Michael Portillo first set foot in Russia in the 1990s, but there was no opportunity for scenic sojourns on its sprawling railway network. As Defence Secretary in John Major’s cabinet, the Conservative minister travelled by RAF plane only.
“They were quite interesting times,” he recalls with some understatement. “Nato was being enlarged to take in Eastern European countries like Poland [which he visits next week], Estonia and Lithuania, and was having a lot of talks with the Russians.”
This time around, for the latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys, his visit begins in a place unlikely to top most travellers’ itineraries: Tula, an industrial city 130 miles south of Moscow. When Portillo’s railway guidebook, Bradshaw’s, was published in 1913, foreign tourists flocked there because it had been home to the novelist and social campaigner Leo Tolstoy.
“Yasnaya Polyana is a dreamy Russian estate with a fine, although relatively modest, country house and beautiful avenues of trees and beehives – Tolstoy was a great believer that the life of bees had a lot to teach us.”
Of course there’s a twist in Tolstoy’s tale that is of special interest to railway enthusiasts. Not only does his celebrated Anna Karenina begin and end with a train tragedy, but Tolstoy himself died at a station in 1910. “He was escaping from his wife, with whom he had a very turbulent relationship. He was taken ill on the train and the stationmaster offered him his bed – which became his deathbed.”
The journey from Tula was also a window onto a Russia rarely glimpsed by wealthy Muscovites or the sophisticates of St Petersburg. “We took a really old Russian train from the Caspian Sea to St Petersburg, a distance of 2,900km [1,800 miles], taking around 64 hours. Third class consisted of shelves with arms and legs sticking out – bunks for people to sleep on. So you spent the journey either lying down or standing up. It was very crowded with very little privacy.”
By contrast, there’s a German-built, high-speed intercity “falcon” between Moscow and St Petersburg, covering 650km (400 miles) in four hours. The upside of the Tula train was the chance to sample delicacies in the buffet car. We even see Portillo rolling “pelmeni” dumplings in the rattling kitchen, to the bemusement of the cook.
On arrival in Moscow, Portillo checked into the National, a five-star hotel that housed the first Soviet government after the Kremlin was damaged in the October revolution of 1917. Here, too, trains played a central role. “Lenin’s journey from Switzerland to St Petersburg is probably the most consequential railway journey that has ever been undertaken. The Germans – who were at war with Russia – delivered Lenin like a virus into Russia. When he arrives in St Petersburg he foments revolution and the Communist era begins.” For a taste of that era, he recommends a trip on the Moscow metro where the stations are packed with chandeliers, frescoes and statues. Portillo’s Russian adventure ends in St Petersburg. The number one attraction in Bradshaw’s guidebook is still besieged by tourists: the Winter Palace, which is entirely given over to the world-famous Hermitage art museum.
Almost a century on, how easy is it for viewers to follow in Portillo’s tracks? “You do have to get yourself a visa, but once your documentation is sorted out and you’re there, I didn’t think it was that challenging. There are droves of tourists and a lot of help to be had in the English language.” Not that Portillo needed it. As well as jovially knocking back vodka and prancing about as a folkdancer, he also put his rusty O-level Russian to good use.
“When I was a child, I used to see television pictures of Red Square, with all the tanks and the rocket launchers in the annual parade. In those days we had nuclear weapons on a hair- trigger pointed at the Kremlin, and I never believed that in my lifetime I would be able to come here in peace as a tourist.”