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View from Vitalia: Of gauge changes and border crossings

The journey to freedom can be slow and bumpy, particularly if undertaken by train.

Of all anniversaries, memorable dates, jubilees and birthdays, I never forget to mark one – the 8th of October 1988. It was on that warm autumn afternoon exactly 30 years ago that, at the tender age of 34, I arrived in Britain – and in the West - for the first time.

Uncharacteristically, I travelled to the UK by train: in a Moscow – Hook of Holland Soviet carriage (built in East Germany) which kept being attached to different trains (Moscow-Brest, Brest- Warsaw, Warsaw-Berlin and so on) during its 40-hour long journey, and then by ferry to Harwich.

It was my first ever trip outside the USSR, my first ever contact with the long-forbidden Western world and my first introduction to the then mysterious and alien Western way of life, including some its technologies: trains, ferries, double-decker buses, London Tube and so on.

I decided to take a train from Moscow for one simple reason: my long-awaited journey to the West had to be as long as possible, to be savoured quietly, without a rush...

Even when already on the train, I was still finding it hard to believe that the adventure, which I had thought would never take place, was actually happening. But the fact remained: as a well-known Moscow journalist I was invited to England by the Guardian newspaper.

It was still over two years before, under growing pressure from the Soviet authorities, I’d have to defect, i.e. to leave the USSR for good. Out of several trips to Britain prior to the ultimate defection, that first one was still very special and the most memorable, albeit I didn’t know then that it would herald the beginning of a new life...


And here I am, on board the soothingly rattling train, sharing the comfy sleeper compartment with my fellow train buffs - two Ukrainian lads on way to visit their relatives in Manchester. It is their first trip to the West too.

One of the lads immediately confides in me that he is trying to smuggle some cucumber and potato seeds for his brother in Manchester, having hidden them inside wooden Matrioshka dolls.

“Don’t they have their own seeds in Britain?” I ask him.

“They probably do, but I want my brother to have genuine seeds from the soil of our mother Ukraine,” he says.

In my wallet, I have £200, the maximum amount  of foreign currency I am allowed to carry, solemnly given to me at Moscow’s only exchange office. It feels like a real fortune and should be sufficient to sustain me for four weeks, to buy souvenirs (a contact lens holder for my editor’s wife; a Bic razor blade for the editor himself – “just one would do,” he had assured me gracefully; a supply of Alka-Seltzers for a booze-loving colleague; a watch for a mildly cooperative visa office clerk; a pair of jeans for my son, a sheepskin coat for my wife and a hi-fi system) and, if I still have some money left (!), a cheap VHS  player...

To minimise my food expenditure, I am carrying half-a-dozen cans of meat and fish preserves plus a huge chunk of salo – pure pork lard to be sliced and eaten with bread, each slice containing enough calories to keep me going for a day.

Having survived the stern-faced sadism of the Soviet passport and customs control (with the latter asking routinely if anyone was carrying “Bibles and pornography”) in the border town of Brest the following morning, I and my two travel companions felt a comradely bond, as if we have somehow been drawn into a perfectly legal, yet somewhat improper and shameful, collusion of leaving our great Soviet motherland, even if for a short while.

The Ukrainian seed-smuggler was happy to have got away with his little innocent trick.

When after the four-hour-long change of bogies (from the Soviet 1520mm-wide gauge to the 1435mm Polish and West European), when every carriage – with passengers inside – had to be lifted off the track by giant railway jacks, the train finally clattered across the patch of ploughed neutral land, which was no longer the USSR. All three of us felt both relieved and a bit worried: it was good to realise that the seemingly limitless empire did have its limits after all, and yet, the uncertainty of the unknown that lay behind the barbed wire was unsettling.

Brest – Warsaw – Berlin

Polish and later East German frontier guards – all withdrawn and coldly polite - kept boarding the train to stamp our uncomplaining Soviet ‘foreign passports’. We knew they were not important and were bracing ourselves for the encounter with the Berlin Wall – the ultimate outpost of the Soviet empire and ‘the Mother of All Borders’.

At Berlin Friedrichstrasse Station, a whole platoon of East German Grenzsoldaten (frontier guards), with snarling dogs straining at their leashes, got into our carriage. Like a bunch of neatly uniformed plumbers, they were carrying screwdrivers, torches and portable ladders.

And the great search began.

They unscrewed everything that could be unscrewed and opened everything that could be opened in the carriage. One was shining his torch on the inside of the toilet.

What were they looking for? Bombs? Rocket launchers? Books by Solzhenitsyn? Or the same subversive “Bibles and pornography”?

Finding nothing, they eventually got off – all but one, probably the most trusted soldier, who – as the train was crawling slowly towards the Wall – was peeping out of the window to make sure that nobody was riding outside the carriage hanging on by the door rails. Once reassured, he jumped out too.

For several minutes our carriage rode in pitch darkness.  Then suddenly – a flood of lights which nearly blinded us. Flags fluttering  in the wind. Myriads (or so it seemed) of gleaming rocket-shaped cars flying along the Spree River embankment in both directions.

The lights of West Berlin, the lights of Freedom – this is what they had been trying to hide from us behind the Berlin Wall...

Berlin – Utrecht – Hook of Holland

For the rest of the journey I was as if in a trance. We rattled through bafflingly, almost lifelessly, clean and inspiringly dynamic West Germany. We rode through equally sterile, yet sleepy and toy-like, Holland. When the train stopped in Utrecht, I was the only passenger to venture onto the empty platform, just to be shooed back into the carriage by our ever-vigilant KGB steward.

My first step onto the Western soil. A small step for a man, it was completely unnoticed by mankind. But for me it was no less significant  than Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap” onto the rough surface of the Moon.

Hook of Holland – Harwich

At Hook of Holland, we boarded Queen Beatrix, a huge 161-metre-long and 28-metre-wide Cross-Channel ferry which to me looked like a floating Intourist hotel, packed with nice-smelling and ever-smiling foreigners.

I stood speechless and dumbfounded at the entrance to the ship’s small and poorly stocked (as I realise now) duty-free shop, not daring to step inside: there seemed to be many more goods in it than in all Moscow’s supermarkets taken together.

I did eventually gain courage, however, to pop in one of the ferry’s toilets and, overwhelmed by mirrors and the entirely unfamiliar smells of deodorants and air-fresheners, rushed promptly out, convinced I had wandered into a hairdressing salon by mistake.

By the time we disembarked in Harwich three hours behind schedule  I was so exhausted – both physically and emotionally – that I almost overlooked a helmeted policeman, a real-life and life-size English ‘bobby’, who stood near the gang-plank. The first human being I saw in Britain, he was shifting from one foot to another and yawning, probably bored out of his mind.

It took me a good half-hour to drag my abnormally heavy bags, full of food tins and souvenirs, to the immigration area. I was sweating like a pig and that was probably why I seemed suspicious to the customs officers who asked me to open my suitcases.

“No drugs, sorry,” I tried to joke, frantically looking for the keys to my suitcases and unable to find them.

It was a mistake of course. I didn’t know then that one should never test the customs (or immigration) officers’ sense of humour.

“I appreciate it,” a woman customs inspector said cutting my suitcase open with a pen-knife.

That crude intrusion was the last thing I expected to happen during my first moments in the ‘free’ world.

Matrioshka dolls, my socks, underwear and tins were all piled together onto a low metallic table. By then, half a dozen customs inspectors, having materialised out of nowhere, were rummaging matter-of-factly through my possessions.

Who knows how long this humiliation could have lasted were it not for a man in civilian clothes who was standing nearby and watching the search silently.

“It’s OK. Let him go,” he muttered.

And immediately, as if on command (it was actually on command!), customs inspectors started stuffing my belongings back into bags, patching my hara-kiri-ed suitcases with sellotape and apologising reluctantly.

“Quick!” said the woman. “You will miss your train to London!”. And something that could pass for a smile lit up her face momentarily.

Harwich – London Liverpool Street

Puffing like a vintage steam engine, I dragged my bags into a carriage of a waiting train, whose doors were slammed behind me (angrily, as I thought) by a woodpecker-like station master in a red peaked cap.  Despite being called ‘Intercity Express’, the train seemed unexpectedly ancient, almost antediluvian, if compared with an ordinary Soviet ‘elektrichka’ (suburban electric train). And yet, the moment it started moving, I immediately felt in my element, and soon the unpleasant customs incident was forgotten.

The train was carrying me to London.

The whole new world lay ahead.

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