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View from Vitalia: By train to freedom

For the first time, Vitali shares some simple technological (and other) ruses which helped him escape from the USSR 30 years ago.

As I noted in passing in my previous View from Vitalia, in everyone’s life time comes when certain memorable dates, like birthdays, anniversaries, and even jubilees, can be safely ignored to allow for a clearer focus on the present moment. I’ve been trying to follow this rule for some time.

But there is one date I simply couldn’t and cannot ignore. On 31 January this year not only will the UK leave the EU, but, much more importantly (to me at least), it will be exactly 30 years since the day of my defection from the USSR, when – with my family in tow – I covertly fled from the disintegrating “evil empire” never to come back.

That was my second birth, or rather (in Buddhist terms) my rebirth as a citizen of the free Western world, where I had to start everything from scratch. Yes, at the age of 35, I had to get a new home, a new job, a new country of residence and a new language to write in – a massive change. In a way, it was the start of an entirely new life with its own birthday (31 January), youth, schooling, maturity and old age, the journey  that would take me through countries and continents, marriages and divorces, happiness and depression, books and films, awards and setbacks. It was a difficult choice to make, but – besieged and threatened from all sides by the system for simply trying to improve it by writing the truth (a common Russian predicament) – I had no option. But I did have a family to think of...

In any case, it is difficult to judge your own past decisions, so let me give the floor to my recently deceased friend Clive James. In the fifth volume of his 'Unreliable Memoirs', 'The Blaze of Obscurity', he wrote about my live appearances on his BBC TV show 'Saturday Night Clive' by satellite from Moscow in 1988-89:

“It was remarkable how much he was able to say, but it soon turned out that the new freedom of speech under glasnost [in the Soviet Union – VV] had its limits. The KGB was phoning him in the night, and in their fine old style they reserved their most obscene threatening calls for his wife and little son. Vitali was hard to scare but anyone can be scared by a threat to his family, and the day arrived when he felt it prudent to do a runner...”

Thanks, Clive, for helping me out again, this time from the grave.

How does one celebrate, or rather mark, an anniversary like that?

With my English wife, we travelled to Berlin a couple of weeks ago. We stayed at a brand-new super-comfortable Staycity Wilde Aparthotel, next to the former Checkpoint Charlie and right across the road from the peculiar and rather quirky Museum of the Trabants (or ‘Trabies’) – the iconic East-German tin-shaped car, designed to the principle ‘the fewer parts – the better’ (it did have wheels!). My own past was facing me everywhere in Berlin, particularly near the specially preserved remnants of the Berlin Wall. Reading the life stories of those 80 desperate and courageous people who lost their lives trying to flee across the Wall to Freedom, I felt very acutely how lucky I was not to become the 81st victim here in Berlin, or the multi-millionth one in Moscow, had I stayed put.

Well-aware of the sheer technological inefficiency of my oppressors, of their lack of motivation and constantly malfunctioning equipment in the late 1980s, I decided I could try and outwit them using my own – equally primitive – technology, read: phone. I was very proud of the red cordless telephone apparatus I had brought from my latest trip to Britain – one of the first in Moscow, in the words of a telephone  engineer who came to install it. He must have also tapped it, for since his visit the apparatus started making suspicious ear-grating noises during conversations. But that was precisely what I needed. For over a month, I was telling everyone over my tapped phone that I was flying to London for the publication of my first book on 3 February 1990. I even bought myself a plane ticket for that particular flight, knowing only too well I was never going to use it.

Instead, on the first night of the New Year, having left home shortly after midnight, I took a taxi (or rather one of privately owned cars roaming Moscow streets 24/7 – the only kind of ‘taxi’ that was easily available in the Soviet capital then) to the downtown Central Railway Ticketing Offices, where I joined a very long queue (yes, in the middle of the night). By 11am the same morning, I had got us (my wife, my son and myself) second-class tickets for the train to Hook of Holland. It was, in actual fact, just one carriage, getting attached to several different trains on the route.

Travelling to London by train – a very unusual thing to do, remembering that the journey took near three days and cost more than flying – was another simple ‘technological’ ruse of mine, with which I was hoping to mislead the KGB. 

My biggest worry were the 24/7 KGB escorts outside our block of flats. But I was hoping for the better...

Below are some extracts from the diary I kept during those ‘cursed days’:

31 January 1990

I am writing these lines on the train. Yes, we’ve almost made it. Almost. We are still in the Soviet Union. The border control will be tomorrow morning.

The train wheels are rattling soothingly. I’ve always liked trains. The very fact that the carriage is moving gives me reassurance. We are moving in the right direction now, towards normal life. Away from the impending chaos. But also away from the dear faces of our friends and family. Soon through this very train window I’ll probably see the Western world. Probably. Before that I am in for one more encounter with the KGB: border guards in the Soviet Union are part of the Sate Security Committee. Now, before going to bed (or rather to berth), I am recording the events of the last day in Moscow.  

Last night I had a bad dream: a KGB man in a fur hat and leather jacket was stretching out his black-gloved hand towards me. One more second – and he would grab me... I woke up in cold sweat. Five am. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back to sleep. At six-thirty, after much tossing and turning, I got up and decided to go out and buy some newspapers. Today the announcement of my Ilf and Petrov Award for satirical journalism was to appear in the press.

As I went out, I saw a man wearing a big shapka [fur hat] and a black leather overcoat. Our block of flats’ small courtyard is usually deserted even during the day and the man looked very conspicuous there. As I turned the corner, I quickly looked back. The man was following me at a little distance. When, ten minutes later, I returned with the newspapers, he was not in the yard. I looked back, and there he was, about 50 or 60 metres behind me. Back in my flat, I looked out of the window and saw another man in exactly the same apparel pacing back and forth near the house.

Later in the morning, we switched off the telephone in our flat. It looked very miserable, this noisy troublemaker, but also a helper, with its two-pin plug lying on my desk like a paralysed limb. At times I thought I could hear the silent rings it was giving as my persecutors were trying vainly to reach me...

Shortly before midday, I went to the city, to the Union of Journalists headquarters, to pick up the badge and the diploma which went with my newly-won award. A black Volga sedan was parked near the house, its engine running. They were probably warming themselves in there as I rushed to the Metro station only 100 metres away...

...Three hours before the planned departure, my mother and my in-laws came. We had an impromptu farewell dinner. It was rueful surprise party... The unplugged telephone was staring at us silently from my desk – but the desk, the flat, the city, the country, they were not mine any longer.

The cab arrived (we had to book two weeks in advance, and it was still 40 minutes late!). “Are we going away today, Dad? I didn’t say goodbye to the kids in my class,” my son Mitya (he was nine) was genuinely surprised. We couldn’t tell even him the true date of our departure until the very last moment.

We kissed our parents hastily (they were to stay on in the flat for the night and burn the lights as if we were still there) and rushed out, with several suitcases full of books, papers and basic clothes. Our courtyard and our street and our Moscow were absolutely deserted. It was dark and cold – minus 21°C. No-one was in sight...

1 February 1990

We are about to cross the border. The train is standing still at Brest, the old Brest-Litovsk on the Polish border, but both passport and customs controls are over. I can’t believe it. My simple ruses must have worked, for they didn’t even look into our suitcases where, among other things, were the notes, files, clippings and photographs for my next book. I was worried they would confiscate them, since, according to the Soviet Customs regulations, one could not take manuscripts, books or newspapers across the border without authorisation...

I am writing these lines as the train crawls towards the Yuzhni Bug River, along which the border with Poland runs. We are moving past the drab outskirts of Brest: depots, log cabins, warehouses with peeling stucco slowly recede. In the distance, I can already discern rows of barbed wire and the river behind them. The sky is cloudy and dull. A thin middle-aged woman in fur coat and clumsy hand-knitted cap with two bulging ‘perhaps’ string bags in both hands is trudging through the snow alongside the tracks. Her face is grim and tired. The last human being on the Soviet side.

Barbed wire. A patch of ploughed ‘neutral’ land with neat regular furrows, looking like wrinkles, as if the ground itself is frowning at us. A frontier post with the sign ‘USSR’ on it. A small whitewashed cabin with big windows facing the track on the very bank of the river. A young Soviet border guard, with blue KGB lapels, standing to attention with a Kalashnikov sub-machine gun on his shoulder and looking sternly at our train. The brownish gleaming surface of the Yuzhni Bug with a flock of carefree stateless ducks floating on it. A little cabin on the opposite bank of the river which looks like a twin of the Soviet one. The only difference: inside, instead of a stern, vigilant border guard, there’s a Polish railway worker in a dirty orange vest sitting on the floor, smoking.

And suddenly, the bright sunlight bursts through the clouds and nearly blinds us. Small patches of new green grass are springing out along the track here and there.

(Until now I can’t understand how it happened – on the Soviet side there was winter, and on the Polish bank across the river – spring! It looked as if nature itself was welcoming us to the West.)

Freedom...

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