A railway fan photographed Putin’s armored train. Now he lives in exile.


RIGA, Latvia — For Mikhail Korotkov, a lifelong “train spotter,” an unusual train on Russian railways became an obsession — like stalking a rare, shy beast.

Korotkov, 31, followed and photographed President Vladimir Putin’s special silent, luxury armored train for years. He was the first enthusiast to post an image of the train — a smooth strip of red-and-gray details, often drawn by several square locomotives – online in 2018. “Mere mortals do not travel on such a train,” wrote Korotkov.

Finding and photographing the train was both terrifying and thrilling. To Korotkov it was like a creepy ‘ghost train’, with a secret timetable, no identifying locomotive numbers and always screened windows. At least one of the train cars has an unusual dome on top – presumably to house special communications equipment.

“I was so deep in my hobby. I tried to take really rare pictures,” Korotkov recalled in an interview. “And for me, the challenge was so great that I didn’t think about the consequences.”

The Russian president is known for being fanatically cautious – opponents would say paranoid – when it comes to security.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Putin had a special “disinfection tunnel” installed in his residence to sanitize visitors with aerosol cleaners and ultraviolet light. At times, Putin seemed to remain isolated for weeks.

It was during the pandemic that Korotkov and fellow enthusiasts noticed a sharp increase in the use of the presidential train. “It’s raging like crazy, and all other scheduled trains are giving way to it,” he wrote on his blog in 2021.

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Now that Russia is at war with Ukraine, Putin seems to be using it even more, making the train a subject of great curiosity for Russian investigative journalists.

The London-based Dossier Center, linked to Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, quoted an unnamed source close to the presidential administration as saying Putin has been using the train more and more since 2021 because it cannot be tracked like planes. The Russian media outlet Proekt reported last month that secret stations and communications lines had been built at locations Putin frequently visits, including Novo Ogaryovo outside Moscow in 2015, Sochi in 2017 and Valdai in 2019.

Russia’s subway and train stations are some of the most beautiful in the world, but Korotkov was always fixated on the trains, a love that dates back to his childhood when his parents bought him a toy train. Growing up in Dedovsk, a small town west of Moscow, he started his blog ‘Railway Life’ with the slogan ‘on railways with love’ in his second year of university, when he didn’t even own a computer.

Korotkov said in an interview that he put his soul into the blog, “a colossal, painstaking work.” He once raced on a quad bike in a Russian intercity and filmed the adventure. He went on long bike rides or walks in the countryside, looking for interesting trains and planes, befriending random dogs along the way. At home, he adored his pet rat, Baranka, which means “Bagel.”

Trainspotters in Russia, as elsewhere, are a small but passionate community. Fellow hobbyists tipped off Korotkov whenever Putin’s special train departed from Moscow so he could run to the tracks with his camera.

He took many photos of Putin’s train, but only posted a few online. “I was trying not to draw attention to the fact that I was so interested in the subject,” he said, adding that it was the pinnacle of his hobby. After that, there was no other big target to hunt.

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However, Korotkov’s passion was apparently not appreciated by the special services charged 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 best friend and fellow train spotter, Vladimir, about a walking tour the two were planning, about Vladimir’s daughter and other revealing messages. chatter.

“When I saw those conversations in my comments, it 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 on I realized that anything I 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 the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he woke up in his apartment to the sound of breaking glass and the smell of smoke. A fire had broken out in the apartment below his almost at the same hour of the Russian attack.

The invasion shocked him. He said he tried to avoid arguments with his parents, who strongly supported it. But he couldn’t sleep and spent restless nights 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 in the shop, and once left a kettle on the stove, nearly starting a fire.

He feared his trainspotting posts could be used to imprison him on charges of sabotage or terrorism. In March, he closed the blog, he said, for “my personal safety.” Yet his fear increased as the wartime Kremlin became more repressive.

Without the blog, he said, he felt like he’d lost the anchor of his life. He focused on his two jobs as a financial analyst and part-time science 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 terrible knowledge that the war was going on. “I tried to enjoy every moment, besides the bitterness of what happened,” he said, “with a bright hope.” It was not easy.

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In July, his beloved pet rat fell ill and spent weeks trying to save it. He felt bitter towards his parents, who suggested throwing the dying rat in the trash or even feeding it to their cat. In August, he held a solemn ceremony and buried it. “I lost another anchor,” he wrote at the time.

Putin’s military mobilization in September finally shocked him into action and within days he fled Russia, rejecting his parents’ pleas to stay. Korotkov said his philosophy is “love for everything and everyone living,” but that this simple ideal doesn’t suit Russia’s increasingly militaristic, authoritarian society, or even his own parents.

“The hardest part was to finally realize that emigration was the only solution, and to give up my previous life and start from scratch,” he said.

He said he had been thinking about leaving since 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. “I saw what was happening in the country and I thought I should start thinking about emigration,” he said. He was not alone. After graduating from college in 2015, he said, most of his classmates left. But Korotkov lingered, spotting trains, posting photos, hoping things would get better.

He left Moscow – not by train, but by car – and drove to neighboring Kazakhstan. By the time two calls for military service arrived at two addresses where he lived, he had already crossed the border into Kazakhstan. From there he went to India for several months. “My whole life was in my backpack – my laptop, passport, documents, my cell phone,” he said.

Now he lives near a beach in Sri Lanka and provides online IT training for a Russian company. (The finance company fired him after he left.) “I miss my family,” he said. “But that’s the only thing I left in Russia.”

When he started his blog in 2011, Korotkov could never have dreamed that it would become such a passion or lead to trouble with the authorities. These days he chases planes instead of trains and posts colorful videos of his life abroad. His camera lens tends to find animals, trains, buses, planes, people in motion and little human moments. He posts live streams daily, analyzes the latest train spotter 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 can take a very long time.” Meanwhile, he said, “I’m ready to travel the world. The most important thing is power for my laptop and WiFi for my work.”

A year of the Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago — in both big and small ways. They have learned to survive and support each other in extreme conditions, in bomb shelters and hospitals, devastated apartment complexes and devastated marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Struggle of Exhaustion: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-front invasion, including Kiev in the north, to an attrition conflict largely centered along a vast area in the east and south. Trace the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian troops and see where the fighting is concentrated.

Living separately for a year: The Russian invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law that prevents men of fighting age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make painful decisions about how to balance security, duty and love, shattering lives that were once intertwined. were intertwined, have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening the global division: President Biden has trumpeted the strengthened Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look reveals that the world is far from united on issues raised by the war in Ukraine. There is ample evidence that the attempt to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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