September 15, 2017

What a Difference a Border Makes


What a Difference a Border Makes
Dymer, Poland. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

Our travels in Siberia end with a daytime flight west to Kaliningrad.

There is an open debate about why we picked Kaliningrad as the endpoint of our flight from Irkutsk. Some members of the expedition assert that it was an error, an oversight. Others are adamant that it was the blessed hand of Fate that led us here. That and a desire to see the anticlimactic tomb of Immanuel Kant alongside a church that has been turned into a major tourist destination (and which has some pretty impressive organ power).

The organ inside Königsberg Cathedral. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

In any event, Kaliningrad was not part of the Russian Empire in 1917, so we do not have any centenarians to visit here. Therefore, we spend a day and a half decompressing from our Siberian travels, walking around this interesting city, and getting our bodies accustomed to local time.

Two towers. Left, the long-unfinished House of Soviets, from the Soviet era. Right, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, completed in 2006. {Photos: Paul E. Richardson}

This, Russia's westernmost city, is our launching off point for the final stops on our journey: three countries that are outside of modern Russia, but that were part of the Russian Empire when our centenarian heroes were born in 1917 - Poland, Belarus, and Finland.

* * *

Low, marshy flatlands stretch off to the north as we glide down a newly paved road lined by high grasses and deciduous trees that are, for once, not birches. Wide fields of hay to the south have just been harvested, and are therefore spotted with huge rolls of shredded wheat.

In short, we could be driving through any agricultural region in the northern hemisphere.

Except that this is the broad, almost-no-man’s land 25 kilometers outside Kaliningrad that is Russia’s western-most borderlands. We are here because we hired a taxi to drive us to a Polish village 250 kilometers away – a village that it turns out is not served by bus on Mondays.

As we come within 10 km of the border, I conjure up images from a John le Carré novel: a spy slipping past a foggy, under-staffed checkpoint under cover of night… But, alas, our situation is far more mundane: it is a bright, beautiful morning, and the only danger hanging over our border crossing is whether our driver will decide to try to bring into Poland more than the allowed quantity of cigarettes.

But Gyorgi (“call me George”) is more interested in announcing the band and title of each new English rock song that comes up on the MP3 player hooked into his stereo. U2’s “With or Without You” cues up just as we are pulling into sight of the crossing station. I can’t decide if it is a good omen or not.

Good, it turns out: getting through Russian customs and passport control takes just 15 minutes.

But then our luck runs out. Even though there are very few cars in front of us, the astoundingly inefficient Polish customs and passport control takes over an hour. Restless, I step out of the car to stretch and do some squats, to keep my muscles from seizing up in the car (three more hours to go). The women in the car behind us start laughing, and I zenfully remember Mark Twain’s quote: “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”

* * *

Immediately after we enter Poland, the landscape becomes very different: it is hillier, with better-constructed roads and huge trees lining the roadway in a dense row. The homes have a distinctive stucco-faced northern European look, and are very well cared for. Grass is mown. There is no trash on the roadside. The little towns are quaint, brick-built, and roads are properly marked in the European style. Over the 150 km from the border to our destination, I spot only one dilapidated building, and it was still eminently salvageable.

Biskupiec, Poland. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

It feels very much like we have entered an unkempt Germany; the difference with the bedraggled Kaliningrad region we left behind could not be starker. How is it that two nations that are so alike (both Slavic, with a long shared history and similar cultural traditions, languages and governance) could be so radically different in their civil spaces? It surely can’t be just the Roman Catholic - Eastern Orthodox divide?

Near Trelkowko, Poland. {Photo: Paul E. Richardson}

As I wonder this out loud, Call Me George suggests it is because in Russia everyone wants to drive a Mercedes and yet no one wants to work honestly to attain it. And then he offers an anecdote by way of explanation:

A Russian and an American are sharing a drink. The Russian says to the American, “So what is paying for these expensive drinks we are enjoying?”

The American replies: “You see that river outside the window?”

“Yes.”

“You see the bridge over the river?”

“Yes.”

“You see the cars driving over the bridge, taking things too and from places to be sold?”

“Yes.”

“That is what is paying for our drinks.”

Months pass, and the American visits Moscow, so the two friends have a drink together again. This time the American asks the Russian, “What is paying for the expensive drinks we are sharing?”

“You see that river outside the window,” the Russian replies.

“Yes.”

“Do you see a bridge over that river?”

“No.”

“That is what is paying for our drinks.”

The implication is that all the money to build the bridge got sucked up by bribes and corruption. But even if that were some critical part of the puzzle, it does not explain why it would exist in one place and not another.

It is definitely a conundrum, and a fascinating one, but one I will leave to more competent professionals to unpack. I have more prosaic things to tend to. For example, I have to learn a few words of Polish. Supposedly it is a Slavic language, and one can readily recognize Russian sounding words here and there. But mostly it sounds to me like something a Frenchman and a pretty girl from Podolsk created after having far too much to drink, losing a lot of vowels in the sofa, and then just filling in the spaces with far too many consonants for my North American tongue to cope with.

Seriously, Szczytno is a town name? Przasnysz?

[I know, I know, a Russian speaker complaining about Polish being difficult to pronounce? Well, all things are relative...]

Call Me George teaches me the most important phrase, “thank you”: Dziękuję Ci. Simple, right? In case you are wondering, it is pronounced rather similarly to how you might say “Gin Cooler,” if you were Franco-Russian and a bit tipsy. So that is how I am helping myself remember it.

Next stop, Chodkowo-Kuchny, which is pronounced exactly as you would expect.

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