LONDON - Some of my fondest memories and most vivid images of Russia have to do with the country’s railways. Anyone who has ever travelled in platzkart on one of the many long-distance trains crossing the country from east to west and north to south will have stories to tell. For those who haven’t, platzkart is the cheapest class of sleeper trains, essentially a 54-bed dormitory on wheels that offers little privacy, but is a brilliant place to meet Russians of all ages and backgrounds.
I also recall waiting for the Kazan–St Petersburg train at one of Moscow’s main stations in the middle of a cold winter’s night, when suddenly an old diesel locomotive appeared from the dark, covered in snow and surrounded by smoke. Or walking along the tracks of the Circum-Baikal Railway on the shores of frozen Lake Baikal on a sunny winter’s day. Or waking up in the middle of the night on a train somewhere in Siberia, while my carriage was being coupled onto another train that would bring me to my destination. And one only becomes quite aware of the vastness of the country once you have spent days on end on a train, seeing the endless forests go by.
Georgy Grigorievich Nissky’s En Route. Estimate £500,000–700,000.
Georgy Nissky’s En Route embodies everything I like about travelling by rail in Russia. It comes to the sale directly from the Union of Artists and will be offered in our Important Russian Art Evening sale on this November. (I should mention it arrives on the heels of Nissky’s Over the Snowy Fields, from the same collection, which sold in June for £1,762,500, establishing a new auction record for any post-war Soviet work of art.)
En Route captures the harsh beauty of the winter landscapes and of the heavy machines that conquer them. Locomotives cross the vast, sparsely populated country, passing the stations of provincial stations without stopping on their way from one of the big urban centres to the next. Nissky shows progress and industrialisation in harmony with nature, and he saw beauty in the way human intervention changed the environment. A naïve view certainly, but not unusual for the 1950s and 1960s, when the Soviet Union was recovering from the war years and Stalinism. But even today, one cannot escape the romantic aspects of railway travelling in Russia, where it has preserved a certain spirit of adventure long lost in other places.
Reto Barmettler is a specialist in the Russian Art department, Sotheby’s London.