Out of Russia: Science fiction comes into its own among the true believers Russia

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MOSCOW - It was my first encounter with an extra-terrestrial. We shared a sleeping compartment on an overnight train from St Petersburg to Moscow. Her name was Svetlana. This was not her real name, she kept reminding me, but it would have to do until she got back to Galaxy 21.

At first I thought she was talking about a disco. Russian night-club owners have a taste for sci-fi exotica. It must have something to do with Yuri Gagarin and the Soviet cult of space travel. Last summer the hottest events in Moscow were 'Gagarin Parties', noisy raves held in the Space Pavilion at the Park of Economic Achievements of the USSR. The acoustics were terrible but the frisson of sacrilege was irresistible. The parties stopped when cosmonauts complained. There are still lots of discos. One of the most popular is Red Zone and Svetlana's Galaxy 21 sounded as if it might be part of the same chain.

Svetlana, though, did not look like a raver. But nor did she look like someone from another galaxy. She was short, a bit plump and middle- aged. (She later told me her exact age: 46 in Earth years, 150 in Galaxy 21 time.) Her only extravagance was a luminous orange duffle bag, from which, as the train started moving just before midnight and I started having serious doubts about her sanity, she pulled a stack of dog-eared notebooks. Each one was filled with illegible squiggles. This, she said, was her native language. I told her Russian was already more than enough for me but she insisted on explaining.

She had just received a message from home sent by telepathy. Most of it she could understand but there was one particularly elaborate swirl that had her stumped. To try and get it deciphered she needed to visit Moscow, where, she explained, lives a great inter-galactic linguist who could help.

I don't think I would be doing Svetlana a great injustice if I said she was slightly mad. The most striking thing about her, though, was how normal she seemed. She babbled a bit but so do most people on Russian trains late at night. She told me how she had three children, a husband and a pension from a factory job in Sverdlovsk, Boris Yeltsin's home town. What did her husband think about being married to an extra-terrestrial? 'We are completely different types of people. He likes sport and things. But he realises I am not an earthly being.'

A few years ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact, Svetlana would have slotted easily into a familiar category - another refugee from the arid dogmas of 'scientific socialism' looking for something better to believe in. It was a quest that took many forms: flying saucer sightings in Siberia, scientific and not so scientific missions on the trail of abominable snowmen, an inexhaustible popular appetite for tales and tricks of the paranormal. Leonid Brezhnev consulted a faith healer; the KGB kept teams of psychics on its payroll. Soviet ideologues spoke of the 'bureaucratic alienation of the masses'.

The end of Communism, it would seem, has not helped much. The masses, thank God, are still alienated. And Russia remains all the more fascinating because of it. The Orthodox Church has taken over from the Party as the country's spiritual guardian. Like the party it, too, frets about a crisis of faith, viewing the evangelists, mystics, Marxists, astrologers and assorted other charlatans and cranks who crowd Russian television screens with the same distaste a stodgy party ideologue reserved in the past for all those who threatened the particular orthodoxy of the day.

The problem today is not that no one believes but that everyone believes in something different. There is a surfeit, not a shortage. While waiting for my train at the Moskovsky Railway Station in St Petersburg I met members of what must be one of the most exotic of Russia's myriad and constantly mutating sects - rarer even than extra-terrestrials. They were Marxists: not old party hacks nostalgic for past privilege but true believers. On the floor, at the foot of a black plinth which, thanks to their efforts, still bore Lenin's bloated stone head, they had unfurled a red banner with white lettering: 'Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live.'

And so do Galaxy 21, flying saucers and the abominable snowmen.