Cold War comes back to life for Gunnisonite on trip through Belarus
by Paul Wayne Foreman
Originally published 2012-12-13
Paul Wayne Foreman and his bride, Natasha Vinakorova
If life without any civil rights is outside of your life’s experience, maybe you ought to try it because it puts certain life details into a clearer perspective ... not that my wife and I volunteered for the experience to be clear....
Our train trip to St. Petersburg, Russia - to attend a family gathering in our honor - ended unexpectedly ... and abruptly at a Belarus border post, reachable only by train. We were thrown off the train, and in a big rush by the way ... because I, the Americanski dude, had no “transit visa” to pass through Belarus.The trip didn’t start off well anyway, beginning with my obtaining a Russian visa.
Before I’d arrived, my wife Tasha had researched diligently the particulars of my obtaining a Russian visa. I could have gotten one in the US, but that would have meant sending my passport by mail to the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C., a two-week processing time, and a return by mail.
Tasha’s investigations revealed that I was lucky, that beginning in September a relaxation in the rules was in place for Americans, that the waiting time would only be three days, and the visa would be good for up to a month plus we could just bring in the required documentation. If we were willing to wait two weeks, I could have a visa good for five years, with unlimited entries and departures from Russia.
So on Friday, Oct. 5, we travel to the Russian Embassy to drop off the physical documents to accompany an online application. Only now, the officials are talking a different story. Processing time will be ten working days, not three, and for the entire time my passport will be in their possession, despite the fact that they required two photocopies of it with the application, the lady officer said in Russian with Tasha translating.
I’ve been working on verbal self-control for decades, but still sometimes things just slip out of me with no apparent conscious input from the decision-making part of my brain.
“Jesus Christ!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean you’re going to keep my passport for two weeks? It’s an intimate document. I’m in a foreign country. What if I had to leave the country in a hurry? That’s just wrong and you guys know it.” The lady knew it, but suggested I could make a copy of it, and surprise, she spoke that in English. ...
Tasha made it clear that she’d called the embassy’s visa information number, and that evidently someone was giving out false information on the phone. Immediately, some weasel-faced, petty tyrant bureaucrat came out and started speaking loudly and sternly to Tasha ... in Russian.
The little weasel said he was the person who answered all the incoming calls, and that he couldn’t have told Tasha that they had three-day service. You aren’t a Russian citizen, nor an American citizen, he said, and he didn’t know why she was in the room anyway, and that if she didn’t shut up, he’d call a guard and have her thrown out. Let’s just call it a blessing that all that was in Russian, and I didn’t know anything about it until later, because some juicy expletive could have bypassed the conscious decision-making part of my brain ... again.
So I asked, do you understand English? Yes, he said. I said, then you know all of this is ridiculous because all we want is a visa to visit my Russian-born wife’s family in St. Petersburg. Surely you can’t have a problem with that. He wiggled his weasel whiskers and said a few more things to Tasha and then disappeared. Yeah, they had to keep my passport for two weeks.
In the Russian Embassy at least, the Cold War is still on, even on Russian-born people.
Two weeks later, I got the visa, but, instead of the 20-day window originally requested, the visa became effective the day we received it, Oct. 17, with it good only 12 days. Great, Tasha’s family had arranged their schedule around an end of the month visit, so we’d purchased an Oct. 21 train ticket. O-Kay, we’re going to have a shorter visit than we thought. Let’s roll with it, right?
Sunday morning, Oct. 21, we’re having the typical hurry up and get out of the door departure scene, but things are timed pretty well. Phone rings, it’s the taxi, and by goodness he’s early, and waiting downstairs. O--Kay, we’ll be right there, only, we won’t be “right” there, but hey, let the meter run, and we’ll be paying one way or the other. So, after about five minutes, I grab the heaviest stuff and head for the elevator, two really heavy suitcases and heavy computer case.
Out the main door, and ... where’s the taxi? I, nervously, leave the bags, and walk out to where I can see the street and the sidewalks, which serve as alternative streets in Kiev ... yes they do, seriously.
Nope, no taxi in sight. I wait a few minutes, and call Tasha. No taxi, baby. She calls the dispatcher. He came and left. Now, we’ve got to get a taxi at the last minute, and after more a few tries, Tasha has no luck. She was convinced that the various taxi companies were passing a message amongst each other that a crazy lady was trying to get a taxi. My sweet crazy lady... Of course, I don’t know about any of those misadventures, so I’m standing outside in the damp, dank, Kiev overcast thinking a taxi will be arriving any moment.
But moments stretch to minutes. I didn’t have the train tickets with me, but my memory was that we were to leave at 10:16. Just a little before 10 Tasha appeared. I’d been fighting back tears thinking that her long-held dream of our trip to St. Petersburg, had, after considerable trouble, come to naught.Before I had a chance to say anything, she spirits past me towards the street to meet a taxi, I thought, but rather, she gets IN the street and attempts to flag DOWN a taxi or any car. I call out, “It’s too late baby,” but in vain as I could have screamed at the top of my lungs and not penetrated the ever-present, drone of vehicles’ engines, exhausts, and gear noises cacophonously harmonizing.But by the living God she’s successful, after actually putting life and limb in jeopardy. And, I was in error. Our train departs at 10:45 not 10:16, so we’ve almost a 40-minute window in which to work, and pray, before our train leaves. While the train station isn’t exactly on the other side of town, Kiev is a large, spread out city and the station is indeed a long way’s away.
In round two with Ukrainian capitalism, the taxi driver says he doesn’t want to take us all the way to the train station. You figure.... Instead, he suggests his taking us to the nearest underground terminal. No, that’s not going to work, sir. Do you see how much luggage we have???
So, in resignation he relents to what we want and are willing to pay for, but not without whining over whether his sub-compact car has enough room for the very same luggage we’d just noted had made his suggestion of an underground train trip just plain dumb. I admit, my carpenter’s eye said the fit would be pretty close, but we do manage to pack it in.
We hit the road. Immediately, another animated conversation, in Russian, began. I admit, lots of conversations in Russian are so emotional and animated that I’m left in doubt as to whether things are cool, or not cool. Back and forth, back and forth, he’s pointing at his watch, on and on, and at last, he shuts up, and his driving takes on a different edge.
Yep, now, we’re riders - sans seat belts - in the Sunday morning Ukrainian Grand Prix. Lacking a 600 horsepower V-8 or V-12 engine, we’re in the sub-compact division, but whatever we’re lacking in horsepower our driver is making up by his taking on all comers and his daring moves that leave mere centimeters’ clearance in places, as well as for taking off from red lights not on a green but on the red when the intersection looks good.
And yeah, we are making pretty good time, passing just about everyone. During it all I’m doing two things. One, I’m reciting the 23rd Psalm, and I’m not sure when I memorized it, and two, I’m talking to angels I HOPE are with us, saying, I trust you, I believe you can make it happen, and I’m confident that you will make it happen ... yea, though I’m racing through the avenues of death with an insanely driving Ukrainian taxi driver, I will fear no evil, nor car crashes cause thou art preparing our way ... yeah, I know you’re preparing our way.....
At one point, I look ahead and see a Ukrainian cop with a 1950s radar unit, set on a tripod outside of his car. Maybe it’s a 1940s unit, because I’m not lying, I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s holding either a walkie-talkie or a cell phone to his ear, can’t tell which, but no fortune teller is needed to predict that our schedule won’t accommodate being pulled over for a speeding ticket.
As we pass, I see it’s a cell phone, and he’s grinning, and shuffling around, and an angel whispers in my ear, “See? No worries.”
A long series of red lights turn to green in perfect symphony. Wow guys, I’m thinking, that’s some nice work. The taxi driver is weaving and dodging, with one arm on the driver’s armrest, totally casual. Then we get caught by a red light. “Hey guys, wha’sup with that!!” I think, and immediately I hear, “Chill would ya? We’re not perfect, OK?”
Amazingly, our arrival is 15 minutes early. Miracles happen. Later, Tasha told me he’d asked for 200 hrynias, but she’d offered him 300 if we made it on time. I love my Tasha...
Lugging our load of luggage, we lurch inside. The central train station reminds me of an airport, with many “terminal” gates, which lead to stairways to various numbered tracks. I’m struggling, really, lugging probably 130-150 lb.. dragging about 75 percent of it with the other part hanging off of my shoulders, doing serious, conscious, deep yogic breathing. Yeah I am. I’m O-Kay, but just as we’re heading down the stairs....
A couple of Sunday morning drunks decide we need help. In a way, we do. So we got ourselves a caravan now, me, Tasha, and helpful drunks A and B. Drunk A gets to the loading area and takes off ... the wrong way. Tasha corrects his course. Drunk B, who by far has the heavier load, and I are trailing behind Drunk A’s sprints. Drunk B keeps trailing behind more and more. My warning system hits a high yellow alert. Like, if I should rush ahead, with Drunk A and Tasha, and we start to get on the train, and then, it’s like, uh, there’s no Drunk B to be found....?Where’s your buddy? He’s not my buddy. I never saw him before.....
I stick really close to Drunk B, probably being a bit paranoid. Turned out they were thieves, demanding 120 hrynias for about five minutes of work. Ah well, their price made the taxi ride look cheap.
And besides, we’re living a miracle ‘cause we’ve make it to our train, and we’re headed for a landing in our cabin. Surprise, we’ve got cabin mates, and, our cabin mates for the next 24 hours seem to be in pretty good spirits, probably because each already is half into a half-liter beer, and from all appearances, the party has just begun because they’ve got a two-liter bottle on the table in reserve.
We’ve got the bottom berths, and naturally that’s the only place to sit, so, there they sit. Hey, viva internationalism, peace, love and intimate conversations. We oughta be real cozy comrades before St. Petersburg rolls into view, I’m thinking....
Ah, but never underestimate Tasha. She goes off and comes back and the news is: We got ourselves a private cabin, for an extra 100 bucks, which as far as I’m concerned is cheap. And really, our former cabin mates were OK guys, helping us with our luggage to our new cabin. Well, things had just gotten better for them, too. Just before we departed our original home, I noticed one of them had a liter of vodka, correctly pronounced, wodka. There really ain’t no “V” in wodka.
Honestly the new cabin is so, SO much nicer, bigger, wider beds, power outlets, several video channels, a big window, neat little table, and a certain amount of “ambience.”
We settle in, ‘cause we’ve got a day to spend here, Tasha most definitely “nesting.” We get all fixed, as the autumn-colored Ukrainian countryside dances by. The passing scenery reminds me of those long family vacations by car when I was young. My eyes sometimes closely look at passing trees, fields, farms, hills and streams, and sometimes they’re not focused at all, rather, fixed in a random direction, watching the lines made by the pole-to-pole ups and downs of the telephone wires.
But we are tired. Our conductor says we’ll have three inspections with customs/border guards, Ukrainians first, then Belarusians, and finally Russians. The conductor says the last of the three would be over about 4 p.m. We were most definitely looking forward to sleeping after the final one, my dear Tasha most especially as she’d slept very little Saturday night.
The first customs scene starred the Ukrainians. All of my dealings with Ukrainian customs and immigration officials have been some of my most laid-back, and this time was no different.
“Got anything with you besides personal effects?” he asks with a smile. Nope. O-Kay.
The stop was short, and off we went. After less than 30 minutes, again we rolled to a stop. A dozen or more Belarusian guards milled around on the platform wearing those bizzaro hats.
As they came on board one guard led a dope dog through our car. It’s no accident or coincidence that repressive governments - including Western governments - refuse their citizens access to the “evil” cannabis, which often alters a person’s consciousness just enough for them to see how full of crap their governments are. However, always in such countries you’ll find crummy beer - or wodka - and crappy cigarettes cheap and available everywhere.
Our turn to have a visit, and we produced our passports. The first lieutenant glances quickly at mine and bursts into another round of unintelligible Russian. Without a doubt I’m seeing something ain’t right. Seems, I don’t have a “transit visa.” Yep, I need a transit visa to ride through Belarus.
We are ordered to disembark, beginning right now, and quickly ... in the freakin’ middle of nowhere. Again, my passport is confiscated. It needs to be “checked.” I ask, why? It’s been good with the Ukrainians, and good with the Russians, why isn’t it good with Belarus?
It needs to be checked. Don’t worry, first lieutenant says.
The temper I inherited from my Lebanese mother goes “inferno.” I’m throwing up the seats to get to the luggage compartments, yanking out the luggage stuffed there, while Tasha undoes her nesting to gather our things. The heat of the inferno rises as looks on the conductor’s face help the unintelligible Russian convey that we are NOT hurrying fast enough.
The first lieutenant, too, looks increasingly impatient. I’m thinking f**k ‘em. What are they going to do? Throw us off without our baggage? Then, I think a little more.
It’s a possibility, definitely a possibility.
After being led off the train, we’re herded off the platform and directed to sit on a random bench. It’s a nice day by the way, bright blue sky and golden trees. Another man sits there, a young Vietnamese we discover, a stunned look on his face. No transit visa, I ask. He nods.
In addition to border guards, there are soldiers in camo. Figure, we’re sitting in a train-accessible-only border station, I’ve got no passport, in what appears to be a paramilitary-style compound with fences and locked gates everywhere. On top of that, we’ve got cell phone service, but, whoops, we’d forgotten to put some hrynias on Tasha’s cell phone. We were down to 20 hrynias, about $2.50.
When is the next train to Ukraine, we ask first lieutenant? 3 a.m. Can we buy a ticket? We’re “trying to put something together.” How about my passport? Don’t worry. We attempt calling Tasha’s relatives. No answer. Dhom, the Vietnamese man tries to call someone. No answer. He mentions that his phone has very little credit remaining.
After a while, first lieutenant leads us to the very back of the compound, through several locked gates, to a stark room. Desks and chairs. Shortly thereafter, Dhom arrives.
We scatter our luggage, as Tasha, looking for the bright side of things, suggests we take a walk in the forest surrounding the post.
She walks out of the door and is informed, we are not allowed to do that. Ah well....
Very, very clearly, we’ve no civil rights, no unalienable rights, and we’re being held in a country where many still revere Stalin. The day before our trip I’d read an interview with Belaurus’ president Lukaschenko. In it, he apologized for not quite living up to Stalin’s ideals, but promised to keep working at it. I asked Tasha if this was for real, and she assured me that yes indeed it was, that of all the former Soviet republics, Belarus still reveres Soviet-style communism.
Honestly, he looks more like a Hitler than a Stalin to me, and in any case, a real charming guy ... not....
I’ve had brushes with the law, but I’ve never been a prisoner of a Stalin-idealizing state. I like new experiences, mostly.
Settled into our new home, Tasha requires toilet facilities. The outhouse isn’t too far away though we learn that using it requires a paramilitary escort. Toilet paper isn’t part of the outpost’s amenities nor is a place to wash one’s hands. Her mentioning this and asking where we may sleep, the guards remind her that she was free to continue to St. Petersburg, so she’s no reason nor right to complain.
I will not leave my husband.
Well then, with the sun’s going down and the temperature dropping, you should be thankful you’re not standing on the platform for 12 hours waiting for your train.
Later, Tasha assures me, these officers are nothing like the officers during the Soviet days ... not as bad in other words. Hearing that, somehow, felt like good news. I’ll say this: The animosity, and not-so-subtle institutionalized hatred towards US’ citizens evidenced itself, though from time to time I see curiosity on the faces of the post’s complement.
A little later, first lieutenant returns my passport. And good news!! Around 9 p.m. we, most likely, will be able to buy a train ticket out of here.
I take a deep breath and approach first lieutenant. I apologize for the display of anger, yet I hope he understands that all of this is over our traveling to make a simple family visit. I understand, you are doing your job, following your orders, and that you have no discretion in this matter, so I have no hard feelings towards you. I extend my hand for a handshake. Tick-tock, tick-tock....
...I hope all can be all right between us. Tick-tock, tick-tock.... No handshake. OK.
Dhom, on the other hand, still is without his passport. A young man, 20, who had been traveling to St. Petersburg to represent his Kiev university in an academic competition, he seems so frail, so child-like. He’s very kind, offering us food he carried in his daypack. He speaks English pretty well and Russian better. He’s shocked when I say I have my passport, begins trembling slightly, literally his breathing changes.
May I travel with you, he asks, because regularly he encounters intense prejudice and racism, he explains. Of course you can.
About 9 p.m. we walk outside and ask a guard where the tickets are sold. Return to your quarters, we sternly are commanded. About 9:30, first lieutenant leads us prisoner-style to the compound’s ticket station, where we purchased our tickets and Dhom’s as well. Our original tickets cost about $300, and our new tickets cost a bunch of hryvnias and a US $100 bill.
Oh, and we were allowed one phone call to Tasha’s relatives in St. Petersburg. No, we won’t be on the train. The cost? A mere 50 bucks, a Belarusian border post bargain.
Afterwards, we’re escorted back to our “sleeping” quarters, but first lieutenant still keeps Dhom’s passport. To the very end of our time in this Belarusian border “prison,” our emotions were played, the hoped-for outcome being fear or perhaps anger. Tasha and I remained immune, but bless Dhom’s heart, he did not.
For instance, about 1 a.m. I walked with Tasha to our fantastic toilet facilities. Immediately a guard appeared and challenged us. Dude, we’re going to the freakin’ bathroom, and of course, you had to open a gate for us to get there any damn way.
Till the very last they screwed with us. Dhom got his passport, about 2 a.m. The three of us were “allowed” to go to the station platform, very bright by the way, to wait for the train. After a few minutes first lieutenant appears, says follow me, nothing more. He leads us away from the lights and waiting bench into the darkness. On and on we go. When we stop, we’re standing in darkness so deep the Milky Way plainly arches over our heads.
Indeed, we did board the train, the last car, from that spot, but he never told us why we were marching into darkness.
Even after boarding the train, and showing our tickets, and going to our cabin, I was not fully confident the ordeal was finished. To my surprise, at this point I felt that Ukraine was my home, and that when we crossed the Belarusian border into Ukraine, then I’d relax and then I’d be arriving home.
Fortunately, we had no further surprises, and the three of us were able to lie down and get some sleep before our Kiev arrival. A young man asleep in the cabin seemed not to notice our intrusion at all.
As daylight broke, we met our cabin mate, a Belarusian who spoke very good English. Regrettably, in the dullness of sleep deprivation and stress, I never learned his name, but he was quite a bright fellow. What a cast we had in the cabin, a Russian-born Ukrainian, an American, a Vietnamese, and a Belarusian, all speaking decent English, and all enjoying each other’s company.
On the “transit visa,” our Belarusian friend said an American friend of his had suffered exactly what we’d experienced, and at the very same border outpost. No one knows about this requirement. It’s a secret, he added with a wink.
We roll to a stop in the Kiev terminal. The Belarusian quickly departed, with Dhom not far behind. Dhom thanked us for allowing him to travel with him.
After a few minutes, Dhom returns with his father, a man my age who had been a North Vietnamese regular in the Vietnam War. A gentle man, wounded in the war, he too wanted to thank us for taking Dhom under our wings.
I hoped that Dhom would convey my apology.
While the three of us had been sitting on the random bench awaiting our paramilitary disposition, I’d made a tearful apology to Dhom for what my country had done to his. To this day the scars of the 60s, the war, the assassinations, grieve my heart.
He’d smiled kindly in accepting the apology. I said, it’s only me talking, but I’m talking to you, we can see each other’s eyes, and in one small way we can bring peace and healing to the world.
Dhom explained that the effects of Agent Orange to this day are affecting Vietnamese people.
My intuition said Dhom and his father, Sol as best I could understand, were Buddhists, a feeling reinforced by his father’s gentle bow as the two of them said goodbye, a bow I returned, adding, I wish you a good life. Sol understood and smiled, and in very difficult English wished me a good life....
Before the train stopped, we’d decided to let the aisle clear before we disembarked, ‘cause we had a lotta luggage, more than most. The aisle cleared, I dragged the heaviest luggage into the aisle, threw my computer case over my shoulder, and jokingly said, well, about all that could happen now would be for the train to start moving with us not being allowed to get off....
Lugging our stuff toward the exit, a conductor or whatever is jabbering away like a cackling hen, in Russian of course, and of course I don’t know what the hell she’s saying. Whatever she’s saying has that familiar emotional edge to it.
I and about 2/3’s of our luggage now are on the platform waiting for Tasha when, no kidding, the train starts to pull away. I freak out, literally, run and attempt to board the train, but the steps are very steep and the lady effectively blocks me. She shouts something to me as off the train goes. Tasha has no money, I’ve got her identification, and our cell phone is in my pocket.
I “chase” the train thinking, maybe it’s being moved a little bit to a boarding location, but no, it’s steadily picking up speed, and I’m steadily falling behind. So, I stop, totally dumbstruck.
The area is empty of people and it’s a big-ass place. All the signage is in Russian. I’m beat to hell, and I don’t know where to go.
I do find my way to an exit, but it leads me to the wrong side of the station. This means a LONG trek through the station to the ticket and information area at the entrance. I can walk about 10 meters or so before I must stop, and rest. I feel 99 years old.
Once I get to the information area, I look for a likely place to get some information, you know, like what the hell do I do? Of course I gotta find English speakers, but, of course, when I need one the most I can’t find one. In the last 48 hours, we’ve both had about 2-4 hours of sleep total, I’m wasted, and I’m lugging a ton of luggage. I collapse in a chair, figuring that the best I can do is to stay put, and wait for Tasha to find me. I feel confident she will find me, and out of all this chaos, at least the confidence I feel in Tasha is my feeling a feeling that feels good.
Meanwhile, the train and Tasha continue on about ten kilometers before stopping. In-freaking-credibly, the lady tries to force Tasha off the train. Tasha says NFW, you are at LEAST walking with me through this sketchy-looking area back to the station. So together, off they go down brick-paved streets, constantly crossing rails in a surprisingly warm Kiev morning. The lady offers no help. Along the way Tasha stops 6-7 strange looking people in a strange looking non-residential asking to use their cell phone to call and let me know she’s OK. Nope. Not one agrees.
Well, about two hours later, Tasha finds me. I’d just decided SOMEBODY is going to help me, and I had gotten through to a pair of information agents who’d directed me to a specific ticket booth. I spun around, and there was Tasha.
We get a taxi, and arrive home, from where we started about 25 hours ago.
I’ll close by saying to the US citizens reading our account: Go outside. Get on your knees. Now kiss the ground on which you stand.
Realize that the USA is far, far from perfect, but you do have civil rights, you do have unalienable rights, you do have a justice system that will back up your rights, and you do live in a country where the vast majority of people are willing to help people in trouble.
Now, get up off your knees, look up, and thank the sky.