Bag zipped and slung over the shoulder, I slammed the door, walked out of my room and headed toward Krasnoarmeyskaya street to catch a taxi to the airport. One was rattling down the cobbles coming from Lev Tolstoy Square. I ran and reached the curb in time to hail the cab.
“Airport,” I said to the driver when I opened the front passenger door.
“Which one?” he said through a cloud of smoke coming out of his nose. He wore a leather jacket and was puffing on an unfiltered Belomorkanal cigarette.
“Borispol,” I said.
“Twenty-five rubles,” he said and dragged in more Belomorkanal toxins into his lungs.
“It’s a ten-ruble fare.”
“Tell it to Gorbachev,” he said.
I opened the rear door, threw my duffel bag in, shut it and got into the cab at the front.
Cigarette smoke doesn’t bother me unless it’s Belomor. It stinks with the stench of stale urine mixed with mold and burnt rubber. Twenty-five kopecks a pack. One of the cheapest cigarettes in the country, hardcore smokers’ and potheads’ favorite.
Empty a Belomor of its tobacco, replace it with weed and here’s your joint. And it looks like a cigarette. Sit on a park bench with Belomor in your mouth and everything looks legit to anyone who doesn’t know the smell of marijuana.
Smoking pot was a felony in the USSR. You want to play poker with your freedom, load a Belomor with pot and smoke it in the open.
Belomor was more than a cigarette brand in the Soviet Union. Its image rooted in the Gulags, the industrialization era, Stalinism and its victims who perished in labor camps. We send thousands to die building a canal from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic and name a cigarette brand to remember the project.
“Where you off to?” the cabbie said the moment he flung the stick into the first gear.
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Running from someone?”
“Yes,” I said. “The KGB.”
“Ah. You know what they say about running from the KGB?”
He ignored that and said, “You can’t run farther than Siberia.” He chuckled and looked at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Everyone runs to Siberia. That’s how they catch you. They know where to look. Going east is a dead end.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s the other option?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Borispol’s terminal buzzed with travelers dotted everywhere with the density of wild mushrooms after a summer rain. I walked to the nearest information display breathing in a bouquet of speck, boiled eggs, and sauerkraut. People ate on newspapers spread on the floor for a table.
First flight to Mineralnye Vody, if the display worked, departed in two hours. I looked at the shortest queue filed in front of one of the ticket counters — shouldn’t take longer than thirty minutes.
To kill time, I calculated how long an average sovok spends in queues. An hour a day, at least. That’s three hundred and sixty-five hours a year. In sixty years, that’s almost twenty-two thousand hours. Divide that by twenty-four. Let’s say twenty-four thousand by twenty-four. That’s one thousand days or thirty-three months. Two years and nine months in queues. For most people, it’s twice as much.
Stay here and you’ll spend three years of your life standing in queues.
“One seat to Mineralnye Vody,” I said to a blond behind the counter when it was my turn to speak. She puckered her cherry lips into a kiss shape, sized me up, and said, “It’s full.”
Aeroflot planes are never full. I knew that because the team had put me on last-minute flights before. Each flight keeps half a dozen seats in case someone important turns up.
Everyone is for sale and takes bribes — cash, gifts, favors, whatever. Figure out the right price. Slip up and it can backfire and they’ll zap you for offering a bribe and send you away to shovel snow in Siberia.
Offering money in the open to a ticket queen would be too dangerous. I carried the Master of Sport of the USSR, International Class identification card in my pocket. The state gave the card to elite athletes who made a mark on the international arena. It looked like a KGB korochka. You could flash it around without showing what it is to add some weight to your game. On its red cover, it had ‘USSR’ and ‘International’ inscribed in gold. Block the first two words with your fingers and people might think you had something to do with the Kontora.
Everyone knew the KGB identification cards were small and red. Only a few ever saw them because when you see one, you don’t get a chance to tell others how it looked like. Or even if you do, you won’t be talking much after they’d talked to you.
I pulled my red korochka out of the denim jacket and looked into the blond’s face.
“I have an urgent business to take care of tonight in Nalchik,” I said. “I need a seat on the next flight to Minvody.”
She stopped breathing for a moment and sized me up again. The clues about my ploy were in plain sight to anyone with a cool, sober mind to see. My age, a golden necklace, a Japanese watch, Ray-Ban shades perched on my head, and bronze suntan.
It took a second for her to put two and two together and start breathing again. She smiled for the first time and said: “Can I see that? We have to make sure you are who you say you are.”
I handed her the card. She opened it, looked inside and said: “A sportsman.” Her Aeroflot navy-blue blouse pulsated where her heart was.
She said, “What kind of sport do you do, Nikolai?”
“Road cycling,” I said.
It bothered me she took a note of my name and I now regretted my wise guy parade.
I said, “Trying to get to Nalchik for a race tomorrow. The team had already left. I missed the flight.”
She drilled me with her graphite eyes and said: “I haven’t seen any cycling teams flying anywhere today. The next plane to Minvody is full. Unless you want to fly elsewhere, you need to mover over. I have other passengers to serve.”
“I’ll fly to Tallinn then. I saw a Tallinn flight on the display next to the Minvody flight. I’ll fly to Tallinn.”
I pulled out two twenty-five-ruble notes from my wallet to flag I wasn’t joking.
“What happened to the race in Nalchik?” she said.
“I’ll do another one in Tallinn. Who cares where I race as long as I win, right?”
“You’re the master of sport. You know what you’re doing. I need your internal passport.”
Out of a dozen airports, I picked Tallinn. Could’ve flown to Sochi and lie on a beach to clear my head. Tallinn was the opposite of Sochi. Cool and windy, an island of vanished capitalism in a garrison state. The city had decayed under the Soviet rule, its medieval skyline tarnished by the architects’ brutalist style.
No one spoke fluent Russian in Tallinn and even the basic form of the Great and Mighty most people refused to use. They’d stare at you stone-faced and pretend to not understand when you spoke Russian. Given a chance, a Muslim would stab me in Nalchik or anywhere in the Caucasus, or Middle Asia, because I was a Russian. In Tallinn they’d smile at you and refuse to speak the language everyone in the country should have known.
It annoyed me the bartender at the hotel we lived in would add milk to my coffee after I’d told him I wanted my coffee black. He’d understood every word I said, smiled and poured milk in my cup anyway. They had balls, the Estonians.
Pirita hotel, the same place I’d stayed at earlier in the season when we came for a couple of races in Tallinn, was the only hotel I knew. Built to host Olympians during Moscow Games, it was meters away from the Tallinn Bay on the Gulf of Finland and close to the city center. I could sit on a balcony all day, gaze into the gulf, and then go out for a drink after the sunset.
On the plane, I’d figured out what my problem was. My KGB friend Bogdan had placed me on the ‘unsuited to travel abroad’ list. No one had ever seen these lists. Not like they’d publish them on the front page of Pravda. We knew they existed. If you end up on one, the Russian language had a word for you — nevyeyzdnoy, abroad-untravelable.
Most people in the Soviet Union didn’t care if the KGB considered them suitable to travel abroad or not. They didn’t even care about the KGB that much. Keep your mouth shut, turn up for work every day, procreate, and die before spending too much of your pension. Don’t fret about the KGB.
If you are a professional athlete or a performer, then it’s a different story. You’d worry about your status with the KGB. Who can or can’t leave the country was in the Kontora’s hands.
To cross the border, you’d need a KGB-issued passport. A different document to the internal passports every Soviet citizen had. Checked and approved by the KGB for foreign travel, you get your passport hours before departure, sometimes in the airport. The moment you clear the customs, you hand it back to a KGB officer and only see it again next time you travel abroad. Inside the country, you’d never have a passport in your hands. A fly caged in a glass jar.
Crossing the natural border to get out of the country is a suicide. To its west, Soviet Union sat behind a buffer, the Eastern Bloc. Everyone knew the border patrol had orders to shoot anyone on sight who tried to cross the border on foot. If the Soviets had missed you, you’d get shot by the Poles or the Czechs. They had the same orders to greet with bullets anyone from the land of the proletarian paradise.
If you made it to Poland or Czechoslovakia, you’d have to cross another border again to reach Germany or Austria. Austrians wouldn’t shoot you, but the Hungarian border patrol would if that’s where you fled to.
To the south, we bordered Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. Further east China and Mongolia. You wouldn’t run there even if they paid you.
On the north, we neighbored Finland and farther north Norway. Finland had an agreement with the USSR to send back Soviet defectors if captured. You’d have to survive the bullets, enter Finland, avoid arrest and then travel to Sweden. Norway’s border was too far north to even think about it as a possible escape route.
If crossing the border on foot was nuts, then I had to find a way to get a new passport. In a country where everyone is for sale, someone somewhere would be keen to earn a coin in hard currency.
Bogdan? What’s his price? How much would it take to make him deliver my passport to me in an envelope, apologize, and drive me to an airport? Five thousand bucks? Ten?
Ten thousand US dollars was about forty thousand rubles on the black market. He makes what, three thousand a year? That’s thirteen years’ worth of salaries, my friend. And here it is, enjoy. Give me my passport and we’ll never see each other again.
The receptionist at the Pirita hotel greeted me with a large smile and something in Estonian. I smiled back and said, in Russian, I needed a room.
“How many?” she said. I thought I better not correct her Russian because she might discover there are no rooms in Pirita. I told her I’m planning to stay for two or three nights.
“You pay for two and ask me more, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. I liked how we said okay to each other, so un-Soviet.
After I paid, she gave me the keys and said, “Gulf of Finland view, okay?”
“Thank you,” I said.
I showered and went back to the reception again to ask if any bars were still open anywhere close to the hotel. She pointed her finger decked with a crimson nail to the entrance door and said, “Taxi. Go to Noku Klubi.”
“What’s Noku Klubi?” I said. It didn’t sound right.
“It’s a bar,” she said. She tore a page out of a small notebook, wrote an address on it and gave it to me. “You like it,” she said.
I headed to Pirita Road, hailed a cab and showed the driver the piece of paper with Noku Klubi address on it. He didn’t say anything, smiled and drove me to the old part of Tallinn.
I got out in front of an ancient wooden door painted in bright blue and red with a digit five made from copper nailed to it. The place looked nothing like a bar. I tried the door but it was locked. Is this a joke? I looked around to figure out where to go to from here. Should be a place to have a drink somewhere if I walked.
I’ve been staring at the door wondering if I should go up or down the street when it opened. A tall guy with blond, coiled hair and granny-style glasses stepped out and asked me something in Estonian.
“I don’t speak Estonian,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
He was cordial, no sound of grudge in his voice.
“Anna said I should drop in.” I gave him the piece of notebook page with the Noku Klubi address as a proof of Anna’s blessing for me to come here. I didn’t know any Annas in Tallinn but the dude in John Lennon’s glasses did because there are a lot of Annas in Estonia.
He looked at the address, opened the door and pointed inside with his head.
“Come in,” he said and shut the door behind me after I walked in. I heard the snapping of a door lock. What is this, Tallinn’s Hotel California?
I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor and entered what looked like a large apartment with a bar. It was a hodgepodge of club chairs, couches, and tables scattered around the room at random. Most patrons sat in groups of three or four at a half dozen tables and on the couches. A couple of loners sat in the corners. Some tables were free. A barstool with only a single guy perched on one of them with his back facing me looked like my spot.
I mounted the stool and turned toward my neighbor two spots away for a head nod exchange. The moment our eyes met, I knew I’d seen him before. I stalled for a second and thought of getting up and going to a table but noticed he was beaming at me too. Running away would be rude. I liked this place already and wanted to enjoy an hour or two here.
I ordered the Hammer & Sickle cocktail, the famous Old Tallinn liqueur mixed with Crimean rosé champagne. From my last visit to Tallinn, I knew two of these back to back will numb my legs cold and fasten me to the stool like someone nailed my pants to it. And then, if I’m in a right mood, I’ll ask the guy where I’d seen him.
“I think I know you,” the familiar-looking guy said in Russian and got up. “Can I?” he pointed to a barstool next to me. He didn’t give me time to answer, hopped onto the barstool and said, “I’m Arvi. You don’t remember me?”
If they held Russian language championships in Estonia, Arvi would be a front-runner. He spoke the best Russian I’d heard in Estonia.
Hammer & Sickle arrived, I sipped some and looked at the guy again. The Old Tallinn spices and Crimean grapes boomed in my head. Three years ago, my last season with Piotr Trumheller, a stage race in Sochi. Bingo.
They ran it in the first week of November when everyone in the country went on an off-season break. Teams from southern Russia would come to Sochi to stretch the season in the warm weather.
The race started with a time trial to the top of Ahun Mountain and followed a similar route of the April’s elite stage. Estonian was one of the teams from out of the region that added some ‘international’ flavor to the peloton.
That year, we stayed in the Primorskaya with the Estonians, the only two teams in the hotel. We kept the bikes in the basement. They were not allowed inside the rooms of this pompous hotel built during Stalin’s reign.
On the morning of the first road stage, I came to the basement to get my bike. The Estonians were arguing among themselves. Out of control windmills with arms flying around. The hairy eyeball looks fired in my and my team-mates’ direction.
“Problem?” I asked a guy who was the most bummed out among them.
“Yes,” he said. “Two bikes are missing skewers. Campagnolo skewers. Someone stole them.”
I shrugged and said, “That’s too bad. Use the Soviet-made ones, they work too.”
“We only have one extra pair,” he said.
I grabbed my bike and headed outside. Not my problem.
“Hey,” I heard from behind my back. “Do you have spare skewers?”
I learned from Trumheller to carry at least one spare rear skewer everywhere. They had a habit of snapping in half when you’re in a rush to align a rear wheel on a start line. The stink eye look on the guy’s face was gone.
“I do. I’ve got a pair, front and rear.”
I was now looking at the guy I lent my spare skewers to three years ago.
“You never gave me my skewers back,” I said.
“I know. I forgot. I’m sorry. The drinks are on me tonight,” he said.
We drank Hammer & Sickle for the next two hours. Tried other savage-looking concoctions and talked as if we’d broke up a vow of silence last night.
He told me he quit cycling a year ago and was now studying medicine. His Russian was getting slower the more he drank. He’d take his time to find the right word or compose a sentence and I’d sometimes lose track of what he was talking about.
Without a warning, he says, “You know, I’m going to Norway.” He stared at me for two seconds and added, “After I finish my degree.”
I looked around to see if anybody was listening. No one paid any attention.
“Norway? Why Norway?” I said.
He told me his grandfather lived in Norway. Before the war, his grandmother, pregnant with his mother, left her husband and went to live in Tallinn. Then the Red Army arrived and forced Estonia to join the USSR.
“I’ll finish the university, buy a tour to Norway and, puff, gone,” he said.
“KGB won’t let you out if you have a relative in Norway,” I said.
“They don’t know that. My mother was born here. My grandma married an Estonian, she has an Estonian surname. No one knows anything about it.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I said.
“Because I’m drunk,” he said. “And because you gave me the skewers. You know what it meant to me?” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
I waited for an explanation but Arvi never gave it to me. Instead, I told him my own story. How I went to police station in France to ask for asylum. How I peed my pants at the last moment and turned around. About Bogdan, about Coors Classic and how I need to find now a KGB pig willing to get me a new passport. Brows drawn together and sipping some green liquid with a straw from a highball glass, Arvi listened to my saga without saying a word.
“I know someone,” he says. He looked at the bottom of his empty glass, churned the ice cubes with the straw and said, “My cousin’s wife works for the KGB. Second wife. He divorced his wife and then married this young Russian woman he met in Leningrad. She works for the KGB here in Tallinn. No one in our family talks to him, except me. I don’t care if he married a Russian. I don’t care if she works for the KGB. I like him, he’s cool. He got me into cycling, he used to race.”
People fall into pitfalls like this one all the time. In the movies. Here in Tallinn, right now, I’m too small of a fish for someone to orchestrate such an intricate trap. And too drunk.
“You think she can organize me a passport?” I said.
“Don’t know,” he said. “She loves money though.”
We agreed to knock off the evening. Arvi said he’d visit his cousin tomorrow and try to probe Olga, the cousin’s wife, if she’d want to make a buck.
“How much can you pay?” he said after we got up. We toddled outside and headed toward the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads on Pikk street.
“Offer her two grand, but I can pay three or more if I have to.”
“No, no, no,” he raised his hands. “I stay out of this. I asked to see what kind of money we’re talking about.”
“I’m talking American dollars.”
“Dollars?” We stopped and looked at each other. “That’s a lot of money,” he said.
“I’m suffocating here.”
“Wait for me at the Pirita hotel. Don’t go anywhere. It might take a day or two. Can you wait?”
“Sure thing,” I said.
We passed the Brotherhood’s house and reached a narrow street on our left. “This is Vaimu street,” Arvi said. “Unless you want to see Tallinn’s KGB headquarters on Pikk, we should turn left here.”
“Let’s go say hello to Bogdan’s comrades.”
“Forget it,” he said.
Arvi didn’t turn up the next day or the day after. I paid for another two nights at the hotel and figured I’d leave if he doesn’t show up. I was paranoid I’d miss him. I had no number to call and no address to go to. I stayed in my room all day reading Raymond Chandler I bought in a secondhand book shop.
One hour before the checkout time, the phone in my room rang. It was Arvi. He didn’t tell me why he disappeared for so long and said Olga will meet me tonight at Vana Toomas café in the old town.
“Don’t go in,” he said. “Hang around Raekoja square near the entrance to Vana Toomas.”
I took a cab from Pirita and fifteen minutes later stood next to Vana Toomas’ doors. I tried to look casual scanning Raekoja square for a sign of what I’d imagined Olga might look like. Grey two-piece business suit, black high heels, and Makarov pistol in her black purse.
She came from Mündi street behind me on my left.
“Nikolai?” I heard a honeyed female voice. I turned around and saw a tall, slim brunette in jeans and alpine sweater with a denim backpack on her right shoulder. “I’m Olga,” she said. “I heard you want a tour of the old Tallinn.”
I nodded, mumbled a yes and followed her.
We crossed Raekoja square in silence, turned into Kinga street and headed south.
“Tell me your story,” Olga said. “Everything.”
Like that, tell you, a KGB officer, how I’d been planning to run from the USSR since I was a teenager? What other options do I have though? I’m here to find out if she can get me a new passport or not. What is she here for, to arrest a traitor? Should I play dumb and pretend there was a misunderstanding? Or trust Arvi’s ‘she loves money’ judgment of Olga’s character? I glanced at her again out of the corner of my eye: Levi’s jeans, imported shoes and sweater, a hip backpack. Three thousand dollars is about five years’ worth of her salary or sixty pairs of Levi’s jeans. Worth a shot.
I skipped where I got the idea of running to the West from. Told her about the championship, the ride to the police station in Caen and the rest of the score that followed. We walked for an hour on Tallinn’s streets talking about my car trip with Bogdan. She wanted to know every detail of my conversation with him, what he knew and what I managed to dodge.
“I can’t believe you’re still walking free,” she said when we stopped near Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. “They don’t fool around with people suspected of treason. You’re a lucky man.”
“Some people think that. Lucky is when I’m on a plane outside of the Soviet Union’s aerospace.”
I stopped myself short of asking her if she came here to get a confession out of me or find out how much I can pay for an off the books passport. I tried to catch her eyes to figure out what she was thinking. She’d been staring past my shoulder at the cathedral behind me since we stopped walking.
She had her own doubts, I was sure of it. For all she knew, this could have been set up by the KGB to test how vulnerable she is. She was a young, attractive Russian woman living in Estonia. No friends and the husband’s family’s refusal to accept her because of her ethnicity and the job she did.
“I can get you another passport,” she said still looking away. “Not right now. It might take two or three weeks or longer. We don’t print them. And even if we did, every one of them should be on the books. I can do it.”
She pulled out a piece of ripped paper out of her pocket and said, “This is my friend’s phone number in Kiev. Call her to set up a meeting and bring one thousand dollars with you. I won’t move a finger until I hear from her. When you get your passport, you’ll pay another two grand. I’ll let you know when and how.”
She knew how much money I had and went for a full clean up.
“This is not Indians and Cowboys we’re playing here. You open your mouth like you did with Arvi and you can count yourself out. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I said.
“I hate to repeat this, but you better hear this twice to remember it — for your own good, keep your mouth shut,” she said. “For now, it’s only between you and me. Keep it that way and you’ll be out of here by the end of the year. You don’t talk — you understand that? Not now, not ever. Ciao.”
She turned around, crossed Toompea street to its other side and faded into shadows after a few steps.