The triple shelves of her platskartny carriage were full of women travelling alone or with young children. The sounds and smells of infant care were fairly relentless. The W/Cs at either end were occupied around the clock and a steady crowd ringed the huge carriage samovar, whose hot water always seemed to run out just before Musya got there. By the samovar the carriage provodnitsa—as the conductresses were called—had their den. The bench Musya shared with her heaped belongings doubled as a sleeping bunk with an inadequate curtain for privacy. She couldn’t keep the curtain drawn by day because it wasn’t allowed, the provodnitsa scolded her for trying. They scolded her for oversleeping, too. She was vaguely aware of a feminine conviviality that ebbed and flowed around the carriage as other women boarded, met, exclaimed, boasted, shared amusing stories, reached their destinations, parted friends. Musya heard herself described as the little zhid who was going to Birobidzhan. She made no friends nor did she try to. Hourly she imagined her fellow passengers’ consternation and envy when the whole train screeched to a grinding halt at the very midpoint of desolation and Leon Flohr with his curls windblown and fresh leapt aboard, dashing the provodnitsa’s senile protests to atoms with an easy laugh. Then yet another dusk surprised and drove the daylight to extinction. Jammed in among the six enormous parcels, Musya studied her own round pale face reflected in the window glass, forlorn.
As the heroine of LAMENT and her family cross the continent by train, the provodnitsa of the trans-Siberian line emerge as some of the novel’s most fearsome antagonists.
Have you, reader, ridden on Soviet or Russian rail and been left with a provodnitsa story to tell? If yes, please use the comment section here and do! We’d love to hear some.