"European Russia 2006" story # 9

Ukrainian-Russian border, Russia           August 21, 2006

"No reconocemos fronteras!" (We don't recognize borders!) - Los Prisioneros, a Chilean rock group

Before I'd ever come to engineer Igor's house and to Russia, I had first to enter Russia. This large country would be only the second one I've visited for which Americans need visas. Or, - I should say, MOST Americans need visas for it.
     In order to get a tourist visa or work visa for Russia, visitors must first deal with a complex hassle of paper-work and medical tests, then pay approximately $150. The only other alternative is to just go there illegally. Like Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande. I'd chosen a long time ago to go there this way. F*@% visas! We should all be free to go where we want.
     A wise Russian friend living in the Czech Republic helped me plan. He suggested that I might be able to cross the border with a trucker, that they might not check our passports. Alternatively, I could go to a small town in Ukraine near the border, ask the locals for advice, and go across on farming roads. It sounded like a fun adventure.
     This friend later called me when I arrived at his parents' house in Kharkov city, Ukraine, and told me he was going to take care of everything for me. I waited around for a few days. He explained the wait by saying, "the right people aren't (working) on the border."
     On another day, the coast was clear. My friend had a friend who was an international businessman in Kharkov, and he knew contraband-smugglers. I shook hands with the pleasant-smiling businessman, the amused facilitator, and he introduced me to the "contrabandista" who would drive me to Russia.
     I was instructed not to speak during the ride. If anybody was to ask, I should say I'd lost my passport in a Kharkov hotel. I got in the contrabandista's car.
     The driver looked like the type of guy who'd be a contrabandista. He was "tolstoy" (fat) in a squished-down sort of way, and his sagging skin on his bald head and wide mouth resembled Jabba the Hut's.
     We drove a distance much larger than that of the forty-kilometer direct route to Russia. He spoke on his cell-phone occasionally. In a quiet village of thin trees shading sandy streets, we picked up a guy who seemed to be the driver's friend.
     I soon understood that this new guy could tell us which small roads we had to take to get to Russia. The driver and I hadn't sought to converse, but this guy wanted to. He was tall, good-looking, and smily.
     He thought the situation was funny. He asked what I was going to do in Russia. Before I could answer, he said, "Espion," (Spy) and cracked up.
     I told him I was a "picatel" (writer).
     He responded, then, that I was going to write a famous story and tell everyone that his friend was a contrabandista. We all laughed, including the contrabandista - who really had a cute, eyes-being-tickled laugh.
     We drove out between budding crops on a dirt farming road. Russia was near. We came to a big field. A scant line of trees divided the field into Ukraine and Russia. A blue sign beside the road warned people of the border. A thick man and his black, hybrid SUV waited on the other side of that sign.
     The Ukrainian contrabandista handed me over to the Russian contrabandista. They paused a bit and took a few hits from their cigarettes in the peaceful field. We headed our separate ways.
     My new driver was white and looked like the type of guy who had a bit of money and didn't see a problem with making it in unscrupulous ways. He had two young daughters, he would tell me. We rode behind his tinted windows for two hours to Staryy Oskol town.
     It was May 13th, and I was in Russia.

Modern Oddyseus.

A great thanks to my friend in the Czech Republic for getting me into Russia!!

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