Novorossiysk, Russia – Sevastopol, Crimea

Ștefan Cândea
The shortest way to continue our journey towards Romania is via Port Kavkaz where a regular ferryboat line crosses the channel separating Russia from Ukraine and the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. From Novorossiysk the congested road runs on until Anapa and then it becomes free of traffic. New, almost deserted roads head towards the Taman peninsula and Port Kavkaz. Tourists and trucks are scarce. The crossing point is used by tradesmen and buses linking Russia to Ukraine and Moldova. Once every two hours, two ferryboats leave almost at the same time from Port Krym and Port Kavkaz. They have a very small capacity for vehicle transport – only eighteen cars and three buses can be crammed on the deck. That is why, although there are only twenty cars ahead of us, we have to wait five hours to board the ship. Behind us a very long queue forms.

One of the three buses on board is transporting sixty Russian soldiers to Yalta. The superior officers get off the overheated bus and cool down on the deck. They forbid the soldiers to come out and, for having the cheek to ask permission to get some air, promise them a nice cold shower right after they cross over to Ukraine. In Crimea, the Russian army still has an important naval base with the headquarters in Sevastopol. The contract allowing them to use Ukrainian territory for war ships is about to be terminated and former pro-West president Yushchenko had stated it wouldn’t be extended. However, the winner of the recent electoral battle was Yanukovych, a pro-Russia politician. Yanukovych quickly signed an agreement allowing the Russians use the military base for another 25 years. To the relief of many locals for whom this decision translates into preserving sure income sources and to the despair of pro-West Ukrainians who loathe the sight of Russian flags in Crimea.

Ukrainians have enough reasons to hate Russia. The Western part of Ukraine was decimated by deportations (100.000 Tartars and 70.000 Greeks only in Crimea) and the ‘32-‘33 Great Famine when over 7 million peasants who resisted forced collectivization died.

The ship we’re on pulls into shore and passengers who haven’t come by car huddle together on the deck in a state of tense expectancy. The connecting platform is slowly lowered, touches the dock and a group of sixty people darts at the passport control point. Everybody is tired of waiting and wants to be done with the formalities as soon as possible, which makes them throw themselves into a short, but intense race through the Ukrainian harbour. Some of them are carrying bulky luggage. A short young woman visibly stands out from the main platoon, though only to be outrun on the left flank by a middle-aged, white-haired man with a sunburnt face whose shirt is flowing behind. In a few minutes, the bored Russian soldiers join in the race. Why? As punishment for having requested permission to take some air on the float boat.

Although our car is among the first to pass, we have to wait more than an hour to get to the check point. The other cars around us are transporting goods for sale to Ukraine and give the customs officers the regular bribe (huge packages). A customs officer gives us a form to fill in; we subsequently find out it was for nothing. We didn’t have to fill it in, but this way the customs officers can find out how much currency we have on us. A head of the check point, whose years of hard work in the country’s customs department have rewarded him with an impressive beer belly, approaches our car and takes a look at the forms. He sees how much money we’ve got and asks Vlad, our Ukrainian colleague, if we want a normal check or if we can make some kind of deal. In short: he wants bribe. He insists we might have forgotten to declare currency, medicine, alcohol or other goods. As we refuse to give him any bribe, he orders his subordinates to perform a thorough check. We unpack half of our luggage and one of the customs officers victoriously discovers the Tibilisuri cognac Petruț was given at a photo session in downtown Tbilisi. Exasperated by the officers’ allusions, Vlad tells them we are journalists who have gone on a tour around the Black Sea. The moment coincides with Petruț’s luggage being ransacked. The customs officers regroup under some partitions and quietly discuss the matter with their husky boss. They return and, on a disappointed note and in a candied voice, let us know we can pack up and leave. They tell Vlad that our trip, which is the same as that of drugs dealers, is what triggered their professional check.