a little obscure and anticlimactic, but that is arguably also the spirit of these parts. It's a dilapidated palimpsest of great personas and violent conflicts. And Estonians have always had a tendency to remain seemingly oblivious to the big events.

As Pruuli writes at the beginning of one essay: "It is the year 1894. The world's newspapers are full of greasy headlines about anarchism, socialism and nihilism. The world doesn't know which way to turn, it vacillates on the hinterland between religion and atheism, idealism and crime.

"But," Pruuli then continues, "all is still quiet in the Estonian province of Russia, and the papers write only of horse rustlers in the countryside and pickpockets on trains."

The human interest angle - stories with people who worked keeping thieves off trains in later eras - keeps it strong, too. To Pruuli's credit it doesn't descend into uninteresting cliche, which can be a risk when interviewing people from depressed communities talking about a brighter past.

 - Kristopher Rikken

St. Petersburg to Tallinn by Train, 304 pages, 2013, published by Go Group with support from the EU's Estonia-Latvia-Russia Cross Border Cooperation Programme

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