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


RIGA, Latvia — For Mikhail Korotkov, a longtime “train spotter,” an unusual train on Russian Railways has become an obsession — like tracking down a rare, timid beast.

Korotkov, 31, has spent years tracking and photographing President Vladimir Putin’s special luxury armored train. He was the first enthusiast to post an image of the train – a sleek ribbon with red and gray detailing, often pulled by several boxy locomotives – online in 2018. “Mere mortals do not travel on such a train,” Korotkov wrote.

Finding and photographing the train was both terrifying and exhilarating. For Korotkov, it was like a creepy “ghost train”, with a secret timetable, no identifying locomotive number, and its windows always obscured. At least one of the cars has an unusual dome on top – believed to house special communications equipment.

“I was so immersed in my hobby. I tried to get really rare footage, ”Korotkov recalled in an interview. “And for me the challenge was so huge that I didn’t think about the consequences. “

The Russian president is known to be fanatically cautious – his critics would say paranoid – when it comes to security.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Putin had a special “disinfection tunnel” installed in his residence to decontaminate visitors with aerosol cleaning agents and ultraviolet light. Sometimes Putin seemed to remain isolated for weeks.

It was during the pandemic that Korotkov and other enthusiasts noticed a surge in the use of the presidential train. “He rushes like crazy, and all the other scheduled trains make way for him,” he wrote on his blog in 2021.

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With Russia at war with Ukraine, Putin seems to be using it even more, making the train a subject of intense curiosity for Russian investigative media.

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

Russia’s metro and railway stations are some of the most beautiful in the world, but Korotkov has always been obsessed with trains, a love dating back to his childhood when his parents bought him a toy railway. Raised in Dedovsk, a small town west of Moscow, he started his blog “Railway Life” with his slogan “on the railways with love” in his second year of university, when he didn’t even own no computer.

Korotkov, in an interview, said that he put his soul into the blog, “colossal and painstaking work.” Once he raced a Russian intercity train on a quad and filmed the adventure. He would go on long bike rides or hikes 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, form a small but passionate community. The other enthusiasts informed Korotkov each time Putin’s special train left Moscow, so he could rush onto 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 this was the height of his hobby. After that, there was no other big target to hunt.

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Korotkov’s passion, however, apparently went unappreciated by the special services tasked with protecting Putin and his secrets.

In May 2021, strange posts appeared on Korotkov’s YouTube page: word-for-word transcripts of private phone conversations between him and his closest friend and train mate, Vladimir, about a hike the two were planning, about Vladimir’s daughter and other revealing information. to chatter.

“When I saw these conversations in my comments, it was chilling,” 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 anything I posted on the internet could be used against me,” he said. The childlike joy he derived from his 11-year-old trainspotting blog turned to ashes.

“I told my parents my life was in danger,” he said.

For Korotkov, 2022 has been a difficult year. The day Russia invaded 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 very time of the Russian attack.

The invasion shocked him. He said he tried to avoid arguing with his parents, who were strongly supportive. 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 at the store, and once left a kettle on the stove, almost starting a fire.

He feared that his train spotting posts could be used to imprison him for sabotage or terrorism. In March, he shut down the blog, he said, for “my personal safety.” Yet his anxiety grew as the wartime Kremlin grew more repressive.

Without the blog, he said, he felt like he had lost the anchor of his life. He concentrated on his two jobs as a financial analyst and a part-time physics professor. “My job and my rat saved me.”

He attended concerts and exhibitions and strolled in the park, trying, he said, to balance the beauty of life with the terrible knowledge that war was going on. “I tried to enjoy every moment, coexisting with the bitterness of what was happening,” he said, “holding bright hope.” It was not easy.

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

Putin’s military mobilization in September finally spurred him into action, and within days he fled Russia, dismissing his parents’ pleas to stay. Korotkov said his philosophy is “love for everything and everyone alive,” but that simple ideal is out of step with Russia’s increasingly militaristic and authoritarian society, and even with his own parents.

“The hardest part was finally realizing that emigration was the only solution, and letting go of my past life and starting from scratch,” he said.

He said he had been considering leaving since 2014, when Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea. “I could see what was happening in the country and 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 hung on, spotting trains, posting pictures, hoping things would get better.

He left Moscow – not by train, but by car – in the direction of neighboring Kazakhstan. By the time two summonses 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, my passport, my documents, my mobile phone,” he said.

Today, he lives near a beach in Sri Lanka and leads online computer training courses 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 have left in Russia.”

When he started his blog in 2011, Korotkov never imagined it would become such a big passion or get in trouble with the authorities. These days, he stalks planes instead of trains and posts colorful videos of his life abroad. Its camera lens tends to find animals, trains, buses, planes, moving people, and small human moments. He publishes daily live streams, analyzes the latest trainspotter photos from Russia or uses ChatGPT.

“As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, my life is on hold,” he said. “Unfortunately, this could take a long time.” Meanwhile, he said, “I’m ready to travel the world. The main thing is electricity for my laptop and WiFi for my work.

A year of Russian war in Ukraine

Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to an attrition conflict largely concentrated over a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.

One year of separated life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.

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