Siberia's medical train

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson
Some years ago, I lived in a place which had few doctors and only a basic hospital. But we did have a fantastic book called, appropriately enough, ‘Where there is no doctor’. From this book, which I read from cover to cover many times, we got two things: information and confidence. Information to help us diagnose and treat disease, and confidence to feel that we’d be able to treat ourselves if we got ill. When I read this article, I found myself remembering that book and wondering if the people described here have a Russian version of it.

In Khani, a small village under the snowy peaks of the Stanovoy Mountains in Russia, there is a queue of patients waiting next to the railway line to see the doctor. They are waiting for the Matvei Mudrov train – a mobile medical clinic with basic equipment, examination rooms and twelve to fifteen doctors on board. The Matvei Mudrov runs along the 4,000 kilometres of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a railway line parallel to but 650 kilometres north of the more famous Trans-Siberian line. The Matvei Mudrov takes its name from a nineteenth century Russian doctor. He was one of the first doctors to promote treatment of the patient as an individual, not just the disease.

Khani is typical of settlements along the BAM, a reminder of the growth era of the Soviet Union, but now with little access to specialist health care its community is dependent on the Matvei Mudrov. Among the people in the queue is a man who has broken both ankles and a teenage girl needing a post-operative check-up. She had appendicitis a month earlier and, luckily, was able to get to a town three hours away for treatment. The Matvei Mudrov is not equipped for surgery, although its doctors can offer a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment. The medical train is one of the few points of contact those along the BAM have with the rest of the country.

The town of Berkakit is larger than Khani but similar in many ways. It was once home to as many as 9,000 people. Today less than half remain. Mikhail Zdanovich is one of them. Now 61, Zdanovich was sent to the BAM in 1976, when he had just finished Soviet military service. He married a woman who worked at the town bakery and they settled in the town.  Zdanovich’s right arm is in a fabric sling: he is waiting for surgery on his shoulder in Khabarovsk, about 1,600 kilometres away. He wants to ask the doctors if he should work in the meantime. As soon as Zdanovich goes into the office, the doctor, Yelena Miroshnichenko, cries ‘Oh, Mikhail Pavlovich, I recognised your voice.’ Miroshnichenko writes a letter to say that he can’t work while he’s waiting for his shoulder to be treated. He leaves, happy, and then he returns a few minutes later. He brings freshly baked cabbage pies and a jar of goat’s milk. The patients treated on the train generally praise the doctors for their honesty and competence.

Life on the Matvei Mudrov settles into a rhythm for the doctors on board: the green pines of the surrounding forest, the rumble of the train’s engine, the hypnotic clop clop clop of the tracks below. The cook is a 27-year-old jokester named Vitya who serves three meals a day. The doctors eat standing up behind the counters in the dining car, amusing one another with tales of patients. The train only visits each place twice a year, but after years of treating patients along the BAM, as Yelena Miroshnichenko says, ‘You don’t just know the people, you even know the dogs.’


competence (n) the ability to do something well
counter (n) a long narrow surface in a shop, bar, etc. where people are served
era (n) a period of time in history
fabric (n) cloth used to make clothes, etc.
praise (v) to say that you admire someone or something
reminder (n) something that makes you remember something else
rhythm (n) a regular, repeated movement or sound
snowy (adj) with a lot of snow or covered in snow
tale (n) a story about things that may or may not have happened
track (n) the long metal lines that trains travel along

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. What kind of services does the Matvei Mudrov train offer?
dentists and opticians
emergency surgery
medical diagnosis and advice

2. Which word best describes the communities in the article?

3. According to the article, the towns along the BAM ...
have never had good medical services.
used to have better medical services.
will soon have better medical services.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4. According to the article, which statement is true?
The Matvei Mudrov train carries over a dozen medical staff.
The Matvei Mudrov train has been running since the nineteenth century.
The Matvei Mudrov train is carried on the Trans-Siberian line.

5. Which word describes Dr Matvei Mudrov’s view of medicine?

6. The village of Khani ...
grew during the time of the Soviet Union.
is a short distance from a large city.
is unlike most places close to the railway line.

7. Mikhail Zdanovich ...
has recently had an operation.
needs some advice from the doctor.
was born in Berkakit.

8. The doctor, Yelena Miroshnichenko, ...
also supplies her patients with food gifts.
has met Mikhail Zdanovich before.
isn’t able to help Zdanovich with his problem.

9. What picture does the article paint of the atmosphere on the train?

10. The article suggests that the doctors on the train ...
are doing their final training.
only do one trip.
work on the route regularly.

Extra activities: