Thursday, October 06, 2005

So I keep thinking about that New York Times text by Nicholas Kulish, and here's why:

[...] But I grasped its meaning a few months later as I sat at a Ukrainian border station in a beat-up Volkswagen Golf, trying to cross into Moldova.

"Present? Present?" the border guard asked, holding up my CD player. His comrades were inside our car, searching every nook and cranny. I smiled and told the guard I didn't understand. He smiled back, gave the player a whack with his billy club and permitted me to keep my broken Discman. Then we were inexplicably told we couldn't leave the country. In retrospect, I might as well have given it to him. It could have saved me 30 hours of desperate searching, through the night and into the following day, for a station where the border police would let us pass without stealing our car or demanding a bribe higher than we were willing to pay. The asking price at the next stop was $200, a lot more than I paid for the CD player.


All this corruption is really maddening, yes, but one thing I'd really like to know is the name and title of the border guy who broke that CD player and prohibited a foreign citizen from leaving Ukraine. Also, names and titles of the guys who pocketed Mr. Kulish's money 30 hours later.

I want the whole world to know their names and the names of the border stations they serve: I do feel shamed for my country, and I want them to feel as lousy - and maybe to lose their jobs as well.

Getting their names might have been difficult, but not impossible. Moreover, a mere attempt could've helped Mr. Kulish to get the hell out of Ukraine.

I assume he was traveling without a fixer, translator or anyone else who knew how to speak with the border guys in the language and manner they understood, someone who knew how to remind the assholes that they were not irreplaceable in the country full of unemployed people. This may be tough to accomplish even for the locals, and much more so for a foreigner.

But I also assume that Mr. Kulish is a U.S. citizen (despite his Ukrainian last name). Imagine a truly ridiculous situation in which a U.S. citizen is doomed to spend the rest of his life in the middle of nowhere just because a Ukrainian border guard wouldn't let him out. Imagine that this U.S. citizen is not aware of any other border station nearby - or that he's out of gas and money, unable or unwilling to drive around like an idiot for the next 30 hours. Imagine this U.S. citizen's next step: he'd probably want to call the U.S. embassy and ask the folks over there about his options. In the course of his conversation with the embassy, he'd probably want to name the Ukrainian official who was basically keeping him hostage at the border. Maybe the embassy people would like to speak with the corrupt sonuvabitch themselves and explain to him a few things about norms of international law - or remind him of the existence of his superiors.

Who knows, maybe the border control guy would suddenly realize just how vulnerable he is - and then he'd apologize and let Mr. Kulish drive on into Moldova.

I don't want to appear arrogant or imply that this scenario is absolutely realistic: in this situation, I'd probably be too frustrated, shocked or scared myself to think clearly.

But I really feel that we could use some help in fighting our famous corruption - and getting the bastards' names, titles and locations into the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune would have taught them something.


  1. Thank you for sharing with a rest of the world this information.

    We expect two UK citizens (Roger and Jane) to come and join our development team in Kyiv in November 2005.

    They did apply for I-2 Ukrainian visa that will allow them to work and stay in Ukraine for a year or longer.

    They know a little about Ukraine yet, mostly they visited the country as tourists.

    They do study Russian although.

    They will be travelling by the car.

    They run their blog here: ( if you find it interesting you can add it to your blog roll.

    I hope to find via your blog helpful information for our fresh newcomers to Ukraine.

  2. of course you are right to say that often the best way to deal with these losers is to pull rank, so to speak. Do you remember the story of our friend Sasha at the Kaliningrad airport. The passport inspector wouldn't let him leave even though he had all the right stamps. I suppose he figured it would be easy to get a bribe out of a Ukrainian.

    They took Sasha to some room, where he told them he was traveling with a famous American journalist (me, ha ha) and that news of his detention would be all over the local radio station we'd been visiting (possibly true). He had them call the station to verify, and meanwhile gave them no end of defiant attitude.

    Meanwhile I refused to board the plane w/out Sasha. Much to my surprise, the plane sat on the runway waiting for us. I'm sure everyone on board was very annoyed with this bullshit.

    Finally they let Sasha go and we all got on our way to Moscow.


  3. Having heard of Ukraine's rather infamous border controls and customs officals I have to say that I've always been met with smiles and pleasantry when flying in and out of Dnipro.

    I do wonder though what would actually happen if you pulled out a mobile and called ( what I assume is) the complaints hotline number that is plastered all over the place.

    However, my point, I guess, is that whilst the story you highlight is depressing there do seem to be some officals who try to make entry and exit to Ukraine as painless and as pleasant as possible.

  4. Julia, you made my point quite effectively. All that I might add is that if foreigners are savvy enough--and they rarely are if they've not been in such a place for a while--it's easy to get across the point you are saying need to be made Veronica. Because, if there's one thing I learned about Uzbek cops, it was that, much like I'm told is true about bears, they are much more afraid of you (assuming you're a westerner) than you are (should be, anyway) of them. You just need to convince them that they may be crossing the wrong person.

    I don't know nearly enough about Ukrainian cultural to know how effective this would be, but appeals to hospitality and protecting the honor and reputation of the nation worked like a charm in Uzbekistan.

    At the same time, I always felt like kind of a jerk when I pushed to get my way.

  5. I should add that I felt like a jerk even if I knew I was in the right. (I knew I was a jerk when it was questionable.)

  6. For whatever its worth: I'm an American and lived in Ukraine for 5 years and never encountered a major problem, whether in the cities, borders or rural areas. In fact, I've encountered more difficulties in the States than here. If I would put the States on equal footing as Ukraine, where one could, perhaps, describe the "militia" and other officials as "corrupt" (as I was so often told by my Ukrainian friends)and considering also Ukraine's lower standard of living, I think Ukrainian people are far more honest, straight-foward than what is found in the States.

  7. Hmmm..leaving Kyiv as a tourist recently, I got taken aside at Boryspil and taken to a small room by two customs officials, who seemed convinced that I must be hiding Valyuta from them. An old guy played "good cop", a young guy "bad cop".
    The experience was a little scary - not least the being singled out from a crowd and taken into the room. But, eventually, they let me go, wished me well and safety in London (it was just after the tube bombings) and a happy return to Ukraine sometime.

    None the less, the procedure seemed designed to intimidate - if I didn't speak Russian or Ukrainian I think it could have been a lot worse - and quite out of keeping with customs procedures that are observed in most democratic countries (which, it must be said, have other means of intimidating visitors at airports.