Endless hours of waiting on platforms and riding in train compartments are a recipe for conversation. And with a parliamentary election in Russia on Sunday, trans-Siberian travelers seem more than willing to talk politics.
"The country has been going its way — down, down," said Nina Kuzmina who, like other travelers, spoke through an interpreter. The 35-year-old was bundled up in the cold at Yaroslavsky train station in Moscow, ready to board a train back to the industrial city of Perm, in the Ural Mountains, where she is raising three children.
Like many Russians, she's grown tired of a way of life that seems to involve bribes to get anything — a better school for children, a faster turnaround on a new driver's license, perhaps an appointment with a medical specialist. "Bribes are everywhere," Kuzmina says. "Corruption is everywhere, and it's getting worse."
She plans to vote for one of the opposition parties on Sunday.
Corruption — "korruptsia" in Russian — is a word heard more and more often these days. And the perception that government officials think more about themselves than ordinary families may explain why the country's ruling party — United Russia — seems more vulnerable than usual heading into this Sunday's parliamentary vote.
United Russia will almost certainly maintain its majority in the state parliament, or "Duma." But polls suggest they could lose seats, despite major advantages. The government only allows certain opposition parties to take part in elections, and news coverage on major TV networks is often controlled or influenced by the state.
While Russia's powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, is not on any ballot Sunday, he is the symbolic head of United Russia, and the vote will be a barometer of sentiment towards him. Putin plans to run in a presidential election in March and, barring some political earthquake, is bound to return as Russia's president, an office he held from 2000 to 2008.
Putin, long the most powerful and popular politician in Russia, has essentially maintained a bargain with the Russian people — if they accept limitations on democracy, he'll offer stability and an improving way of life. One question I'm asking as I travel across the country by train is whether that bargain still holds.
The government "promises to raise our salaries by 2013 — we'll hope they do," says Alfina Sherniyazova, 44, who works as an inspector at a state-run prison in Perm.
She is well aware that Russia does not have an open democracy like that in western countries. "Other parties exist to make it seem like there is some stir, that it's not a dictatorship alone," she tells me. "There's a feeling that they are made up."
What's more, Sherniyazova says she and other employees at her prison were nudged by their bosses to vote for the ruling party Sunday. We asked if she was being forced by supervisors to vote for United Russia. "A little," she says, demurring as she motioned toward our microphone. "Maybe not exactly forced. Let's say they explained things."
But none of this bothers her — for now.
As our train rumbled out of Moscow on a four-hour journey to our first stop, Yaroslavl, I was sitting in a compartment with 48-year-old Sergei Yovlev. Dressed smartly in a pin-striped suit, the Russian railways employee was returning home to Yaroslavl after meetings in the capital.
He's heard news reports that the ruling party is playing dirty tricks to ensure an election victory Sunday, but he dismisses them as "propaganda." He's not a major fan of Putin, or the ruling United Russia party, but he says they've brought the stability they promised.
"We can't see any good replacement [for Putin], another person who can occupy his role," Yovlev says. "Maybe there are people out there — people who are young — but today we can't see them. Today, it's Putin."
The reality: If Putin becomes president again next year, which now seems ensured, he could serve two six-year terms. That would mean he would be in power — as president or prime minister — for 24 consecutive years. I asked Yovlev if that strikes him as dangerous.
"For Russia, it's not dangerous," he says. "For Russia, it's tradition. Russia can't do it any other way."