National Geographic : 2014 Jun
126 national geographic • june 2014 train for the long journey to a proper hospital. Just about the only employment along the BAM is with the railways agency, which main- tains the tracks for those living on the BAM, who have no other means of getting around. It’s a closed system, and in this way and others, life feels much as it did in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s furious, oil-fueled construction boom means nothing here. No new shopping centers or apartment towers or movie theaters have appeared over the past 20 years. But while the benefits promised by free-market capitalism have not arrived, many of the privileges offered by the Soviet system, like subsidized vacations to the Black Sea, have disappeared. As Zdanovich says, using a common Russian expression, “Now we’re not needed for horseradish by anybody.” As soon as Zdanovich walks into the office of Yelena Miroshnichenko, the train’s general surgeon, she cries out, “Oh Mikhail Pavlovich, I knew I recognized that voice!” He takes his limp arm out of its sling and has her feel his shoulder. His bosses were supposed to reas- sign him to technical work, but they still give him tough physical jobs at the rail yard. “I can’t work, but that’s no interest to them,” he says. He asks Miroshnichenko if he needs to pay a bit extra to move up in line for surgery. She says probably not but writes a letter saying he is unfit for labor in the meantime. He walks out happy and returns a few minutes later with freshly baked cabbage pies and a glass jar of goat milk. “ Take them,” he insists. After years of treating patients in the small villages of the BAM, Miroshnichenko says, “You don’t just know people, you know the dogs.” The next day the train stops to see patients in Zolotinka, a village of half-empty apartment blocks built on a hill. Since the ticket office at the train station closed in 2012, Zolotinka has become even more cut off. Now residents want- ing to travel on the BAM have to drive 45 miles on an unpaved road to Neryungri to buy tick- ets. It’s complicated to go just about anywhere, so people tend not to. As a crowd gathers and people start to vent their frustrations about traveling, one man leans over to me and says, “If the Soviet Union had been able to hang on another two years, we’d have asphalt all the way to Neryungri!” A few cars down, near the train’s laboratory, I come across a young girl with a pink jacket and a long blond braid, pacing the corridor, waiting for her mother. Her name is Anya, and she is in the seventh grade— one of two children in her class. “It’s just me and Andrei, and he’s a jerk, I’ll tell you that right away,” she says. Anya tells me she likes big cities, though the largest she’s ever been to is Blagoveshchensk, a regional hub of 200,000 people on the border with China. “I’ve already told my mom, as soon as I finish school, I’m moving to Moscow,” she says. As she imagines it, the capital is a city of “big, open squares, with lots of places to take photos, and towers with clocks on them.” Maybe, though, she wants to live in London, where “they have a big tower with a clock too.” Later that afternoon I run into Anya and a few of her friends at the playground that is their one source of entertainment in Zolotinka, and I walk with them up the hill toward an abandoned white-brick barracks. They climb up the rotted staircases and jump over shards of glass, play- ing a shrieking, whirling game of hide-and-seek. After a few minutes a woman in her 60s runs up, scolding the children and yelling at me, or at no one in particular, perhaps just wanting to amuse herself with the scandal she has created. The kids go home and I walk back to the train. After a week on the Matvei Mudrov, life settles into a rhythm that is soothing in its repetition: the green pines of the surrounding forest, the BABUSHKAS COME IN WANTING ULTRASOUNDS OF EVERYTHING BECAUSE THEY HEARD OF THE PROCEDURE ON A TV SHOW STARRING DR. AGAPKIN.