MOSCOW, Russia — We survived heat stroke, renegade Islamic guerrillas, and food unfit for a death-row inmate after the execution. We climbed the highest mountains, crossed the hottest deserts, and cheated the most corrupt customs officials. Though there were some unfortunate casualties — seven people had collapsed physically, emotionally or both — our group of wholly-unqualified Americans had trekked the Stans, and made it.
We flew into Moscow from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, expecting three days of luxurious, pricey recovery from Central Asia. Nothing could have prepared us for the stupendously corrupt decadence of post-Soviet Russia.
If you watch the same television programs I do, your view of Moscow is probably like mine was: A bustling, rambunctious city teeming with wild discos, overpriced shops and long-legged extras from old Bond films gingerly stepping over homeless vets of the Great Patriotic War. It’s rough-and-tumble, eat-or-be-eaten capitalism, but it’s pretty much OK for tech-savvy youngsters, and the old commies will all be dead soon anyway.
What I found, though, was a spectacularly oppressive place existing in a bizarro intersection between Soviet-style anti-individualism and institutionalized gangsterism, a Wild West of Darwinist anarchy without any of the accompanying freedom or opportunity. Y2K Russia is a thugocracy. It may be the greatest achievement of the human id since the Golden Horde laid waste to Central Asia.
My group got a kind of Moscow sneak preview in the person of J.J. Sweeting, who flew from Los Angeles to Tashkent, Uzbekistan via Moscow to join up with the rest of us nine days into the Stan Trek. She was to continue with us through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, ending up back in Moscow, from which we’d all fly home together.
But when I picked her up at the Tashkent airport the morning of Aug. 9, she was devastated. While changing planes in Moscow, she told us, customs agents had demanded her wallet. They extracted two $100 bills and waved her by. She protested and demanded to see the agents’ boss, who arrived only to take J.J’s double-entry Russian visa out of her passport.
Without that visa, J.J. would have no official permission to re-enter Russia with us. But we were prepared to explain to the passport-control people what had happened to her. It would be obvious; here is a group of 17 people, all but one of whom have identical Russian double-entry visas. And the one without the official visa has a photocopy of it — and it looks just like all of the others. They’d see reason. They’d let her in. Besides, they couldn’t all be corrupt … could they?
The standoff at passport control lasted just shy of four hours. The head of the customs service refused to come to the gate. A representative of Aeroflot kindly offered to arrange for J.J.’s deportation from Russia and promised to escort her to detention, but we refused — J.J. had been robbed, and the least that could be done about it was to let her into the country so she could relax.
Flightloads of people kept arriving as we sat on the floor, smoking and sulking. Every now and then someone would be taken aside and disappear into a back room. They were being deported; as we later learned, visa theft is an industry at the Moscow airport. I kept calling the US Embassy on my cell phone, but when there was any answer at all, it was an answering machine asking me to leave a message.
Finally, I got an idea. “Please call the militsia,” I asked the passport control officer who’d refused J.J. entry. The militsia are the military police. “I’d like to report a robbery. Ms. Sweeting has been robbed, and she would like to report it.”
“The militsia cannot come into the airport,” she replied. What if someone is murdered in the airport? Who comes then?” I asked.
“So they do come to the airport,” I pointed out triumphantly.
“Nyet. They are not allowed to come into the airport.”
“But you just said — ”
She just smiled at me. I counted seven gold teeth, but that was only in the top row. I never got to the bottom one.
My cell phone battery was dead, my fellow travelers were exhausted, and J.J. decided that she wanted to go home. She walked into the side room to be deported. That was the last we saw of her.
That afternoon, the hotel gave me a better phone number for the American Embassy. A visa-problem specialist called me back; I asked him to get J.J. out of custody before she was deported the next morning.
“She’s lucky,” he explained. “They’re sending her to L.A. Normally they would have sent her back to Bishkek.”
“They couldn’t do that. Her Kyrgyz visa has now expired.”
“Then she would spend the rest of her life on Aeroflot being deported between Moscow and Bishkek.” I shuddered. Sartre was right; hell is other people.
“There’s simply nothing we can do,” said the US employee, whose salary is paid for by taxpayers willing to do so on the off chance that they may someday get into trouble overseas.
“You could call out an air strike,” I said. “You would if this were Sudan.”
He chortled, and hung up.
That night J.J. called from a specially-outfitted prison — the second floor of the airport Novotel. She had showered in the dark to avoid the cameras inside her room and was fed $8 laminated sandwiches while she waited for airport security guards to escort her to her deportation flight. The rest of the floor was full of passengers from a Milan-to-Moscow flight; customs officials had robbed and de-visaed an entire jetload of Italian tourists.
J.J.’s experience was the worst, but hardly atypical. Three of 24 people on Stan Trek lost their luggage in Moscow. “Oh, it’s usual,” an Air France flight attendant informed me a few days later. “Everyone in Europe knows that their luggage will be stolen if it goes through Moscow.”
And if you survive the airport, you still have to get past the $20 beers, the $100 cover charges and the $200 dinner tabs for Mexican food that looks to have been scraped off the bottom of a particularly unappealing shoe. Moscow reeks of corruption, from the slot machines in the Metro to the police officers escorting mobsters around the dancefloor. But forget the clichés — not even the young hipsters here are benefiting from the capitalist experiment.
“There’s never been any good work,” 31-year-old Nicolas, an engineer-turned-street-vendor spat bitterly at me at a sprawling flea market east of town. “Now there’s no work at all. Russia is for a tiny band of thugs, old managers who stole everything in 1992,” he said. “The smart thing to do is to go to the United States, overstay your visa, and wait for an amnesty.”
“But they just jacked up the visa fees for Russians wanting to go to the US,” I pointed out. “Now it’s $260.” That’s more than a year’s salary for the average Muscovite.
“I don’t care if takes me a thousand years,” Nicolas promised. “I’m saving that money, and I’m leaving this hole.”
That afternoon I watched the daily procession of ageing communists banging their drums and waving red banners as they strutted around Red Square. They were going through the motions. The only interaction they had with young people was selling them a Lenin pin or two now and again. Soviet Communism, at least for now, has failed; the New Russia is best represented by the sprawling former GUM department store across from Lenin’s Tomb. Its European-label boutiques are full of people.
The thing is, no one was buying. No one ever does.