Last week I drove from Ulan Bator, Mongolia north through the border of Russia and into Ulan-Ude, Siberia. From there, I took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. There was no first class cabins being offered, only 2nd and lower. In 2nd class, imagine in one railway car having seven berths or “cabins”. Each berth had four beds, two “benches” and two bunk beds above the benches. Each sold separately.
I purchased all four so that I would have a berth to myself. When I entered the car, I immediately saw what I thought were four military guys in the first berth or cabin. I would later find out they were federales (similar to our US Federal Marshals).
Women would come asking if we wanted anything. As you can see, all the berths were on the left side with one aisle and windows. The sliding doors in the berths closed and locked for added security and privacy.
The Trans-Siberian Railway stretches from Beijing into Russia and all the way across the country to Moscow. The total time to Moscow was almost 80+ hours or four days straight. I wanted to order something to eat and walked to the food car. Every berth was packed with four people each and at the end of the other side of the car, I saw four more Russian federales. One of them was in the aisle and started to speak to me in English. I greeted him and crossed into the next car and ordered a soup from the dining car.
I settled into my little berth with my soup and started to watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey on my iPad.
I noticed that guys in the hallway had congregated and were watching the iPad. I turned it towards them so everyone could watch. Eventually, I invited them to have a seat. They didn’t speak English but told me they were from Uzbekistan. I opened up Google Translate on my phone and we were able to have a conversation.
They were prisoners…yes prisoners, all 16 of them with the Russian Federal Marshals on each end. The prisoners had spent the past four years in a prison in Siberia and were being moved.
It was incredible. They had spent four years in a prison in one of the most desolate and harshest climates in the world. And they all had a story. Most of them had been accused of…ready for this?…for coming into Russia illegally. Imagine, four years in a Russian prison in SIBERIA for coming into another country looking for a better life. They were moving all the prisoners from Uzbekistan to another facility.
One of them asked to see my passport, I took it out of my backpack and showed it to him. He took it with one hand and with the other he put his fingers over the eagle on the front. And I thought that this one little book gives me tremendous freedom. It was very humbling. He opened my passport full of stamps and began asking me about each one. They wanted to know what the world was like.
We spent hours talking, sharing and just watching my iPad. We shared a bottle of vodka (I only took a sip, they drank it as if it was water). Three of the Marshals came into my room to make sure I was okay. When they left, I turned to my new friends and told them they were “VIPs” – Very Important Prisoners – for having eight Federal Marshals watching over them. We all laughed. I took my iPhone and snapped a selfie (I am on the right wearing glasses).
They told me how life was for them in prison. They all had children, wives, families they had not seen in years. They had lost everything dear to them – exactly what prison does to a person. And I was right in the middle of all of that for a moment in time.
It was winter and as you can see, they were wearing summer clothing. I went into my suitcase and gave them each a sweater. Something small compared to what they all had gone through.
When we got to Ekaterinburg, they got off to transfer to another train. By then I had remembered all their names and I said goodbye to each one of them with a hug. I had told them about starting over and that the key is to bounce back rather than get stuck. Reinforcing that, validating their story and just listening was huge for me; it hit me to my core. I didn’t talk about me except when asked about my family back in Chicago. It wasn’t about me, it was about them.
It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, which I know will never happen again. It was life-changing for me.
Thanks for letting me share!
Answer by George Zaharoff