Saturday, January 28, 2012

Russian Roulette (T 4 - USSR 1960s)

(Travellers’ tales – fourth episode, April 1965)

There we were, rolling along the highway from Finland to Leningrad in the middle of a virgin forest with not the slightest sign of human habitation. Just the two of us in my Beetle, not another car on the road, and very pleased with ourselves for having put one over on the border guards. Yee-hah! So it was a bit of a shock to suddenly see a man in uniform standing in the middle of the road a hundred yards ahead, one hand up to stop us and the other holding a rifle in case the hand failed.

“Oh, those damn apples!” Linda cried, while my heart sank. At the border, the guards had wanted to confiscate eight or ten apples we’d bought with the last of our Finnish money; but we said we’d eat them there and then, and began to do so. Two serfs were instructed to search the car for any other contraband. On the back shelf they found a copy of Time Magazine someone had given us back at the hostel. Surreptitiously, with fearful glances towards the boss in the office, they studied every page in silent wonderment, this unspeakably evil symbol of Western decadence. They lost track of time until a roar from the office had them scrambling guiltily out of the car. We were waved hastily through, and entered the Soviet Union with the uneaten apples beside us.

How typical of the bloody KGB, now, to send a man with a gun to catch us with our smuggled goodies, two miles away from the safety of The West. What a rude welcome for a pair of innocent tourists! But actually, the man with the gun just wanted to check that we were who we were supposed to be. So we got to keep the apples – and, incidentally, the Soviet currency notes hidden at the bottom of a tin of English tea. We had bought the notes at a bank way back in Austria, for a third of the official exchange rate. What we did was legal in Austria; in Russia, local currency had to be bought at local banks or kiosks.

A common practice of young budget travellers was selling Western clothing for roubles on the black market, often at night in back streets. Denim jeans were particularly prized by young Soviet citizens, for whom wearing jeans (in private) was super-cool. But every once in a while the local customer for the jeans was an incorruptible young copper. Then, the seller lost his jeans and everything else, and had to wire home for the fare out, plus a fine. It was a risky game, and the secret of playing the black market is always to minimise risk. Plan ahead. Buy currency outside the country and sneak it in.

Some basic arithmetic skill is necessary where tight currency-controls exist. You have to exchange enough at the official rates to hide the fact that you have acquired some somewhere else as well. If you live entirely on the food that you brought in (no apples!), and your car gets sixty miles per gallon of the 20-octane dishwater sold at the local pumps, your exit-form will balance. Ours balanced – clear evidence that we had done those things. We heard of one unfortunate fellow who accidentally declared more money on exit than he had declared on entry. Oops!

Months before, in Egypt, the border police had glared long and hard at the figures on one or two of our currency-exchange slips. And, to be fair, some of the figures did look as though they could perhaps have been forged. Ah well, some of these semi-literate bank clerks, you know... After that, we played it straight down the line, except for some small equivocations at points of entry. It was better to be safe than sorry.