A Russian Range War (And an American Caught in the Middle)

In Russia, the only order is in nature.

Ten men surround a mountain of gear and stare skyward as an Mi-8 circles and turns for an upwind landing. They’ve been on the tundra ten days, and this helicopter will carry them closer to home, 200 kilometers to the village of Lovozero, where they’ll shower, shave, and then cross most of Finland before reaching home: Estonia. But this helicopter does not land. The Mi-8 hovers a meter above the tundra and births two men from the Russian flag on her belly. The two crouch as she lifts off, holding down hats and turning faces to the earth. Not our helicopter.

The two men, one dressed like a fly fisherman, the other clad head to toe in state camouflage, a Russian flag on his sleeve, walk through the camp shaking hands. I remain in the background; my Russian is bad, and I am no artist when it comes to dealing with officials.

Most of our gear is in the pile, but three tents remain—a dining fly, a drying tent, and my two-man sleeper. I’ll be staying on another twelve days and will keep my eye on camp while our Volodya and Jaanus bring in a new group. The two men take a seat under the dining fly with Volodya who opens a leather map case, producing a large document binder, each page with its own plastic cover. The man in camouflage studies it.

Everyone hears it before he sees it, and soon another Mi-8 approaches camp. Camo Man’s head is down, studying paperwork. Volodya interrupts him. It’s our helicopter, and he’ll be needing the binder. After a short exchange, the permits are returned and Volodya shakes hands with Camo Man and the fly fisherman. The guests watch as the chopper is loaded. Volodya and Jaanus brief me.

“Everything’s fine,” says Jaanus in Estonian. “Introduce yourself and offer them a beer.”

“They’re not going with you?”

“They’ve got their own helicopter.”

“How long will they stay?”

“No idea,” says Jaanus. “Until they’re picked up.”


Volodya embraces me and says “Good boy” in Russian. He’s pleased I’m remaining on the tundra alone. He and his wife had invited me to stay with them in Murmansk until the next group arrived, but I opted for the field. Volodya likes that.

“One more thing,” Jaanus adds. “Don’t show them any documents they don’t ask for.” This could go without saying. Rarely is a public official out to help. “Tell them the rest of your paperwork is in the car in Lovozero,” Jaanus says. “They’ve seen our documents. We’re completely legal.”

In a few minutes, the Mi-8 is loaded and away

“Scott,” I introduce myself. “Cold beer?”

It’s a short walk to the river where a case of beer is anchored in a bank-side eddy. The water is forty degrees Fahrenheit, and so is the beer. Half-liter cans. I’ve never seen smaller for sale in Russia.

We take seats in canvas chairs on the highest hill in camp. Today is a rare sunny day.

The fly fisherman is Igor. He is large and tanned with a hint of red in his cheeks giving him a jolly appearance. The red is likely from the bottle. Igor wears Varzina River-logoed campwear: Multi-pocket khaki trousers, polo shirt, fleece jacket, Varzina baseball cap. “I represent the camp,” Igor says. The camp is a fifteen-kilometer hike toward the Barents, one of the famed Kola camps, where westerners pay upwards of a thousand dollars a day to fish. The Varzina River Company is everywhere, its logo on every helicopter. Even in Lovozero, 200 kilometers back Finland way, it seems every villager is sponsored by Varzina, many wearing logoed hats and the elite few possessing fleece jackets. “And this is Vadim,” Igor says. “Fishing inspector.”

Vadim is thin and pale, boyish despite his six-foot frame. His hair suggests he skipped his morning shower. Vadim is silent. He seems uncomfortable being seated.

“Another beer?” I offer.

“No,” says Vadim, shaking his can. “I haven’t finished this one.”

“I’ll have one,” says Igor. Vadim gives him a look that says Behave. Igor gives one back: Lighten up. “I’ll have one,” Igor repeats, “but only if you’ll have one with me.”

“You sure, Vadim?” In some cultures you’re supposed to refuse the first time offered, though I’ve never heard of such a custom in Russia. The inspector is sure.

Igor cracks his second beer and talks about the beauty of the tundra. “You a fly fisherman?” he asks. I reply that I am, and he leans forward to shake my hand. “Beautiful,” he says.

Halfway into our second beer, Igor asks for something stronger. We rise and enter the dining fly. There are bottles all over the place from the group’s goodbye toasts. “You want pepper vodka or the regular stuff?” Igor asks. He’s already playing host.


“You choose.”

Igor chooses pepper. We throw back after the all-important eye contact. Igor helps himself to salo, salted pork fat, which a guest brought from the Ukraine. I walk to the river for two more beers. I take a third for Vadim. You never know.

Vadim still doesn’t want the beer. “He’s a serious guy,” says Igor. Vadim shoots him a friendly Fuck you.

“What I would like,” says Vadim, “are fishing magazines. The kind with nice pictures. Any language is okay.”

We don’t have a single one in the camp; we don’t even have porn, and I tell him so.

“I think I’ll have a look around,” Vadim says. He drops his jacket on the chair, removes a clipboard from a black plastic shopping bag that is his briefcase, and wanders about the camp. Soon, he stops to make notes.

“What’s the problem?” I ask Igor.

“No problem,” says Igor. “Vadim is always writing.” Igor suggests another round of vodka, so we return to the dining fly. Outside, Vadim has stopped again to make notes. Igor shrugs. “He’s our Tolstoy.”

As the vodka warms us, Igor looks me over, his eyes settling on a hand-smithed pin on my hat. It’s one of eleven silver salmon, made in Estonia for the nation’s first eleven fishermen to practice catch and release: ten Estonians plus me. “Pins,” says Igor. “We trade pins.”

Igor’s pin is a tin trinket. It reads Varzina River Lodge, First Atlantic Salmon and is made to award sports who tail a fish. He presents it like it’s the Croix de Guerre. Not to exchange, I fear, would be an insult, so I hand over my pin. We drink again. “We are friends,” Igor announces. “I drink to you.” We throw back once more and Igor embraces me, clapping me hard on the back. We get fresh beers and return to our chairs.

Igor tells me his life story. His son is a guide at the Varzina camp. His daughter studies in a Murmansk university. He wants to hear for the fourth or fifth time that I’m a fly fisherman. I tell him that I am, and he raises his glass because to his way of thinking after you’ve fly fished there is no other kind of fishing. I am pleased to hear a Russian say this, but I don’t tell him so. We would probably have to celebrate with another shot and I’m already in the bag.

Vadim returns. “I want to see your passport,” he says. I go to my tent and dig it out.

Vadim studies the passport carefully, page by page. It may be the first US passport he’s seen, as it’s unlikely he’s allowed to check the documents of commercial camp guests. A thousand dollars a day buys a Vadim-free trip. My passport has extra pages full of Russian visas and entry and exit stamps to European countries, and it takes Vadim a long time to find my name. “Which is your family name?” I show it to him. Igor motions me back to the tent. We have another shot.

“There’ll be no problems,” he assures me, his arm on my shoulder in a comradely way.

“Why are you here alone?” Vadim shouts from his chair.

“I’m the storozh,” I tell him. The camp guard.

“He’s the storozh!” Igor shouts in a tone that says Leave us be, we’re bonding.

“When will the group come?” Vadim wants to know.

“Five days. Come back then.”

“How many in that group?”

“I don’t know. Ten maybe. Come back and see.”

“What firm organizes your travel?”

“No firm,” I return to my chair. “Men. Jaanus and Volodya.”

“Where are they?”

“You met them. You saw their documents. Come back in five days.”

“What firm are they with?”

“No firm,” interrupts Igor. “He said it’s privately organized.”

Vadim the Inspector

“I need a company name.” Vadim has a space on one of his forms which requires a company name.

“Put Microsoft,” I offer. “Come back in five days.”

Vadim gives up on me and uses his satellite phone from atop the highest rock in camp. Among a lot of fast Russian I don’t understand, he says my name and reads my passport number. He repeats it. Foreign names are difficult. He pushes buttons, tries again. He looks angry.

“Everything okay in Murmansk?” I ask.

“Dead battery.”

Vadim wants me to survey the camp with him. He presents me with his clipboard where he’s drawn a map. He points to the two lakes, the long channel between them, the tents, his estimated distances between each object.

“What’s all this for?” I ask.

“You sign here,” he says, “to agree this is how the camp is laid out.” He could be setting me up for something, but I’m too drunk to care.

“You’re a real artist,” I tell him and sign his paper.

“Sign this one, too.” This one is three pages of data about me, the camp, whatever notes Vadim made about the pike drying on the line, the tupperware container of trout under the moss by the river I saw him peer into. My Russian is not good enough to know what I’m signing, so I write on the document in English: I have no idea what I’m signing. Then I sign it.

“What’s that mean?” Vadim asks.

“It means I don’t understand.”

Vadim smirks as if to say You clever bastard.

We return to our chairs, and I offer the boys another round. Vadim declines. Igor is of course game, and he’s had enough not to care that I’m still nursing mine and am at least one behind him in the count. Igor waxes on about the tundra and how I should really come fish at the Varzina camp. I tell him I’m not rich enough but he ignores it, telling me how good the food is and how many of my countrymen I could meet.

And then we hear the familiar groan of an Mi-8. In a few minutes the beast is parked a safe and courteous distance from camp, the pilots have killed the engine and are reclined on rocks, cigarettes lit. A lone man approaches. He is tall, red-bearded, wears a Varzina fleece and a Finnish puuko on his belt.

“Victor” is all he says, extending his hand.

“Scott,” I say. “Cold beer?”

Victor thanks me but declines. Vadim makes a verbal report and then hands Victor the clipboard.

“Victor is the Varzina camp director,” whispers Igor.

After a few minutes with Vadim, Victor sits with me alone in the sun.

“Whose camp is this?”

“Can we speak English?” I ask him. If he’s the Varzina director, he probably can manage. “My Russian is bad,” I say. “As you can see.”

“I prefer Russian,” he says in English, smiling.

Have it your way, I think. I tell him whose camp it is. The guests are Estonian. I’m the only American. Our Russian hosts are Volodya and Sasha. I tell him their family names. He smiles when I mention Sasha’s.

“Sasha is an old friend,” he says.

We talk a bit more, mostly about fishing. No one is catching anything spectacular. Too early he thinks. The water is still too cold. I tell him he can meet Sasha if he returns in five days. Sasha once worked as an assistant chef in a commercial fishing camp, and I suspect the camp might have been Victor’s. Sasha was fired for teaching the Finnish chef to drink mornings. The chef was fired, too. Now Sasha is with us.

Victor stands and shakes my hand. Wishes me good luck. “Let’s go,” he calls to Igor and Vadim.

“But I need to see where the toilet is located,” says Vadim with one more form loaded on the clipboard.

“No you don’t,” says Victor. “If this is Sasha’s camp, there are no problems here.”


The three board the helicopter, and as soon as Victor’s feet leave the tundra the rotors are moving and he’s airborne, off to new business.

At last, silence.


“I have never asked how ten Estonians can obtain the coveted passes to fish such an area, but I suspect it is because the Estonians have the right Russian friends, and because someone somewhere was paid, officially or not. It is better not to ask.”

The Varzina Camp has wanted our site for three seasons now, at least this is what I’m told. Their camp is owned by a wealthy Russian who resides in Finland. This Russian, I am told, would like to establish a fly-in wilderness camp on the stretch of river we occupy. Technically, it is not the Varzina River, but part of its headwaters, a drainage between two lakes which fishes better early in the season than the main river. And when a sport is not earning his First Atlantic Salmon pin, the Varzina Camp would like the option to fly him to our drainage and let him catch huge brown trout and char. Salmon won’t come this far up, so there is little point in building a generator-powered base camp here. Most sports want big salmon and lots of them, but brown trout are sometimes a necessary substitute.

Our camp is in a special wilderness protection zone, and we have rare permission to fish it, documents issued by the Murmansk Oblast. I have never asked how ten Estonians can obtain the coveted passes to fish such an area, but I suspect it is because the Estonians have the right Russian friends, and because someone somewhere was paid, officially or not. It is better not to ask.

The commercial camps have always fought a range war, beginning in the mid 1980s when the Kola Peninsula opened up. A few foreigners flew in to check the fishing and negotiated rights to operate commercial camps. Permits were issued and westerners filled the camps almost immediately. But then, as now, permits were of limited value. Most famously, American Bill Davies operated a camp for a half season in 1995 before being evicted from the Varzina by a Russian authority who had been persuaded to cancel Davies’ permits in mid season and give the camp rights to a rival Finnish company called Nature Unlimited. Davies’ guests were forced to pack and leave mid-trip, and Davies’ entire operation was shut down. Davies sued and won in a Lovozero court. The Russians appealed to the Stockholm Arbitration Institute. In 1998, Stockholm ordered the Russians to pay Davies one million dollars. The Stockholm decision was upheld by the Russian Supreme Court in Moscow. It was a major victory for western order and civilized business practices and was perhaps proof that the Russian court system could sometimes function. But what sort of victory was it? Davies’ clients were evicted, their fishing cut short, and the core system remained the same.

The range war still rages. A recent change in the Murmansk Oblast government has forced the players to show their hands. Vadim is the instrument of someone in Murmansk, who has likely been ordered by a Russian in Finland to Get that camp. A permit is only as good as the signature on it. If the signatory is out of power, the document holder is out of luck, regardless of the dates on the permit. Such is Russia.


Five days later the second group lands. Jaanus, Volodya, and Sasha question me about my new friends. They are surprised I was required to show my passport but are reassured by Victor’s presence and his words about Sasha. We fish.

On the second morning, Vadim makes a second landing.

“Where’s Igor?” I ask.

“Fishing,” he says.

Victor is aboard the helicopter, too, and within a few steps out the door he and Sasha have embraced. Old friends. Today, Victor is dressed in waders and felt-soled boots. Perhaps he’s got a chopper full of clients he’s flying to another wilderness camp? Victor offers me his hand and accepts a cup of coffee.

Vadim wants to review the camp documents one more time, so Volodya produces his notebook. Vadim removes a clipboard from his black plastic sack and makes notes. One hour later they are gone.



The next morning I cross a shallow part of the channel to fish for char in a pool we call the mirror. Not an original name, but it’s prime water for big char who’ll eagerly take a dry fly. The takes are aggressive, but only if you’ve matched the hatch. These are the smartest fish on the river. I sit on a rock with my back to a light north wind and watch the water’s surface: black stoneflies, size fourteen; green mayflies, size twelve. I have a Yellow Wulff in a twelve; the peacock might pass for a mayfly. I lower my head to tie it on and am overtaken instantly. The Mi-8 passes low and churns water. It turns to land, settles, the co-pilot out helping the pilot dodge rocks. I count nine silhouettes exit the fuselage, including one lanky form with a plastic bag in his right hand. The ladder is retracted and the Mi-8 is gone as quickly as she arrived.

Two silhouettes, one carrying a box, descend to the river bank. Could they be scientists taking water samples? Has Vadim brought us a scientific mission?

I move down river for a better view and pass Walter sitting under a dwarf birch, watching the show. I ask him for his theory, but he only smiles and lights a cigarette. “I have no idea, but if they want to talk to me, they can come over here.” Downstream, directly across from the camp, the two silhouettes riverside prove to be men with a camera. They film water, rocks, fishermen. One is bearded and wears a jean jacket. The other, the camera operator, wears a light white sweater. They are from the city, unprepared for the tundra.

Farther downstream, Guido is spin casting to large trout in the estuary. He’s observed by two uniformed millitsiya, Russia’s police force, arms crossed, standing high above him on the bank. Guido hooks a nice one, plays and lands it. He sees me on the far bank and holds it up. “Two kilos,” he shouts before releasing it.

The millitsiya have noticed it, too. They call to him and motion for him to join them. One points at me and signals me to cross the river.


The camp dining fly

A tundra cocktail party is in full swing under the dining fly. The Estonians are drinking vodka and beer, eating open faced sandwiches, and talking loudly in their Finno-Ugric language the Russians have no hope of understanding. They are careful to offer nothing in the way of food or drink to the invaders. This is not a friendly visit.

Siim, dressed in waders and a raincoat, puts a tumbler of vodka in my hand. Have a sandwich he tells me, behaving as if the nine visitors do not exist. “They wanted my passport,” he says, “but it’s in the car.”

Most of the nine are standing around with their arms crossed, staring at their feet, occasionally putting a boot toe into the tundra for lack of anything better to do.

The two millitsiya are young, early twenties, and they wear scuffed civilian shoes and ill-fitting uniforms. They resemble actors in a high school musical, someone’s mother having done her best to make a uniform for Officer Krupke.

There is one professional-looking soldier. He wears coke-bottle glasses, a well-trimmed mustache, full camo fatigues, and boots polished to parade gloss. He sits at a table across from Guido and copies information from a spinning rod. “Loop,” I hear Guido say. “L – O – O – P.” Guido has to repeat it twice. The soldier seems to have had little contact with the Latin alphabet.

Another uniform, a pimply-faced man in immigration green and a black leather jacket, stands near the millitsiya boys with a handful of Estonian passports. He chats quietly with Jaanus.


Two men in civilian clothes stand on the periphery and say nothing. The younger man, mid-thirties, wears a black Adidas tracksuit and carries a plastic dop kit looped around his wrist, a rural Russian’s idea of a manpurse. The older man in civilian dress, perhaps fifty, wears jeans, a cotton shirt, and a fleece vest. He resembles a suburban dad having a day at the mall.

The two with the camera are television journalists. Jean Jacket gives orders to White Sweater and they get everyone’s picture.

Vadim sits in one of our chairs, Volodya looking over his shoulder, and fills out forms. Volodya smiles at me. Vadim looks up, meets my glance, but quickly turns away.

“This guy would like to see your passport,” Jaanus says calmly. Pimples in the leather jacket is with him.

“I don’t suppose it’s enough that Vadim has already seen it?” I ask. Jaanus laughs. “If he asks, tell him the little pieces of paper are in the car.” Crossing the Russian border, you are issued several tiny pieces of paper and instructed not to lose them. I’m in no hurry to help these people, so I talk with Jaanus a while. He says this team has been ordered to harass us, to make it unpleasant for us to use this camp.

“Who’s in charge?” I ask him.

“It’s not clear yet.” He suspects it’s either Suburban Dad or Manpurse. “This fellow on my left” — he means Pimples — “tells me there are at least three organs of the state represented here. He’s immigration, those guys are millitsiya, and I’m not sure about the others.”

I go to my tent and empty my passport of my customs receipt, hotel registration form, fishing license. I return and give it to Pimples. The millitsiya gather around as he opens it. It could also be their first American passport.


Pimples wants to know about other paperwork, but I’m not sure I understand. Jaanus translates the question and then answers for me. It’s in the car.

Our group is gathered from all corners. Two are found at the lower lake, and Walter is escorted into camp smiling and grumbling at the same time.

This harassment is no surprise to Walter or anyone else in the group; Russian officials often try to exact small bribes. But a strike force complete with journalists is indeed something new. Usually, twenty dollars per fisherman paid to an inspector is all that is wanted, an income supplement, or “license upgrade” as the Estonians call them. Sometimes, it’s simply someone wanting to show that his gun and helicopter de facto trump your license de jura. Volodya is expert at dealing with both sorts, but today he has a new challenge. He has now abandoned Vadim and is taking things up with Suburban Dad. Volodya is not quiet — he is former military, therefore firm and direct — and though I can’t hear him from where I stand, he is giving Suburban Dad a dressing down.

If there is any organization to this raid I cannot see it. There are Estonians drinking vodka and eating sandwiches. Guido is shouting “Union Bank,” at Coke Bottle, who is trying to fill in Place of Employment on a receipt for the gear he’s confiscating. Pimples and the millitsiya sift through passports. Vadim is getting razzed by Sasha as he tries to write protocols for whatever violation he’s cooked up. Chaos to my eyes.

“These guys would like to interview you.” It’s Jaanus. The journalists stand at a polite distance. They are from the Murmansk station, Russia 2, he explains, filming for the program, ВЕСТИ, pronounced Vesti, meaning news.

Suburban Dad

“What do you think?” I ask him.

“I don’t see any problem with it.”

“Why don’t you do it?”

“And say what? It won’t change anything.”

“Do you speak English?” I ask Jean Jacket in English.

“A little.”

“So would the interview be in English?”

He doesn’t understand so Jaanus translates. “No,” Jaanus replies in Estonian. “The interview would be in Russian.”

Journalists from Murmansk’s Russia 2 “Vesti” program

“So if he doesn’t speak English, and my Russian is crap, are we going to use Estonian as the intermediary language? That wouldn’t make a very interesting interview.”

Jaanus translates.

Jean jacket says something.

“What’s he say?” I ask.

“He says good point.”

I also have no idea what I would say. Perhaps: “In Russia, the only order is in nature.” I could build a great speech around that line. But Jaanus is right. There is nothing to be gained by talking to them. And so no one talks.


Two hours later the raid has reached equilibrium. Everyone who has wanted to speak has spoken; anyone who has wanted to shout has done that, too. There was little shouting, although Volodya did ascend a boulder to lecture the young millitsiya, a lecture I didn’t understand a word of but one I assume to be about them getting their asses kicked once they return and find an even bigger boss upset at the fact we were hassled. If anyone will suffer for our inconvenience, it will be Suburban Dad, a man named Vassily Krasovsky, with the federal fish and game department. When the party died down, I introduced myself to him and asked if he was the leader. He claimed to be. Manpurse is second in command, Konstantin Vostrekov.

Jaanus takes me aside in this new calm. “Go get the tiny pieces of paper and show them to the guy in the leather jacket. He’s an entirely reasonable guy.” Before I retrieve the papers, Jaanus also informs me that it’s not looking good for me. “They want to take you with them.”

“Want? Is that a request?”

“Probably not,” he says. “But not all these guys like each other, and they don’t all agree. Go get the papers.”

Pimples’ name is Sergei Kolbushkov, and he shows me that one of my papers doesn’t bear the registration stamp it should. “You have three days from entering Russia to have a stamp on this paper from the hotel you’re staying in.” I’ve been on the tundra sixteen days. The group has been here two.

“But I’m not staying in a hotel,” I tell him, pointing to my tent.

“You still need the stamp,” he says.

“How?” I ask. “From where? From a reindeer?”

He doesn’t think that’s funny, but he gives me a shrug of sympathy. “It’s still the law,” he says. Jaanus takes him aside for more discussion.

“It’s going to be like this,” Jaanus finally tells me. “You have to go with them. The best-case scenario is you’ll be fined a thousand rubles and released. Worst case is they’ll deport you. If that happens, try to get a flight out of Murmansk to somewhere in Scandinavia. If not that, see if they’ll take you to Leningrad. You could get the train to Estonia from there.”

I tell him I don’t like any of these possibilities.

“If they allow you to stay,” he says, “try to get to Murmansk and reach Volodya’s son. He’ll make sure you get back to Lovozero for us to pick you up on the way back. Or just hang out in Lovozero for five days.”

I ask if I’m going alone.

“Sasha will go with you. He’s got to handle our case. If they release you, there’s a chance the two of you could get back out here.”

“Why am I the only one being arrested?” Misery loves company.

“You’re the only one they can charge. We don’t have the registration stamps, either, but we have one more day to get them.”

“Will they not come back tomorrow and get you?”

“I think they’ve made their point.”


I fill a small pack with a shaving kit, pair of street shoes, raincoat, camera. I put twenty one-hundred dollar bills and five thousand rubles in my pocket. Hopefully, enough for a plane ticket or a series of bribes.

Proper bribe etiquette has been followed: I am sure all parties in need of bribes have received them. A camp owner wishes to extend his reach and a new government has given him a chance. It’s still unclear whether he’ll be successful. In the best scenario, the man who wrote our permits will surface in an even more important position in the new government. Then revenge will be taken by our permit-writer, who, according to Russian custom, will punish those who questioned his authority. And if that is the case, Suburban Dad, Vassily Krasovsky, will pay, at the very least with his job.

Krasovsky makes a speech under the dining fly as the Mi-8 lands. He pompously informs us we’ve violated Russian law and are not allowed to fish here. The group may remain and relax for the rest of the time, but no fishing. He says he may be back to check. The rest of his speech is lost to the Mi-8’s three thousand shaft horsepower.


I now play a role in a movie. I am the star the cameraman records assiduously. He films me packing. He films me saying goodbye. He catches me boarding the helicopter, bag slung over my shoulder, wearing a black watch cap and a sixteen-day beard.

Victor is here now, too, a passenger on the extraction helicopter. He and Sasha talk during the flight. The crew films me. I remove my camera and take their picture. I photograph Coke Bottle. He seems unhappy with this. Come get me then, I think, although I don’t want to give up my camera. I edit a European magazine and publish stories in the West, and I told Krasovsky I would write about him. I’ve taken his picture, and he knows it. What can they do? They have chosen the route of public example, and now they must finish the course.

During the flight to Lovozero, the arrest team stares out the window like little boys. They, too, are fascinated by 40,000 acres of countless lakes and waterways. They’d probably like to be fishing.

Lovozero airfield

In Lovozero, Sasha leaves me. He is charged with nothing and is free to go. He will make some phone calls, get things and people moving in our defense. He says he’ll meet me at the police station. He piles into a jeep with Yakov, his man in Lovozero, and they race from the airfield.

I’m placed in a white van with the entire arrest team, including the journalists. It’s a brand new van, the kind used by public transport systems to carry passengers on suburban routes. A sign above the driver reads:


Passengers should call out stops loudly and clearly! Soft voices may not be heard!

We are on a rented passenger bus. The state, it seems, cannot afford to buy one or did not deem this operation important enough to issue one. Jaanus was right. The Russians have made their point. The driver takes us to Redke, a small village twenty kilometers from Lovozero.

At the police station I am shown through a barred door to a corridor while my passport is passed around a roomful of officers. The two millitsiya wait with me, the rest of the group outside, smoking by the van. There are no chairs in the corridor. The floor-to-ceiling door made of welded concrete reinforcement bar looks meant to hold off a siege. The electric lock on it is broken, and people — perhaps plainclothesmen? — enter the building by reaching through the bars to manually trip the catch. Everything in the station is a Soviet relic. The uniforms dress with blue- and white-striped Soviet undershirts under their blouses. A painted mural of happy male and female Soviet law enforcement officials adorns a bulletin board containing the orders of the day. There are small posters everywhere illustrating the proper way to immobilize and cuff a suspect (on the ground). Perhaps no one has bothered to tell them that the Soviet Union is no more? Has word not reached the village?

Soviet style motivational mural inside the Redke police station

Sasha arrives. He waves from the other side of the rebar door. He tries to eavesdrop on the conversation about me in the officers’ room.

“Give me your camera,” he says, giving up on his spy work. I pass it through the bars. He has me dangle my hands through the bars looking prisoner-like. It takes several tries to get a picture he likes. Millitsiya members look on, amused. Sasha photographs me with my two arresting officers, our arms around each other like schoolmates at a football game.

A large woman with a serious face enters the station. Men hold the rebar door for her. She enters the officers’ room. Discussions continue. I take a seat on the floor. The millitsiya boys bring kefir from the store across the street. We pass the carton around until it’s empty.

“Get out!” says the large woman in English. She passes me and heads for the door.

I’m not sure if this means I’m free or if she would like me to get out of her path. In either case, she’s carrying my passport. Sasha asks her in Russian what she means. “You have to go with her,” he says.

“You speak Russian?” she asks in Russian.

“Very badly,” I answer in Russian. “You speak English?”

“No,” she says. Get out must have meant Let’s go.

The rest of the team is waiting in the street. The millitsiya follow me out and offer their hands. They wish me good luck. The journalists tell me I can watch myself on ВЕСТИ the next evening. Not knowing if I’ll be near a television, I ask if they can send the video. I give them the business card that tags my backpack. They seem skeptical about mailing anything. “It could be difficult,” one says. I ask about emailing a digital file. “Difficult,” he says again, shaking his head.

Everyone shakes my hand, some for a second time. Sergei and Konstantin wish me luck. Vassily and Coke Bottle ignore me. Perhaps they regret making such a stupid arrest. But if they get away with it, if Vassily remains in power, it will be a feather in his cap. While the USA and Russia are no longer formal enemies, we are still rivals, and to evict an American from the tundra while being filmed by a national news crew is a display of the all-important Russian commodity, influence.

“Get out!” says the woman, motioning me toward Sasha’s jeep. It seems in Russia, prisoners must provide their own transportation.

Udachi!” shout members of my arrest team, wishing me luck and waving as I climb into the jeep. They pile into their rented bus for the three-hour ride to Murmansk. I have no idea where I’m going.

Yakov is at the wheel, and the woman sits in front, Sasha next to me in the back. We race several blocks through a neighborhood of Khrushchovkas, the nondescript, five-story concrete flats built during Khrushchev’s reign. Paint is peeling and concrete eroding. I think of P.J. O’Rourke who once wrote, “Commies love concrete. They just don’t know the recipe.” We pull to a stop in front of one of the apartment buildings. There is a small sign under a plexiglas cover which denotes that at least part of this building belongs to the millitsiya. But there is no activity anywhere. I follow the woman into the building, the inside the same condition as out. Up one flight of stairs, she unlocks the corridor, then an office door.

My watch says close to nine p.m. I want to apologize to her that she has to work late. But then again, I don’t want to point out that she’s working late. Whatever it is she is supposed to do with me, I want to get it over with now.

Once the woman takes a seat, she adopts a different countenance. A Russian contradiction: drive like hell, but once you’ve arrived waste all the time you want. She folds her hands in front of her, offers me a seat. Sasha and Yakov lean against a bookshelf near the door. It’s a hot, stuffy room. There are two desks and one computer, its cord dangling from the desktop. I count one electrical outlet for the entire room, a teapot plugged into it.

She asks the basics: where and when did I enter the country, what firm organized my travel. This is deja vu: she’s a more charming version of Vadim. One who doesn’t ask for magazines.

I do my best to explain which is not very good. Sasha interrupts to spare her. We are an independent group. We didn’t enter as part of a commercial fishing camp.

She says she’s trying to help me, that I’m obviously not a terrorist, just a nice young man who made an honest mistake. If we can find my name on the documents she has, then I am legally in the country and can go. She shows me stacks of papers. They are guest lists on fishing camp stationery, western names transcribed into the Cyrillic alphabet. Many bear the logo of the most famous salmon camp, the Ponoi. She studies these carefully.

“I won’t be on those,” I tell her. “I didn’t fish the Ponoi.”

She doesn’t seem to accept this. She reads American names to me. “Ree-chard. Could that be you?” She knows my name is Scott, but it is confusing for a Russian. I have a middle and a family name, and they are often written in different order, even on my passport, which was issued abroad and is not in conventional format.

“I’m not Richard,” I tell her patiently. I try to show her how to scan only the given names. “May I help?” I ask, lifting a stack, hoping to communicate that I’ll go through them.

Davaite,” she says. Let’s do it.

Leafing through the papers I see money. I had no idea so many fishermen could be run through a camp. There are millions of dollars in front of me. I imagine titled Englishmen on the Ponoi, raising glasses of port and lighting cigars, legs crossed, looking out over the home pool to see a salmon leap. I see hot showers and flush toilets and fresh sheets delivered to tents each day by a chesty young Russian with one gold tooth. It’s hot as hell in this room. I remove my jacket.

“It’s not here,” I tell the woman. “I am one hundred percent certain it is not here.” I show the papers to Sasha and Yakov who agree: there is no official record of our entry to the Russian tundra.

“Okay,” she says. “We write the protocol.”

I’m taking the chance at the 1,000 ruble alternative. It will mean I’m guilty, but it doesn’t seem deportation is a likely sentence. All the major players have departed in the van. They would surely not just turn me loose on a village street and tell me to deport myself? And Russians have style. They would have some obligation for this to resemble a le Carré novel. I would want the US embassy involved, if only to get something for the huge portions of my income I’ve given the IRS. My hope is that they’ll fine me and let me go. And perhaps, I pray, there’ll be a friendly helicopter to take me back out on the tundra.

Two sheets of paper plus carbon. The process is slow, because I want to make sure I understand the questions. My name is simple enough. Citizenship: USA. Residence: Estonia.

“Estonia? But you’re an American.”

“I live in Estonia. I came here from Estonia.”

“His wife is Estonian,” adds Sasha.

“Ah,” says the woman and rips the protocol in two with a sense of finality. Does this change things? But the look of disgust on her face turns to one of understanding, and she removes two new forms plus carbon. All is clear to her now, why my name was not on any list. “Name?” she starts anew. But she knows it by heart and writes before I can speak. She’s flying now. My watch says 10:30. She gets all the facts and proceeds to the standard visa-type questions. I understand most of them. There’s one I don’t get. I ask her to repeat it. I need it repeated twice. God, I have no idea. Most questions demand a “no” answer, but there’s usually one or two requiring “yes.” Could this be one? But she’s not trying to trick me. She likes me; I can tell. She wants me out of here as much as I want out of here. She raises her hands and crosses two fingers like she’s repelling a vampire. She repeats the question. I look up and Sasha and Yakov are doing the same. Is she threatening me with prison?

“No!” I say. “I don’t want that.”

The room bursts into laughter. She repeats the question again. With the pressure off, I realize she wants to know if I’ve ever been imprisoned in the United States. I answer no. Ever in Russia? I wonder if now counts. I answer no.

It’s almost midnight and we’re back at the police station waiting for the precinct chief to arrive. The protocol is written. There is a blank left for the sentence and the chief’s signature. The woman and I make small talk. She’s Armenian. Her daughter speaks fluent English. I ask where her daughter is. She could have been useful tonight. Armenia is the answer. That’s a long way to go for a translator. I tell the woman I have Armenian friends, and she looks at me skeptically. No, really, I say. We have lots of Armenians in America. I name them: Oganyan. Shadigian. Azarian. She is pleased to no end. We have a bond.

The chief arrives. He is clean-shaven and well groomed. He closely resembles Vladimir Putin, though Putin is shorter. The Armenian addresses him using his patronymic, the equivalent of Mister. He stands behind his desk, listening. He occasionally glances at me. I try to look harmless. She tells him I simply didn’t know I needed to have a stamp in my passport.

“Naturally,” he says, as if he means it. It’s all he says. He sits, removes a pen from his uniform, writes something I cannot make out except for the number one thousand. He adds his signature. He says something in rapid Russian to the Armenian. We are finished.

I remove money from my pocket to pay the fine. It’s about thirty dollars. “You have to pay with a bank transfer,” the Armenian says.

In my rough Russian I apologize to the Armenian and her chief that I made them work late. They laugh and say it comes with the territory. The chief shakes my hand and wishes me well. We exit the station.

But I am not free to go. The Armenian puts us back in Sasha’s car and we drive to a hotel, though I would never have known it from looking at the facade. It could just as easily be another police station. The Armenian takes me inside, dictates my information by heart, including my passport number, to the girl at the desk. The girl smiles like at the Radisson. I pay the thousand rubles. The hotel takes cash. I get the stamp.

We take the Armenian home. She gives me final instructions to pay the fine in the morning and deliver the receipt to the police station. She wishes me good luck and steps out of the jeep.


I overnight at Yakov’s house near Lovozero. The next morning I pay the fine. Sasha flies through the village in the jeep, stopping at the Armenian’s office. She’s not there, so he shoves the receipt under her door. “You idiot,” Yakov will say later. “You deliver things personally.” I understood personally meant to the police station, but I can’t imagine Sasha going back there. I hope all will be fine.

I have a sauna at Yakov’s. Sasha is awaiting word from our man in Murmansk. Will we return to the tundra? I ask. I don’t want to sit here another five days. Sasha says not today. I spend another night at Yakov’s.

Another day. I sit at Yakov’s eating headcheese and waiting for the program ВЕСТИ. Nothing. I take long walks. I help Yakov’s workman put a roof on a shed.

“Scott!” Sasha is in front of the house, shouting. “Where’s your bag?” It’s in the jeep where it’s been two days. I step into unlaced boots. Yakov has the engine running in the yard. Tires spray sand and we drive 120 kilometers per hour down gravel and dirt roads until we reach the airstrip.

The rotors are already turning. Yakov drives up under them and unloads us. Two men stand by, one with a clipboard: the other is Victor. Victor offers his hand and motions me aboard.

Airborne. The Mi-8 is fully loaded with gear and fishermen. The guests are in the rear of the bird, separated by packs and boxes stacked to the rafters. A man and woman are in the front with us. Probably camp staff.

I turn from the window and look at Victor. His red-bearded grin is all knowing. Victor could be in trouble for flying his boss’ enemies back to their camp. Or maybe not. In Russia, it’s common for people to fight, then drink, then become friends. We’ve fought with a few, drank with a few, and remained friends with most all.

The chopper approaches and I see the white of our dining fly. I see fishermen moving along the river bank. A group gathers to receive us, although they can have no idea what we bring. We could be the boys back from Murmansk, here to put an end to the fun.

The pilot hovers and Victor drops the ladder. Sasha steps out first, then me. I reach up and take Victor’s hand, shouting SPA-SEE-BA as loudly and clearly as I can. The ladder is retracted, and as they pull away the pilot throws me a crisp salute.

Postscript: The story of the author’s arrest aired nationally on Russia’s top two channels. As of this writing, the broadcast was still available for viewing at http://murman.rfn.ru/rnews.html?id=10447&cid=7.

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