My last New Year's was a unique trip. I had recently graduated from a Canadian university, where I'd been doing research on contemporary Russian politics. After spending the past years exploring Russia theoretically, I had decided to use my newly found free time to travel from Russia's far eastern outpost of Vladivostok, across seven time zones, to Moscow. It was exciting to finally get to experience the full length of world's largest and weirdest country by train. Third-class, Soviet-style.
That I was going to be spending New Year's on the train, which would be somewhere between Lake Baikal and the Urals, just seemed like an odd bonus. There is something appealing about being in a non-place at the right time. What I didn't imagine was that I'd be celebrating the proverbial ball drop with fanatical activists who would make the political condition I'd written my thesis on come to life in all its amazing absurdity.
By New Year's Eve, I'd been on the train for almost a week, and smelled accordingly. Unsurprisingly, there are no showers in third class, and not much privacy either. Rather than having discrete compartments, each car is divided into a dozen or so open segments. During the afternoon the train had nearly emptied, and I was starting to worry I'd end up with no one to clink glasses with.
I started the night by pre-partying in the restaurant car, which was deserted, save for the staff. In proper Russian fashion, the attendants asked me to join them for traditional appetizers and vodka shots. Thus began a Groundhog Day–style approach to the celebration, fueled of course by copious amounts of booze.
The thing about New Year's on the Trans-Siberian is that time is ambiguous. While all Russian trains run on Moscow time, the passing villages will be on theirs. Meanwhile, passengers and staff will generally go by their home time zones for the magic hour. So by the time I returned to my car, after one round of drinks and the first of many rounds of the ubiquitous New Year countdown with the restaurant staff (Pacific Time), my night had only just begun.
Back at my bunk I decided to grab the homebrew I had gotten from friends in Vladivostok and befriend the only other remaining passengers in my car: a group of about ten young people with a guitar seated further down the aisle.
Turned out I'd found myself some special company. I learned that they were part of a political movement, and on their way to their annual winter gathering. "We're communists," I was told. Right on! The leftist academic in me was all ears. Cautiously I asked if they were the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. "NOOO, WE HATE THOSE FUCKERS, THEY'RE TRAITORS TO THE CAUSE!!!" was the response. Phew, I thought—glad we agree. "No, no, our movement's called Sut' Vremeni [The Essence of Time]. We are communists who defend traditional Russian values," I was told.
Sut' Vremeni is an ultranationalist, ostensibly communist, pro-regime movement whose confused manifesto can be summarized in the passage: "Russia abnegated communism at a very bad time. Russia sweared [sic] allegiance to capitalism at a very bad time… We are fumbling to find the way out." Its leader, Sergey Kurginyan, a geologist and theater director in an ill-fitting suit who moonlights as a political theorist and guru, has had warm relations to people in Putin's inner circle since before his presidency. According to Kurginyan, whose ideas analysts have described as "Red Fascism," the great political project of our time is to defeat decadent Western post-modernity by creating a spiritual synthesis of communist and orthodox Christian values. You're confused? So are they.
Well, I thought, no reason to get hung up on a bit of total political incoherence, these folks are decent at heart. And it wasn't like we didn't have bonding material. My new friends were happy to explain what cities they were from and to raise passionate toasts when their home time zones entered the New Year. I was happy to sing along to Soviet dissident Vladimir Vysotsky's ballads and the Soviet partisan songs being strummed. I was definitely having a blast, socially speaking.
True to the image of the stereotypical party-Russian, my comrades were wonderfully uninhibited, wasting no time on shallow small talk, instead getting right into personal aspirations and family histories. My own bit of ethnic Russian ancestry was a hit with the hyper-patriotic crowd. It being a special night also added an element of exceptionality to the general atmosphere. On a normal day, believe it or not, smoking and consuming alcohol on the train is not tolerated. But it being New Year's and Russia, a deal was struck between the attendants on our car (whom I had caught taking a drink of their own earlier in the night) and my newfound comrades, which had us "make a donation to foster children" (or something?) in return for the right to keep partying.
But over the course of the next few hours, I couldn't help but feel deeply sketched out each time the discussion veered back to politics. Sitting tightly squeezed around the small table between my 80 percent male and 100 percent intoxicated fanatical friends, I made an effort to smooth things over by emphasizing, for instance, how I too was concerned about the fascist elements in Ukraine and NATO's imperialist ambitions. But things just kept repeatedly getting too bizarre, such as when my party-mates explained that my leftist friends, who I had gotten arrested with at anti-Putin rallies in Moscow, were all paid stooges of the US State Department and other dark forces. (One might think accusing the rag-tag progressive opposition of being astroturf is a funny thing to do for an organization known to march in identical, brand-spanking-new uniforms.)
As the night went on and the New Year kept beginning, this party on rails grew ever more schizophrenic. We kept finding things to kind of agree on (shoot the oligarchs!) and things we kind of, certainly, definitely couldn't (…and then the gays, traitors, feminists, and Muslims!). Yet they were visibly troubled by me asking for clarification on the finer ideological points of their "traditional-value-communism," given that the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to decriminalize homosexuality.
When time had finally caught up with our train, and fireworks could be seen out the window, none of us had energy left to care about celebrating anymore.
The last thing I remember was turning down their invitation for breakfast next morning, which they felt was going to be a great opportunity to watch some of the lengthy lectures of their guru Kurginyan on someone's iPad. I don't think I ever made it to the New Year, Moscow time.