Imagining 2030: Taking the Trans-Siberian to Moscow

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Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University and a Visiting Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.


The Trans-Siberian Express isn’t just a train, it’s a metaphor. Once, a metaphor for the Tsarist empire’s determination to claim Siberia and the Russian Far East. And now? The double-headed eagle proudly glitters on the bullet-nose of the new, high-speed trains, and the conductors on the Moskovskaya strelka, the ‘Moscow Arrow,’ wear uniforms derived from those of their imperial forebears. But the CRH-49 locomotives are a Chinese design, built in the now Chinese-owned Uralvagonzavod works with a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, running along a new track built by a Russo-Chinese consortium, and largely by Uighur labourers.

That said, the proud and pricklish days when Moscow thought it could pivot east yet remain the ‘elder brother’ are long gone. When Putin’s stroke delivered power into the laps of kleptocrats who had never had any real enthusiasm for his imperial project, they eagerly looked to rebuild relations in Asia and the West alike. This was just the last hurrah of Russian ‘wild capitalism’—lenders were too canny, opportunities elsewhere were more appealing, and the oligarchs and bureaucrat-entrepreneurs behind President Shuvalov’s figurehead government soon fell to feuding amongst themselves.

It is telling that the new Trans-Siberian bypasses the old Russian imperial stronghold of Vladivostok. Instead the line from Beijing crosses the border at Zabaikalsk. There travellers from deeper in the Russian Far East who have taken the old Trans-Sib and then changed trains again, can finally relax into the new carriages which will whisk them to Moscow in just four days. The Russian flag flies over Zabaikalsk station, and Russian border guards walk down the train, scanning passports and fingerprints with their cloud-linked terminals, but the town outside is a monument to Chinese money and Chinese migration.

The liberal Preobrazhensky government that picked up the pieces after the collapse of Shuvalov’s self-serving regime has made a virtue of bowing to necessity. Moscow could afford neither to subsidise nor to neglect an under-capitalised, under-populated east. Free Economic Zones and Preferential Residence Zones have helped address both needs. With climate change opening up new regions to agriculture, albeit neither quickly nor easily, the so-called ‘Greening of Siberia’ depends on labour and investment. While the nationalists continue to grumble about the ‘yellowing of Russia,’ no one east of the Urals is going to deny China’s capacity to supply both.

On the evening of the second day out of Zabaikalsk, the train pulls into Novosibirsk. Its Akademgorodok university town is now one of the most dynamic innovation incubator hubs in Eurasia, and suddenly the complexion of the train changes, Chinese students, scientists and businesspeople boil out of the station to the waiting ranks of taxis and busses ready to take them to hotels, universities and meetings, to be replaced by Russians heading west.

Just past Omsk, the train acquires two unexpected and unsettling shadows, Ka-78 helicopter gunships flitting back and forth along the track. Pilots on a training exercise, or a precaution against terrorists infiltrating across the Kazakh border? There haven’t been any attacks on the line since the bomb that very nearly derailed the Arrow’s sister train, the Eastern Dawn, two years ago. That was claimed by the Martyrs’ Army of the Central Asian Caliphate, a group hitherto-unknown and, indeed, suspiciously unknown since. The general assumption was that, rather than a pyrotechnic by-product of the messy insurgency in Kazakhstan, this might have been a warning by Astana that Moscow should avoid meddling in its affairs.

Those passengers who recall that Patriarch Konstantin only last week called on the Kremlin to protect Russian-speakers and Orthodox Christians across the border keep their thoughts to themselves and quietly note with relief that those pods and canisters clustered on the gunships’ stub wings do look very business-like.

A night and a day later, the Arrow reaches Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, and another stop that Beijing has added to the route. Passengers looking to make a quick exit are disappointed, though. The station is closed for half an hour, blocked off by police officers, bug-eyed in their augmented-awareness goggles. High above, hiss Federal Security Service quad-copter drones, their cameras capturing faces for the image recognition software engines back at headquarters to crunch.

Then suddenly an arrow-head of police motorbikes, and a thunder of run-flat tyres as a dozen black limousines and vans streak past. A phalanx of police cars, and as quickly the square and the station are opened.

President Preobrazhensky is visiting for what is meant to be one of the final stops on his exhausting mission to negotiate a revised constitutional basis for the Russian Federation. Tatarstan, as one of the richest republics, is making a point. Tatar President Bakayev is welcoming Preobrazhensky lavishly, hospitably, even opulently—but with all the trappings of a foreign guest rather than his own head of state. The talks are likely to be difficult.

But no matter, the Trans-Siberian’s timetable is a relentless one. Passengers finally unleashed by security scurry to the train; a moment of chaos that quickly resolves itself, the whistles blow and the station master salutes (no other train gets the same treatment, but there is a tradition to be observed) and the Arrow slides out of Kazan, on the last leg of its journey.

Through Cheboksary, Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir, the train nears the capital. In its near-thousand year history, Moscow has been burned, conquered, shelled and rebuilt. The speculative property bubble that followed Putin’s fall and whose bursting helped bring Shuvalov down has left the city ringed by the rusting skeletons of mikrorayon apartment suburbs and prestige orbital retail parks for which there was neither real money nor real demand. Yet once through what Prime Minister Navalny called Moscow’s ‘crown of thorns,’ the signs of renewed prosperity are evident, coexisting with its rich history. The Stalinist ‘Seven Sisters’ still spike their towers into the skies alongside the Bladerunner futurism of the ‘Moscow-Siti’ financial centre. But now a more sympathetic modernisation is the fashion, traditional buildings gutted and restored as cloud-connected ‘smarpartments,’ roofs once pitched to shed snow now glittering with solar panels.

Yaroslavsky Station still has its early twentieth-century charm, and the crowds converging on the underground travelator to Krasnoselskaya metro remind you that Moscow is a metropolis of 12 million souls. But step outside, past the serried stops for the computerised trolley busses that—along with swingeing congestion charges—have helped tame the city’s notorious traffic, and it feels like a calmer, less demanding city.

The Moskovsky Univermag department store over the road exemplifies the way the new government’s commitment to a Nordic-style social economy and consequent luxury taxes went with the grain of the public backlash against the get-rich-quick Shuvalov years. It morphed from a low-rent collection of cheap shops to, briefly, a temple to conspicuous consumption, where platinum Yota cellphones nestled on acres of black velvet. Now, it is a stronghold of the ‘novy gipster’—“new hipster”—movement, a constellation of coffices, coworking spaces, workshops and boutiques for everything from bespoke data mining to craft beer.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Russia has finally shed its age-old imperial dreams that locked it into cycles of conquest abroad fuelled by oppression at home, followed by crisis, collapse and cultural cannibalism.

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