A Transit Through Russia

Tim Jackson 3/11/92

We have a piano, an ordinary modern upright overstrung piano. It was made in East Germany, which is unsurprising because my wife, Lyuda, is Russian. When we married and she came to live in England we wanted to bring it, so that her son could continue to learn music. So it seemed quite sensible to buy a van, drive to her flat in St. Petersburg and bring back wife, child, piano and all by sea.

It all went more or less according to plan. A van was found, an elderly diesel Ford Transit formerly owned by a builder, and fitted out for the trip. Stopping points were arranged across Europe with friends and family. I would meet Lyuda in Minsk at her friendís brotherís flat. My sister Pat would share the driving as far as Warsaw where she would be transformed into a tourist. My friend Mark would help with the preparations and act as mission control for the trip. Ferry tickets were booked and visas and insurance were arranged.

A frantic four weeks passed between getting the van and leaving. The back axle had to be rebuilt, which took a whole precious week. Cracks and holes in the bodywork had to be welded. Extra fuel tanks from the local scrapyard were bolted on and plumbed in in anticipation of difficulties getting fuel in Russia. The interior was divided by a plywood stud wall into a hold for the furniture and a cabin for sleeping. A sturdy wooden floor was made and carpeted. The roof was painted white outside and carpeted inside to keep down noise, heat and condensation. Shelves and cupboards were built for spares, tools, documents, food etc. Cushions were made for the cabin. Somewhere I found the time to spray paint a map of Europe onto the side, where we marked our progress in PVC tape. Some Russian later demonstrated a remarkable fondness for red tape by stealing it from our van.

A shakedown run was essential. I thought that a 300 mile trip to Scotland and back should iron out any obvious problems. With Mark driving my car, and the woodwork still unfinished we set out in convoy. Everything went smoothly until Gretna Green when Mark flashed me to stop. His windscreen was being splattered with something oily, soon found to be diesel oil. The van had broken an injector pipe and was spitting fuel all over the engine. The main Ford dealer in Carlisle had the part, but we would have neither support vehicle nor handy Ford dealer in Russia. On the day of leaving we were still sawing and screwing at 5pm, having only had about three hours sleep the night before. We finally called a halt, leaving a few panels to be cut and fitted en-route, and began loading the heap of packages that our friends had asked us to deliver to Russia for them. It was after six when we finally left, only to stop again to after ten miles while Mark brought a forgotten document to us. At last I was able to sleep while Pat, who had slept much of the day in preparation, drove us to our first base near to the Harwich ferry.

We had bought stick-on headlamp converters for driving on the continent. As we were on a daytime crossing we had not bothered to attach them before boarding the ferry, it was a fine summerís day and there would be plenty of time before nightfall. It was I suppose inevitable that we would disembark in a thunderstorm. Not only did we need headlamps immediately, but in the pouring rain the stick-on flatly refused to do its stuff. Half an hour with an umbrella and half a roll of kitchen towels eventually had them both precariously perched in place. By the time night did come, one had fallen off, and for the rest of the trip we made do with PVC tape. Morning saw us in Berlin. Apart from a fuel stop our only delay had been to stop and finish wiring up the electric kettle so that we could have a cup of tea. The border crossing from Holland had been open and unmanned. Summer here was scorching, and the roof treatment proved its worth, keeping us quite comfortable. It later also proved effective against condensation. We are spoiled in Britain with wide smooth motorways. Across Europe the roads get progressively either smaller or rougher, or both. In East Germany a solid concrete surface had the slabs set at a slight angle to one another to simulate a choppy sea. The small but well maintained roads of Poland gave a temporary respite to our battered suspension.

We had arranged to meet our contact at 10pm in the main hotel in Warsaw. After struggling through rush-hour traffic on the Berlin ring-road we finally arrived at midnight. All we had was a list of a dozen words of Polish, mainly traffic directions. Fortunately the hotel receptionist spoke perfect English, would not hear of us spending the night in the hotel and spent most of the next hour telephoning around and explaining our predicament until she got hold of our man.

- - -

There is an international standard for road signs, but their use varies considerably. In Poland an unposted 60kph speed limit applies in the towns. There is usually a sign indicating that you are entering a town, and slow traffic soon reminds you if you miss it. However it is only after several kilometres of countryside and overtaking traffic that you realise you have missed the end of the town. I had been driving between fields for a couple of kilometres since the last habitation, concluded that I had done just that, and accelerated to the permitted 90kph. Around the next bend I was flagged down by ĎPolitiaí with a radar. I was treated to some incomprehensible Polish admonishments, until it transpired that one of the officers spoke a little German, as do I.

"You were doing 88kph. The limit here is 60."
"I am very sorry. I will be more careful."
"You must pay a fine. 200,000 zlotys."
"I donít have any zlotys, I only have pounds and dollars."
"You must pay zlotys. You must change some at a bank."
"Where is a bank?"
"25 kilometres back."
"Who do I pay? If I go to the bank and come back will you still be here with my passport?"
"Ah. Well, the bank is closed now anyway."
"So what to do?"
Pause for thought. Some scribbling on the back of the ticket book.
"20 dollars."
"OK. Here. Goodbye."

Off I went to cross the Polish border and join the queue to enter Byelorussia and the former Soviet Union. Ten hours later I was admitted to the customs shed. Some of the officers spoke a little English, and with the help of my dictionary we managed to complete the declaration forms. It was 2am when I finally drove out into the sleeping and unlit town of Brest and started trying to read road signs which looked as if they had been written in a mirror.

A few hours sleep in a layby and onward to Minsk. I arrived with only an address, phone number, Russian phrase book and a basic knowledge of the alphabet. The public telephones take 15 kopek coins, worth about 0.04p. I didnít have any. I tried following signs to the Intourist office but couldnít find anyone who spoke English. In desperation I sat down in the van and began practising phrases in the hope of asking my way. Children gathered around, begging for dollars, in English. Idea! The children learn English at school! A little effort made my problem understood. With the promise of one dollar they went begging from passers-by until they had collected a few coins. The friend was out. His wife answered, but couldnít speak English. Another dollar persuaded one of the older boys to talk to her, tell her where I was and pass back the message that they would come to me in half a minute, no, half an hour. I lay back in the sun and dozed until Lyuda woke me. Travelling north now the roads deteriorated further as the summer evenings stretched to meet the dawn, and make the "white nights" of St. Petersburg. The van had maintained a steady 50mph through all conditions, but now joints in the steering and suspension whose existence I had not even suspected rattled loose. Many laybys on trunk roads sport public inspection ramps specifically for en-route repairs and adjustments.

We stopped in a layby for coffee. A farm tractor had just passed us towing a large hay cart when the young man driving decided that he would like to stop too. He attempted a sudden U-turn. I looked up in time to see the tractor, having jackknifed, roll under the heavy cart. The driver scrambled through the smashed windscreen of his wrecked cab, fortunately with only minor cuts. He asked for iodine for his cuts, refused a ride to the local hospital, and joined the growing crowd in discussing how to right the tractor.

Finally the city itself. Tramlines, railway tracks, sunken manhole covers and even the occasional burst water main conspire to defeat the most devious of drivers. Cars with broken suspensions and flat tyres litter the streets. The Transit had seemed old, slow and strange at the start. By Berlin it was no longer unusual, just old and slow. Here it was unexceptional except for the registration. A speed of 25mph was quite fast and punishing enough for anyone.

St. Petersburg is built on drained marshes around the mouth of the Neva. This river is a short broad fast channel draining lake Ladoga into the Baltic. It gives the city its two distinctive features, bridges and mosquitos. There are several road bridges across the main waterway in the city. At 2am every night these are lifted to allow shipping to pass. The sight of the brightly illuminated bridges rising is quite a spectacle and never short of sightseers with cameras, even at that time of night. Against the lights the dark bulk of ships creeping quietly through the city centre is like an eerie invasion.

- - -

Driving home to our flat from St. Petersburg one night the traffic halted before a bright light. The queue edged forward to reveal a blazing car. The owner approached each vehicle asking for a fire extinguisher. He was in quite a panic, understandably as the conflagration probably represented his entire life savings and was unlikely to be insured. To judge from the intense white light from the burning aluminium engine, expending our tiny halon extinguisher would have been a waste of time. The car was well beyond any human help, and morningís light revealed nothing but a pile of white ash under the bonnet.

Fuel stations occur at regular but well spaced intervals. Diesel fuel was officially only supplied to authorised vehicles for tokens. Cash usually worked, at about 5 roubles (3p) to the litre, but the scent of dollars often caused a rightward shift of the decimal point, toward the prices charged by the tourist, hard currency, petrol stations near the ports and borders. On one occasion our local station refused to supply us. We approached a truck driver who had just filled up.

"Turn left out of the fuel station, first left and into the woods. Iíll meet you."
The artic followed us down a dirt track into a clearing and drove onto a hummock. I parked the Transit alongside, lower. The driver produced a hose, sucked and spat, and syphoned fuel into our tanks. Tyre tracks and spillages showed that this practice was not uncommon.

- - -

Even something as simple as sending a postcard is a major exercise. We asked for stamps at a major post office: "No."
"What do you mean, no?"
"We donít have any stamps. There are no stamps in St. Petersburg.You will never post those cards!"
Eventually the assistant admitted that there might be some stamps at the main post office, but there was a terrible shortage because of inflation. At the head post office every stamp counter had the same story, although there was a queue of people at the posting counter. We decided to try the queue and see if they could help. After 15 minutes we came to a cheerful assistant who had stamps but also a large pile of mail to stamp. She offered to sell us stamps as long as we stuck them ourselves. No problem, we thought until she handed us a pile of stamps, seven for each card, a glue pot with more glue outside than in, and a brush. My hands stuck to the vanís steering wheel all the way home.

- - -

Before the ravages of inflation one could reasonably expect an establishment displaying a knife and fork sign to have food for sale. Nowadays it simply indicates that they possess a knife and a fork. One side effect of the shortages is that unchipped glasses can only be found in hard currency restaurants. It is said that the staff and customers steal all the good crockery and cutlery. Some cafes ask for a glass deposit when selling drinks. One day we spotted a cafe actually selling coffee. We eagerly joined the queue, and came to the front just as the serving girl decided to cash up the till. Ten minutes later we got our coffee, without sugar. They didnít have any. Glumly we took our glasses to a table where we were joined by a man in a heavy coat. Grinning widely he opened his coat to reveal a jar of sugar, and handed us a spoonful each. He took great pleasure from having beaten the system. The following afternoon we ate in a restaurant that was unable to serve coffee, but gave us sweet tea with about a centimetre of sugar in the bottom. The suggestion that he should join forces with the cafe of the morning produced the fleeting shadow of a smile on the sullen waiter. An earlier visit to the same restaurant had given another illustration of the random nature of the shortages. "Two caviar pancakes please."
"Sorry, caviar pancakes are off."
"Ah - shortage of caviar eh?"
"No. No dough for pancakes."

This country has for seventy years followed a political and economic system propounded by a man who took a name for himself which means ĎThe Lazy Oneí. He said it was the name of a river. It has taken this long to see the joke.

Another aspect of inflation is poverty. Despite its socialism, Russia has no effective social security system. In former times full employment ensured an income for everyone, and unemployment was an offence. The advent of the free market and unemployment has brought poverty to pensioners, the disabled and those otherwise unable to work. They are to be seen on the shopping streets, outside the churches, the hotels, the stations and anywhere else that the relatively wealthy might pass, begging or trying to sell some small possessions.

Two weeks after I arrived work began on resurfacing a kilometre of the Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping street in central St. Petersburg. They were making a serious project of it and had a complete German-made road surfacing system, such as are used on British roads. All traffic was diverted except trolley buses, and these sometimes suffered the ignominy of having to follow behind the stripping or surfacing machine at under one kilometre per hour. Two month when later we left they had finished stripping the old surface and raising manholes, and had even laid about half a lane of surface.

- - -

Owning property is now possible. A sort of right-to-buy scheme exists for those who rent flats. Each citizen is entitled to a certain number of square metres of living space. The flat is measured and valued, and the tenant pays the difference, if any, between his entitlement and the actual size of the flat. Lyuda began proceedings to acquire her flat as soon as she arrived in Russia after our wedding, as the alternative was simply to hand it back to the state. Bureaucracy proceeded in its usual treacle-like manner until someone heard that she was emigrating. Weeks went by and nothing happened.

The process was in its final stage, but it seemed impossible to get hold of the housing officer to get the papers signed off. Eventually random chance dictated that he was actually in the office one day when she called, and his secretary couldnít fob her off. He didnít have time to see her now and was going on holiday next week, but told her to telephone his home at midnight. He hinted that he might just manage it if circumstances were favourable. Lyuda assured him that she would do her best to ensure that they were.

Another midnight phone call was arranged for two days before he left. This time he said he could do it only if he could get to the administrative office in the next town by 8am the next morning. At 7am we picked him up in the van and drove him there. The papers were duly signed and he reappeared, along with two colleagues who needed a lift back with us. One more stop and the flat was ours. His circumstances became fifty dollars more favourable.

- - -

One weekend we escaped from the endless bureaucracy and took a cruise to Vallaam, an island in lake Ladoga. Being thoroughly exhausted we gave Artyom (our son, 11) a few roubles and let him go alone on a tour of the islands while we caught up on some sleep. There are two ports on the main island, and his ship put in at the other one to let the passengers explore for a while. Artyom took the opportunity, and returned to the ship which soon sailed on. With alarm he noticed that the islands were receding into the distance. He had accidentally boarded the mainland ferry! He duly reported himself to the crew and was taken to the captain. Some discussion ensued. It was a three hour sail to the mainland, maybe they would take him there. Maybe they would make his parents pay for returning. Eventually the ship put about and returned the half hour to port, where the tour ship was still docked. We were just beginning to worry and make enquiries about the shipís late return when he appeared, frightened but unharmed.

With 1000% inflation foreigners are wise to keep money as something other than roubles. We changed US dollars as we needed them, just enough to last a couple of weeks. The banks were still giving a rate about 30% below that on the street, although this practice seems to be slowly yielding to the desire to make the rouble convertible. Another problem is the shortage of notes. The old one, two, three, five and ten rouble notes are mostly used bundled into hundreds, and transactions are often delayed while the recipient counts the bundle. We changed a hundred dollars and received a carrier bag full of small notes in exchange.

Street trading has its hazards, for both the buyer and the seller. It is illegal for ordinary Russians to have and trade in currency, so traders live in constant fear of the militia. There are reputed to be a large number of photocopied counterfeit dollars in circulation. Anyone accepting them scrapes the presidentís head with a thumbnail to make sure it doesnít come off. Many street dealers are simply trying to protect their capital from inflation, but there are quite a few sharks in the water.

We were low on roubles when a man approached us to change money. A brief conversation established that he would buy $50 at the going rate, but the he couldnít change a $100 note. As we were disappearing into a (hard currency) restaurant he came after us. He had found a trader who had $100 in change. Lyuda took the note and went with him to deal. Artyom and I went into the restaurant. She passed over the 100 and accepted the change, saying she would take them to her husband to check they were genuine.

The dealer made some excuse about the date on the 100, and returned it asking for his money back. Suspicious, Lyuda carried on, and looking around found that the dealers had fled. In one hand she had the small notes, in the other, one dollar. He had switched the 100 for a single.

She came into the restaurant shaking, saying she thought she had lost some money, and dumped the notes on the table. A quick count revealed $101, all genuine. The only trick had been the switch of notes. The biter had been bit this time. On a previous attempt at black market trading a sleight-of-hand had cost her about £40.

- - -

While planning the trip Lyuda paid for a consultation with Customs officers, who said that there was no problem with the piano, but that we would need to have some books valued for duty, and that we could only take about £25 worth of jewellery. Unfortunately she has a fairly valuable diamond engagement ring, which has been in my family for several generations. When she returned to Russia after the wedding, no-one told her that she needed to declare it to customs on entry. So that, and her wedding ring, would now have to remain behind in Russia.

In trying to solve this problem, we discovered that there is a law against exporting foreign-made musical instruments. Full stop. We appealed and objected, up to the deputy chief customs officer for the Leningrad Region ( which has not changed its name, by the way), but met a brick wall. The law is the law and there can be no exceptions.
"I can arrange for the ring the be cleared, the consultants will be reprimanded and I am sorry that they have caused you such inconvenience, but as for the piano, nyet."

A trip was duly made to the central public library to have the books valued. We parked the van outside the front door - Russia has not discovered parking meters yet. The valuation office turned out to be at the back, so we walked around the block, only to find it closed. On the way we had passed a restaurant which used to be very good and now decided that it was time to eat. Times have changed. Chipped glasses and mismatched plates, the prawn salad consisted of vegetables in mayonnaise, the waiters were more interested in conversation with one another than in customers, and we were plagued by mosquitos. After two hours we finally returned to the van. Someone had been in it! All my papers, travellerís cheques, credit cards and camera had gone. We had security deadlocks on the doors but had not set them just to cross the street to the library, and the standard Ford locks had proved no deterrent.

I will never again listen to British police complain about underfunding. We were directed to a militia station in a cellar through an unmarked door and down a corridor. A single room had been roughly partitioned with wood and perspex nailed to the wall to form a small two-man office. This was piled high with files and lost or impounded property. Opposite a steel cage held a dozen drunk-and-disorderlies. In between was a row of chairs, with a prostitute dozing on one. Mosquitoes were everywhere, some making a meal of the girlís hitherto unmarked legs. The duty officer listened politely to our story and told us to wait. We did a lot of waiting. Russia is a country that makes an art form of waiting, and we became quite expert at it. There was no investigating officer available. We should report the things lost, not stolen or else I would be unable to get a new passport for months. We came back on Sunday. Again on Tuesday. We cannot make a statement without an independent translator. It took a week just to report the theft.

The British Embassy in Moscow did better and replaced my passport in two days. A refund for travellerís cheques was available after about two weeks but it was a month before one credit card was reinstated. I wish the Embassy could have been as efficient about Lyudaís visa. We had to travel to Moscow and queue just to make an appointment for an interview. They will not make appointments over the phone. They often donít even answer the phone.

Train travel is very cheap. A visitor arriving at a major tourist hotel in Moscow with a dollarís worth of roubles can use it either to buy a cold can of coke in the hotel bar, or a ticket on the sleeper to St. Petersburg. However Moscow station is wise to this, and makes a surcharge to foreign travellers of four US dollars (regardless of nationality). The ticket clerk refused our five dollar note.
"I have no change. I can only sell you a ticket if you give me four dollars."
"Take the five and give us some roubles back then."
"No. You must pay the ticket in roubles and the surcharge in dollars."
"Where can we get change?"
"Should I close the office to look for change for you?"
After queuing to see the station supervisor it transpired that the Finland ticket counter had some dollar change and changed our note.

- - -

With direct dialling one tends to forget how difficult international telephone calls can be. We donít have a phone at the flat. When phoning into St. Petersburg from neighbours it can take 15 minutes just to get a line. Getting the international operator can take hours. Only then can a call be booked, and join a queue several hours long. The alternative is to go to the Telegraph Office in the city centre. Queue at the booking desk for ten minutes, fill in a form and pay for, say, ten minutes conversation, then sit and wait. After half an hour or so the tannoy directs you to a specific call box where your call is connected. If you want more time, go through the process again. Faxes can be sent and received at the same counter, although transmissions may queue for a day or two, and you can only collect received fax between 1300 and 1700 Monday to Saturday. There is an olde-worlde feel in being addressed simply as Jackson, St. Petersburg by fax.

An efficient mission control team in the UK had meant that one phone call got credit cards, travellers cheques and driving licence sorted out. Another booked reservations on ships home, a flood of return faxes giving sailing details and reference numbers.

Papers in Russia were a different matter. I now had no customs papers for the van and no driving licence (except a faxed copy of a duplicate international permit). Was it now illegal for me to drive in Russia? We went, by bus, to the headquarters of the G.A.E., the traffic police. Russians pronounce that "Gay Ah Eee", we inevitably called them Gays. They gave us the usual royal run-around. We were to believe that I was the first foreigner ever to report losing a driving licence in St. Petersburg. It was some time later that a young officer, politely berating us for overstaying our welcome in a restricted parking area, told us what they should have done.

After some argument between ourselves we decided to take the piano to the border and try to get it through. We could only sell it for about £50 and personally I would rather have burnt it in front of the customs offices as a protest than take that.

At the border we were met by a pleasant-mannered Customs officer:
"Bring all your luggage through this office for checking."
"All? We have a van full out there!"
"You realise that this will take at least five hours?"

So we started. Bags and boxes were unloaded, untied and their contents inspected, one at a time. Books were opened and passed around the office. A queue started to form behind us. Contents of a cosmetics bag were discussed, with special interest in a twist of paper containing a lock of Artyomís hair from babyhood. After about 15 minutes most of the staff had lost interest and we were alone with our officer. About a quarter of the boxes were out, and half of those examined and passed. He reached the wedding photographs, and Lyuda took the opportunity to strike up conversation, which quickly led away from weddings. "Would you arrest me if I made a suggestion?"
"I donít think so. What sort of suggestion?"
"Well you know the $200 we have left that we are taking out?"
"Well they are not much use in Europe, so why donít we split them?."
"I think I have seen everything I need. You can start putting your things back in the van now."
The boxes were retied and wedged back into whatever holes we could find. I had just got the last one precariously perched and was shutting the door when the chief officer walked up and handed me the art book he had been reading. It was from about the fifth box down. I stuffed it in the nearest and we drove the 500 metres or so to the Finnish border, to start again.

We were worried here about the new alcohol law. If you are Finnish you can bring in alcohol only if you have been away for two days. If you are not, you have to be staying in Finland for at least three days. The leaflet didnít mention transients. We got a three day transit visa to cover this, but hoped no-one would check up on the timing. On our only possible route the only ship for the next five days was tomorrow. It seems that we had got too used to thinking like the Russian bureaucracy. They didnít even ask about alcohol. They just had us pull out three or four boxes and an officer wriggled into the gap, agreed it seemed OK, wriggled out again and let us go.

We travelled via Helsinki and Hamburg, drove into each town the day before the sailing, camped in the van overnight, and bought our tickets first thing in the morning using the replaced credit card. As a loaded van, we were treated as freight.

The German freight clerk said that he would have to refer our booking to his head office, and took my fax bearing the reference number, slapped it on a photocopier, slapped the copy on a fax and handed the original back to me. Within the minute I had my document back and there was a copy in head office and in his file. Its all so simple in the West, it would have taken half a day in Russia. Artyom is very proud of his boarding card for the MS Hamburg which describes him as "Lorry Driver".

Nobody else cared to check our load. There was not even an opportunity to stop and make a declaration in Germany, everyone was just waved through. Finally in England immigration told us that we didnít have a visa for Artyom because while his name was in the passport it was not written explicitly on the visa. A brief heart-in-mouth moment and then the officer decided that it was trivial and wrote it in himself. Prepared for more unloading, we drove into the (appropriately coloured) red channel and stopped.

"Got all your worldly belongings in there then? Fine! OK. Off you go."
I wonder which country is the most secure.