Written by Anthony Smyrski / Edited by Anne Keehn
This story originally appeared in issue eight of Megawords magazine.
Roman and I are asleep in the cabin of a Soviet era sleeper train, when a knock on the door startles us awake. It is 6:30 in the morning, and we are almost at our destination: St. Petersburg, Russia. I had fallen asleep while gazing out at the stark landscape. But now I feel the tension in the air; the kinetic bustle of Russia’s metropolis looms ever closer. I begin to gather my bags and my thoughts; within 20 minutes, our train enters the belly of the city, and comes to a smoky stop in Vitebsky train station. We step onto the platform, illuminated by eerie green light. The oily smell of diesel fumes stings our nostrils.
Two days ago, I had touched down at Berlin’s Tegel airport after 20 hours of travel from my home in Philadelphia, where my friend Roman met me. I visit Roman once a year, and we always make an excursion to a nearby city or town. This time we chose to explore our fascination with the soviet legacy, and decided to travel to the more distant and foreign St. Petersburg. Roman and his family escaped the communist regime in Poland during the late 1980s, and perhaps we wanted to discover the myth and perceived menace of Russia for ourselves.For the next six days we stay in this Russian city, where groups of soldiers roam the streets, alongside standoffish men and women dressed impeccably in furs and high heels. Roads are heavy with traffic: white public transit buses seemingly stall in their lanes, while the BMWs and Mercedes—driven by the city’s wealthier inhabitants—snake in and out of the throng.
We get around town, like everybody else, on the Metro, descending long, slow escalators that seem to take an eternity to reach the subway platforms—enormous, cavernous spaces more reminiscent of courtrooms or state buildings than simple train stations. Statues and memorials from the communist age still lurk in many corners, and the trains run coldly on time, idling up to concrete walls that slide open to let passengers in.
We tour the city’s cathedrals, whose very structures seem to have absorbed the trauma of history. A few blocks from where we stay—a hostel just off the café and shop-speckled Nevsky Prospekt—is Kazan cathedral, a massive, sprawling structure originally built in 1811, to be Russia’s main Orthodox church. Over a century later, the Bolshevik revolution raged in its shadow, and the cathedral was renamed the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Today, mass services have resumed, and the cathedral still serves partly as a museum, albeit with the word “atheist” omitted.
Then there is the majestic Savior on Blood church, built in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father, Alexander II who was assassinated on that spot. Although it never officially served as a place of public worship, its kaleidoscopic, twisting spires and breathtaking interior—with 7,500 square meter mosaics that hang from floor to ceiling— inspires awe and wonder. During World War II, this magnificent church was used as a shelter, then, during the Soviet era, it was used as a warehouse for a local opera theater. This, to me, is an abuse of such a place of beauty and worship. It is the ultimate symbol of repression, for this site to be reduced to a soulless, offensively practical storage space. Fortunately, the church was brought back to its past grandeur, and reopened in 1997.
And then there is the main reason for our visit to St. Petersburg: the Hermitage, the state run museum whose collection was started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and today, represents the development of world culture from the Stone Age to the 20th century. How to tackle the 3,000,000 artifacts held inside six imposing buildings that rise along the banks of the Neva River?
It is Sunday when we enter the snow-covered square outlined by the six buildings of the Hermitage—and a feeling of dismay over comes me. I think we have arrived too late in the day. There is not enough time to even walk quickly through every room. But something is better than nothing, I think, and take my place in the queue. By the time we are let in to the museum, we only have three hours until closing. We cannot return the next day, a Monday, as the museum will be closed. Tuesday, we will be leaving town. So, Roman and I devise a plan: we will focus on the few works we are truly interested in, and briskly cruise through the other lavishly ornamented rooms. In a whirlwind of centuries, mediums, styles and artists, I take in cuneiform for the first time, Caravaggios’ The Lute Player, a menacing 16th century Milanese military parade helmet, Greek vases and Roman sculptures, Russian paintings and other artifacts too numerous and fantastic to accurately recall.
And then, tall men with suits and mustaches enter the high ceilinged rooms, announcing the close of the museum. A stern tap on the wristwatch reminds stragglers—some engrossed in a painting or wrapped up in conversation—of the time. We try to take in as much as we can in these last minutes, but it seems the guards are hungry to go home for dinner. They herd us towards the exit and out into the snowy courtyard.
After five days, we start to get our bearings in St. Petersburg. Roman has begun to read Cyrillic, using his native Polish to figure out Russian. We have mastered the intimidating subway system, and found our way around the city’s notoriously unmarked back streets. Our feelings of culture shock and disorientation are dissipating. But I want to squeeze in a trek to Warsaw before I have to return home. Our stay in Russia is too short, but it is time to head to Poland.
We walk through streets that glisten with melting snow on the way to Vitebsky train station. On the way, we stop to pick up loaves of bread and pastries. These will be our sustenance for the over night train ride, which will take us from St. Petersburg to Warsaw—19 hours from start to finish, with a brief stop in Vilnius to switch trains.
We board our carriage, and as I walk down the narrow aisle of the sleeper car, I become aware that this is unlike any sleeper car I have ever been on. True to the communist ethos, this train is essentially a communal living space on wheels. There is no privacy. From nearly any vantage point, I can see all 40 odd bunks on the train—and their occupants can see me.
Roman and I sit across from young Russian siblings. Their fur-coated mother is seeing them off. I see that she has supplied them with bananas and grapes, water, snacks and sandwiches, and realize that Roman and I have done a paltry job of preparing our meals for the night. The whistle blows, and the mother, with a worried expression, departs the train, only to reappear moments later outside our window. Cell phone to her ear, she continues saying “goodbye,” her words making the curious journey from her lips to a satellite in earth’s orbit, and back down to her daughter’s ear—only a few feet away, and separated by the glass pane of the train window.
I read my book, a paper back copy of The Thief’s Journal, and eat some of our slim rations. Outside the train, I see the forest rushing by as daylight quickly disappears. Soon it is black, and without a view to watch, I become tired. I say goodnight to Roman and my other immediate company as best I can, and go to sleep.
I sleep well, straight through the night, in fact. I awake to see that the flat, monotonous terrain hasn’t changed much, except for a light covering of two or three inches of snow. I read some more of my book, as my fellow travelers rustle awake and go to the bathroom at the far end of the car to brush their teeth and wash up. As I eat another small pastry for breakfast, the train slows to a halt. I look up to see uniformed guards board our carriage. We have reached the Russian-Lithuanian border, I think to myself. The guards will routinely check everyone’s papers and we will be on our way.
“‘Where is your visa?’ our eye-shadowed and camo-fatigued sentry asked. Roman tries to answer. The conductors seem to try to tell her that we are headed to Vilnius and have no intention of getting off the train in Belarus.”
The guards move slowly down the aisles, examining passports and travel documents. The guard who approaches me is unusually beautiful. As I hand her my passport, I notice the patches on her shoulders are Belarusian. Are we in Belarus? How did we get here? I look up at Roman and he has also taken note. “This should be interesting,” I half laugh out loud.
The train conductors and beautiful uniformed guard meticulously inspect each page of my passport. If I could speak Russian, I would have saved them the time; what they are looking for is not there. I have no Belarusian travel visa. I am in this country illegally, without papers.
“Where is your visa?” our eye-shadowed and camo-fatigued sentry asked. Roman tries to answer. The conductors seem to try to tell her that we are headed to Vilnius and have no intention of getting off the train in Belarus.
For a moment, as the conductors plead our case, I see a flash of sympathy in the border guard’s eyes, and it seems that she might let us go. But she makes up her mind. “You must get off the train,” she says “Please come with me.”
We put on our jackets and grab our bags, and sheepishly walk to the end of the car. The beautiful guard is wearing calf-high boots with three-inch heels that click on the floor of the carriage. We follow her down the steep staircase, and onto the snowy ground. We walk beside our train, along the straight lines of the tracks. Other guards behind a fence yell to find out who we are. Our escort’s reply of “student” and “designer” elicit laughs. The lady guard’s high heels leave small impressions in the white snow. I fix my eyes on her blue ushanka—the furry Russian hats—as she leads us into a small station and into a ten-by-ten wood paneled room.
There is one window, two empty stools, a TV that is playing what seems to be a Russian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and two other guards. The female sentry sits at a table , drawing vertical lines on grid paper with a ruler. Her male counterpart sits on a stool, fast asleep, his head plopped on a small desk. Roman and I take our places on the empty stools.
The beautiful guard takes out a little notepad, and begins asking questions: Where do you live? What do you do? What are you full names? I feel like I am at a job interview—or being booked in a police station. At times, she nervously giggles as she interrogates us. And in those moments, it feels like we are on some bizarre date, and she just wants to get to know us better.
When she is done, she leaves the room, saying, “I return one minute.” 30 minutes pass, and we are still in the room with two other guards. The TV program changes to a grandmotherly woman making a health drink out of honey, basil and olive oil. She has a special guest, a cosmonaut who expounds on the benefits of this concoction.
Suddenly, the door to our room is flung open, and a short, bald man in a long green field coat and severe razor burn makes a loud entrance. He is clearly the commander of the station. Behind him is our beautiful guard, and a schoolteacher, who they have driven in from a few kilometers away. The schoolteacher is here to act as our official translator.
The commander stands facing us, his back against the wall. He is just about as far away from us as he can be, without actually leaving the room. His hands are behind his back, stomach in, chest out. A few feet in front of him is the schoolteacher, a woman who appears to be in her mid thirties, wearing a simple brown and black dress and flats, her straight hair pulled tightly back. The commander begins to talk, and the schoolteacher translates.
“You are in the Republic of Belarus illegally without the proper papers. You will be required to obtain the proper papers and pay a fine, as well as purchase train tickets for the first Lithuanian bound train out of Belarus. The visa costs 175,000 rubels. The fine will be 350,000 rubels, and the train station is in the next town 30 kilometers away.”
It must be noted, that when the schoolteacher gets to the part about the fine, her eyes widen and she turns around to look at the commander in open-mouthed shock. She has to regain her composure before turning back and continuing her translation. While Roman and I toss the numbers in our heads, attempting to calculate how much money this is, the commander hands me four pages of paper typed in Cyrillic, which I sign in eight different places, and he swiftly leaves the room.
The high-heeled guard then asks us sweetly, “Did you understand everything?” We nod yes. “There is problem,” she says. “Nearest town is 30 kilometers away. You need Visa from this town.” Roman and I follow her outside to a parking lot, presumably to look for transportation. We walk towards the only person and vehicle in sight; a tall, gray haired man of about 50, with distinctly Slovak features, leaning against a 2007 Volkswagen station wagon. He wears jeans, black boots and a light blue windbreaker. He smiles as he shakes our hands, revealing five gold teeth that gleam in the sunlight.
Our guard explains our predicament, and he cringes at our fine—his facial expression says, “Ooh, that’s gotta hurt,” and he makes the “lots of scratch” motion with his right hand. He gestures at Roman and says, “Oh, he’s a Pole. I’m part Polish.” He introduces himself as Tomek, and says he can help us.
Suddenly and inexplicably, our female guard interjects and yells at Tomek in Russian. Roman can’t follow what she is saying—she is talking too fast. Tomek, in irritation, dismisses her, and walks away to find the commander. She huffs, and walks back toward the guard station, where she quietly laughs, and glances at us from underneath her blue ushanka. We stand helplessly by the car, waiting. After a few minutes, Tomek re-emerges, his arm around the commander as if they are old drinking buddies. It seems the commander approves of our transportation. We throw our bags in the trunk of the VW and climb in. We peel out and we’re on our way. I turn around to take one last look at our fetching young guard, as she walks carefully back to the station in her high heel boots.
Tomek drives us through the woods, and tells us that he’ll handle everything. It will all be fine, he says. The bus is the way to go, not the train. “Bus leaves earlier. The train too late: tonight.” We try to make polite conversation. Tomek speaks some Polish, a tiny bit of German—and even less English. We are indeed in Belarus, Tomek confirms. But our exact location is still a mystery.
Our car slows down to drive past a funeral procession held by a priest flanked by two altar boys in white, carrying a crucifix. 20 mourners solemnly follow. An unassuming red pickup truck carries the casket. To me this seems very strange, but Roman says he himself has been in many such processions.
Tomek pulls into the parking lot of a small bank. “1,000,000 rubels, is what you must take out,” he says. I insert my card into the ATM just outside of the bank entrance. Luckily an English menu is available. I laugh to myself as I realize I am taking out one million worth of a foreign currency. I have a fat wad of rubels in my hand, and Tomek leads Roman and I into the bank.
Somehow, I begin to feel suspicious.
As I understand it, we must pay our fine at the border guard station. Then we will have to come back into town to obtain our visas and other paperwork at the police station, then get our bus tickets and leave town. I can’t see what business we have inside the bank. As I wait in line among people depositing their paychecks, I begin to feel out-of-place. Tomek, in the meantime, finds a friend in line, and he seems to be explaining our situation to him, when our teller calls out, “next!”
I give Tomek 350,000 rubels—the cost of our fine—and the paperwork from the commissioner and reluctantly, our passports. He talks to the bank teller. Roman and I listen as best we can, and I hear what sounds like the word “Familia” over and over. This sets off an alarm in my head. I grab my passport from him, and slap the paperwork against the glass partition. “No familia!” I say, pointing at Tomek. “Fine. We’ve got to pay this fine.”
The teller is confused. Tomek is frustrated. Roman and I are in a panic. “I want to see the manager. And the police,” I say. In an American bank, the utterance of the word “police” would get an immediate response. Here, it hardly warrants a second look. The manager, who could not have been a day over 21, comes to see what the problem is. A security guard old enough to be his father accompanies him. I show them our papers and try to explain our situation: I thought that Tomek was attempting to have us put our money into his personal account. Following my outburst, Tomek has slipped outside to his car, which makes me more suspicious.
The manager seems unperturbed. He pulls out a calculator and does a conversion of Belarus rubels to USD. It seems that the 350,000 rubel fine is just $162. Everything is fine, he assures us, and Roman convinces me that we really have no choice. As if on cue, Tomek reappears and we get back in line to pay the fine, and have our papers stamped. As we leave I feel the customers glare curiously at us behind our backs.
Tomek drives us back to the border patrol station to verify that we’ve paid our fine. He takes our stamped papers inside, and Roman and I stay in the car. He is gone only a moment. He seems pleased with himself as he jumps back in the car and closes the door. “Now we need visa from police, then woooosh!” His hand gestures as if it were a plane, sailing smoothly into the sky.
But in the meantime, Tomek’s son needs to be picked up after school. He drives through narrow dirt streets lined with grey, wooden, one-story houses. The dull tan of distant fields peek out in the background, and laundry is hung out to dry on thin clotheslines. We pull up to a small building with dark windows that looks more like an abandoned farmhouse than a school. Tomek’s son walks out and joins us in the car. He is maybe 15 years old. We are never introduced.
It has been five hours since the pretty border guard led us off the train, and finally we are on our way to get our most vital pieces of paper: our visas. I would later read that it typically takes three to five days to obtain a Belarusian travel visa. Because of Tomek’s savvy, we will have ours within the day.
We arrive at the police station, which is on a hill in the outskirts of the village. From this vantage point, I can see the entire town below. It is small—only about the size of my neighborhood in Philadelphia, a few square miles at most. Tomek tells us to stay in the car. He will go inside first. “I make things easier,” he says, and explains that he is softening up the officials by saying we are family. Tomek’s son talks on his cell phone with a girlfriend. It sounds like he is telling her about our little predicament. Moments later, Tomek opens the side door of the police station and calls for us to come in.
The lobby of the station is a small room with metal chairs and landscape paintings hanging on yellow walls. It looks as if the décor has not been changed in decades.
Roman and I sit down in the metal chairs. One other woman is sitting there, patiently waiting. For what, I can’t be sure. Surrounding the lobby, there are five doors leading into five offices. Only two of these doors are open—however, I can only see inside one, where a woman is taking pieces of A4 paper, scoring them with the edge of the table, then ripping them in half. She places the halved sheets in a neat pile on top of her desk.
15 minutes pass. Suddenly, the police chief, a woman, walks purposefully into the lobby. She possesses the disciplined air of a high school principal. Tomek gets up to talk to her, but she tells him to wait a minute. She marches back into her office, and exactly one minute later, we are summoned. The police chief sits in a tall leather chair behind a heavy oak desk. To her right is a metal file cabinet, with files piled on top. Tomek tells her our situation and shows her our paperwork, which he has taken the liberty of carefully organizing.
It is around 5 in the afternoon, and the sun casts long shadows across the office walls. The police chief seems impatient, anxious to get home. She tells Tomek to step outside, so she can speak to us alone. He motions to us that he will wait outside in the car, with his son. By now, my trust in Tomek is complete. I know he will be outside waiting.
The police chief asks us if we speak Russian. We say “no,” but that Roman speaks Polish and German. The other woman waiting in the lobby pokes her head inside, and says that she speaks Russian and Polish. She offers to help us communicate, and comes into the office. Roman and the woman exchange greetings in Polish. She helps us explain why we don’t have travel visas. The police chief seems to buy our story, but she is distracted, rifling through her desk drawers. I become more anxious as the minutes pass.
But then she finds what we have needed all day. The Belarus visa is a plain, ugly design—all green patterns and uninspired typography. It takes up one full page of my passport. The police chief looks us over one last time, before filling out the visa by hand. She also creates a handwritten form, which I must sign before we leave.
When we step outside and walk down the front steps of the station, we give Tomek the thumbs up. He and his son shield their eyes from the setting sun and smile back at us through the glass windshield.
Tomek has put in a nice day’s work—he has earned 400,000 rubels, and secured the papers we need. The Republic of Belarus has generated tourist revenue, and Roman and I are finally on our way to Warsaw. Tomek drives us to the bus station and points us toward our gate. His service is truly thorough. We shake hands, and he asks if we would like to have some schnapps with him. As pleasant as our friend is, we decline. He gives us his broad, gold-toothed smile for the last time, and drives away with his son.
We have a little over an hour before our Lithuanian-bound bus leaves. Half a block away, inside a parking lot of a nondescript administrative building, we see an old statue of Lenin. His shadow is long, and Roman and I walk closer to snap our pictures next to this looming landmark. We pick up some bread and farmers cheese from a small store, and quietly eat inside the waiting room of the bus terminal. Some local teenagers huddle closely around a cell phone, listening to the tinny sounds of American and Russian pop songs.
When the bus arrives, there is some confusion about our fare. We can’t figure out what currency the driver wants. He yells at us in a Russian/Polish/Lithuanian mix: “What do you think this is, a bazaar? Get off the bus or get on the bus, I haven’t got all night. But you’ve got to get on the bus, I’ve printed out this ticket, what am I supposed to do with it? You’ve got to get off if you can’t pay, but you’ve got to pay for this ticket! On or off! This isn’t a bazaar!” Finally, Roman pulls out a crisp American $100 bill—and the bus driver directs us to our seats as if we were friends all along. We speed off toward the border, only 50km away—a very expensive 50 km away.
Once in Vilnius, we get an overnight bus ticket to Warsaw. While we wait, Roman buys a bottle of vodka, called Old Sobieski, with the picture of the legendary Polish king on it. Our bus pulls up just as a junkie couple ambles over to ask if we would take them to the grocery store and buy them food.
On the bus, I stretch out across the empty seats beside me, dead tired. I fall asleep as the bright white streetlights—so different from their orange American counterparts—pass intermittently out my window. When I wake up, I am in Warsaw. It is 5 a.m.
The city is still asleep. We wander around. Lights carelessly left on in office buildings and apartment complexes carve arcs of white and yellow in the thick cold air. As dawn breaks, people emerge from their homes, briskly making their way to work. We find an open café called Kawiarnia in the old town square. The two middle aged women behind the counter remind me of Polish women in my neighborhood back in Philadelphia. Roman and I order coffee and croissants. We poke our heads into the Wilanów Poster Museum, then, across the street to a cemetery, where a number of the Fighting Polish—the Polish resistance during WWII—are buried. The headstones are densely packed, each one lovingly draped with flowers and rosaries. Some of the ornaments are garish: a propeller from a fighter jet, large busts of the deceased, a helmet. There are older graves, deeper inside the cemetery. The names have been worn off these tombstones, and no flowers decorate them.
We stop at the local Bar Mleczny (milk bar) for pierogies and spinach. Then, we are on the Warzsawa/Berlin express. In six hours, we are back at Roman’s flat, 23 Marienburger Strasse, Berlin, where I sleep soundly through the night. The next day, I walk through Kruezburg, and buy a brightly colored hand woven scarf for Nicole, I picture it looking nice around her shoulders. In the evening, I have sushi with Roman and his girlfriend Trang. We return to their small apartment and drink tea on the floor.
The next day, I catch my long flight back to New York, and take the 5:04 NJT Trenton express train back to Philadelphia. I have been on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, a bus, an AirBus A300, the AirTrain and the Long Island Railroad. I still have one more train and a taxi to ride before I am finished.
Four days ago, I was an illegal alien in Belarus. Seven days ago, I was in one of the largest cities in Russia. Now, I am on a train, moving smoothly toward Philadelphia, past rows of single homes in the suburbs of New Jersey. Does the passing scenery look that different from the suburbs of Tallin or Berlin or St. Petersburg? It is dark outside when my train pulls into 30th Street station. The platform is wet from the drizzling rain.
I hail a cab. “22nd and Spruce,” I tell the driver. Nicole doesn’t know I will come straight to her house, so I use a credit card to sneak into her building’s lobby. She is surprised to see me. She is in the middle of cleaning her apartment and cooking herself a late dinner. I give her the scarf that has traveled with me from Berlin, and she smiles. She wears it beautifully.