Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Memorable Evening with the Russian Border Police

Crossing borders in the former Soviet States is usually unpleasant and time-consuming; being woken on a train in the early hours of the morning by grumpy guards and snarling dogs is the norm. During the time I worked in Russia I got used to the procedure, and had all my visa paperwork and residency documents properly prepared, with additional photocopies of each to hand over if needed. During a trip to the Baltic states I got into quite a conundrum due to the constantly changing working visa regime and the Russian/Belarusian open border agreement. It's a story involving travelling illegally across Belarus, bribing sleazy border guards, and spending most of the night locked in a jail cell at a Russian border post. It is truly one of the craziest experiences I've had while travelling.

I booked a train ticket from Moscow to Vilnius after being assured by a travel agent and a major travel website that the train would not pass through Belarus, but would take a northern route through Latvia instead. I boarded the train in the evening, expecting to arrive in Vilnius in the morning. I awoke in my bunk in the middle of the night and happened to pull up the shade and look out the window; imagine my horror when I saw a platform sign for Minsk station! As there is no border control between Russia and Belarus, the train had continued across the border in the night. I was in rather a difficult situation of course, as I had entered Belarus without a Belarusian transit or tourist Visa. A few hours later the train arrived at the Lithuanian border, and the Belarusian border guards came on the train. They took a quick look at my passport and said 'problem'. They led me down the train corridor and put me in the little room used by the conductor. Finally a guard came in who spoke passable English, and he informed me that I had broken Belarusian law, and that he should take me off the train and detain me. Then he said that if I would be so good as to hand over 100 dollars in cash, he would look the other way and forget about the whole thing. What could I do? Being arrested in Belarus was not something I really fancied, so I had to pay him the bribe. It all felt rather unclean, but I handed him the money, he shook my hand and sent me back to my carriage. I then continued safely across the border into Lithuania, happy to be on EU territory. However, this meant I had no Belarusian stamps in my passport, and no exit stamps from Russia in my passport or on my working visa papers. I wasn't sure what difficulties this might cause when I went to re-enter Russia again.
When I did reach the Russian border again, eleven days later on a Tallinn to Moscow train at about ten in the evening, the Russian borderguards took a glance at my passport and immediately started asking me where my most recent Russian exit stamp was, and about many other exit stamps as well. Sweat started flowing. They took my passport off the train to check with their superiors. The minutes were ticking past, and the train was due to leave shortly, when I saw through the window the borderguard coming back flanked by two uniformed soldiers. I had a gut feeling that I knew who it was they were coming for. They came to my carriage and told me that I needed to collect my things and come with them. I took my bag down from the overhead bin and we got off the train, which then pulled away from the station and disappeared into the night leaving the four of us standing on the platform. The borderguard spoke English at about Elementary level, and he said 'come', and he took me into the border patrol station, a concrete block sitting in the darkness. I decided from the start not to speak any Russian to them whatsoever, as it would give them too large of an advantage in negotiating, so they had to make the effort to speak English to me. I was taken up the stairs to a long hallway with many unmarked doors, and the guard opened one of them and led me inside. The room was divided into two parts, one half containing an old wooden desk and a metal chair, and the other half was a cell with white-painted bars. An iron-frame bed with a stained, ratty old mattress sat in one corner of the cell, and a pile of rough military-issue sheets and blankets sat on the chair. The guard asked me to sit in the chair while he opened my bags and spread out all of my things on the desktop; my dirty travelling clothes and dog-eared books were thoroughly inspected for whatever it was he hoped to find; finally satisfied that he hadn't found any incriminating evidence among my socks, he shoved everything back inside.
Two more guards entered the room, one of them most certainly the boss, who started asking me questions rapidly in Russian. I made it clear that I didn’t understand him at all (which wasn’t far from the truth anyway) and one of the younger guards painstakingly tried to translate his questions into elementary English. I was asked about every detail of my time in Russia, if I was there for spying or terrorist activities, even if the name given in my passport was really my name, or if I held Belarusian citizenship. They found faults in my working visa papers, such as that my attached identification photographs were several millimetres too large, and were cut with uneven borders. Pointing out to them that they had been cut that way by the person in the visa department in a Moscow government office didn't seem to help matters. Because of the kind of working visa I had, I needed to renew the validity of the document every four months. Every time that happened, they gave me a new visa page, and took away the old one. Unfortunately the old visa papers are where border guards usually put entry and exit stamps, and without the old visa paper it looked (to them, at least) like I had been repeatedly leaving Russia without getting any exit stamps. That I did get the stamps, and that they were on my old visa document then sitting in a file in a Moscow registration office seemed to be a concept they couldn’t believe. Neither could I, but I also couldn’t believe that the foreigner registration laws could be applied so inconsistently and that nobody in the little room, aside from me, really seemed to know what the latest laws on the issue were. I had been warned that legislation changes made in Moscow sometimes took quite some time to trickle down to the provinces, and here it was slapping me in the face.
I also had to explain to them the small matter of my Belarusian border crossing, something that was not easy to do in elementary English. At one point I found myself teaching them English words to make myself understood, such as repeating 'today, I think', followed by 'yesterday, I thought', so I could tell them using the past tense 'I thought the train didn't go through Belarus'. During all of this the boss continued to stare at me with great suspicion while this was translated back to him by his interpreting guard. The other two were younger and much more relaxed, they seemed like new recruits who were still learning the ropes and hadn’t developed an appropriately menacing stance towards incarcerated prisoners yet.
At about three in the morning they managed to contact the 24 hour emergency number my school had for teachers, and spoke to a very sleepy visa manager to verify the identity of the Geoff Brown person they were holding, 'if that WAS his real name'. I finally had them convinced I posed no threat to Russian national security by about 4 o’clock, so they begrudgingly stamped all my documents, made me sign a statement that I had not done anything illegal when crossing borders, and admonished me never to cross the border without getting a proper passport stamp.

Staggering out into the night, they put me in a taxi to go and find the one hotel in the little bordertown of Ivangorod. The driver dumped me and my luggage out on the pavement and drove off in the darkness, leaving me in front of another concrete block with no lights visible. I wasn't sure it was a hotel at all, but I went up and tried the door handle, and it swung open easily. I climbed the stairs to the lobby carefully in the dark, and managed to wake up an old woman who worked there. We did our best to understand each other and to fill in the check-in form. I wasn’t sure what information some of the spaces on the form were requesting, so in the end she threw up her hands and accepted it half-finished. She handed me a key, and I climbed the stairs, still in the dark, to find my room at the end of the corridor. I was holding out a desperate hope that the key would open the door easily, something that is usually not the case with older Russian locks. I breathed a sigh of relief as it turned easily, and I walked in and shut the door with relief. Finally I had a room, and I collapsed onto the narrow creaky bed and was almost instantly asleep.

I slept soundly for four hours... until I was awoken by a brass band playing outside my window. It was victory in World war II day, and the band were playing on the town square as part of a parade. 'Welcome back to mother Russia' was my uppermost thought. It was impossible to sleep after that, so I got up and tried to take stock of the situation. I knew I would have to spend the rest of the day in the town waiting for the next Tallinn to Moscow train to come through late that evening, and had no idea what I would do with myself for the next eleven hours.

To pass the time, I visited an old cemetery near the border, on a hilltop covered with thick forest. Among the trees were thousands of graves, many of which were neglected and overgrown with bushes and weeds. The grave plots were marked out by painted metal fences that encircled each site; often a bench was placed inside the fence where relatives could come to sit and visit with their ancestors. I saw a family of parents and children sitting at a grave, making an afternoon visit to a loved one. Some graves had small metal platforms where relatives could leave offerings for the deceased - biscuits, painted eggs, prayer candles, rice poured in the shape of a cross, and cups of water were all common offerings that had been left by the Orthodox faithful. Most of the older graves were marked with metal Orthodox crosses, often with a picture of the person affixed. During the Soviet period, members of the Communist party were buried with rectangular headstones of carved granite or metal, with red metal stars crowning the monuments. Many of the stars have been removed or cut off since the fall of socialism in 1991, either by relatives or vandals, leaving a thin metal spike in the place where the star was once attached. Only a few stars remain there in Ivangorod, on the older, untended graves, with the red paint now flecked and peeling off. The whole cemetery gave that impression, in a state of slow decay and returning to the natural state of the forest it sat in. It seemed that there were far more people slumbering in their grass-covered graves on the hill than living in the sleepy town below, leading me to believe that many young people had left the region to seek a better life elsewhere, leaving their ancestor’s graves to sit quietly in the forest, patiently awaiting their return.

That evening, I walked back along the road I had traveled the night before by taxi to reach the train station. It was a surprisingly new building with a fresh coat of paint, certainly the newest in the town, probably to keep up appearances for the benefit of the majority of train passengers who would never do more than glance out the window here at the border. I sat in the empty waiting room as the light grew long in the fields across the tracks. The train was late by over an hour, and it was after eleven before the train pulled in and I saw the border guards go out to do their duty. The guards had put a stamp on my train ticket that would allow me to take the train without needing to buy a new ticket. When I finally went to board the train, the conductor glanced at my ticket and said 'nyet', while trying to wave me away. Imagine my state of frustration. At that moment, one of the border guards I knew (I'm on a first-name basis with five or six of them) passed by, and I got him to explain the situation, and the conductor was forced to let me on. However, my ticket was for a sleeping carriage, but since all the sleeping carriages were full, the conductor gave me a seat to sit on for the twelve-hour overnight trip. She really didn't like me or my ticket, so she gave me the seat next to the bathroom, rather smelly on a Russian train, and noisy, since people were going in and out of it all through the night. The train arrived in Moscow in the morning, with the chorus of Moscow's theme song playing over the loudspeakers - 'Moscow, greatest in all Russia'. Welcome home, indeed.

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