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Trainspotters Come In From Cold

"The Moscow Times"
Thursday, September 17, 1998
By Kevin O'Flynn

Andrei has a dream. One day he hopes to have a picture of every Moscow elektrichka, or suburban train, pasted into his photo album.

In England, Andrei would be called a trainspotter. In Russia he's technically a criminal.

Trainspotting -- a quintessentially English pastime -- first blossomed in England in the 1940s and '50s when men with a passion for steam began to collect the numbers of trains. Ticking off locomotives one by one, they roamed the land in an eager search to spot every train in the country.

Today, this pastime is suffering. Fewer people can be bothered with it, and the word itself has become stigmatized.

"It's now been absorbed into the dictionary as something meaning naff or sad," said Philip Sutton, co-editor of the enthusiast's magazine Rail Express. The new Oxford Dictionary of English now defines the word "trainspotter" as an often derogatory term for "a person who obsessively studies the minutiae of any minority interest or specialized hobby."

Years of mockery have given trainspotters -- and by association all rail enthusiasts -- the image of friendless geeks with nothing better to do than sit at the end of a platform and watch trains. It's an image that annoys them. "There are so many facets to the hobby," said an exasperated Sutton. "It's a respectable hobby and not just anoraks and people in National Health glasses."

But in Russia, trainspotting has a far less staid image. Until recently, the hobby was likely to see you branded an American spy.

Taking photographs of Russian trains -- designated military installations in the Soviet era -- is still a crime on the statute books and even today the local police can cause trouble.

"In principle you can take a photograph now, but they can still come up to you and at best they'll fine you and at worst they'll expose your film," said Ivan Andreyev, 48, at a recent meeting of the Rail Enthusiast Club. "Railways were long behind a [secret] curtain and even now the police can arrest you if you take a photograph."

Rail enthusiasts began to emerge from the woodwork in the 1960s when the Khrushchev thaw meant that you weren't automatically bound for Siberia if caught taking pictures. Imported East German model trains helped boost their popularity and rail fans even met "underground, like guerrillas," said a laughing Andrei Myasnikov, editor of Zheleznodorozhnoye Delo, or Railway News.

But it wasn't until 1990 that the first official society was formed. Before then the only state approval of the locomotive was the preservation of the train Lenin took back from exile in Finland in 1917 and of his later funeral train -- although the Lenin connection was of less interest to railway enthusiasts.

"The devil take Lenin," said Sergei Dovgvillo, a railway expert from the Railways Ministry. "The important thing was that they preserved the train."

Not surprisingly, Russia lags far behind England's estimated 500,000 trainspotters, with circulation of train magazines here hovering around the 1,000 mark.

Dima Zinoviev, a Russian computer scientist, now runs a vast web site on Russian railways from his home in Long Island, New York. Included on the site are railroad songs, metro maps from around the world -- including Moscow's secret government one -- and scanned images of bus, train and tram tickets. His most recent addition is a series of pictures of railroad dead ends.

Zinoviev, who as a child used to copy down railroad timetables, also runs a listserver where questions such as "How do they rotate a single section of VL-80?" or "Are French F34 AC (25kV) electric engines still in service?" are answered daily.

Andrei, 17, has only just fallen in love with electrichkas, but he's also an avid fan of trams, trolleys and old Soviet cars. He has a trainspotter spirit and has collected 50,000 Soviet car license plates written down at home.

In England, Sutton jokes of his plan to revive interest in railroads. "We need some people to come out as railway enthusiasts ... we have to out a few people," said Sutton "Rod Stewart or Phil Collins."

In Russia, however, Myasnikov has fewer worries about any stigma attaching to his pastime. "I say it's better than drinking vodka or taking drugs."

Паровоз ИС