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Crossing the uncrossable

By Ekaterina Thor

The Russian border. Since most countries decided to close their borders and most airlines chose to pull out their offers, going to Russia and Russia became a mysterious concept in my head. Since Putin started the war on Ukraine, I successfully slid into a profound identity crisis and confusion about my roots and perception of myself as my parents migrated to Germany in 1996 while my extended family still lives in St.Petersburg. What does it mean to be Russian in today’s world? This question became so loud, that I had to go to the place of contradictions, question marks, and my family’s land. It turned out that organizing the trip itself was one of the biggest challenges. The few airlines going to Russia have some fear-provoking prices, which forced me to look for cheaper alternatives. Cheaper meant complicated in this case. I finally chose the following route: I drove from Amsterdam to Cologne. From Cologne, I flew to Talin with a switch in Munich. In Tallinn, I took the bus to Narva, where the Estonian border with Russia is located. I crossed the border on foot while losing nerves and took the bus from the border town of Ivangorod to my final destination, St. Petersburg.

It was not only the logistics that were complex but also the emotional state that it left me in as the stories and myths about the border are endless. I have heard people clean out their phones from political content as it risks being controlled. I heard stories of getting endless questions about your reason for being there. I heard there could be problems as I had Ukrainian stamps on my passport and other examples with a similar tone. When being exposed to Western media, it seems as if crossing the Russian border is not just complicated but also politically risky. I started perceiving the border as a black hole, not knowing what to expect from the other side.

Until arriving in Narva, the whole trip felt surreal. Then I stepped out of the bus, surrounded by a small city with colorful houses, the border checkpoint, the parking lot where we were all let out, and a long line. It seemed as if the border was in the middle of a city square, not quite the abandoned, scary checkpoint I expected. Someone asked, in disbelief: “Oh my god….this is the line?!”. The bus driver responded that this was nothing and that it could be a lot worse, which he was right about, as I discovered later on.

I stood there in tension and simultaneous curiosity. That was the anthropologist in me that turned fear into curiosity and the unexplainable into potential field notes. Relatively quickly we moved forward. “Go back in line, what are you doing? You have to wait, like all of us, they will split us up inside”, a loud voice sounded from the back when people tried to search for ways to skip the waiting. With a small group, I entered the building and discovered that I could skip the first rounds of questions as my German passport allowed me to go through the digitized control. First Step Done. “Interesting,” I thought, while collectively walking from the sidewalk to the beginning of a bridge. We walked, birds flying above us while we entered a slimmer road with a grayish, transparent net around us, the sun turning into an evening gray and the lake moving in small waves beneath us. We reached the next line, I could not see how long it was and did not know then that this would be the beginning of a small adventure… 

This adventure consisted of a three-hour wait and uncertainty about our success in reaching Russia in time as the border was closing at 11 pm and the sky above us was already getting dark. The wind became stronger, the line behind me longer and the cold started biting. The people entered a state of unease and a tense dynamic started building up. Some people were searching for fights. Others listened to loud music, provoking the police standing next to us. Others were simply quiet, waiting and watching. “Where are you going? You have to pee?” asked the police almost sarcastically to a man passing by “Go back to Estonia, we don’t have bathrooms”. “This is some trash going on here”. “You feel sick? Let me call you an ambulance. You want to pass? I can not make you skip the line, do you see the people, you can imagine how they will react”. “If you are lucky, you will stand here for long”. The agitation started to spread among the people in front of me “What are you doing?! You want to pass? I will not let you! We are all in the line, I don’t care, go back in line”. One comment from the right, left and the back dancing in the air above us. I stood there, watched the wire around me, the different flags on both sides of that lake, and the faces of the people next to me.

The sun went down, the line started moving. After catching a cold, losing my cool, and worried about too many things I stood face to face with the border control, explaining with my poor confidence that I came to visit my family. Suddenly and boringly it simply felt like a game of power. The woman holding my passport observed me as long and cold as everyone else before me. She asked me the same two questions she probably repeated for 8 hours, lifted her eyebrows when she saw my Ukrainian stamps, stared me down, and let me go, as everyone else I saw before me. At the baggage scan, nobody cared. I don’t even know if someone looked at the monitor when my things were traveling through. I was in Russia. Our bus had been waiting for all of us and drove our tired bodies and souls to St.Petersburg while in the meanwhile, silently, all my social media got blocked. My IG, FB, LinkedIn, YouTube, ChatGtp, my streaming sites. Everything. I have arrived into the territory of filtered information and impactful advertisement. Into the territory of forbidden words and books.

This was the border that I heard so many stories about. It turned out that it was a normal, non-European border, with its power dynamics and particularities. Nobody controlled and searched through my phone. Nobody asked me a list of questions. I did not have to sign anything specific and I did not see anyone being taken away. Maybe that was just my experience, or maybe I unsaw something, maybe my bias is too big, but after having heard so many nightmarish accounts, I want my basic experience to swim in the pool of stories as well.

I guess the moral is that fear is good, as I do not want to play down the risks of entering Russia and being here. But for me, being able to see with my own eyes and identify the propaganda dancing around Russia and being Russian was deeply important. After all, the uncrossable border turned out to be crossable. I may be mistaken. I will find out in the next weeks of being here.

Ekaterina Thor is a Bachelor Cultural Anthropology alumnus

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