ORYOL, Russia, March 28, 1992 – Garry takes a daring drive into the freshly-crumbled Soviet Union to deliver a truckload of donated children’s books from England to Moscow. In Part 2, what could possibly go wrong trying to get into Russia with 4000 books and visas purchased from a travel agency at London’s Charing Cross tube stop?
Read Mission to Moscow Part 1, here.
The burly policeman swaggered past me, pushing aside the passports I waved in front of him, casually opened the driver’s door and slid in behind the wheel. He seemed oblivious to the fact that someone was sitting in the passenger’s seat.
Then, leaning back, he grabbed the gear shift with one hand and wrapped his other calloused mitt around the steering wheel. Worn boots danced across the throttle, brake and clutch pedals as he slammed the shifter back and forth.
“It’s a good thing I shut the engine off before getting out,” I muttered, slipping the keys into my jacket pocket.
Thick, windburned lips quivered under the intruder’s scruffy black moustache as he imitated the sound of a racing car. Stubby fingers molested every switch, knob and button within reach. A fine spray of saliva appeared on the dashboard.
His partner stood beside me on the deserted road while my partner on that trip, Beverly Barrett, stared straight ahead from the passenger’s seat. I wasn’t sure if she was terrified, or if she feared the spectacle taking place behind the wheel was about to throw her into hysterics.
“Spasibo,” I said to our dubious guest. It was the only Russian word I knew and I pronounced it slowly, methodically.
“Whiskey,” he replied, collecting his composure and climbing out of the truck.
A little Spasibo goes a long way
I had a feeling things might get complicated following the two officers back to their cruiser – a faded red Lada with an awkward lean. A gleaming new radar gun, with ’92’ flashing on its digital display, was laying on the front seat. Just ahead of the unlikely patrol car stood a speed sign with ’60’ in the centre of it. The number was faded and small, about the size of a grapefruit.
“Please don’t look in there,” I thought, eyeing the combination lock on the tailgate of our grimy Canadian-registered pick-up truck. I could faintly see the outline of stacked boxes through the tinted windows of the camper shell.
A dialogue of Russian and English ensued. I was sure they understood as little of the exchange as I did.
Then, through a series of hand movements, facial expressions and body language, I convinced them there was no whiskey on board. My defence was entirely in English except for the string of spasibos I uttered, backtracking, very slowly, to the truck.
“What did they say?” Beverly asked, as I pulled onto the road behind a smoke-belching transport truck. A Ukraine registration plate dangled from its tailgate by a single strand of bailing wire.
“I have no idea,” I breathed in relief, shifting our overloaded rig into high gear. “But that thank you word you found in the Lonely Planet guide book sure loosened things up.
What on earth were we doing in Russia with a truckload of smuggled books so soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union?
It was the spring of 1992 and we were on our way from London, England to Moscow by road in a diesel-powered 1988 GMC Sierra pick-up. It was the same truck I and Tim Cahill, an American writer, had driven from Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America, to Alaska’s Arctic coast in the record time of 23 days, a few years earlier.
The present trip was the result of a string of opportunities which began after shipping the truck from Canada to England to support the British launch of Road Fever, Cahill’s book about our Pan-American driving adventure.
In order to secure funding to ship the truck from Canada to England, I agreed to conduct a fuel economy test with it in Scandinavia. Since the demonstration of the Sierra 3500’s 6.2L V8 diesel’s fuel economy would start in Helsinki, Finland, I proposed that Beverley and I take a detour through Moscow where I could research a driving expedition across Russia and the new Republics.
Feeling guilty about driving an empty truck to a place in need of so many things, we decided to look for something in England to take to Russia. Ideally something for children.
We heard of an organization called Book Aid that had collected more than a million English books to donate to libraries and learning institutions in Russia.
The Russian airline, Aeroflot, had transported some, but about a million books were stranded in a warehouse at King’s Cross in London. Some were children’s books, so we offered to take as many as we could to Moscow in the back of the Sierra, which was still plastered with maps and Spanish writing about a world driving record through the Americas.
We managed to cram about four thousand books into the truck. The downside was a complete lack of documentation regarding our payload. We would have to wing it, without customs or transit papers, through countless border posts and check points.
Our personal travel documents were a bit shaky too. They consisted of Canadian passports, along with Russian travel visas which we arranged through a visa shop in London’s Charring Cross tube station.
The documents, which stipulated we enter the former Soviet Union at a remote border post in the southern Ukraine, called for a roundabout route via Holland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, before the long haul through Ukraine into Russia.
We were armed with a single name in Moscow to whom we would turn over the books – Mrs. Geneva, Director of the Library of Foreign Literature.
We had driven from London across Europe to central Ukraine and hadn’t been stopped yet. But soon we would try to get into Russia with our questionable documentation and an uninsured, overloaded truck. Ah, adventure…
That morning, before departing Rovno for the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, I had brushed away some of the mud on the camper shell and could see the stacked boxes of books through the deep tinted window. Three more days and our cargo would be safely at the library in Moscow.
We were in the middle of a changing country just 3 months after the break-up of the USSR, financed with money borrowed with the truck, now uninsured, as collateral. There were no spare parts onboard. My tool box was conveniently located in the basement of my house back in Canada, 17,000 kilometres away.
Between the 4,000 books and 400 litres of extra fuel, the Sierra was overloaded. We were operating on faith in our ability to keep luck on our side, the battered Ladas out of our grill and the authorities away from our lack of paperwork.
“Take a right out of the parking lot and follow the buses,” Beverly instructed.
It was a long drive to Kiev. We passed monuments of all kinds; factory workers with dedicated looks on their faces, jet fighters pointing toward the washed out, polluted sky.
Birds of all shapes and sizes darted about, stuffing twigs and pieces of trash between the branches of budding trees. The villages we passed were rampant with Ukrainians sweeping and scrubbing away the dregs of the winter. Spring was on its way.
Kiev afforded us the first day off since leaving England 11 days earlier. It seemed a lifetime ago. We went for a walk down a back street to escape the choking exhaust fumes of congested traffic. Beverly, suspiciously quiet all day, was commenting on the empty look on people’s faces when she spotted a neon sign above a doorway. It was actually lit in the middle of the afternoon.
“Apollo,” I said to Beverly. “I don’t know what that means, but let’s find out.”
Covered with a fresh coat of varnish, the door opened effortlessly, no squeaks. It didn’t bind with the casing either. We slipped through the doorway and into The West.
It seemed as if we had stumbled into happy hour at a trendy Toronto bar. IBM types sipped Tuborg beer out of frosty fluted glasses while a foxy blonde in a white silk suit toyed with a Remy Martin. She munched on fresh potato chips. Classical music played softly enough on a compact disc player that we could decipher fragments of quiet conversations in English, French and Italian.
I ordered gin and tonics while Beverly pointed out that the bar stocked everything one could imagine, except vodka. A delicate white sign above the cash register read “HARD CURRENCY ONLY”.
Finding a cure for a bladder infection in the former Soviet Union seemed a formidable task
“You’re quiet today,” I said to Beverly, savouring the first taste of the gin and tonic. The rattle of the ice cubes sounded out of place in this land of elusive refrigeration.
She stared ahead, then down at the wedge of fresh lemon floating in her drink.
“I need antibiotics. I think I have a bladder infection and it’s getting worse by the hour.”
Finding a cure for a bladder infection in the middle of the former Soviet Union seemed a formidable task, so we slipped back into the film noir world beyond the Apollo in search of a doctor.
The hospital was two-storey structure. Its reception area had five wickets serviced by ladies in uniforms that looked like something Florence Nightingale had left behind. We approached an elderly lady who appeared to be in charge. She was short, with a mouth full of gold teeth and a smile that would put anyone at ease.
We realized the only term we had in common was the thank you word… spasibo. I tried to draw a picture of a bladder to no avail. Soon, we were following the nurse through a maze of corridors. She walked quickly, with a peculiar waddle, leading us into a shabby examination room with a dull linoleum floor.
A young boy sitting on a table moaned softly while a doctor pressed his hands into the child’s abdomen. The physician could not understand us. Neither could the dentist installing a gold crown on a white-haired babushka, or the striking female doctor who made six telephone calls trying to help out.
The stairs to the top floor of the dimly lit hospital were dirty and worn. At the top, dozens of people waited outside a single closed door.
Securing a prescription for antibiotics with only the word ‘spasibo’ to communicate our need
Men in uniform joked with young women holding babies. Old folks talked quietly with one another. Others stared up at a stained glass window depicting hockey players and a host of other triumphant athletes. Sunshine drifting through the window refracted into rainbows of light that flooded the hallway.
A stooped doctor checked out my drawing of the bladder and, with his few words of English, we finally got the point of the infection across. He scribbled a prescription and passed it to Beverly. Then our Mother Teresa led us out of the hospital and pointed to a building down the street which we assumed was a drug store.
“Spasibo,” said Beverly, gripping the prescription.
Mother Teresa patted her gently on the arm, smiled affectionately and shuffled back into the hospital. A few minutes later we handed .92 of a ruble to a pharmacist for a ten-day course of antibiotics.
“What a deal,” Beverly remarked, walking back to the hotel. “We could have bought more than a thousand courses of those antibiotics with what we paid for our gin and tonics back at the Apollo.”
In the morning, we left Kiev for the first stage of the 700-kilometre drive to Moscow. We planned to overnight in a city called Oryol that apparently had a motel on the outskirts.
An hour south of Oryol, just after crossing the frontier between the Ukraine and Russia, we found ourselves in the company of the gear-jamming, radar-toting policemen so keen on Canadian whiskey.
“I guess we should have sent them to the Apollo bar back in Kiev,” Beverly laughed, as they faded in the rearview mirrors.
The last few hundred kilometres to Moscow were monotonous and the closer we got, the more inquisitive the roadside authorities became. We were stopped every hour or so by officials looking for a vehicle document we had never heard of. One policeman showed us his own and was adamant we produce one before continuing to Moscow.
But, once again, a series of spasibos got us on our way.
We finally reached Moscow with our payload of 4,000 donated books intact and the roadside authorities none the wiser
We pulled into Moscow about two o’clock on a Monday afternoon. The suburbs were crammed with commuters going who knows where in dilapidated buses. We maneuvered through the traffic to the centre of the Center and checked into the Mezhdunarodnaya hotel on the banks of the Moscow River.
I called the Library of Foreign Literature. Its director, Mrs. Geneva, was pleased to hear of our arrival. She asked us to drop by at noon the next day, which would give her time to set up a reception with media and representatives from local schools and libraries.
Mrs. Geneva would also arrange for a few children to help unload all but a few hundred of the books which we wanted to give to an elementary school on the south side of Moscow.
Tuesday’s reception at the library went well. There were plenty of handshaking dignitaries and through an interpreter, we exchanged kind words about the end of the Cold War and the importance of education. Everyone smothered us with gratitude for our efforts.
Later, we drove across Moscow to the elementary school where a couple of hundred children, accompanied by a teacher who looked like James Stewart, greeted us.
Beverly and I handed out the books and, just before we drove away, the teacher gave a signal to the children. They became very quiet and then, in unison, they smiled and shouted SPASIBO!!