There is a train named after the classic of Russian literature who gave the world the characters of Anna Karenina and Andrei Bolkonsky. Nowadays Leo Tolstoy runs between Helsinki and Moscow. The writer back in the day was a count, and the train inherits traditions: it has its own monogram and is not without some kind of aristocratic dignity.
Helsinki. The departure
It’s early Friday evening. The Helsinki Central Station is crowded — as the Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”. I am at the side entrance on Elielinaukio street, from where people usually get to commuter trains.
I use this particular entry because it’s closer to the luggage storage, which is in the basement. There are hundreds of lockers of various sizes, and my belongings are inside one of them. The prices for using the storage vary from 4 to 8 Euro, depending on the size of a desired box.
Coins are the only option to pay for safekeeping your bags and suitcases, but thanks to forethoughtful designers, there is a banknote-to-coin change machine. It has a weirdly shaped money slot, but the whole interface is quite intuitive.
By the way, this impressive device could come in handy if one would need to use a paid toilet (they still exist!). It’s near the luggage storage, and the cost is 1 Euro (yes, coins only). I take a rain check on this offer and go up the stairs.
The goodly bustle of the main hall is uplifting and encouraging. People walk. People talk. They smile and laugh. They get snacks and coffee. This is the vivacious atmosphere of life which is, as it usually does, goes on. I am also do not stand in one place and move out to the platform.
Fun fact: right from this place, while waiting for a train, you can see the local Ferris wheel of the Linnanmäki amusement park. Right now it is in the most striking state — the whole its structure is brightly illuminated during the dark hours. At first — sorry for that — I mistake this one for the SkyWheel Helsinki, the biggest construction of its kind in the whole Finland.
Speaking of Finland, Finnish is a very specific language, and it’s not uncommon here when informational signs have no translation to other languages. That is why any traveler has to be prepared to use a number of tools such as common sense, shrewdness and a context. Lucky for me, this sign at the station has a pretty telling illustration on it, otherwise I would never guess the meaning of the text:
But enough of lyrical digressions, my train is already here, 25 minutes before the departure. It has a signature red-and-gray design of Russian Railways, with their big Cyrillic-based logotype. There is a conductor near every car, checking documents and tickets as well as greeting the passengers — which is a standard procedure for all Russian trains.
I get inside a car number 11 (it’s about the middle of the train) and move along walls and windows. The first interesting thing I notice here is the design of the doors: they do not slide, they open like a regular, classical ones in any house — outwards. But let’s talk about the route — while I am adjusting myself to my compartment.
Helsinki—Moscow. The route
The Leo Tolstoy train departs from Helsinki at 17:44. It has eight stops on its way. Some of them are technical and related to border crossing formalities. But also there are a couple of rather long regular stops, where you can get off the train and stretch your legs. The latters are Vyborg and Saint-Petersburg — for about 30 minutes each. The whole trip lasts for 15 hours and 30 minutes.
The border and customs control starts around 20:30 (the time is still Finnish) at Vainikkala station, where the first officials get on the train. A conductor asks passengers to open the doors of their compartments and get all documents ready for being inspected.
The station where all the people of border services get off the train is Vyborg. It’s 23:00, the Moscow time already (plus one hour). Official procedures were handled in an unobtrusive and polite way, but it’s only now possible to relax completely, enjoy the comfort of the train, visit the restaurant car or get some sleep.
The next — and the last — long stop is at Saint-Petersburg. The train runs through the Ladozhsky railway station, the most modern and outermost of five stations of the city. It looks rather enigmatic at frosty winter night. There are almost no people here, and the silence is what completely fills long empty platforms.
But I’d better get back from the coldness of January to the warmth of my first-class sleeping compartment and show you what’s inside.
Inside Leo Tolstoy
It sounds a bit creepy, but I am inside Leo Tolstoy. However, there is nothing creepy about the train itself. I step inside and take a look at the space which will be my place of residence for the next few hours.
The compartment welcomes me with a set of snacks and drinks. There are two bottles of still water, some sweet carbonated drink, a croissant, a yoghurt, an apple and a number of other eatables. In addition to all this gastronomic abundance, I get a nice hot supper (included in the price of the ticket), with an option to choose between meat and fish. It feels a bit out of the concept, that Leo Tolstoy forgets about vegetarians, but apart from that it feeds its passengers properly.
The table is decorated with a flower, which is, of course, oh-so-sweet. Also, it is equipped with a socket, and this is really helpful.
My favorite thing about this table is that it hides some other useful features, and hides them pretty well. The design solution — which I would call unorthodox — allows you to get to a sink and a trash bin. The only steps you have to take are: remove all the items from the top of the table, one by one; deal with the tablecloth which, in a sense, stands in your way; and open the top of the table as if it is a lid of some case. Voila! You can wash your hands.
Now, to the sleeping opportunities of the room. There are two couches (well, actually there are four of them, but the upper ones are locked), and they have some potential in terms of transformation as well. If you turn the back side of the couch down, you will get a fully-featured bed (bedclothes, a pillow and a warm blanket are available for each passenger). When the back part of the construction is up, there is another folding segment — it reveals a couple of cup holders and a place for plates.
By the way, there is another cup holder. You can see it on the wall when the couch is in the bed position. The design of this device is pretty elegant.
What else do we have here? A pair of clothes hangers. A temperature controller. A button for calling a conductor. A volume control for the inner train radio. A light switch. An accessory kit with slippers, a toothbrush and a comb. A Russian-language press package with a magazine entitled “Better by train”. What more could one ask for, right?
Well, maybe you would like to buy some souvenirs? There is a whole catalogue of those! For example, you can get a glass with the legendary Russian railways holder (comes in two versions) or little soft toys of anthropomorphic animals in railway uniform (cute!).
Anyhow, my curiosity pushes me to explore other parts of the train. I get outside the compartment. And I do not forget the plastic card with the name of Leo Tolstoy on it — this is my door key.
There is a toilet at the end of a corridor. It meets me in a good shape. Everything is orderly and functional. Liquid soap and paper towels are on its places. The mirror is clean and shows the truth.
I move further, past utility spaces and through hoarfrost-covered areas between cars.
After some time, I get to a restaurant car. It’s bright and almost empty. The screen on a wall demonstrates me the world of Russian pop music videos. Waitresses are friendly and chatty, rare night visitors help them to stay awake and busy.
One of the ladies who works here tells me an interesting fact. Did you know that a kitchen stove on a train works only during the movement? After long stops it needs some time to get back to a temperature which is suitable for cooking. How about that? I am not sure if it is relevant for all the trains or just for Leo Tolstoy, but this information is new for me. One way or another, it is already quite late, and I get back to my place. I switch both the compartment light and myself to the night mode.
Moscow. The end of the trip
It’s morning. We are getting closer to the capital of Russia. After getting enough sleep, I feel energetic and focused. That is why, probably, I notice another thing that somehow escaped my attention earlier. As it turns out, the door in my compartment has a peephole. Isn’t this fun?
But there is not much time for staring through the convex glass. At 9:19 Leo Tolstoy arrives at the Leningradsky railway station. Its name refers to Leningrad, a former name of Saint-Petersburg (there were some attempts to change the name of the station, but not a single one succeeded, so the Soviet times still send us their greetings). Nevertheless, I leave the train with a good feeling. The trip was pleasant in every respect, and it was impossible not to enjoy it.
I’ve got my ticket one week before the trip via RZD. You can also use Infotrain, or Realrussia, or VR. Don’t be afraid to visit Moscow in the winter and remember that Leo Tolstoy is not only the name of the famous person from the past, but also a comfortable train which operates in present.