RIGA, Latvia — For Mikhail Korotkov, a lifelong “trainspotter,” one unusual train on Russia’s railways became an obsession — like stalking a rare, shy beast.
Finding and photographing the train was both terrifying and exhilarating. To Korotkov, it was like a creepy “ghost train,” with a secret timetable, no identifying locomotive numbers and its windows always screened. At least, one of the rail cars has an unusual dome on top — believed to house special communications equipment.
“I was so deep in my hobby. I tried to get really rare pictures,” Korotkov recalled in an interview. “And for me, the challenge was so huge that I was not thinking about consequences.”
The Russian president is known to be fanatically cautious — detractors would say paranoid — when it comes to security.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Putin had a special “disinfection tunnel” installed at his residence to decontaminate visitors with aerosol cleaning agents and ultraviolet light. At times, Putin seemed to stay isolated for weeks.
It was during the pandemic that Korotkov and fellow enthusiasts noticed a sharp increase in use of the presidential train. “It rushes like a madman, and all the other scheduled trains make way for it,” he wrote on his blog in 2021.
With Russia at war in Ukraine, Putin seems to be using it even more, making the train a subject of intense curiosity for Russian investigative news outlets.
The London-based Dossier Center, linked with Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, quoted an unnamed source close to the presidential administration saying Putin has used the train increasingly since 2021, because it cannot be tracked like planes. Russian media outlet Proekt reported last month that secret stations and connecting lines had been built in locations that Putin visits often, including Novo Ogaryovo outside Moscow in 2015, Sochi in 2017, and Valdai in 2019.
Russia’s subway and rail stations are among the world’s most beautiful but Korotkov always fixated on the trains, a love dating to childhood when his parents bought him a toy railway. Raised in Dedovsk, a small town west of Moscow, he began his blog “Railway Life” with its slogan “on railways with love” in his second year of university, when he did not even own a computer.
Korotkov, in an interview, said he put his soul into the blog, “a colossal, painstaking work.” He once raced a Russian intercity train on a quad bike and filmed the adventure. He would take long bike rides or hikes in the countryside looking for interesting trains and planes, befriending random dogs along the way. At home, he doted on his pet rat, Baranka, which means “Bagel.”
Trainspotters in Russia, like elsewhere, form a small but passionate community. Fellow hobbyists would tip off Korotkov whenever Putin’s special train was headed out of Moscow, so he could rush to the tracks with his camera.
He took many photos of Putin’s train, but posted just a few online. “I was trying not to attract attention to the fact that I was so very interested in the topic,” he said, adding that it was the peak of his hobby. After that, there was no other big target to hunt.
Korotkov’s passion, however, was apparently not appreciated by the special services tasked with protecting Putin and his secrets.
In May 2021, strange messages appeared on Korotkov’s YouTube page: word-for-word transcripts of private phone conversations between him and his closest friend and fellow trainspotter, Vladimir, about a hiking trip the two were planning, about Vladimir’s daughter, and other revealing chatter.
“When I saw those conversations in my comments, that was creepy,” he said. The only explanation, he said, was that he was being watched by the Federal Security Service, or FSB. He interpreted the messages as a warning to stop. “I thought about my personal safety, and from that moment I realized that everything I had published on the internet could be used against me,” he said. The childlike joy he derived from his trainspotting blog of 11 years turned to ashes.
“I told my parents that my life was in danger,” he said.
For Korotkov, 2022 was a tough year. On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he woke up in his apartment to the sound of breaking glass and the smell of smoke. A fire had started in the apartment beneath his, at almost the same hour of Russia’s attack.
The invasion shocked him. He said he tried to avoid arguing with his parents, who strongly supported it. But he couldn’t sleep and spent nights restlessly following war news on his phone. Tired and distracted, he said he would leave his apartment without closing the door, forget to pay for groceries at the store, and once left a kettle on the stove, nearly causing a fire.
He feared his trainspotting posts could be used to jail him on sabotage or terrorism charges. In March, he shut the blog, he said, for “my personal security.” Still, his anxiety increased as the Kremlin, in wartime, grew more repressive.
Without the blog, he said, he felt as if he had lost his life’s anchor. He focused on his two jobs as a financial analyst and a part-time physics teacher. “My work and my rat saved me.”
He went to concerts and exhibitions and took walks in the park, trying, he said, to balance the beauty of life with the awful knowledge that the war was going on. “I tried to enjoy each moment, coexisting with the bitterness of what was happening,” he said, “keeping a bright hope.” It was not easy.
In July, his beloved pet rat sickened, and he spent weeks trying to save it. He felt bitter toward his parents, who suggested he throw the dying rat into the trash or even feed it to their cat. In August, he held a solemn ceremony and buried it. “I’ve lost another anchor,” he wrote at the time.
Putin’s military mobilization in September finally jolted him into action and, within days, he fled Russia, brushing aside his parents’ pleas to stay. Korotkov said his philosophy is “love toward everything and everyone who is alive,” but that this simple ideal is out of step with Russia’s increasingly militaristic, authoritarian society, and even with his own parents.
“The hardest thing was to finally realize that emigration was the only solution, and to give up my past life and start from zero,” he said.
He said he had been thinking about leaving since 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. “I could see what was happening in the country and I thought I should start thinking about emigration,” he said. He wasn’t alone. After university graduation in 2015, he said, most of his classmates left. But Korotkov hung on, spotting trains, posting photos, hoping things would get better.
He left Moscow — not by train, but by car — driving to neighboring Kazakhstan. By the time two summonses for military duty arrived at two addresses where he lived, he was already across the border in Kazakhstan. From there, he went to India for several months. “All my life was in my backpack — my laptop, passport, documents, my mobile phone,” he said.
Now he lives near a beach in Sri Lanka, running online IT training courses for a Russian company. (The finance company fired him after he left.) “I miss my family,” he said. “But that is the only thing I left in Russia.”
When he began his blog in 2011, Korotkov never dreamed it would grow into such a grand passion, or lead to trouble with the authorities. These days, he stalks planes instead of trains, and posts colorful videos of his life abroad. His camera lens tends to find animals, trains, buses, planes, people on the move and small human moments. He posts live streams daily, analyzes the latest trainspotter photos from Russia or uses ChatGPT.
“While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is still going on, my life is up in the air,” he said. “Unfortunately, it could take a very long time.” Meanwhile, he said, “I am ready to move around the world. The main thing is electricity for my laptop and WiFi for my work.”
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.