Cycling Stories: Made In USSR (Part 17)

aeroflot plane
Air travel in USSR was cheap. If you could get a plane ticket.

With trembling hands, I zipped my bag, slung it over my shoulder, slammed the door and walked out of my room. Once outside, I headed toward the busy Krasnoarmeyskaya street to catch a taxi to the airport. Always lucky with taxis in Kiev, they seemed to hang around me everywhere I went. I saw one rattling down the cobbles coming from Lev Tolstoy Square. I ran and reached the curb on time to hail the cab.

“Airport,” I said to the driver when I opened the front passenger door. In a country that had done away with free market, people in control of goods and services had no incentive to do their job right. With fixed salaries, paid regardless of how well you did your job, or even if you did it at all, apathy was the prime attitude of many Soviet citizens between eight in the morning and five in the afternoon. Everyone in charge of anything of value acted like a God-ordained emperor. You couldn’t get into a taxi, tell the cabbie where to go and expect him to drive you. The protocol was: you tell the destination first and wait for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ verdict. Often it was a ‘no’ to make you offer a deal — a double or at least a few rubles on top of what’s on the meter.

This leather-wearing schmuck, puffing on an unfiltered Belomorkanal cigarette, saw I was on edge. “Which airport?” he growled through a cloud of smoke coming out of his nose. He’d confused me for a second. Oh, that’s right, there are two airports in Kiev — Zhuliany, for Ukraine-bound and regional flights, and Borispol, Kiev’s main airport. To fly to Nalchik, I needed Zhuliany — a 15-minute drive from Krasnoarmeyskaya. It was a long flight with two stops but I would land right in the city. Borispol was 50 kilometers from Kiev and the nearest airport to Nalchik I could fly to from it was Mineralnye Vody — a major air transport hub of North Caucasus 80 kilometers from Nalchik. The flight was two hours but it meant finding a car — taxi or grach, a private car acting like taxi — to take me to Nalchik once I landed.

“Borispol,” I said.

“Twenty-five rubles,” he said and dragged in more Belomorkanal toxins into his lungs.

“It’s a 10-ruble fare.”

“Tell it to Gorbachev,” he said.

I opened the rear door, threw my duffel bag in, shut it and got into the cab at the front. “I’ll pay if you don’t light another Belomor until I get out,” I said.

I didn’t mind cigarette smoke unless it was Belomor. The strongest cigarette in the world, its smoke stank like stale urine mixed with a whiff of mold and burnt rubber. Belomor was one of the cheapest — only a few kopeks per pack — cigarette brands in Soviet Union popular with hardcore smokers and potheads. Because of its decades-old design, it was easy to empty a Belomor cigarette of its tobacco and replace it with weed in under one minute by a pair of experienced hands. You could sit on a park bench with Belomor in your mouth and everything would look legit to anyone who didn’t know the smell of marijuana. Smoking pot was a criminal offense in USSR. Doing it in public added a thrill to those looking to play with fire in their lives.

Belomorkanal was more than a cigarette in Soviet Union, its image and history linked to Stalinism, the gulags, the Soviet Union’s industrialization era and thousands of men and women perished in labor camps. I respected the symbol, but I couldn’t stand its stench.

“Where you off to?” the cabbie said the moment he flung the stick into first gear. He’d toned down, his jackass demeanor deflated in anticipation of an easy pay-off in Borispol.

“Don’t know,” I said.

“Are you running from someone?”

“Yes,” I said. “The KGB.”

“You know what they say about running from the KGB?”

“Yes.”

He ignored that and said, “You can’t run farther than Siberia.” He chuckled and looked at me — you got that, pup?

“Yeah,” I said. “Everyone runs to Siberia, and that’s how they catch them — they know where to look. Going east is a dead end.”

“Oh yeah? And what’s the other option?”

“Go west.”

“West where?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

***

Borispol’s terminal buzzed with holidaymakers splattered everywhere with density of wild mushrooms after a summer rain. I navigated to the nearest flight information display, breathing in a bouquet of salo, home-made sausages, boiled eggs, fried chicken, pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut. Half of travelers were eating on newspapers spread on the floor for a table. In Soviet Union, you need a table to eat from, you’re not an animal, right?

First flight to Minvody, if the information was true, departed in two hours. I looked at the shortest queue filed in front of one of the ticket counters — shouldn’t take longer than 30 minutes. To kill time, I tried to calculate how long an average sovok spends in queues while here on earth: an hour a day, at least; that’s 365 hours a year; in 60 years, that’s almost 22000 hours; divide that by 24… let’s say 24000 by 24, that’s 1000 days or 33 months. Two years and nine months in queues. For most people, it’s twice as much. If I stay here, I’ll spend three years of my life standing in queues, often to learn I wasted my time anyway.

“One seat to Mineralnye Vody,” I said to a buoyant blonde behind the counter when no one was left in front of me. She puckered her cherry lips into a kiss shape, took time to size me up, and said, “It’s full.”

Aeroflot planes were never full. I knew that because I’d been put on last-minute flights before. They kept half a dozen seats empty just in case someone important needed one. A good team administrator, and Titan’s knew his ways around, had all sorts of useful connections to make sure the team’s machinery never halts to a stop. Knowing the right people at the airport was one such connection used every time someone had to be sent somewhere out of schedule. On my own now, I’d have to get one of those extra seats some other way.

Everyone was for sale and took bribes — cash, gifts, favors, whatever. The trick was to figure out the right price because if you underestimate someone’s price, it can backfire and you end up in trouble for offering a bribe, an offense with a nice jail term.

Offering money in the open to the ticket queen would be too dangerous. In my pocket, I carried the Master of Sport of the USSR, International Class identification card, an exclusive status awarded to elite Soviet athletes who achieved international success. The card looked like a KGB korochka. You could flash it around without showing what it is to add some weight to your game. On its red cover, it had ‘USSR’ and ‘International’ inscribed in gold. If you blocked the first two words — Master of Sport — with your fingers, people might think you have something to do with the Kontora.

Everyone knew the KGB identification cards were small and red but not many people ever saw them because when you see one, you don’t get a chance to tell others how it looked like. Or even if you do, you won’t be talking much after they’d talked to you.

I pulled my red korochka out of the denim jacket I had on and, without shoving the card into the blonde’s face, said, “Look, I have an urgent business to take care of tonight in Nalchik. I need a seat on the next flight to Minvody.”

She stopped breathing for a moment, then sized me up again. The clues about my ploy were in plain sight to anyone with a cool, sober mind to see: my age, a golden necklace, a Japanese watch, Ray-Ban shades perched up on my head and deep, bronze suntan. It took a second for her to put two and two together and start breathing again. She smiled for the first time and said, trying to sound polite but confident, “Can I please see that? We need to make sure you are who you say you are.”

Startled by an unexpected comeback, I handed her my ace of spades. She opened it, had a good look inside and said, with a note of relief in her voice, “A sportsman.” Her Aeroflot navy-blue blouse pulsated where her heart was. She dared to question a KGB agent on a mission to catch a CIA sleeper in North Caucasus. Brave woman.

Still smiling, she said, “What kind of sport do you do, Nikolai?”

“Road cycling,” I said. It bothered me she took a note of my name and I now regretted my wise guy parade. “Trying to get to Nalchik for a race tomorrow. The team had already left and I… had been caught up in… I missed the flight,” I finished the unprepared story.

She drilled me for full three seconds with her graphite-gray eyes, and said, “I haven’t seen any cycling teams flying anywhere this week. The next plane to Minvody is full. Unless you want to fly elsewhere, you need to mover over. I need to serve other passengers.” Only a sarcastic grin was now left on her face: any other questions, pal?

“I’ll fly to Tallinn then. I saw a Tallinn flight on the display near Minvody flight. I’ll fly to Tallinn.” I pulled out two 25-ruble notes from my wallet to flag I wasn’t joking.

“What happened to the race in Nalchik?” she said.

“I’ll do another one in Tallinn. Who cares where I race as long as I win, right?”

“You’re the master of sport, I hope you know what you’re doing. I need your passport.”

***

Why I picked Tallinn out of a dozen other airports I could fly to I wasn’t sure. I could’ve flown to Sochi — the summer was still on — and lie on a beach to clear my head. Tallinn was the opposite of Sochi: cool and windy, it looked and felt nothing like a Soviet city.

Hitched up by Stalin in 1940 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop deal, Tallinn began to decay after 45 years of socialism. Its medieval skyline had been tainted by the brutalist style of over-committed constructivist architects. I’d been to Estonia two months before and I loved how un-Soviet it was.

No one spoke fluent Russian and even the basic form of the Great and Mighty most people refused to use. They’d stare at you stone-faced and pretend to not understand if I spoke Russian. I felt the resentment, the contempt and a fair dose of antipathy toward me because of what I, an ethnic Russian, represented to an Estonian: Stalin, occupation, collectivism, planned economy, atheism, alcoholism, forced labor, bribery, corruption and state worship.

Given a chance, a Muslim would knife me in Nalchik or anywhere in Caucasus, or Middle Asia, because I was a Russian, but in Tallinn they’d smile at you and refuse to speak the language everyone in the country was supposed to know. It annoyed me the bartender at the hotel we lived in would add milk to my coffee after I’d told him I wanted my coffee black. He’d understood every word I said, smiled and poured milk in my cup anyway. They had balls, the Estonians.

Maybe that’s why I was flying to Tallinn now — to get away from the sovetchina, hole up in a foreign city and work out a new escape plan.

I’d take a room at the Pirita hotel, the same place I’d stayed at earlier in the season when we came for a couple of races in Tallinn. Built to host Olympians during Moscow Games, it was meters away from the Tallinn Bay on the Gulf of Finland and close to the city center — a perfect place to sit on a balcony all day, gaze into the gulf, think and then go out for a drink after the sunset.

On the plane, I’d figured out at least one piece of information I was now certain about: my KGB friend Bogdan had placed me on the dreaded ‘unsuited to travel abroad’ list. No one had ever seen any such lists — they weren’t published on the front page of Pravda — but everyone knew they existed and if you end up on one, the inventive Russian language had a word for you: nevyeyzdnoy, un-foreign-travelable.

Most people in Soviet Union didn’t care if the KGB considered them suitable to travel abroad or not. They didn’t even care about the KGB itself that much as long as they kept their mouths shut, turned up for work every day, procreated an died before too much pension was spent on them. But if you were a professional athlete, or a performer, you’d worry a great deal about your status with the KGB. Who can or can’t leave the country was in Kontora’s hands.

The control mechanism was simple: no one could cross the border without a passport for foreign travel (different from internal passport used inside the country); all passports were issued by the KGB and given to you only hours before departure, sometimes in the airport; the moment you clear the customs on your return from abroad, you’d hand in your passport back to a KGB officer or whoever was in charge of the delegation and only see it again next time you travel abroad. Inside the USSR, you’d never have a passport in your hands to travel out of the country. Caged like a fly in a glass jar.

Trying to get out by crossing the natural border was suicidal. To its west, Soviet Union had surrounded itself with buffer states — the Eastern Bloc. Everyone knew the border patrol had orders to shoot anyone on sight who was brave or stupid enough to cross the border on foot. If the Soviets had missed, you’d get shot by the Poles, or the Czechs, or the Romanians who’d had the same orders to greet with bullets anyone from the land of proletarian paradise. If you’re still alive and made it to Poland or Czechoslovakia, you’d have to do another border crossing all over again to reach Germany or Austria. Austrians wouldn’t shoot you, but the Hungarian border patrol would if that’s where you fled to.

To the south, we bordered Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, further east China and Mongolia — you wouldn’t run there even if they paid you. On the north, we neighbored Finland and farther north Norway. Finland had an agreement with USSR to send back Soviet refugees if captured. You’d have to survive the bullets, enter Finland, avoid arrest and then travel to Sweden. Norway’s border was too far north to even think about it as a possible escape route.

Passport to travel abroad was the key to the locked jail door and it was in comrade Bogdan’s hands. I had no doubt about it now. He had figured out what I was up to from the information he showed me during our car trip. On the positive side, I was lucky he still hadn’t arrested me. If I made it out across the border with a bullet in my back, would he even smile at my stupidity?

On the approach to Tallinn, I thought of a possible way out of the corner I was in. If crossing the border on foot was nuts, then I had to find a way to get a new passport. In a country where everyone was for sale, someone somewhere would be keen to earn a coin or two in hard currency. Maybe even Bogdan? What’s his price? How much would it take to make him deliver my passport to me in an envelope, apologize and drive me to an airport? Five thousand bucks? Ten?

Ten thousand US dollars is about 40,000 rubles on the black market. He makes what, three thousand a year? That’s 13 years’ worth of salaries, my friend, and here it is, enjoy, just give me my passport and we’ll never see each other again. Good plan, except one caveat: I didn’t have $10,000. What I had though, about $3,000 I stashed away from the races I’d gone to, should be enough to pay off a smaller fish, a KGB worm with access to passports’ department, someone who could bypass the standard paperwork channels and issue a new passport off the books.

The only way I could find someone like that was to keep racing and talking to people — I knew a lot of people — asking, with caution, if anyone knew a KGB dog. Sooner or later I’d find a trail to a back door. It must exist, money talks and money finds back doors even where back doors are not supposed to exist.

I’m not quitting , not yet.

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